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True crime. Casually done.

Margaretta Peter vs the Devil

“It’s all in God’s plan.”

That’s a phrase I’ve heard rolled out a thousand times to help us make sense of all the horrors of the world. The thing that gets me with that though, is that one glance at the Old Testament is enough to convince me I want nothing to do with the Alpha and Omega’s plans — guy’s messed up more lives than every serial killer we’ve covered combined

And thankfully for the world of true crime, some of his most ardent followers have done their very best to follow his divine example. In this episode, we’re traveling to Switzerland, the country which has blessed us with one of the most outlandish religious murder cases in history.

This is the story of Margaretta Peter, a 19th-century female preacher who makes today’s crooked televangelists look positively saintly by comparison. The cult which she gathered around herself proved themselves so fanatically dedicated, they were willing to die (and kill) for their beloved messiah…

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Christ Reborn

Margaretta Peter was born — like her main man Jesus Christ — on Christmas Day. It was the year 1794, in the village of Wildensbuch, Switzerland (near Zurich). Margaretta was the youngest of six, with four older sisters and a brother. Her mother tragically passed away shortly after she was born.

Despite being the baby the bunch, little Margaretta always appeared wise beyond her years. From the age of six, she would demand that her family gather around in the dining room, to hear her deliver religious sermons. Her father soon noticed that his youngest had a talent for all that fire and brimstone malarkey.

He was raising his kids according to his own Zwinglian Protestant faith, and came to believe that Margaretta was a blessing from the lord, sent to lead the family — no, the world to salvation. No pressure little Maggie.

This fostered quite a pushy personality in the young messiah, which helped her to rope in her very first followers before she had even hit her teens. Aside from her doting family, neighbors would also come around regularly to hear her signature spin on the word of God. As is often the case, she was focussed more on the threats of damnation, rather than the peace and love side of things.

In 1816, Margaretta, now in her early twenties, moved in with her uncle in the town of Rudolfingen, to work as his housekeeper. It was in that town that she first came into contact with a new kind of Christianity, called Pietism. These eccentric biblical fundamentalists invited the young woman to their study meet-ups, where she gained a new perspective on this world of sin. In short, it was a tad mental.

The Pietists believed in speaking in tongues and receiving visions from God — far from the standard psalm and sing-song Christianity I grew up with.  These radical bible bashers had already stirred up some trouble with the authorities in Switzerland and abroad, due to their aggressive evangelism. But even they would soon be looking to distance themselves from this fresh-faced prophetess in their midst. 

When Maggie returned home after a year, she seemed different — as if the joy of her faith was gone. She spent more and more time sitting alone, ruminating on the wickedness of the world. She told her family that: ’God was revealing Himself to her more and more every day, so that she became daily more conscious of her own sinfulness’.

After being kicked out of another prayer group for reporting heavenly visions that didn’t sit right with the leader’s beliefs, she decided to start her own fundamentalist circle. She started leading sessions at the family home, and as news of her prodigious preaching spread, more and more followers flooded through the door. 

Maggie’s ego grew with her flock, and in her early twenties, she declared herself a full-blown prophet of the Almighty. Her visions became ever more vivid, showing that the world was nearing judgement day, and only she could deliver her followers from evil. 

Her sermons grew ever more frenzied, ever more unhinged…

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She’s Not the Messiah (She’s a Very Naughty Girl)

Margaretta Peter is naughty girl

Her most dedicated new followers were a trio of servants, who her father had hired in her absence: Ursula, Heinrich, and Margaret Jaggli. Along with her sisters, they would make up her core group of apostles. Jaggli hoped that Margaretta would be able to cure her epilepsy, but she ended up more of a prop than a patient — someone prone to fits of convulsions could add a bit of flavor to a sermon on possessions and prophecies.

 ps the most dedicated follower of all was Ursula. She’s quoted claiming that: “Christ revealed Himself in the flesh through her, and that through her many thousands of souls were saved.”

To make that dream a reality, she even joined Margaretta in traveling around the country, along with her sister Elizabeth. From 1820 onwards, the trio would take regular trips to towns far and wide, spreading Maggie’s doctrine to the people of Switzerland. Everywhere she went, she would gain new groups of rabid devotees. 

But, much like the 1st century Romans, the Swiss authorities were none too happy having what they believed to be a religious nutjob roaming the countryside. They kept close tabs on the Peter household, and in 1821 they banned the meetings altogether. 

That wasn’t enough to stop Margaretta. She kept up her holy mission, and later that year travelled to the town of Illnau. There, she and her sister were welcomed into the home of a shoemaker named Jakob Morf. Despite the fact Jakob was already married, he and Margaretta became extremely close.

Letters were later uncovered, in which the prophetess promised that she and Jakob would one day sit on a heavenly throne together, after their ascension. Meanwhile his actual wife was left on the sidelines saying “Hello, not dead yet.” 

Reports on what happened next differ. Some say that it’s impossible two know whether Maggie and Jakob did the dirty deed, while others claim that she actually gave birth to his kid after staying there for a year and a half (despite celibacy being a core part of her teachings). A hypocritical preacher? Surely not — I’ve never heard of such a thing…

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Whatever went down between the two, Margaretta left in a hurry in 1822. She pretty much dropped off the radar of the police at this point, but not because she had thrown in the towel; she and Elizabeth locked themselves in the upper chambers of the family home. The two did little other than sleep, pray, fast, repeat — for months on end. 

Perhaps her failure to practice what she preached drove her into deeper fits of mania. When she eventually began emerging from her room in early 1823, Margaretta’s preaching was more apocalyptic than ever. She claimed she had received visions detailing the end of the world, and surprise surprise: it was coming soon.

Seems like that’s what all cult leaders claim when they’re running low on ideas…

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Maggie’s Inferno

Inferno

Things must have seemed pretty bleak for the faithful of Wildensbuch. Not only was the world about to end, but God had chosen Margaretta to defend humanity against Satan himself. And by this point, she was a few psalms short of a hymn book. However, if any of her flock were concerned about the way things were headed, they didn’t dare say it out loud. 

Throughout January and February, she regularly descended to the living room, and shared her prophecies with the small congregation. These included the revelation that Napoleon Bonaparte’s son, the Duke of Reichstadt, would imminently declare himself the antichrist (how ridiculous — everyone knows that’s Obama). 

At the same time, the rest of the Peter family started reporting horrifying visions of the future. Margareta’s hold over her suggestible siblings spread throughout her entire flock, and soon she had dozens of followers convinced that the end was nigh…

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On Wednesday, March 12th, Margaretta gathered them all together in her home for what would be her biggest spectacle yet. While the sermon was in full flow, her disciple Margaret Jaggli is said to have gotten a fright from a loud pop in the fireplace, triggering an epileptic fit. This was the tinder that lit a bonfire of religious mania. 

Maggie P then claimed to have a vision of Napoleon himself marching upon them with a demonic army, coming to claim the afflicted woman’s soul. She cried out: “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.”  

With the demonic hordes fast approaching, Margaretta demanded that her followers bar the doors and windows of the house, and let nobody in. Once they were barricaded from the forces of evil outside, she ordered her holy army to grab whatever weapons they could find: fire pokers, chairs, hatchets. Hard to see how they hoped to defeat Napoleon and a horde of demons, but top marks for tenacity. 

Fully armed with random household objects, they retreated to Margaretta’s attic bedroom, and locked the door. Once inside, she cried out that the demons had made it inside, and started wildly smashing apart the furniture. Her followers followed suit, swinging their weapons around the room in a frenzy, and trashing everything in sight. That madness went on for three full hours. Three hours of grown adults battling imaginary demons.

Now, I’ve never read the Book of Revelation, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t describe the Battle of Armageddon as ‘a couple-dozen Swiss nut jobs trashing a farmhouse’. I could be wrong though…

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After the invisible demonic hordes were cleared from the bedroom, the gang of crazed crusaders pushed on downstairs. After taking an hour or so to catch their breath in the living room, Margaretta asked them if they were willing to bleed for God. Unsurprisingly, they were game.

She ordered them to start beating themselves with their fists and weapons — the more they bled, the more powerful they would be against the forces of darkness. What began as a slightly off-the-wall prayer group had devolved into a Sunday school for sadists. If anyone got tired and tried to take a rest, Margaretta would have the others gang up on them until they kept smacking the sin out of themselves.

As you can imagine, all of this made a pretty big racket, so a crowd of villagers gathered around the house shortly after it began. It’s said that the bizarre battle inside knocked a plank of wood from an outer wall, and gave them a view of what was going down inside. The messiah denounced these concerned neighbors as agents of Satan, there to sabotage the ritual.

Satan’s minions watched on in confusion as Margaretta handed out some divinely-sanctioned beat-downs on her sister Elizabeth, then her father, and all the rest of the congregation. All of whom consented to it in the name of God…

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Consent or no consent, all of that was very, highly illegal. Not least because the prophetess was supposed to be banned from holding these little gatherings in the first place. Some of the townspeople eventually fetched the police, who broke down the door and called a halt to the whole calamity. 

Since they had already softened themselves up nicely, it didn’t take much wrestling to get the weapons away from the zealots. The cops then separated the men and women into two separate rooms. The male detainees were left to simmer down without the influence of their messiah, but Margaretta kept the women simmering away.

The majority of the guys were dismissed and sent home,  and with that the police believed they had defused the situation, and took off. Back at their office, they began proceedings to have Elizabeth and Margaretta committed to an insane asylum. 

But this messiah still had one last miracle to perform before morning…

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The Horror of Wildensbuch 

Had everyone just sensibly went to bed after the police left, it’s unlikely that we’d still be talking about the story today, but that wasn’t to be. After the crowds dispersed and her dominion over the household was restored, Margaretta summoned the remaining followers — including her father and sisters — upstairs.

She insisted they continue their sadistic frenzy to ward off evil. When her brother arrived at the house to check what the hell was happening, she attacked him with a metal wedge, and he had to be carried downstairs by their father. At that point, Margaretta was struck with another vision: the ghost of her mother appeared, and insisted Margaretta sacrifice herself, so that the world could be saved.

Her followers were a bit taken aback by the idea, but eventually began to come around. However, Elizabeth wouldn’t hear it. Truly believing Saint Maggie to be the savior of mankind, she asked to be killed in her place. She began beating herself again, but Margareta was about to up the ante. She smacked her sister in the head with a hammer, sending her tumbling to the ground in spasms. 

The servant Ursula leapt in, and another of the followers after her. Together they beat poor Elizabeth to death right there on the floor. When the mob backed off, her twisted, broken body lay in a crumpled heap. 

That wasn’t enough for the Almighty though — Margaretta knew that he demanded a bigger sacrifice. (Which meant she’d just bludgeoned her big sis to death for nothing). So she asked herself, what would Jesus do? The answer was pretty simple: “More blood must flow. I have pledged myself for the saving of many souls. I must die now. You must crucify me.”

Her followers exchanged a few awkward glances — ‘Sorry, did she just say crucify?’. That was a bit too hardcore, even for them. The messiah sensed their trepidation, and said “it is better that I should die than that thousands of souls should perish,” then smacked herself in the skull with the hammer, just to prove how super serious she was.

At that point, the servant Heinrich wisely noped out of there, while the rest of the mob gathered nails and planks of wood downstairs. Some were still skeptical about killing their leader — perhaps the twisted corpse of Elizabeth had given them a bit of a reality check. But Margaretta was a master at dragging people deep into mass mania; she promised that both she and Elizabeth would be resurrected in three days’ time.

So the disciples went about forming the wood into a crude crucifix. They then drove thick nails through Margaretta’s hands and feet, pinning her to the cross. After that, they hammered some through her elbows and breasts. All the while, the willing victim encouraged her killers on — it seemed like her delusions gave Margaretta a superhuman tolerance for pain.

The group then lifted the cross from the floor, and mounted it on the wall, leaving Margaretta to hang there while they joined hands in prayer. If you’ve read your Bible, you’ll know that crucifixion is by no means a quick way to die. We don’t know exactly how long Margaretta hung there for, only that the pain eventually grew too much to bear.

She asked that they stab her through the heart to put an end to her suffering. However, the disciples weren’t too handy with a knife, so they botched the job. Their next best idea was to grab the hammer and a crowbar, and bludgeon Margaretta around the head until she was dead. 

The less time you spend imagining the visuals of those last few passages, the better…

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But her followers weren’t phased. Still believing that Margaretta Peter would rise from the dead in three days, the congregation — including her own father — gathered around the bodies to pray. After that, they went downstairs, and enjoyed a dinner like nothing happened.

One of the police officers returned in the middle of the meal, to serve documents summoning the group to court. He left completely unaware that the brutally beaten corpses of two young women were hidden in the attic. 

Three days passed, with all of the remaining followers eagerly anticipating the glorious resurrection of the dead girls. When the time of the prophecy came, they went back upstairs to welcome the messiah back to earth. But all they found were a pair of corpses, well into the early stages of decomposition. Things were not looking particularly promising.

If the two women were to come back to life, their skulls would be pretty messed up — not a pretty sight at all. Still, it was easier to believe that there were some delays on heaven’s side, than accept they had savagely killed two people for absolutely no reason. So the congregation kept faith. They tried removing the nails from the body, in case that’s what was holding things up. 

But another day passed, then another. Margaretta still refused to revive herself, and the stench was getting pretty bad. After five days of letting the two women rot in the attic, it was time to face the music; they were not coming back. 

So Margaretta’s father walked into the middle of town, and reported the deaths to the pastor…

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Wrap Up

From that day forward, the manic tragedy of Margaretta Peter entered the realm of local folklore, known as The Horror of Wildensbuch. The followers who remained at the house that night were brought before a magistrate on December 3rd, 1823 — 11 of them in total. Ursula Kundig received the longest sentence: 16 years. Her unwavering loyalty meant that she followed her leader’s commands the most viciously of all.

The rest got sentences from 6 months to 8 years, depending on their level of involvement. The father, Johannes Peter, was sentenced to 8 years. Even after being convicted for his role in murdering two of his own children, he refused to renounce his beliefs. He maintained that Margaretta was “set apart by God for some extraordinary purpose”. Well I guess we’ll never know mate, because you let some maniacs crucify her in your home…

It just goes to show that there’s no reasoning with a cultist. It’s often a fine line between faith and fanaticism, and given the right circumstances, it’s easy for some people to fall far over the wrong side. So the next time you’re stuck in a boring church sermon, just be thankful your pastor isn’t ordering you to beat your parents to cast Napoleon back to hell.

I’d like to finish up with a reminder that I’m not hating on Christianity with anything said in today’s episode — I’m well aware the vast majority of believers aren’t planning on smashing anyone’s skulls. The actual culprit here is most likely our old friend: undiagnosed mental illness, coupled with a fascinating case of mass hysteria.

Because of one young woman’s struggle with very real demons, that nobody understood at the time, she was ensnared by violent delusions that ultimately led to her untimely death, at just 27 years old. Although she promised salvation, in the end Margaretta Peter brought sheer, hellish horror to the small Swiss village of Wildensbuch.

But not to worry though. It’s all in God’s plan.

Peace be with you.

Dismembered Appendices

1. The main version of the Margaretta Peter narrative (and the source of our quotes) was recorded in an 1891 book called Historic Oddities and Strange Events, by Anglican priest Sabine Baring-Gould (the guy who wrote ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ — what a banger). That’s a pretty significant time gap, so it’s very possible that some details might have been morphed and added over the years. For example, some reports say that they never trashed the house, just bashed some wooden planks with tools. Still mental, just less so.

2. If you’re thinking about visiting the site of Margaretta’s demonic siege, Dark Tourist style, forget about it. The house was burned down shortly after these events, to prevent her disciples and other Pietists from turning it into a pilgrimage site. The last thing the neighbors needed was more of that lot smashing up the town.

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