Common section

Dealing with slander German-style

Witchcraft defamation cases still found their way to court during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century; if anything they probably increased. Nearly all of them were brought by German immigrants or members of Pennsylvania’s well-established German community. This reflected developments back in the homeland where insult laws introduced by the legislature of the recently united Germany were bolstered during the 1870s. These Imperial German defamation laws focused on the preservation of personal honour at all levels of society, and encouraged the working classes to resort to the courts for petty slander in their thousands. Malicious slander intended to sully a person’s reputation, even amongst a small circle of people, was punishable with imprisonment. It was a criminal offence to defame the memory of a dead person.58 This was different from British and American common law where slander was treated as a civil not a criminal offence and usually required evidence of material injury to the plaintiff. The insult laws introduced in the 1870s led to a huge increase in defamation proceedings in Germany, much to the chagrin and annoyance of judges and magistrates. They wrote of their exasperation as the courts clogged up with defamation cases deriving from gossip, idle tongues, and petty squabbles. One Berlin newspaper complained in 1913 that defamation suits ‘poison the social climate of small towns more than all other lawsuits’.59

The American slander laws gave Germans the opportunity to pursue this new litigious custom. German was sometimes also the language in which the cases were conducted, such as the suit brought by Mary Ann Swartz of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in 1915, against Alice Honshour, who had declared publicly in German, ‘Mary Ann Swartz is a witch. She has bewitched me and I cannot get well’.60

As to the sums involved, Swartz demanded $5,000. Annie Lukach, who brought a slander suit against Susie Malarik before the Hammond superior court, Chicago, in 1918, asked for $2,000 in damages. Malarik had said, ‘That woman is a witch and possessed of supernatural powers by compact with evil spirits and the devil and is a dangerous woman’. She also accused Lukach of bewitching her son to death. A year earlier, Mrs John Dissinger of Auburn, Pennsylvania, demanded $20,000 from her neighbour Augustus Sigfried, for accusing her of bewitching one of his sons.61 Emma Hollenbach, who we heard about earlier, requested $10,000 to compensate for her loss of business. These are huge sums and may seem like crazy opportunism. As we have seen, though, the financial and social consequences of witchcraft accusations were serious. In this light, the sums involved seem reasonable.

The workings of common law and its Americanized versions meant that the outcome of such suits was usually less than satisfactory. The old legal issues continued to be raised, as we can see from a slander trial heard before a Cincinnati court in 1877. Judge William Ledyard Avery presided over the case. The defendant J.C. Bruckman was accused of saying of the plaintiff John Ziegler: ‘He is a damn son of------; I am going to kill him, the accursed wizard. Look up! There walks the wizard who bewitched my sister in law’. Avery deliberated on whether the words were actionable, and evidently resorted to Viner’s General Abridgment of Law and Equity in search of precedents. He concluded that the only actionable words were those that concerned accusations of offences punishable by law or the attribution of a disease that would lead to a plaintiff’s exclusion from society. ‘There walks the wizard who bewitched my sister in law’ constituted neither of these. It was mere abuse, not slander. Avery ruled in Bruckman’s favour leaving Ziegler to pay costs.62

The slander suit brought before a Jersey City civil court in February 1885 by Frederick Weissing and his wife Theresa, of Union Hill, New Jersey, went the same way. They sought damages for slander after a neighbour named Louisa Schrick told neighbours that Theresa was a witch and had put a fatal spell on one of her daughters who had died of convulsions. Theresa was ostracized and children ran away from her as she walked down the street. The District Court was packed to hear Judge Randolph give his judgment. After Theresa Weissing and her witnesses had given their testimony, the Judge opened a musty old volume of the Laws of the State of New Jersey and read out a relevant passage from the act of 1796, namely that: ‘no prosecution, suit or proceeding, shall be commenced or carried on in any court of this State, against any person for conjuration, witchcraft, sorcery or inchantment, or for charging another with any such offence’. Randolph did not trouble himself with the niceties of the slander laws as Ledyard Avery had done. In his opinion the 1796 New Jersey legislation meant that witchcraft could not be recognized by the courts no matter the context. He dismissed the suit.63

Making a civil claim for slander was not the only legal avenue for pursuing defamation, though. Various state and city ordinances provided opportunities. In 1883 a Mrs Snyder of Scranton, Pennsylvania, was accused by Mrs Sarah Kochert of bewitching her daughter to death. Instead of suing for slander, Snyder, perhaps following legal advice, instituted a suit under a Scranton city ordinance prohibiting insulting language. This brought a fine of between one and twenty-five dollars for anyone found guilty of‘loud, boisterous, or insulting language, tending to excite a breach of the peace’.64 Another victim of accusations from Detroit adopted a similar strategy. In 1917 John Burcicki was fined $50 for accusing Mary Biskupa of being a witch and having bewitched his sauerkraut. The lawyer acting on Biskupa’s behalf, Charles Turic, said he had taken on the case to prevent future outbreaks of ‘superstitious fears’ amongst Detroit’s Polish community.65 It is likely that Burcicki was prosecuted under a Michigan statute of 1897 that prohibited using ‘indecent, immoral, obscene, or insulting language in the presence of any woman or child... within the limits of any township, village, or city in the state of Michigan’. The penalty was a fine of up to $100.66 A similar outcome happened in 1899 to resolve a dispute concerned two German farming families living in Pleasant Hill Township, Minnesota. The accused witch was Carl Kinstler (1839— 1906) and his accuser was his son-in-law Albert Pappenfiiss (1865-1951) who had married Matilda Kinstler in 1889. The two families had emigrated from Pomerania, on the Baltic Germany coast, in the 1880s. Kinstler apparently enjoyed a reputation for magical skill, but when he decided to divide his property amongst his children, discord was sown and his reputation soured. After Carl had visited the Pappenfiiss farm on several occasions their turkeys began to die, their pigs fell sick, their horse collapsed, and one of their young sons was taken ill. Albert publicly accused his father-in-law of witchcraft. Kinstler went to Justice C.F. Dykeman at Richmond and asked for a warrant for the arrest of Albert and Matilda for having circulated slanderous reports of his witchery. Dykeman informed him that ‘the Minnesota penal code did not cover cases of that kind’. Frustrated, Kinstler returned later and charged them with ‘abusive language tending to cause a breach of the peace’. Dykeman duly proceeded with the case, and the Pappenfusses were brought to court, where the proceedings were conducted in German as Carl spoke no English. One of them was found guilty, but because it was a family matter Dykeman imposed only a nominal penalty and sent them away with some strong advice as to their future conduct.67

Pursuing this path did not bring any payments for damages, but the aim, as in most slander cases, was to silence the harmful accusations rather than receive financial compensation. If the resort to the courts was too expensive, frightening, or frustrating then magic was always a private alternative. The popular nineteenth- century American book of German charms, the Long Lost Friend, fittingly provided a ‘good remedy against calumniation or slander’:

If you are calumniated or slandered to your very skin, to your very flesh, to your very bones, cast it back upon the false tongues. Take off your shirt, and turn it wrong side out, and then run your two thumbs along your body, close under the ribs, starting at the pit of the heart down to the thighs.68

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