Depiction of the Swiss confederate flags at the battle of Nancy (1477), by Luzerner Chronik of Diebold Schilling, 1513
By Dr. Romeo Vitelli / 03.21.2017
Though the town of Wildisbuch in the Swiss parish of Trullikon is hard to find today, it must have seemed to a peaceful place back in the 19th century. That it would become the site of one of the most gruesome religious murders of the 19th century, not to mention earning the place a notoriety that lingers even today, seems hard to believe. But it happened all the same.
The young woman who would be at the centre of this bizarre Swiss passion play certainly showed no sign beforehand of the violence that she would bring to her family. Born in 1794 on Christmas Day, Margaretta Peter was the youngest of five daughters born to John Peter and his wife and, except for her mother’s death shortly after her birth, grew up with all the love and care that her father, sisters, and brother could lavish on her. Raised in the Zwinglian Protestant faith along with the rest of her family, Margaretta showed remarkable religious zeal from early childhood. Even her pastor was impressed – at first.
Despite being the youngest child, Margaretta had a forceful personality that allowed her to dominate all her older siblings. Even the two sisters who managed to get married still deferred to her religious opinions and moral teachings while her unmarried sisters became her disciples in every way that mattered. Long after the horrific events that I am about to describe, family members continued to praise Margaretta and her teachings. Her father himself would say of her that, “”I am assured that my youngest daughter was set apart by God for some extraordinary purpose.”
And she showed that sense of divine purpose from an early age. By the age of six, she was reading the Bible and summoning family members to gather around while she gave sermons. Along with regular prayer sessions, she also urged her father and siblings to live in complete accord with Christ’s teachings (as defined by her). Even when she took first communion in 1811, she amazed her congregation with her religious fervour and sheer joy.
In 1816, her mother’s brother invited her to live with him in the nearby town of Rudolfingen and act as his housekeeper. Her time at her uncle’s house brought her into contact with a Pietist religious community and to attend their services. The Pietists were an extremely fundamentalist Lutheran sect that was spreading across many parts of Europe. Unfortunately, this exposure to Pietism also meant a radical change in Margaret’s personality, something even her siblings found disturbing. When asked why the normally happy girl was so despondent, she replied that God was revealing Himself to her and making her more aware of her own sinful nature. But that was just the beginning.
By 1817, she had left her uncle’s home and returned to Wildisbuch to establish herself as a revivalist to preach the word of God. This meant returning to her father’s home and getting to know three new servants who had been hired while she was away: Heinrich Ernst, Ursula Kundig, and Margaret Jaggli. Both servants would soon play an important role in Margaretta’s strange crusade: Margaret because of the epileptic seizures that she hoped would be cured by Margaretta’s prayers, Heinrich for his blind loyalty to the Peter family, and Ursula who asked Margaretta to be her “spiritual guide through life and eternity.”
It was Ursula who became Margaretta’s most fervent disciple. In lavishing praise on her new spiritual mentor, Ursula openly said of Margaretta,”that Christ revealed Himself in the flesh through her, and that through her many thousands of souls were saved.” Almost inevitably, the Peter household was flooded by religious minded people from around the area, all of whom gathered to hear Margaretta’s sermons. But she soon became tired of her father’s household and ,by 1820, decided to travel across the country preaching her gospel. Though she went alone at times, Margaretta often took her either her devoted sister Elizabeth or Ursula Kundig with her.
Margaretta’s religious crusade drew people in from all over Switzerland. It was during the course of her wandering that she met a shoemaker named Jacob Morf. Despite being married, Morf seemed mesmerized by Margaretta and she quickly came to feel the same about him. Though it’s hard to say whether there was anything physical in their relationship, she and Morf exchanged passionate letters that are still preserved in a Zurich archive. She also announced to him that they would ascend to Heaven together and would share one throne for all eternity. Morf’s wife, Regula, was less than thrilled by this strange relationship though her husband managed to relieve her suspicions (at least for a while).
In late 1822, police became alerted when Margaretta and Elizabeth vanished without a trace. After months of searching, the two women turned up on their own on January 8, 1823. Though Margaretta was pale and visibly ill, she refused to say where she and her sister had been. Not long afterward, Jacob Morf turned up at the Peter house, apparently due to a message from Margaretta that the two of them would soon be ascending to Heaven together.
Whatever had happened to her during her absence, Margaretta’s behaviour had become more bizarre than ever. She and Elizabeth confined themselves to a single room in the house where they read the Bible and prayed almost non-stop. She seemed obsessed with earning God’s forgiveness for her life of sin (not that she shared with anyone what those sins were). When not in her room praying, she would often come downstairs to meet with her followers and share her prophecies with them. As for Jacob Morf, his work and marriage soon drew him back home.
In Morf’s absence, Margaretta’s religious obsession became even stronger as Easter approached. During one of her episodes, she announced: “”Behold! I see the host of Satan drawing nearer and nearer to encompass me. He strives to overcome me. Let me alone that I may fight him.” She apparently believed that the Devil would be coming to claim the souls of all humanity and that she alone stood in his way. With that in mind, she ordered the house to be closed up completely with no “worldly” people being allowed to cross the threshold. That included the local pastor who tried to express his concern about what was happening. And, given the control Margaretta had over the entire household, that’s exactly what they did.
Considering the religious hysteria that had gripped the entire household, things went pretty much as you might expect. One evening, Margaret Jaggli reacted to hearing a loud pop from the fireplace by going into convulsions. Screaming that the Devil had come for her, she pleaded with Margaret and the others to pray and save her soul. This led Margaretta to scream out, “Depart, thou murderer of souls, accursed one, to hell-fire. Wilt thou try to rob me of my sheep that was lost? My sheep—whom I have pledged myself to save?”
Though Margaret soon recovered, she continued to have seizures and the rest of the household began having religious visions themselves. Margaret wrote to Jacob Morf to come to her aid and, on March 8, 1823, he finally arrived at Wildisbuch along with two other believers.
And then, with all of the true believers gathered under one roof and in a state of acute religious mania, the final battle for Armageddon could begin.
Haugean Pietist Conventicle. Painting by Adolph Tidemand, 1852
We may never know for certain what it was that drove saintly Margaretta over the edge from religious mania to full-blown delusion.
Based on the testimony of her family members and followers who were holed up with her in the Peter house in that fateful week in 1823, Margaretta’s enthusiastic prayers and fasting convinced her believers that something amazing was about to happen. Even if one or two of them were less than convinced about her holy mission, they didn’t seem inclined to argue with the others.
Eventually, Margaretta gathered her disciples around her and reportedly said, “Lo! I see Satan and his first-born floating in the air. They are dispersing their emissaries to all corners of the earth to summon their armies together.” Her suggestible sister Elizabeth promptly announced that she saw them as well. She then began to prophesy that the son of Napoleon, the Duke of Reichstadt, would soon announce himself as the Antichrist and that the Final Battle would then begin.
After making this prophecy, Margaretta went into a wild frenzy and began smashing furniture and attacking walls with a hammer. It was at this point that the maid, Margaret Jaggli, went into convulsions which Margaretta took as a divine sign. She cried out that, “I see in spirit the old Napoleon gathering a mighty host, and marching against me. The contest will be terrible. You must wrestle unto blood. Go! fly! fetch me axes, clubs, whatever you can find. Bar the doors, curtain all the windows in the house, and close every shutter.”
Margaretta’s followers followed her instructions and gathered in her bedroom with all the tools they could find in the house. Some of them would report afterward to seeing divine visions themselves due to their leader’s fanaticism. She told everyone to start smashing everything in the room until she told them to stop. Which they promptly did for the next three hours straight. If any one of them slowed down due to fatigue, Margaretta told that person to “strike him! cut him down! the old adversary! the arch-fiend! whoso loseth his life shall find it. Fear nothing! smite till your blood runs down as sweat.”
Even as this was happening, a large crowd had gathered outside the Peter house, likely drawn there by the noise. So great was the hammering going on inside that part of the wall of the house fall away. This allowed them to see Margaretta and her followers carrying out their destruction. As for Saint Margaretta herself, she saw the watching crowd and denounced them as “enemies of God.”
Once the room was completely destroyed, Margaretta led her exhausted followers downstairs to recover in the relatively intact sitting-room. But only for an hour or so, which was when she ordered her worshipers to beat themselves. And they did. The only exception was Margaretta’s sister Elizabeth who asked her sister to beat her instead. As before, whenever anyone began to tire, she ordered them to strike harder. Even her father wasn’t exempted and, after his enthusiasm flagged, his saintly daughter began pummeling him herself.
Eventually the local police decided to investigate what was happening and broke into the house since no one would allow them inside. Margaretta went into hysterics at seeing the police invading her sacred space but, after considerable wrangling, everyone was detained in separate rooms of the house. Not separated from the other women, Margaretta continued to rouse them into religious fervour while the men slowly settled down. Though the order was eventually passed down that Margaretta and Elizabeth should be sent to an asylum, it would prove to be too late.
Though some of the followers had been dispatched home, most were still present when Margaretta assembled the remaining family members in the upper room of the house. The tools used to destroy the room were still lying there and Margaretta began preaching the need for a final battle to defeat the Antichrist. When her brother, Caspar, came to the house at the request of the police, Margaretta attacked him with one of the tools. Finally intervening, her father stopped her and then carried his injured son downstairs. As a result, he missed what happened next.
Upstairs, Margaretta asked the ones still remaining if they were willing to die for salvation. Elizabeth promptly declared that she was and began beating herself but Margaretta, not satisfied with this effort, struck her sister in the head with a hammer. The others, apparently inspired by this example, promptly helped beat Elizabeth to death. Afterward, Margaretta told the others: “More blood must flow. I have pledged myself for the saving of many souls. I must die now. You must crucify me.”
Even with Elizabeth’s dead body at their feet, the followers were reluctant to follow Margaretta’s orders. Insisting that “it is better that I should die than that thousands of souls should perish,” she struck herself in the head with a hammer and then ordered the others to gather wood and nails. Though the manservant Heinrich promptly fled the scene, the others proceeded to nail Margaretta’s hands and feet to blocks of wood and then mounted her on the wall. Margaretta seemed completely immune to pain even as she was being crucified and insisted that she would raise herself and Elizabeth three days after her death. Only after ordering them to beat in her skull did she finally die.
Caught up in the bizarre religious delusion that had led them to commit murder, the remaining followers then quietly went downstairs to dinner. A policeman came by and had Margaret’s father sign a writ guaranteeing that they all appear before the magistrate. Nobody mentioned that Margaretta and Elizabeth were dead upstairs and the policeman promptly left. Three days later, with nobody outside the house being aware of what had happened, Ursula and Heinrich went upstairs to remove the nails from Margaretta’s body. If they had been hoping that this would hasten her resurrection, they were disappointed. Only after another two days of prayer did John Peter finally walk into town to tell the pastor that two of his daughters were dead.
What happened afterward was little more than an epilogue to the whole tragedy. After a two-day trial that began December 3, 1823, most of the people who had been present when Margaretta and Elizabeth died received prison sentences. Ursula Kundig received the longest sentence (sixteen years) while the others received sentences ranging from eight years to only a few months. John Peter, father to both dead women, was sentenced to eight years in prison. Perhaps as a way of keeping the Peter house from becoming a pilgrimage site, the judge also ordered it to be leveled to the ground and that no house would ever be built on the site again. While some Pietists did manage to visit the house before its destruction, the story of Margaretta’s crucifixion quickly faded into local legend.
While what happened in Wildisbuch in 1823 is hardly the most bizarre episode of religious mania ever to take place, it does demonstrate how easily even the most inconceivable crimes can occur under the right circumstances. No matter how fanatical Margaretta may have been, it was the people who followed her who made the choice to believe what she was saying and to act on it. With that in mind, given the new wave of irrationality and belief that seems to be spreading in many parts of the world, it’s hard not to wonder how many other Margaretta Peters are out there even today and what new tragedies await us in future.