Throughout history, in many places all over the world there has long been a grave injustice carried out upon the innocent. For centuries in the past, and even in some areas right up to the modern day, there have long been witch hunts, the targeting of those charged with using magical powers to bring woe, death, misfortune, and strife. This can be either out of a true belief that these forces exist, or out of political motivations or personal vendettas against a person, but the end result is countless thousands of people killed, most often without a trial or chance to defend themselves, and to this day many have been lost to history. However, in recent times there has been the strange case of a witch, burned at the stake centuries ago, who has managed to find some semblance of peace after finally having her name exonerated long after her execution.
The odd story begins back in the 1600s, in the peaceful, quiet village of Cologne in Germany. Here there lived a young woman by the name of Katharina Henot, a postmaster for the town and widely regarded as the very first female postmaster in German history. By all accounts Henot was a very upstanding and influential person in Cologne, running the post office she had inherited from her father along with her brother, Harger Henot, and the two were considered to be beacons of the community’s trust, well-loved and respected. This was until one Count Leonhard II von Taxis, of the Imperial Court, began pushing for reform in the postal system, trying to establish one unified central post office for the entire country, something Henot did not agree with. It was this conflict that would perhaps contribute to the strife that would come for Henot and her family.
Beginning in 1626, the region of Cologne was swept with a great witch panic, and suddenly there were supernatural forces hiding in the darkness to prey on the innocent. People were so convinced that witches and warlocks were prowling about at night that they were locking themselves into their homes to cower in the shadows, and many rumors flew as to who was a potential witch. Thus would begin the tragic Würzburg Witch Trials, which took place from 1626 to 1631, and during this time a nun from a local convent came forward claiming to be possessed and to have had her people constantly plagued by dark magic. Somehow the finger was pointed at Katharina and her brother, with the two accused of causing disease and misfortune to the convent and others in Cologne with their dark powers.
The two siblings were arrested under orders of the archbishop and imprisoned without trial or jury, accused of being witches and rigorously tortured to bring a confession out, but Katharina would deny all of the allegations leveled against her. Her brother tried to appeal to the Imperial Court, but this did little good, so convinced were they that they were using witchcraft. At the time it was not all that shocking that someone of her standing should be accused of black magic, as there were many influential figures being arrested on the same charges left and right.
Harger Henot would eventually be set free before being convicted of anything, but Katharina was ruthlessly tortured, to the point that she lost all movement in her right hand, yet she would not yield. Despite the fact that she would not admit to any wrongdoing she was put to death by burning at the stake in 1627, after being paraded throughout town in a wagon for people to jeer and spit at. She would become one of the estimated 25,000 people put to death in Germany under suspicions of being a witch between the years of 1500 and 1782, and over 900 during the Würzburg Witch Trials alone, including people of all ages, faiths, and walks of life, but while most of these people have been either forgotten or still officially considered “guilty,” this seems to have changed for Katharina in recent years.
Amazingly, in 2012, her case was reopened in an attempt to exonerate this woman who lived centuries ago. Even after all of this time had passed, there were some who nevertheless felt that this was a grave injustice brought down in an innocent woman who was guilty of nothing other than being on the wrong side of powerful enemies. Hartmut Hegeler, an evangelical priest and religious education teacher, made the request for the case to be reopened to the council of Cologne, and has said of it:
We were taking about the witch trials in class and my students asked me if whether the judgment against Henot had ever been cancelled, and the answer was ‘no.’ Katharina held her own reputation in high esteem, she would want to have it cleared. As Christians, we find it challenging when innocent people are executed, even if it was centuries ago.
Hegeler went about actually tracking down any living relatives of Henot he could find in his crusade to try and belatedly clear her name, and evidence was brought forward that her execution had largely been injudicious and fueled by political rivalries and machinations, her death the result of a politically motivated feud. It did not take long at all for the Cologne Council, which ironically is the very same council which had had Henot arrested and accused, to find that she had been wrongfully put to death. In the end, Katharina Henot not only received a full exoneration and posthumous pardon, but she has been honored in the town to this day. The story of Katharina Henot is very well known inside of Germany, with books and songs written of it, and a sculpture of her can be found outside the Cologne town hall, depicting her burning on the fire but holding up a hand in defiance, with it symbolizing “the idea that such an injustice should not be allowed to happen again.” The case is actually quite a remarkable one, and a rarity in a modern world in which thousands of people are legally still classified as witches, their names never officially cleared. It is good to see that at least Katharina Henot can finally rest and have her justice.