Image: Anna Goeldi Musueum
Steffen Schmidt  /  AP file
Documents, paintings, engravings, illustrations and torture instruments are on display at the Anna Goeldi Musueum in Mollis, Switzerland. 
updated 8/27/2008 11:05:19 AM ET 2008-08-27T15:05:19

Anna Goeldi was executed for being a witch more than 220 years ago — the last witch beheaded in Europe. On Wednesday, the Swiss decided the least they could do was clear her name.

The parliament of the Swiss canton (state) of Glarus decided unanimously Wednesday to exonerate Goeldi as a victim of "judicial murder," said Josef Schwitter, a government spokesman.

Goeldi was executed in 1782 for an alleged case of poisoning.

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.

Alleged affair
Goeldi, a maidservant in the house of prominent burgher Johann Jakob Tschudi, was convicted of "spoiling" the family's daughter, causing her to spit pins and have convulsions. Yet Tschudi, a doctor and magistrate, was alleged to have had an affair with Goeldi — and if that came out, his reputation would have been seriously damaged.

The case was brought to light through a book by local journalist Walter Hauser.

The move to exonerate Goeldi came after a long debate in the eastern Swiss region, and was taken after talks with both the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches.

Last year, the canton's executive branch and the Protestant Church council both rejected even considering an exoneration, but the Glarus parliament urged the executive branch to reconsider. In June, the Glarus executive branch did, and asked parliament to ratify Goeldi's exoneration.

'Nonlegal trial'
The Glarus government said the Protestant Church council, which conducted the trial, had no legal authority 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.

"This is to acknowledge that the verdict handed down came from a nonlegal trial and that Anna Goeldi was the victim of 'judicial murder'," the government said two months ago.

Goeldi's torture and execution was even more incomprehensible, the government said, because it happened in the Age of Enlightenment when "those who made the judgment regarded themselves as educated."

"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 government said.

The exoneration was also 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.

A museum on Goeldi opened in Mollis last year on the 225th anniversary of her death. The Glarus government is also donating $118,000 to create a theater play about her life.

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