The largest witch trial in Swedish history

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The Torsåker Witch Trials were the largest of all the witch trials in Swedish history.

It is also one of the largest mass killings of witches in recorded history. 

In total, there were 71 people accused and killed as being witches. A total of 6 men and 65 women.
More profoundly, it was roughly a fifth of all women in the region who were beheaded and burned in a single frenzied day.

The frenzied witch trials took place in Torsåker, a village located in central Sweden from 1674 – 1675 AD.

Torsåker, Sweden on a map of Europe.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the only occurrence as it happened towards the end of the Great Swedish Witch-hunt (Det Stora oväsendet (‘The Great Noise’)) during 1668 to 1676.

The bloodshed began when minister Laurentius Christophori Hornæus of Ytterlännäs was instructed to investigate witchcraft within his parish.

The witch trial reached Torsåker as a result and a consequence of the great wave of witch hysteria, which had begun to flourish over Sweden after the trial caused by Gertrud Svensdotter against Märet Jonsdotter in Dalarna in 1668.

Sweden did not have separation of church and state, causing state-employed Lutheran priests to abide by government instructions.

Lutherans called their ministers “priests” while in Sweden, and did not switch to the British term “minister” or “preacher” until in America in the late 1800’s.

These Lutheran priests were ordered to use their sermons to inform their congregations of the crimes committed. Thus, the rumor of the witches spread over the country, where witch-hunts had earlier been a rarity.

Hornæus was ordered to perform an investigation by order of the special commission which had been created to deal with the suddenly erupted witch craze.

So on 15 October 1674, the witch trial of Torsåker opened.

The priest ordered two young boys to stand at the door of the church to identify the witches by an invisible ‘devil’s mark’ on their forehead as they walked into church.

On one occasion, much to the dismay of Hornæus, one of these boys pointed at his wife, Britta Rufina; people gasped but she (as she told her grandson who wrote down the story) then slapped the boy and he quickly apologized when he saw who he had pointed at, claiming that he’d been blinded by the sun.

This could very well have been true, as he would not have dared to point at the wife of a priest if he had recognized her.

Hornæus was a priest with a terrifying reputation; the witnesses of the witch trial were mostly children, as the main accusations of the witches was that they had abducted children on the Sabbath of Satan at Blockula (or Blåkulla), a legendary meadow of Swedish folklore where the Devil held his Earthly court during a witches’ Sabbath.

Hornaeus had several methods to get them to give the testimony he wanted.

He whipped them, he bathed children in the ice cold water of a hole in the ice in the lakes in winter, he put them in an oven, showed them fuel and pretended that he would light the fire in the oven and boil them.

His grandson, Jöns Hornæus, who wrote down the story in 1735 after it was dictated by his grandmother, Laurentius Hornæus’ wife Britta Rufina, was quoted as saying: “I remember some of these witnesses, who by these methods were in lack of health for the rest of their lives”. He adds that children were still, sixty years afterwards, afraid to go near the house where his grandfather lived.

About one hundred people, of both sexes, were accused by the children.

Even though this was the biggest witch trial in the country, the original documents of the trial are very small and of bad quality; the documents of 1674 simply state that the trial was very like the other trials and was very typical in every way, except for the large number of victims.

About a hundred people of both sexes were accused by the children, and the trial opened in October 1674.

It remains unclear how many were acquitted and how many convicted but not executed, and the record suggests that many of those convicted escaped, and that some of the women were not executed because of pregnancy. The prisoners were apparently kept in several different places in the village and were not guarded. They were given almost no food, but were allowed to receive food from their relatives.

The best source for the trial is instead an account written by the grandson of the priest, Jöns Hornæus, who wrote down the story in 1735, sixty years afterwards, dictated by his grandmother, the priest’s wife, Britta Rufina, who was an eyewitness to the trial and almost herself accused.

After the last sermon in the church of Torsåker, the prisoners, 71 people (65 women and 6 men) were led to the place of execution. Jöns Hornæus describes the execution in his book, where he wrote down the exact words of his grandmother, the eyewitness Britta Rufina, and she describes it like this, after a speech in the church:

Then they began to understand what would happen. Cries to heaven rose of vengeance over those who caused their innocent deaths, but no cries and no tears would help. Parents, men and brothers held a fence of pikes. (By which she meant that the men of the village, the family members of the prisoners, surrounded the prisoners with weapons) They were driven, seventy one of them, of which only two could sing a psalm, which they repeated when they walked as soon as it ended. Many fainted on the way out of weakness and death wish, and those were carried by their families up until the place of execution, which was in the middle in the parish, half a mile from all the three churches, and called “The Mountain of the Stake.”

On the mountain, the prisoners were decapitated away from the stakes, so as not to drown the wood in blood and make it hard to light, and when they were dead, their families took off their clothes and lifted their bodies on the stakes, which were lit and burned until they went out by themselves. The families of the executed then went home, according to Britta Rufina, without showing any emotions, as if they were completely numbed.

After this there were to be no more executions in Torsåker. 

The witch-hunt in the country continued; after the Torsåker witch trial, it reached the capital, where it lasted until 1676 and ended with the execution of Malin Matsdotter or Mattsdotter, also known as Rumpare-Malin (1613 – 5 August 1676) in Stockholm, for witchcraft by her nineteen-year-old daughter Maria Eriksdotter

The famous witch hunt Det Stora oväsendet (‘The Great Noise’) in Sweden which lasted from 1668 to 1676, ended with her execution.

The memorial stone of the Torsåker witch trials from 1675.

The memorial stone of the Torsåker witch trials from 1675.

 

witch

Sources:

  • Åberg, Alf, Häxorna: de stora trolldomsprocesserna i Sverige 1668-1676, Esselte studium/Akademiförl., Göteborg, 1989
  • Ankarloo, Bengt, Satans raseri: en sannfärdig berättelse om det stora häxoväsendet i Sverige och omgivande länder, Ordfront, Stockholm, 2007

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