On the dark and winding roads of history, few instances remain as wholly terrifying as the witch hunts of Early Modern Europe. The heady combination of religion, magic, heresy, and evil —topped with a hearty dose of moral panic and mass hysteria—gave rise to a new brand of organized persecution and led to an estimated 100,000 executions between 1450 and 1750. While this period in no way marked the beginning of witchcraft, it left one hell of a deep impression on subsequent societies who marveled at its intensity and overall consequence. As such, it gave rise to many figures, both real and mythical, but none quite so unusual as the “Jäckel” of Salzburg. During the Zaubererjackl Witch Trials of 17th-century Austria, the Jäckel’s image was conceived through terror and destined to spread maleficium by deepening the social divide and exposing the true savagery of man—all without ever showing his face.
During these centuries of incessant witch hunts, thousands of innocents (three-fourths of whom were women) met a violent and untimely end at the hands of their accusers. Plenty of men were also convicted and subjected to a gruesome fate, yet their crimes tended to rely on some larger network of female witches. But not the hunt for the Jäckel—it focused on his evil patriarchy over a vagrant brood of young men rather than on a trite collection of haggish outcasts. This came about when a local boy claimed to know the Jäckel, to have spoken with him, and to have watched him seduced the city’s poor and forgotten lads using black magic, sodomy, and other illicit conjurations, all of which enfolded them more deeply in his sinful cloak. Once authorities in Salzburg latched on to this narrative, their mission became clear—capture the Jäckel and bring his wicked minions to justice, Jetzt. The very peace and livelihood of the region depended on it. But instead of uncovering the wizard’s great secrets, German authorities unleashed one of the most violent and heartbreaking witch hunts in the history of Europe—and perhaps the world.
Although Austria certainly had a history with witches, it could not have anticipated the breadth and depth of the Zaubererjackl Trials which catapulted the region into a 15-year inquisition. From the years 1675 to 1690, the region would witness 139 harrowing executions of citizens both young and old. Before the year 1600, Austria had been relatively free from witch hunts due in large part to the tolerance of Emperor Maximilian II, but this attitude disappeared with the accession of the Jesuit Rudolf II who went on to codify the imperial practice of burning over the next forty years. And between 1611 and 1613, increasingly draconian witchcraft laws appeared in Bavaria and removed any semblance of protection from the accused. As a result, the devastating period of the Zaubererjackl Trials gained traction from previous incidents and rode an emerging wave of hysteria to become the most finely documented chapter of Europe’s moral charade.
Long before a poor woman named Barbara Koller was put on trial for theft and sorcery in 17th-century Salzburg, history had witnessed centuries of black magic. As a practice and a belief, witchcraft was traced back to the age of classical antiquity when the Greco-Roman world flourished, eventually making way for Christianity and the decline of the Roman Empire in the 5th century CE. The Church later inherited these Roman and Germanic laws on magic, all of which criminalized the occult. From France to Spain to England, the great witch hunts of Europe became a terrifying amalgamation of ancient folk tales, religion’s emerging views of heresy, and the pagan belief in the mystic. So when Barbara Koller and her partner Paul Kalthenpacher were violently “questioned” by German authorities in 1675, the plan was clear—identify her associates and uncover any nefarious activity. But many arrests and bloody confessions later, the search did not lead authorities to a dark master with cloven hooves; it led them to the most pitiful and oppressed facet of the German population—its homeless and desperate children.
Like most people in her situation, Koller buckled quickly under torture and confessed to all sorts of crimes, including those of her 20-year-old son, Paul Jacob Koller, whose father was a known executioner. In a desperate attempt to satisfy the police, she also described Jacob as an adept beggar, thief, and fraud who she knew had entered into a secret pact with Satan. When her partner Paul Kalthenpacher confirmed these confessions, Koller was promptly burned alive. But while her arrest and subsequent death had been pretty straightforward, the identification of Jacob would not be nearly as simple. Authorities put out a warrant for his arrest, and news of his malevolence began to spread like wildfire in the provincial town—but each day he evaded capture just fanned the flames of local hysteria. And it wasn’t long before he had found bogeyman-like status as the “Jäckel,” whose dark exploits were augmented by the town’s collective imagination. He had vaporized into whispers behind closed doors, gossip in the marketplace, a child’s greatest fear at bedtime, and as such, the townspeople began to pressure local police to find this villain—or at least break up his ring of sorcery before something terrible happened.
And something terrible did happen. Feldner Bettlebub Dionysos, a handicapped 12-year-old boy with the nickname “Dirty Animal” was arrested for unrelated crimes and questioned by authorities about his activity. To reduce his trouble and make himself more valuable to police, the boy claimed to know the Jäckel and to have communicated with him just three weeks prior. Likely using bits of gossip he had heard around town, Dirty Animal also claimed the Jäckel was not just a sorcerer in cahoots with the Devil—he was, in fact, the leader of a vagrant gang who lived in the slums outside the city. This one accusation was enough to instigate the mass arrest of homeless orphans and anyone associated with them. From ten-year-old Hannerl to 80-year-old Margareth Reinberg, itinerant people from around the city were dragged in and questioned about their relationship with this magic Jäckel. Of course, few of them had any knowledge of such a figure or where on earth he might be located, but their confusion and terror only escalated when their bodies were branded with hot irons and their hands cut off at the wrist.
The surroundings of the dreadful interrogations only intensified the horror of the Zaubererjackl Trials. During the second fortification of Salzburg in 1475, a circular building known as the Hexenturm (or the Witch’s Tower) had been built specifically for the purpose of holding and questioning criminals, deviants, and those accused of witchcraft. With thick brick walls, narrow staircases, and no windows, it provided the perfect location for the hidden treachery of this witch hunt. Scores of children and teenagers were locked in dingy cells as they awaited their turn with the torturer, each hoping for some scrap of justice. What they found instead were relentless questions, bloody punishments, and—in most cases—the conclusion of guilt. Transcripts from the trials, particularly the interrogations from the Grand Aulic Court in Salzberg, proved in large part that the confessions of the children were “guided” by the suggestions of the police and their youthful fantasies merged with myth to form a “virtual construct” of the Jäckel—a figure who was still devoid of any shape or definition.
As they say, “invented history is satisfying myth,” which explains a lot about the witch hunts of Europe and why they were prone to such amplification. In most cases—and certainly, in the case of the Jäckel—the wild search for witches usually offered some insights into the social and political climate of the time. To know the crime was to know the community and vice versa. In the antiquity of draconian statutes, something as simple as a dead cow could lead to accusations of black magic in the right circumstances, while Christianity in the Early Middle Ages would add nuance and sophistication to the imagery with demons and the suppression of pagan rituals. The emergence of the Medieval Christian witch looked a lot like a herbalist, a heretic, a midwife, or even an outspoken woman and gained distinction through writings like the Malleus Maleficarum, a treatise written by the Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer in 1487. As a bestseller for 200 years (and later shunned for its lack of evidence), the narrative elevated sorcery to a criminal offense and set the expectation for the burning of all heretics, including witches.
Austria in the second half of the 17th century was just catching wind of the long-term economic depression of surrounding Europe and beginning to feel its painful effects. As jobs, food, and opportunities dried up, more class distinctions appeared and the subsequent “pauperization and marginalization” of the poor. An increase in the population—coupled with a shortage of resources—soon led to a greater number of beggars in the area who were inevitably vulnerable and defenseless to the whims of the upper class. Vagrant gangs of adolescents, filthy and without purpose, became a common sight in the area, pressing in on the comforts of the more successful and forcing them to remember the ever-looming threat of scarcity. And as this social crisis worsened, the nature of begging itself became more aggressive and desperate. When the young vagabonds, most of whom were boys, were denied alms by respectable citizens on the street, they turned angry and shouted warnings that the Jäckel would soon teach them to be generous. While these threats were devoid of any real power, they intensified existing feelings of anxiety or suspicion. And as the malice of the beggars increased, so did the popular resentment against them.
But the haters around town were not just fueled by animus and fear—they were bolstered by a series of edicts which had been passed in Bamberg, Germany in the late 16th century. These laws attempted to control the itinerant class by removing them from sight and placing them in half-way houses or hard labor situations. And if they did not disappear as planned, punishments for any infractions were swift and violent, leading to an outbreak of public floggings and iron brandings. As was dictated by the Church, giving alms was an act of virtue and something most self-respecting individuals participated in—at least on Sunday—but even this holy ritual soon seemed tainted by evil. Although this charitable tradition suggested kind gestures by upstanding individuals would be received with “grateful and humble” reactions, the local bums never appeared gratified. This confusion and resentment put stress on the wealthy and generated massive acrimony among the beggars who saw no alternative to their condition.
Barbara Koller—the beggar woman who first identified the Jäckel as her son—had, in fact, been arrested for demanding alms from a local innkeeper and cursing his family upon refusal. When their young son soon fell inexplicably ill, she was accused of being a witch. Curses back in those days were not a laughing matter and drew their credence through superstition and religious fear. If the person uttering the curse, like Koller, had been unjustly treated, its effectiveness was thought to be way more powerful. And as a devout Christian on the receiving end of such a curse, the inherent guilt involved was often devastating. From the legend of blood-thirsty King Watzmann to the wicked Rübezahl, the Germanic culture was never short on myths and legends proselytizing on the dangers of the unknown.
Because homeless youths made up the majority of the Zaubererjackl Trials’ victims, this is an important historical reality to remember. General anti-itinerary sentiment had already begun to take root in the region, as was demonstrated by the Pappenheimer family of Bavaria who was tried and executed for witchcraft in 1600. Without one shred of actual evidence, the entire family was tortured into an admission of killing 400 children and 50 elderly with a malevolent ointment made from fetuses. They were also accused of setting marketplaces on fire to cause a commotion, conjuring bad weather, killing cows, robbing churches, and giving Jews holy sacramental wafers. This went far in quelling the local fears and provided an answer to a great deal of unsolved crime. Their execution was so fierce, the mother’s breasts were cut off and smeared in the mouths of her two adult sons, while the father was broken and burned alive in front of his remaining 10-year-old boy. This precursor to the Zaubererjackl Trials revealed a climate ripe for witch hunting and established an acceptable level of persecution without proof.
All witch trials from this era blamed the accused for the random misfortunes felt in the area. In the case of the Zaubererjackl Trials, these misfortunes came in the shape of hunger, social division, and looming poverty. The unruly behavior of the beggars, coupled by their association with Koller, only compounded their questionable predicament. Because the vagrants themselves soon came to symbolize a threat to the Austrian way of life, they were a natural choice for persecution. And the hunt for the Jäckel provided the ideal reason to scrutinize, harass, and arrest them without hesitation. This cultural and sociological response was not unusual—it became universal over time and emphasized how religious, societal, economic, and even climatic factors could affect the scope and sequence of a witch hunt. Anthropologically speaking, the human motivations behind witch-fueled frenzies of the past were not based on pure ignorance but rather on this type of highly patterned phenomenon, which appeared in cultures around the world for thousands of years.
From Theoris of Greece—who was killed in 323 BCE along with her children—to the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, witch hunts like the Zaubererjackl Trials were generally designed to malign certain individuals who were already disliked or misunderstood among the general populace. Much like a pack of wolves who drive out the sick and old in times of stress and desperation, witch hunts usually focused on finding vulnerable individuals to blame for periods of increased struggle. As the fissures of doubt and fear grew, so did the number of powerful people who believed in the narrative, despite its inherent implausibility. Ultimately, everyone involved wanted power—the accusers sought to established false control amid chaos, while the false confessions of the accused gave them at least one brief moment of credibility. And an end to the suffering.
After 15 long and bloody years, 39 children between the ages of 10 and 14 years had been burned to ash, along with 53 young kids ranging from 15 to 21 and over 45 legal adults. Of all those 139 victims, 113 of them were young homeless boys who were believed to be followers of the Jäckel, a man who had still not been caught or even spotted since the incident began. Younger children had also been accused during the trial; however, the prince-archbishop of Salzburg kindly forbade killing them and instead offered their guardians a stern warning. And in a more pronounced act of Christian charity, children under the age of 14 were not strangled or beheaded before they were set on fire.
Most of Salzburg and the surrounding areas turned out for the executions, which varied greatly in intensity and method. To watch an evil body burn was an austere moment in the community, as it suggested a cleansing of the populace and return to virtue. And so, the most pitiful population of Salzburg—the orphans, the homeless, and the destitute youth—were burned alive, hanged, decapitated, and hacked apart in keeping with the executioner’s recommendation. Because the debt for incarceration, peat, wood, and death services was typically attached to the condemned person’s relatives or estate, many townsfolks commented on how expensive it was to execute the penniless.
But the most fascinating aspect of the Zaubererjackl Trials was the image of the Jäckel, who did not fit the stereotype of the old crone hellbent on eating children and casting spells. Instead, he was thought to be young, virile, and adept, an opportunist of the highest order. And he was powerful. Historically, witches were accused of such because of their weakened and rejected social status—but not the Jäckel. He was feared for his mythical, unseen power.
Some experts on the subject of witchery have suggested 17th-century Europe actually saw a rise in male witches because the classic female archetype had started to crumble. Accusing the poor, old woman who no one understood became too predictable, as it were—until, of course, the fire spread to the New World and was reignited in Salem, Massachusetts.But as the circle of persecution widened to include more and more men, so did the threat to the larger social order. And as result, people from traditionally untouchable realms like the clergy and the nobility—not to mention the children—became fair game, all of which disrupted the normal balance of power and predictability. In all likelihood, it was this evolving victimology that finally put a stop to the witch hunts of post-Medieval Europe, as folks simply ran out of believable subjects to burn. And the Jäckel? It appeared authorities had been right about him all along—he was a witch of magnificent depravity and influence. But little did they realize, it was not Satan who had imbued him with this magical strength—it was the fear inside their very own hearts.
And the rest is history.