We may never know for certain what it was that drove saintly Margaretta over the edge from religious mania to full-blown delusion.
Based on the testimony of her family members and followers who were holed up with her in the Peter house in that fateful week in 1823, Margaretta's enthusiastic prayers and fasting convinced her believers that something amazing was about to happen. Even if one or two of them were less than convinced about her holy mission, they didn't seem inclined to argue with the others.
Eventually, Margaretta gathered her disciples around her and reportedly said, "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." Her suggestible sister Elizabeth promptly announced that she saw them as well. She then began to prophesy that the son of Napoleon, the Duke of Reichstadt, would soon announce himself as the Antichrist and that the Final Battle would then begin.
After making this prophecy, Margaretta went into a wild frenzy and began smashing furniture and attacking walls with a hammer. It was at this point that the maid, Margaret Jaggli, went into convulsions which Margaretta took as a divine sign. She cried out that, "I see in spirit the old Napoleon gathering a mighty host, and marching against me. The contest will be terrible. You must wrestle unto blood. Go! fly! fetch me axes, clubs, whatever you can find. Bar the doors, curtain all the windows in the house, and close every shutter."
Margaretta's followers followed her instructions and gathered in her bedroom with all the tools they could find in the house. Some of them would report afterward to seeing divine visions themselves due to their leader's fanaticism. She told everyone to start smashing everything in the room until she told them to stop. Which they promptly did for the next three hours straight. If any one of them slowed down due to fatigue, Margaretta told that person to "strike him! cut him down! the old adversary! the arch-fiend! whoso loseth his life shall find it. Fear nothing! smite till your blood runs down as sweat."
Even as this was happening, a large crowd had gathered outside the Peter house, likely drawn there by the noise. So great was the hammering going on inside that part of the wall of the house fall away. This allowed them to see Margaretta and her followers carrying out their destruction. As for Saint Margaretta herself, she saw the watching crowd and denounced them as "enemies of God."
Once the room was completely destroyed, Margaretta led her exhausted followers downstairs to recover in the relatively intact sitting-room. But only for an hour or so, which was when she ordered her worshipers to beat themselves. And they did. The only exception was Margaretta's sister Elizabeth who asked her sister to beat her instead. As before, whenever anyone began to tire, she ordered them to strike harder. Even her father wasn't exempted and, after his enthusiasm flagged, his saintly daughter began pummeling him herself.
Eventually the local police decided to investigate what was happening and broke into the house since no one would allow them inside. Margaretta went into hysterics at seeing the police invading her sacred space but, after considerable wrangling, everyone was detained in separate rooms of the house. Not separated from the other women, Margaretta continued to rouse them into religious fervour while the men slowly settled down. Though the order was eventually passed down that Margaretta and Elizabeth should be sent to an asylum, it would prove to be too late.
Though some of the followers had been dispatched home, most were still present when Margaretta assembled the remaining family members in the upper room of the house. The tools used to destroy the room were still lying there and Margaretta began preaching the need for a final battle to defeat the Antichrist. When her brother, Caspar, came to the house at the request of the police, Margaretta attacked him with one of the tools. Finally intervening, her father stopped her and then carried his injured son downstairs. As a result, he missed what happened next.
Upstairs, Margaretta asked the ones still remaining if they were willing to die for salvation. Elizabeth promptly declared that she was and began beating herself but Margaretta, not satisfied with this effort, struck her sister in the head with a hammer. The others, apparently inspired by this example, promptly helped beat Elizabeth to death. Afterward, Margaretta told the others: "More blood must flow. I have pledged myself for the saving of many souls. I must die now. You must crucify me."
Even with Elizabeth's dead body at their feet, the followers were reluctant to follow Margaretta's orders. Insisting that "it is better that I should die than that thousands of souls should perish," she struck herself in the head with a hammer and then ordered the others to gather wood and nails. Though the manservant Heinrich promptly fled the scene, the others proceeded to nail Margaretta's hands and feet to blocks of wood and then mounted her on the wall. Margaretta seemed completely immune to pain even as she was being crucified and insisted that she would raise herself and Elizabeth three days after her death. Only after ordering them to beat in her skull did she finally die.
Caught up in the bizarre religious delusion that had led them to commit murder, the remaining followers then quietly went downstairs to dinner. A policeman came by and had Margaret's father sign a writ guaranteeing that they all appear before the magistrate. Nobody mentioned that Margaretta and Elizabeth were dead upstairs and the policeman promptly left. Three days later, with nobody outside the house being aware of what had happened, Ursula and Heinrich went upstairs to remove the nails from Margaretta's body. If they had been hoping that this would hasten her resurrection, they were disappointed. Only after another two days of prayer did John Peter finally walk into town to tell the pastor that two of his daughters were dead.
What happened afterward was little more than an epilogue to the whole tragedy. After a two-day trial that began December 3, 1823, most of the people who had been present when Margaretta and Elizabeth died received prison sentences. Ursula Kundig received the longest sentence (sixteen years) while the others received sentences ranging from eight years to only a few months. John Peter, father to both dead women, was sentenced to eight years in prison. Perhaps as a way of keeping the Peter house from becoming a pilgrimage site, the judge also ordered it to be leveled to the ground and that no house would ever be built on the site again. While some Pietists did manage to visit the house before its destruction, the story of Margaretta's crucifixion quickly faded into local legend.
While what happened in Wildisbuch in 1823 is hardly the most bizarre episode of religious mania ever to take place, it does demonstrate how easily even the most inconceivable crimes can occur under the right circumstances. No matter how fanatical Margaretta may have been, it was the people who followed her who made the choice to believe what she was saying and to act on it. With that in mind, given the new wave of irrationality and belief that seems to be spreading in many parts of the world, it's hard not to wonder how many other Margaretta Peters are out there even today and what new tragedies await us in future.