A small area at the edge of the Czech Republic saw hundreds executed for witchcraft; the incident inspired the film Witches Hammer
The witch-hunting craze hit the Moravia-Silesia region, in the eastern part of the Czech Republic, harder than in any other part of the country.
The biggest and best-documented case was the Boblig Witch Trials from 1678 until 1696. These inspired a novel and film called Kladivo na čarodějnice (Witches’ Hammer).
Silesia got a reputation for witchcraft and sorcery when a Jesuit priest named Arnold Engel wrote to Emperor Leopold I warning him that the area was “flourishing with the art of witchcraft and evil,” and likely could become a center of rebellion. “Many people [with] connections to the devil are getting up from their graves and causing heavy damages to both the residents and their livestock,” he said.
The area already had a number of witchcraft cases, starting in 1622 in the Jeseník district with four executions. There was a witch hunt from 1636 to ’48, but the number of victims is not known. In 1651, some 86 people were executed and in 1667, another 16 were burned in Ratiboř, now a part of Poland.
As with many witch hunts, the initial spark in 1678 was rather mundane. A woman named Marie Schuhová from Vernířovice in the Jeseník district was seen putting the communion host in her prayer book, rather than swallow it during the Mass. Rumors sprung up that she wanted it for some spell-making.
What are people to do, but get an anti-witch committee going and hire a witch hunter? Countess Angelia Anna Sibylla de la Galle did just that. She found a lawyer from the relatively big city of Olomouc to be the inquisitor: Jindřich František Boblig z Edelstadtu (aka Heinrich Franz Boblig von Edelstadt or Henry Francis Boblig).
The countess reportedly did not want the accused people tortured, but her wishes weren’t respected very long. At first, torture implements were just shown to people, and they made further accusations.
Schuhová accused a midwife named Dorota Grörová who pointed the finger at Dorota Davidová, who allegedly said the blessed Easter host was for a spell to make cows give more milk.
Boblig, with this as proof, got permission to use torture to get more information. The accused were stripped naked and searched for the mark of the Devil. In 1679, Schuhová and three other women were burned at the stake. Davidová had died in prison, but her already dead body was executed again for good measure, as nobody could be seen to have escaped from justice. Some of his later victims were decapitated before they were burned.
This was just the beginning though. Boblig spread his net from the small towns of the Jeseník district to the more prosperous city of Šumperk. He took up residence in the château in a town called Velké Losiny and held many of his trials there. Several relatively wealthy people were found guilty, and Boblig confiscated their property when they were convicted.
The alleged crimes tended to be sexual in nature — incest, Satanic orgies, sex with demons — and stripping the accused females during torture was routine.
A group of four women were about to be executed in 1680 when people in the crowd called for Jesus to forgive them. A priest in the crowd named Tomáš König began to suspect that something was amiss and started to rally some support to shut down the inquisition. He saw that if the accusations were allowed to spread out exponentially that soon nobody would be left unsuspected.
Boblig, of course, accused König of witchcraft because only a witch would oppose him. König died in 1682 before he could be arrested.
Kašpar Sattler and his wife and daughter, Mária and Lizl Sattlerová, were among the most respected people accused. Kašpar Sattler had been critical of the witch-hunting committee, sealing his fate.
Kryštof Alois Lautner, dean of Šumperk, was also critical of the trials, as he favored tolerance and forgiveness of sins. Boblig got the Sattlers to point a finger at Zuzana Voglicková, the housekeeper and alleged mistress of Lautner. The Sattlers were convicted of incest and sex with demons at a witches’ sabbath. It was just a small step to get Lautner himself accused. The bishop finally gave in and allowed the dean to be arrested. In 1685, the Sattlers, Voglicková and Lautner were all burned at the stake.
With the opposition silenced and nobody willing to step up, considering the consequences, the trials and executions continued until Boblig died of natural causes in 1698 at around 86 years of age. He had an estimated 112 victims.
Jindřich František Boblig z Edelstadtu was born around 1612 in Zlaté Hory, historically called Edelstadt or Cukmantl. He died Jan. 27, 1698. He was active as an inquisitor in the Šumperk region, holding court in the town of Velké Losiny.
His early life is not well documented. His father, a burgomaster in Zlaté Hory, was elevated to nobility in 1591, and the family then could use z Edelstadtu or von Edelstadt after their name.
Jindřich studied law, likely in Vienna, but did not complete his studies as he was only a “juris candidatus.”
Until he became involved in the witch trials in the Šumperk area, he likely led a law practice in Olomouc. He also owned a pub there, but the location is not known. It was called U divého muže, or At the Wild Man. Some historians speculate it was on Ztracená ulice, which oddly means Lost Street. It is near the Upper Square (Horní náměstí) of Olomouc.
The château where he stayed in Velké Losiny still exists and is open to the public, though the tours sort of skip over mentioning him. The chateau belonged to the Žerotín family, of which Countess Angelia Anna Sibylla de la Galle, who started the witch trials, was a member.
Boblig apparently was quite a story teller and charming person, according to some accounts, before he became an inquisitor in his 60s. Whether he was driven by greed to get confiscated property or by religious zeal is debated among scholars, though greed is cited more often.
A memorial stone for Kryštof Lautner is in the town of Mohelnice, where he was executed.
The witch trials became the basis of a famous Czechoslovak novel and film. Kladivo na čarodějnice (Witches’ Hammer), published in 1963, was written by historical fiction author Václav Kaplický. It was turned into a film of the same name in 1970 by Otakar Vávra. The film, which can be seen as a parable against totalitarianism, was banned from screenings shortly after its release until 1989 when communism ended.
Some 250 people are estimated to have been executed in Silesia for witchcraft in 1622–1651, and 16 more in 1667, followed by more than 100 from 1678 until 1696 in the Boblig trials.
Main image: Lithograph titled The Witch No. 1 by Joseph E. Baker. Library of Congress