"Rosa, help me ... somebody help me ... I can't stand the pain...”
The girl’s screams filled the chamber. Strapped tightly in the “witch-chair,” she shrieked and struggled in mindless agony. Above, on a small platform, her sister watched, held motionless and helpless by two strong guards, while below Franz Buirmann smiled as the torment continued.
Bound to the metal chair, which was studded with spikes, the girl’s naked body had been torn in a hundred places. A fire roared underneath her, searing her soft flesh.
The spikes tore into her skin every time her poor tormented body jerked to avoid them. Her breasts strained against the straps which held her, her hands clenched and unclenched in mindless pain. Her eyes stared into the room, and her mouth was open in one long continuous scream of torment...
"I confess! I'm a witch, kill me, I confess! Anything, anything, but stop! Have mercy! The pain, the pain...”
The girl in the chair was ready to confess, ready to do anything to escape the agony. But the inquisitor, Franz Buirmann, was interested in other things. Raising his voice to carry over her screams, he called to the girl on the platform above.
“Have I convinced you? Have you changed your mind, my dear Rosa? Or must your sister suffer still further because you will not respond to me?’’
Rosa drew in a deep breath. For a second she said nothing.
Then her sister, with a spurt of unbelievable strength, managed for a second to withstand the terrible pain of the witch-chair.
“Rosa ... don't ... he’s the Devil, the Devil himself...”
And the agony overcame her again. Her body writhed and twisted, her skin was sheened with sweat. Buirmann’s assistants stood by with no expression on their faces: this was an old story to them, this torment of innocent maidens. This one was willing to confess, and the witch-judge still let the torture go on...well, he had his reasons, doubtless, and it was never healthy to quarrel with a witch-judge. Anyone might be accused of witchcraft and sent to these same chambers...
The girl in the witch-chair, Dora Peller, had thought she was immune, too. After all, she was a respected figure in the town, the wife of a councilman. No one had ever thought of her in connection with witchcraft or the Inquisition. But at dawn Buirmann had directed his assistants to haul her from her house secretly and take her to the Inquisitional offices.
There, she had thought he merely wanted to clear up some vague misunderstanding. He had asked her almost nothing—as if he weren't interested in whether or not she was a witch. Then, quickly, she was dragged to the torture dungeons.
Now she was screaming in total agony, slowly being roasted alive. A victim under that torture didn't die quickly: there were horrible stories told of women who went through twenty- four hours of continuous imprisonment in that instrument of Hell.
Her skin burned and seared with the heat, her body was pierced bloodily by the sharp spikes. Again she threw herself forward, the tight strap biting into her breasts as she tried vainly to escape.
Above, Rosa remained rooted to the spot, the guards watchful of her every move, her eyes pools of horror.
Franz Buirmann, fat and gross, merely stood by and watched, smiling a soft and almost gentle smile.
Dora’s plea rang in her sister’s ears. Buirmann waited and at last Rosa spoke.
“I'll never give in,’’ she said. “I'll never give in to you!”
Buirmann shrugged. “Sooner or later ...” he murmured. He waddled over to the screaming, writhing figure in the red-hot witch-chair. He motioned to his assistants, and one came forward. Buirmann whispered to him and the assistant nodded and went off to a corner of the chamber, to return with a flaming brand. “Perhaps a little more persuasion..." Buirmann murmured, smiling up at Rosa.
A recent historian, going over such records as these, has called Buirmann “surely the most degenerate of all the hundreds of degenerate witch judges in Germany.” Opinion about him during his lifetime was not much different: Hermann Loher, writing during Buirmann’s career, said:
“I would rather be judged by wild animals, would rather fall into a den of lions, wolves and bears.”
Buirmann, the son of a local peasant, had found out very early where his talents lay, and made every intrigue possible to get himself appointed as a witch-judge. Success came easily: the Prince-Archbishop of Cologne was a man in constant need of ready cash, and Buirmann promised to provide it. The estate of any person burnt as a witch was forfeit—Buirmann agreed to take a small piece of any such estate, and hand the rest over to his master. The Prince-Archbishop doesn't seem to have cared too much whether the estates really came from witches or not—as long as the money kept flowing, nothing else was important.
And Buirmann could certainly keep the money flowing. In two visits to Rheinbach and some other small neighboring towns, he condemned and burned alive 150 persons.
Of course, there were objections. Buirmann’s own executioner objected, at last, his conscience revolted by what he had seen and heard. Buirmann had an easy out for that—he simply “discovered” that his executioner was a witch, and had the man burnt.
Other protests were even easier to handle. Buirmann simply ignored the host of complaints which arose from town councilors, from the parish priests, the townspeople and even those of some influence. Weynhart Hartmann, a prominent clergyman, preached a public sermon against Buirmann — and backed down when he himself was instantly accused of witchcraft.
Buirmann simply went on doing exactly as he liked.
The record of his trials is a terrifying compilation of Horror. Such notations as the following are commonplace:
A burgomaster of Rheinbach, Herr Lirtzen, was suddenly accused of witchcraft. Lirtzen suffered under the torture of the leg-vises, and then a special set called the “crocodile jaws,” vises with rows of teeth to tear as they crushed. He was bound to a St. Andrew’s Cross and tortured with metal spikes, and in the end suffered twenty-four hours in the red-hot metal witch chair. Though he never gave a full confession, he was burnt alive in a straw hut, the usual method of execution in that district.
Dr. Schultheis Schweigel, mayor of Rheinbach, had been a leader in the opposition to Buirmann and his methods. Buirmann had, naturally, his standard answer to this: “The man is a witch.” Dr. Schweigel died under torture after seven continuous hours of agony—and his corpse was dragged through the streets and burnt.
Of course, in a case like this one, Buirmann didn't forget his master. Dr. Schweigel had willed his fortune to the poor. Buirmann shrugged and confiscated it, and most of it went straight on to the Prince-Archbishop.
Buirmann himself wasn't really interested in money.
What Buirmann liked was pain.
Men, women, even small children died horribly at his hands in one long carnival of torment. The list swelled and opposition to this monster began to grow—-but Buirmann, using wholesale condemnation as his main weapon, crushed it underfoot and went on.
Christine Boffgen, for instance, had been no more and no less than a respectable housewife of Rheinbach. Buirmann had no case against her, but he had seen her, and that was enough; he wanted her for his own perverse pleasures. There was, of course, no difficulty. He simply denounced the woman as a witch, and, when she denied it, held her for trial. Some of the assessors, the town’s councilmen, really objected to this; Christine was held in high repute, and was well-liked throughout the town. Five of the seven required to attend the trial refused to show up.
Buirmann simply shrugged and went on. The Prince-Archbishop was getting his money, and was too far away in any case to listen to complaints. Buirmann knew he could do exactly what he liked.
Christine went through the farce of a trial denying with vehemence any charge that she might be a witch, Buirmann remanded her for torture, and then went along to “supervise” her torment.
In spite of her protests, his assistants stripped her quickly and, while she struggled in the grasp of these men, she was blindfolded, so that she could not even see what was going to happen to her. Then she was tied to what was called the “torture stool.”
This was simply a hard, backless chair. Her legs were tied to the sides, her arms to the back legs of the chair, and further ropes were wound round her body to keep her motionless. Her breathing was harsh in the smoky, damp room. Seconds passed while Buirmann viewed with satisfaction this latest, trussed victim. She struggled with the ropes, but Buirmann’s assistants had done their job well.
Then he stepped forward with a single, sharp, shining needle. He waited until the panic and terror of his blindfolded victim had reached a peak and then plunged the needle into her soft, helpless flesh.
Christine screamed with the pain. Buirmann stabbed her again with the needle. Blood trickled down her body in little streams as she continued with the gasping, panic-stricken screams. Buirmann went on with his work.
This was known as “pricking,” and went on until the torturer, by sheer luck, found a spot where no blood flowed. Such a spot was held to “prove” witchcraft.
No such spot was found in the hour that followed—but that didn't matter. Christine Boffgen was going to confess to witchcraft, Buirmann was determined. His torments had hardly begun on her.
Next he beckoned to one of his assistants, who came through the smoke of the room with a great metal vise. At Buirmann’s silent command, he placed the vise around Christine’s tied left leg. She shrieked as she felt the cold touch of the metal, knowing what was to come.
Buirmann began to tighten the screws of the vise, crushing the flesh.
Christine, jerking madly on her seat on the torture-stool, was screaming constantly now. Her throat raw with the constant shrieks of agony, she continued to gasp out pleas to her tormentor.
“Ah ... please, make him stop ... I can't stand the pain, let me go, I'm innocent ...”
Buirmann, grinning savagely, tightened the screws a little more. Christine was babbling half-insanely now—but the monster was not satisfied. Another vise was brought.
Now her right leg received the torture!
Her mind one mass of red and terrible agony, Christine, half-fainting, confessed to witchcraft. But when she was released and returned to her cell she somehow found new courage.
“My confession was a lie,” she said. “I spoke only to avoid the hellish pain. I am innocent.”
Buirmann, of course, had an answer to that. “We must get the truth out of her,” he said calmly. “Her interrogation will be continued tomorrow.”
And so the victim was brought back again, naked and helpless, to suffer still more at the hands of this incredible madman. Hours of continuous agony followed, culminating at last in an insane session of torture in the witch-chair.
Without confession, she collapsed in the terrible red-hot spiked chair, and died.
Buirmann shrugged, had her condemned and confiscated her property.
Then he began looking around for someone new... .
This led to Rosa Wiltheis and her lovely ill-fated sister.
Rosa was a pretty young girl of the town. Buirmann saw her and wanted her. But she would have none of him —so, he told himself, he would have to convince her. He didn't want her lovely body broken and useless—but Rosa’s sister Dora, married to a Herr Peller who was a court assessor.
Rosa, he thought, would enjoy watching her sister suffer. It should not take long, he imagined, for her to give in to him, when she saw Dora screaming under his torments. He even had a new idea or two ...
It would be fun, he thought. It would be amusing.
He smiled when he met Rosa that afternoon and told her to come along to his office, where he had a surprise for her. Rosa was reluctant to go at first—but there seemed no harm in acceding to his request, and she had no wish to anger so powerful a man as the witch-judge any more than necessary.
But when she was taken through passageways and corridors in the great chambers which served Buirmann for offices and torture-rooms, and was led to a balcony overlooking the main scene of torment, and saw there two guards dragging out her sister, she screamed.
Buirmann was below now, standing to watch the scene. He smiled up at her. “I thought you might want to change your mind,” he said silkily. “As you see, I've picked a method of persuading you ...”
Dora looked up, too. Her face, tear-stained, was turned toward her sister. “Don't give in to him,” she begged. “No matter what ...”
Buirmann made a brusque order, and Dora, struggling, was stripped there before them all. She bore herself proudly, while Rosa, horrified, stood between two grim guards and could only watch open-mouthed. Buirmann made suddenly one sniggering suggestion, and Rosa paled. Dora, who hadn't heard it, waited in dignity—when Buirmann’s assistant suddenly threw her to the floor with one motion of his hand.
She gasped and cried out, and then, as his full purpose became clear, tried to struggle to her feet—but it was too late.
Sobbing, Dora was dragged to her feet and tied to a pillar in the torture-chamber. The torment began. Rosa, her sister’s words ringing in her ears, refused again to surrender to the monster. Buirmann smiled, shrugged and gave his orders to the assistants.
At first whips were used, metal whips with barbs at the ends to rip through the tender skin of the woman. Soon Dora was shrieking in mad agony, pleading with Buirmann to stop her torment, her body shuddering with waves of pain. But the whips continued to fall. Rosa was screaming, too, half insane with watching her sister’s torment—though somehow her own determination held out while Buirmann smiled at her.
Dora fainted in her bonds. Perhaps Rosa hoped for an end to the torment now—but Buirmann, instead, gave a signal and, with buckets of water, the poor victim was awakened.
She stared round at her torturers hopelessly, her body sagging in its bonds, her breasts messed cruelly against the stone pillar to which she was tied. Blood stained her skin.
Buirmann signaled again and Dora was untied. She was half-carried across the room to the witch-chair!
Her torture had begun at two in the afternoon. At midnight, wholly insane, she died screaming.
Rosa had fainted before that, mercifully. Buirmann waited for her to awaken and then, leaning over her with a leer, asked her if she had reconsidered.
“Monster!” she gasped. “I'll never submit to you—never!”
“Perhaps,” Buirmann said gently, “you require to be convinced ... personally.”
Rosa shuddered. Her sister’s mortal agony was horribly vivid in her mind. She pictured herself going through the same torments ...
Buirmann smiled, watching her. There was, he knew, only one possible answer.
“I—I'll do what you say,” the girl stammered.
But Franz Buirmann could not long enjoy his life of evil.
In spite of his great power, in spite of the fact that he continued to be supported in all cases by the needy Prince-Archbishop, whose coffers Buirmann filled with money from his victims, there was one thing he could not buy off.
Gross, fat, far gone in debauchery and perversion, the witch-judge was ripe for death—and death found him soon after his last visit to the towns under his control. He is reported to have died shrieking his fear that the Devil had come for him—as perhaps the Devil had.
Certainly no one was more worthy of a personal visit from His Satanic Majesty—or more suitable for an eternal position in Hell. His reputation continues to this day, in books by such historians as Robbins, Lea, Neiderhans and others—and the memory of his victims is still fresh in the towns he controlled.
Rosa Wiltheis and her sister Dora sleep in graves clearly marked with the circumstances of their horrible and shameful deaths—as do many others who fell victim to the cruel lusts of the mad witch judge.
Christine Boffgen is remembered, too—remembered by a yearly Mass which continues to this day in her native city. The prayers in that Mass are for the repose of her soul: Buirmann isn't mentioned in them.
But the townspeople haven't forgotten him. In their hearts they pray for Franz Buirmann, too—and their prayers may even be answered. Because they pray that Buirmann experience, in whatever Hell he now inhabits, all that he made his victims suffer, all of the torments in which he took such pleasure, day after day—from now until eternity.