One irony of witch trials is that any sinister malevolence involved was thanks almost uniformly to the accusers and the court itself, rather than the poor luckless innocents who found themselves accused of the same. Few incidents demonstrate this dynamic as clearly as the trial of Anna Göldi.
Göldi moved to the central Swiss canton of Glarus in 1765 and took a job as a maidservant for Johann Jakob Tschudi, a physician, magistrate, and rising political figure. She worked for Tschudi for 17 years until one day, her employer abruptly reported to local authorities that he had found needles in his eight-year-old daughter’s bread and milk, and claimed that Göldi had put them there by supernatural means.
She was fired and actually managed to escape, but was subsequently apprehended and subjected to brutal torture, being hung by her thumbs with stones tied to her feet. The torture broke her and she confessed to having used the power of the Devil, whom she claimed (in notably cliche details) had appeared to her in the form of a large black dog and given her the needles. She later withdrew this confession made under duress, was tortured again, confessed again, and this time stuck with it, having perhaps noticed a pattern. On June 13, 1782, she was beheaded with a sword for her “crimes.”
This was a fairly late date for a witchcraft conviction, well into the Enlightenment and well after the last witch trials in other parts of Europe. News of the trial sparked outrage in Switzerland and beyond, since she had died for what was increasingly seen as a medieval superstition. Indeed, even some details of the trial indicate that those involved realized the outrageousness of their undertaking and sought to conceal it; she was officially charged with “poisoning”, her trial avoided any official allegations of witchcraft, and the court protocols were destroyed after the trial ended. Once convicted she was sentenced to death, despite the fact that the law did not impose the death penalty for non-lethal poisoning.
The details of how Anna Göldi was railroaded are no doubt disgraceful, but the most likely reason behind them is truly monstrous. Modern investigators speculate that she had an affair with Tschudi. Adultery was a crime at that time, and Göldi threatened to reveal everything when she was fired for the bogus needle accusations. As this would jeopardize Tschudi’s status as well those connected to him, they decided to solve the problem by killing her and found a superficially legal way to do so.
In 2008, 226 years after her execution, the Glarus parliament acknowledged that a miscarriage of justice had taken place and officially exonerated Anna Göldi. Today, visitors can tour a museum dedicated to Göldi’s life and death within the Hänggiturm building in nearby Ennenda.
There is also a memorial to Anna Göldi at the Glarus courthouse consisting of two permanently lit lamps, meant to represent violations of human rights the world over, and provide an ever-burning reminder of the injustice that Göldi, Europe’s last “witch,” was subjected to not so very long ago.