Witchcraft, witch doctors and the fight against
‘superstition’ in nineteenth-century Germany
The Most Esteemed Royal Government may commonly find these beliefs in
witches and ghosts, in the devil and his supposed manifestations everywhere
among the educated and the uneducated, in the province of Prussia and in
all others of this state and all states. Even in most recent times, witch-hunts
have occurred in the Regierungsbezirk [administrative sub-unit within a
Prussian province] of Coeslin, in the area of Bütow and, before that, near
Peplin and in the Marks, as documented examples of the difficulties of
exterminating a madness perpetuated and continued by tradition.
The above quotation is taken from a lengthy report written by von Platen, the Landrat or administrative head of Neustadt district, West Prussia, to a government minister in 1836.2 It concerned the murder of Christina Ceinowa, a mother of six, who had long been suspected of witchcraft by her neighbours. The widow had been drowned in the waters off the Prussian Baltic peninsula of Hela on 4 August 1836. She had received terrible mistreatment at the hands of eight fishermen from the small village of Ceinowo, led by the so-called witch doctor Stanislaus Kaminski, who had made them subject her to a water test. The fishermen were absolutely convinced that because of her bewitchment one of the villagers was actually possessed by the devil. Because of this, they had imprisoned Ceinowa, a lay healer, on the day before, beaten her with clubs, tied her up and thrown her into the Baltic Sea. When she stayed afloat for some time, probably because of her voluminous skirts, their suspicions were confirmed: Christina Ceinowa really was a witch, and obviously responsible for the grave illness of the fisherman Johann Konkel. The fishermen involved gave her a day and a night to take back the bewitchment. When the allotted time was up and Konkel was still no better, they once again threw her into the sea, where she finally drowned while Kaminski stabbed her.
It was the Prussian Minister of the Interior, Rochow, horrified at reading this, who underlined the words and phrases in the above quotation. Additionally, he marked the passage by a large question mark in the margins. He