The Bizarre Crucifixion of Margaretta Peter: The Short Life of a Prodigy and Devoted Christian
Margaretta Peter was a Swiss woman who lived during the 19 th century. As a child, Margaretta was considered to have been a prodigy and was particularly noted for her religious zeal. As she grew up, however, Margaretta’s intense religious passion turned into a dangerous delusion, culminating in her own crucifixion and death at the age of 28.
The bizarre story of Margaretta Peter is found in Historic Oddities and Strange Events, which is a collection of tales published in 1891 by Sabine Baring-Gould, an Anglican priest. Incidentally, Baring-Gould was a prolific writer and is remembered especially for his hymns, the best-known of which being ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’. The tale of Margaretta Peter in Baring-Gould’s anthology is entitled ‘A Swiss Passion Play’, a reference to the dramatic presentation of the Passion of Christ by Christian denominations during the season of Lent.
Sabine Baring-Gould, an Anglican priest. (Quadell / Public Domain)
Margarette Peter’s Early Life
Margaretta Peter was born on Christmas Day in 1794, in the ‘insignificant hamlet of Wildisbuch’, not far from the northern Swiss town of Schaffhausen. Margaretta’s father John was a widower and the girl had several older siblings – a brother by the name of Caspar and four sisters, Barbara, Susanna, Elizabeth, and Magdalena. As a child, Margaretta was considered to be a prodigy. At school, she was notable for ‘her aptitude in learning’, while in church she was noticed for her devotion. This enthusiasm for the Christian faith impressed even the local pastor when he was preparing her for her confirmation.
Margaretta is said to have been reading the Bible by the time she was six years old and summoned her family to hear her sermons. The girl’s forceful personality exerted a gripping influence on her family and allowed her to dominate her older siblings. As an example, Margaretta’s father, even after his daughter’s crucifixion and death, would declare his firm belief that his daughter was ‘set apart by God for some extraordinary purpose’.
Margarette’s Dramatic Change
Margaretta’s personality went through a radical change after 1816. In that year, the young woman was invited by her maternal uncle, a small farmer in the nearby town of Rudolfingen, to work as his housekeeper. While staying with her uncle, Margaretta came into contact with the Pietists, a fundamentalist movement within Lutheranism. Having attended the prayer meetings of this movement, Margaretta became depressed and this change in her personality that was quickly noticed by her siblings. When asked by them about it, Margaretta’s reply was that ‘God was revealing Himself to her more and more every day, so that she became daily more conscious of her own sinfulness’.
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Haugean Pietist Conventicle. Painting by Adolph Tidemand, 1852.(Jorunn / Public Domain)
In 1817, Margaretta returned to her home and began to preach the Word of God. While Margaretta was away, the Peter family had hired three new servants – Heinrich Ernst, Ursula Kundig, and Margaret Jaggli, all of whom became Margaretta’s devoted disciples. In the next three years, Margaretta’s preaching drew many from around the area to Wildisbuch. Margaretta, however, was not content with this and in 1820 decided to preach her message to the rest of Switzerland. As she wandered across the country, people from all over Switzerland were drawn to her.
In 1822, Margaretta and her sister Elizabeth went missing and after months of searching by the police the two women re-appeared on their own on the 8 th of January 1823. After her return, Margaretta’s behavior became more bizarre than ever. She secluded herself in her room with her sister where the two read the Bible and prayed continuously. Margaretta also began to speak about the Devil warning her followers that his forces were loose in the world. Margaretta believed that she was the only one standing between the Devil and the rest of humanity.
Luther's translation of the Bible, from 1534. (Torsten Schleese / Public Domain)
The Fight with The Devil
In March 1823, Margaretta summoned her followers to her father’s house, where they prepared themselves for the final battle with the Devil. Margaretta proclaimed that Napoleon’s son, the Duke of Reichstadt, would declare himself as the anti-Christ and that the final battle would soon commence. Jaggli, who was epileptic, had a seizure and Margaretta declared that she was having a vision of Napoleon’s spirit marching against her with an army. Therefore, she ordered her followers to take up any weapon they can find and to fight this ‘army’. Margaretta’s followers obeyed, and for three hours, attacked the furniture, walls, and the floor of her room.
After destroying her room, Margaretta and her followers went to rest downstairs. After about an hour, Margaretta ordered them to beat themselves, which they did. Eventually, the police were alerted by the commotion caused and came to investigate. The men and women were detained in separate rooms of the house and some of the followers were dispatched home. In the meantime, Margaretta continued to rouse the religious fervor of the women she was with and prepared for her final battle with the anti-Christ.
Somehow, Margaretta and her remaining followers were able to return to her room, where the tools used during the previous ‘battle’ were left. Margaretta asked if any of her followers were prepared to die for salvation. Elizabeth declared that she was willing to do so and started beating herself. Margaretta, however, took a hammer and hit her sister’s head, an example that was followed by the rest of the people in the room. As a result, Elizabeth was bludgeoned to death. This was still not enough, and Margaretta announced that she too must die in order to save the world. Margaretta ordered her followers to crucify her, promising that she would rise from the dead three days later.
Although they were initially reluctant to do so, Margaretta’s followers eventually crucified her, though it was a blow to her head that finally killed her. Three days later, Margaretta did not rise from the dead much to the disappointment of her followers. Another day or two passed before Margaretta’s father went into the town to tell the pastor about Margaretta and Elizabeth’s deaths. On the 3 rd of December 1823, those responsible for the deaths of Margaretta and Elizabeth were put on trial and given prison sentences. Margaretta’s house was razed in order to prevent it from becoming a pilgrimage site, though some Pietists were able to visit it before its destruction.
Depicting the crucifixion. (exclusive-design / Adobe)
Top image: Crucifixion. Source: meryll / Adobe.
Baring-Gould, S., 1891. Historic Oddities and Strange Events. London: Methuen & Co.
essemee, 2014. Wednesday Weirdness Roundup: Bring out Your Dead. [Online] Available at: https://swallowingthecamel.me/2014/07/16/wednesday-weirdness-roundup-bring-out-your-dead/
historycollection.co, 2019. These 10 Remarkable and Bizarre Crimes from History Make Modern Day Criminals Look Tame. [Online] Available at: https://historycollection.co/10-remarkable-bizarre-crimes-history-look-modern-day-criminals-look-tame/7/
Vitelli, R., 2017. The Crucifixion of Margaretta Peter (Part One). [Online] Available at: https://drvitelli.typepad.com/providentia/2017/10/the-case-of-margaretta-peter.html
Vitelli, R., 2017. The Crucifixion of Margaretta Peter (Part Two). [Online] Available at: drvitelli.typepad.com/providentia/2017/10/the-crucifixion-of-margaretta-peter.html