BERN, Switzerland — A woman beheaded after she was accused of causing a girl to spit pins and convulse was exonerated today, more than 200 years after she became the last person executed as a witch in Europe.
The decision to clear Anna Goeldi’s name came after long debate in the eastern Swiss state of Glarus, and was taken in consultation with the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches.
Several thousand people, mainly women, were executed for witchcraft between the 14th and 18th centuries in Switzerland and elsewhere in Europe. Yet Goeldi’s trial and beheading in the village of Mollis took place at a time when witch trials had largely disappeared from the continent.
Goeldi, who was executed in 1782, was a maidservant in the house of prominent burgher Johann Jakob Tschudi. Tschudi, a doctor and magistrate, allegedly had an affair with Goeldi, according to a book published last year by local journalist Walter Hauser.
Last year, the canton’s executive branch and the Protestant Church council both rejected considering an exoneration. The government said then it saw no need to make a “celebratory apology for injustice 225 years ago.”
The Glarus government has said that the Protestant Church council, which conducted the trial, had no legal authority to do so and had decided in advance that Goeldi was guilty. She was executed even though the law at the time did not impose the death penalty for nonlethal poisoning.
Goeldi’s execution was even more incomprehensible as it happened in the Age of Enlightenment when “those who made the judgment regarded themselves as educated people,” the government said.
“In spite of that they tortured an innocent person and had her executed, although it was known to them that the alleged crime was neither doable nor possible and that there was no legal basis for their verdict.”
The exoneration also was an acknowledgment that an unknown number of other innocent people whose cases cannot be reviewed had been killed over the centuries. The Glarus government did not assume any responsibility, however, for past wrongdoings.
The Glarus government said in June it would contribute $118,000 to an upcoming theater play on Goeldi as “additional sign” of her rehabilitation. A museum on Goeldi was opened in Mollis last year on the 225th anniversary of her death.