Prison, rack, stake, or gallows: The Zendenrathaus and witch hunts in Ernen

The Zendenrathaus in Ernen is an imposing, solitary three-story building on the east side of the so called “Hengert,” which roughly translates to “village square.” There’s an uncanny resemblance between the Swiss-German word—for a place to catch up on the news out of doors—to the English “hang out”, meaning to meet up and speak with friends in a casual way. Miracles in language never cease!

But the solid, rectangular cube of the Zendenrathaus (Town Hall) on the Ernen square, with its regular window distribution and noble doorway, has far more serious implications. Having been the place of jurisdiction for the Zenden Goms from 1447, Ernen’s Town Hall was assigned a prison, high court, and gallows to serve the entire region. The current Zendenrathaus was built in 1751 to replace an earlier, and less impressive, building of similar function. The building which hallmarks Ernen today features doors and windows that are framed in ochre-colored tuff, and, along with the huge and imposing doorway, give the spartan façade a degree of articulation.

The interior features two decidedly bleak dungeon cells in the cellar, and a torture chamber on the elevated ground floor – a room which was virtually inescapable owing to its single, and unattainable window. A treasure of the first floor is the ancient, wooden front door that was saved from the St. Antonius chapel in Niederernen, where it ran the risk of exposure to the elements and passing traffic. On the uppermost floor and in the building’s largest room, once the courtroom, visitors can marvel at a wealth of historic documents and land deeds that date back to the 14th and 15th centuries that bear witness to the supremacy of Ernen in the Goms. Each one is written on thick parchment in beautifully regular penmanship—not a single word scratched out—and, as our museum guide underscored emphatically, scripted “without ever using a ruler.” He also noted that after political reorganization and the Valais’s accession the Swiss Confederation in 1815, the building was turned over to the municipality. In 1880, there was even talk then of converting it into a schoolhouse, but fortunately, that idea never took on.

The last execution in Ernen took place in 1764, when three convicted thieves were hanged on the gallows still in their proud place above the village. Not every thief received the death penalty; many got away with a prison sentence or a fine, others were exiled, pilloried and/or branded on their shoulders. But torture was used extensively, especially in the witch trials, and the grisly treatment to which those accused were subjected continues to fascinate visitors today. Indeed, the current exhibition in the Zendenrathaus building brings some of those horrors to light.

The origins of the witch hunt can be traced back to the first half of the 15th century in Vaud, Fribourg, Valais, Aosta Valley and Dauphiné in the western Alps of France. In that day, people—at first, more men, then increasingly, women—could be targeted after a mere slander by an envious neighbor or a misguided relative. A man who coveted his neighbor’s wife might accuse her husband of witchery to get him out of the way; if he did, the accuser could inherit both the woman and the other man’s land. What’s worse, the “accused” might, in the interim, have been hung up by the wrists from behind, or stretched on an iron bed to the point of having multiple muscles and tendons dislodged and ripped. To put an end to the horrific pain of the tortures, the “accused” would eventually confess, and seal his own fate.

Around the turn of the 16th century, the ratio of male witches was reversed at the expense of their female counterparts, likely under the influence of the "Witches' Hammer," a book published by one Henry Institoris in 1486 that stigmatized women as witches. The book enjoyed an unprecedented circulation of some 30,000 copies; undoubtedly, the innovation of printing also shaped the image of the venomous hag. In the book, she mingles among the people, rises from the saucepan through the fireplace, and flies on a broomstick to the Witches' Sabbath.

From then on, however unjustified, any woman suspect of “cavorting with the Devil” might be accused of witchery, paraded naked through the streets, and abused by passers-by even prior to the horrors of the torture chamber. And there was no censorship; even little children were among the mocking crowds. It was not until well into the 17th century that, at least in Berne, the authorities issued guidelines on when and how the courts were allowed to use torture methods, and made it more difficult to open witch trials at all.

While the exact location in Ernen of the stake itself is still subject to discussion, cultural historians agree that it was probably at some distance from the Hengert itself, and most likely in the direction of the gallows. The risk of sparks spreading to the surrounding wooden buildings would have otherwise be too great. Indeed, Ernen counts itself enormously fortunate never in its long history to have been decimated by fire.

There is no doubt, however, as to where hangings took place: the three 4.2-meter high stone columns of the Ernen gallows are still connected by a small surrounding wall and remain in remarkably good condition for their age. Wooden beams were laid atop the columns where witches and murderers suffered their final punishments. Oddly enough, there was also something almost “proprietary” about the Ernen gallows. Once, when a Swabian craftsman was sentenced to death, the locals are said to have protested, arguing that the gallows were reserved for them and their children exclusively, and hardly intended for to be used on every foreign "noodle". The convict in question was subsequently pardoned to 101 years of expulsion and released at the southernmost boundary of the Goms. He was one of the lucky ones.

Ernen, Saturday, 28 July 2018, by Sarah Batschelet

The Zendenrathaus is open on Wednesdays and Sundays 4 till 4.45 pm, beginning of July till end of September, and during the guided tours. For more information please contact the local tourist office.