City Stories: The Last of the Witches

I am always touched when people talk about returning to the ‘good old days’. It’s hard to really tell which ‘old days’ they are referring to, but I can only assume it wasn’t the 19 of August, 1738, in Düsseldorf, when Helena Curtens, a sixteen year old girl was burned as a witch alongside her neighbour, mother of seven, Agnes Olmans.

Curtens and Olmans were the last to be executed for witchcraft in the Lower Rhine region, bringing to an end a ghastly era of suspicion and retribution. Their stories are not uncommon for the time – claims of communing with the devil, seeing ghosts, unexplained deaths and sacrifice – with all accounts corroborated following extensive periods of incarceration and torture, and on the hearsay of neighbours and family members. Throughout it all Curtens maintained her allegations against Olmans as the teacher of sorcery, even when it became apparent that Curtens would also be executed. Olmans for her part consistently denied all allegations and also failed all of the tests of the time which were designed to prove she was a witch including being pricked with a needle to see if she would bleed.

Between the 15th and 18th centuries,it is estimated that up to 100,000 people were executed in Europe for witchcraft. Of those, around 80% were women.

In 2011 a statue dedicated to the two women was erected in Düsseldorf, bearing the inscription ‘Human dignity is inviolable’. It is a remembrance both of these two women and that this appalling period in history finally came to an end.