When your country is in the midst of a hysteric witch-hunt, most people would have the sense not to act overtly suspicious. Unfortunately, acting without thought often brings about dire consequences. In the late 16th Century, Margaret Minderlin and her husband made poor choices, and the result was lethal.
Minderlin's tragic story began in Nordlingen, Germany, in the year 1598. The suspicious eye of society focused on the Minderlin household when Margaretha’s husband was imprisoned for grave robbing. Her husband committed suicide while imprisoned, and the newly-widowed Margaretha fled her home. Her attempt to escape the authorities was unsuccessful. She was hauled back to Nordlingen, where she was handed over to eager jailers and interrogators.
Once Margaretha was put under the charge of the interrogators, her unfortunate fate was sealed. She willingly confessed to assisting her husband plunder graves for the purpose of gathering clothing and linens to sell for a profit. The torturers, however, suspected she was a witch, and applied their trade on her to make her confess their suspicions. Margaretha conformed to the preconceived notion of witchy behavior held by the interrogators to stop the agony of torture. The more they tortured Margaretha, the more her testimony became fantastical and diabolical. The interrogators, through torture, molded a confessed grave robber into the perfect image of an evil witch.
Margaretha’s statements escalated quickly. She originally confessed, without coercion, to stealing garments and cloth from graves with an intent to sell them for profit. At the first application of torture, Margaretha falsely admitted to selling body parts of the cadavers, instead of clothing. After more torture, she abandoned the original grave-robbing story to confess to exhuming the bodies of dead children. When she faced her seventh torture session, Margaretha falsely confessed to feasting on the flesh of the dead children, in the company of previously executed witches.
By this point in her interrogation, Margaretha seemed to be willing to confess to just about anything. She confessed to being seduced by the devil. She claimed to have attended another feast with witches, where they cannibalized another child. Finally, she admitted to cursing and harming, through magical means, people of all ages, sexes and sizes.
The interrogation of Margaretha turned a grave robber into a cannibalistic witch. She was the last witch to be executed in Nordlingen, and her account acts as a testament for all of the other women who were executed in her town before her. She even referred to other executed witches in her confessions. The interrogators had a clear image in their own minds of how a witch behaved, and they coerced their defendant to confess to behaving in a manner that mirrored earlier executed witches. The investigating council acted sensibly when it investigated three graves of children Margaretha claimed to have disturbed, but even when the bodies were found to be unmolested, they did not relent in their insistence that witchcraft was afoot. The investigators wanted a witch, and they used torture to create one out of Margaretha Minderlin.
For more on European witch-hunts, read Witch Craze by Lyndal Roper.