The Logic of Last

When was the last ‘witch’ executed in Europe?

I have come to think that this question itself is unhelpful.

Unhelpful in that – as specialists have long known – it corresponds very poorly to the shifting legal status of witchcraft between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. ‘Witches’ were still being prosecuted for witchcraft in Russia in the 1850s and witchcraft was decriminalised surprisingly recently in many countries. Ireland, for instance, did not take this step until 1821. Yet neither Russia nor Ireland are considered to have witnessed the last executions.

Meanwhile, probably the most common candidate for the ‘last’ witch execution is the Swiss example of Anna Göldi, widely footnoted by historians. Göldi was decapitated in 1782, but little direct evidence survives from her trial, and she has been more important as a footnote in Anglophone scholarship than as a subject of research. Crucially, the charges against her were not ‘witchcraft’ but ‘poisoning‘.

So the question of which was the last ‘witch’ execution is not straightforward.

Why not just look for other candidates if the Göldi case doesn’t fit?

I think the problem is the question itself. Historians (and their readers) feel compelled to ask this because the logic of last is a fundamental myth of modern progress. The ‘last witch burning’ is also a moment of origin, the point that separates ‘us’ from the barbarism of our ancestors, whose very laws persecuted ‘witches’.

But there was no neat transition from European societies that (sometimes) hunted, prosecuted, tortured, and executed ‘witches’, to societies – like ours today – where witchcraft is decriminalised and transformed into a cultural ‘relic’. Long before the last (?) witches were hung, decapitated, or (sometimes, only sometimes!) burned, there was widespread unease among legal authorities about the process and evidentiary basis of witchcraft prosecutions. Early modern historians know that in some cases, the ‘witch craze’ never took off at all, for reasons that have been much debated, but almost certainly come down to questions of legal authority and process.

Meanwhile, a whole body of research has convincingly shown that the ‘after’ that we supposedly all live in, where witchcraft is a ‘superstition,’ not a crime… is a convenient myth.

True, witchcraft is no longer a crime in any European jurisdictions (The rest of the world is another question. Saudi Arabia, to mention one example, prosecutes and executes witches regularly).

But to imagine that violence against suspected ‘witches’ disappeared with decriminalisation would be a mistake. I know of around 250 cases in France from 1790-40, and 90 of those ended in the death of the ‘witch’. The obvious response to this would be to emphasize that vigilanteism and revenge killings are hardly the same thing as officially-sanctioned legal trials and executions. If Europeans still kill ‘witches’, they are not doing so legally, at least.

And yet.

What then, are we to make of the tacit endorsements and sometimes even enthusiastic participation of policemen and local authorities in violence against ‘witches’? Even when witch-killers were prosecuted, official attitudes could effectively excuse their actions.

One example will do to make the point. In 1935, a farmer named ‘T’ shot dead the tenant who lived in another building on his farm, on the outskirts of Saumur. The shooting followed several days of fighting and arguing between the two families, but the final scene was strikingly calm. The killer walked out of his house, aimed at the tenant, and shot him once. He then returned inside, put down his gun, and told his servants to ring the police. He never denied his guilt, and clearly explained why he had done it: he believed his tenant had turned his well-known powers as a healer to darker purposes, causing the death of animals on his farm.

In 1935, France still had the death penalty for premeditated killings. So what sentence did this self-avowed killer receive?

He was acquitted. Not on the grounds of diminished responsibility either. He was declared responsible for his actions by medical experts.

He was acquitted on the basis of his excellent reputation, and the appalling reputation of the ‘witch’ he had killed. The local authorities went out of their way to collect and organise evidence from men and women about the reputations of the killer and his victim, stretching back to the victims’s childhood sixty years before.

The killer, they concluded, was notably ‘calm’, even reserved or shy, and had a generally excellent reputation. His victim, on the other hand, was widely known to be malicious, deceptive, and vengeful. Let us be clear about what these claims did not prove. They did not prove the victim gave the killer any reason to fear his life was in danger. They did not prove he attacked or threatened him. They simply proved that many in the local community and among the police, the mayors and officials involved in the investigation could sympathise with the killer, but not his victim.

No-one can know what sways the mind of a jury in a trial like this, but it is hard to escape the conclusion that these arguments compiled by the authorities must have played some role. The killer may not have been performing a legal execution when he shot the witch, but the whole investigation and trial were framed to produce the same result:

A legal witch-killing, no matter what the laws of this jurisdiction might say.

And it is in this sense that I think we cannot know if we have seen the last legal witch-killing in Europe. The fact that we want to draw a line between early-modern ‘barbarism’ and our own enlightened attitudes both to justice and to supernatural beliefs: that is what sustains the slippery logic of last.

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