A woman burned at the stake in Cologne Germany may finally have her name exonerated after four hundred years of waiting when she was accused of witchcraft. The woman, Katharina Henot endured the tortures of the harsh justice system of 1627 when locals accused her of being a witch and defying the widely held moral status quo. But as the details of the case are reexamined after 400 years of waiting, it seems justice may finally get a second chance.
The story of Katharina Henot is a tragic one, but it rings all too familiar in a time when thousands were executed in Germany for witchcraft. It’s thought that over the course of a single year an average of 88 people throughout the countryside, from men and women to children were executed under suspicion of witchcraft.
Some towns saw dozens of executions in a single season. Neighbors turned against neighbors, and families turned in on themselves with paranoia fueling the accusation frenzy. While the savage practice of witch burning was still in use, the locals were as much in fear of the retribution of the crowd as they were complicit with it.
While today we use words like mass hysteria and moral panic to describe the witch hunts of this era, it seems too easy to simply disregard them as nothing more than a distant episode that occurred in a simpler harsher time. The forces involved in the witch burnings were largely due to the way societies were structured, but they tell us just as much about a few of the darker elements of human nature.
The word witch hunt today has become eponymous with feelings of paranoia, wild accusation, and other elements that lend weight to the dark side of the crowd. Since then other names have arisen as time and social orders changed. The McCarthy era was later compared to witch hunts, and McCarthyism became its own similar term of fear over the actions of the many.
But for Katharina this self awareness would come too late. Advocates for her absolution have suggested that her burning was a miscarriage of justice brought about by land owners who conspired to bring her to ruin and death. Indeed, the practice of using accusations of witchcraft to remove undesirables from cities was not unheard of. And so if Katharina was accused of witchcraft, it may have very well been because others were interested in her lands, her social status, or even her money.
No doubt as the trial goes on, more details will emerge and Katharina’s name will be given the opportunity to be absolved posthumously. And whenever injustice is corrected, even after 400 years, there is something to be said for what it says about a society concerned now not about witchcraft, but the even more powerful history we all carry as human beings.