The Witch of Leadville

The Witch of Leadville, Catherine Rothenberg on trial

The Witch of Leadville, Catherine Rothenberg on trial

It was easy for the papers of the past to be condescending about 19th century witchcraft accusations in far-off Suffolk or Wales or Mexico, adding a few choice remarks about rural ignorance and popular superstition. In this account of a Gilded Age witch in a flourishing Colorado mining town, a new culprit is blamed: Satanists!

In England we pride ourselves on having traveled far from the times of Elizabeth’s Act for the suppression of witchcraft and James I’s “Demonologie.” Yet the researches of folk-lorists clearly prove that belief in witchcraft still lingers in remote country districts, and, worst of all, there is reason to believe that the Satanism movement in Paris is spreading to London, and there exist in our modem Babylon places where black arts and foul rites are secretly practiced. In America it was fondly hoped that the belief in witchcraft, which in years gone by was responsible for terrible cruelties in New England and Massachusetts, was gone forever. But quite recently a trial in Leadville, Colo., has revealed that so far from being stamped out, this cult is vigorous and flourishing, and numbers many adherents. The case is so extraordinary that we feel justified in giving the full particulars, and we do so without further comment.

Leadville, a flourishing town in Colorado, takes pride in considering itself a progressive community, in the front rank of Western civilization, yet some events have occurred there during the past weeks that have caused many to wonder whether the town is not drifting back to the old witch-burning era of New England. For Leadville has experienced a shock in the shape of a witch trial in one of the legally constituted courts of the county, and the result was a judicial declaration that one-third of the community believed in witchcraft, and that evidence relating to these subjects was perfectly admissible. It was thoroughly demonstrated that a belief in the power of witches, the virtue of powders burned at the dread midnight hour, and other spells and incantations, are still prevalent in this boundless and untrammeled West.

The case was this. Some months ago there came to Leadville a Jewish family named Rothenberg, a man and wife and child. The woman was of beautiful Jewish type, with a certain air of Oriental mysticism that caused her presence in the city to be discussed. The husband was a commonplace tailor, but the mysterious wife soon became quite the rage in a little circle of occultists, most of whom asserted that they were on speaking terms with the spirits of the departed. Catherine Rothenberg was credited with possessing a “control” of no less importance than the shade of an Arabian sage, and the local spiritualists were elated at having such an addition to their ranks, and pointed to many marvelous tests performed by the Syrian Jewess to confound the unbelievers and skeptics.

One morning the whole community was startled by the report of a brutal assault, the victim being the beautiful Jewess. During the absence of her husband some one had entered the house and cruelly beaten and bruised her, so that her life was despaired of. The police were not long in finding the assailant. He was a certain Martin Roberts, and he boldly admitted having committed the deed, but put in a defense which is one of the most unique in the history of criminal jurisprudence. In brief, Roberts said he was bewitched, not in the sentimental sense, but under the malignant spell of a witch, who was, he asserted, Catherine Rothenberg.

Under the circumstances a commission de lunatico inquirendo might have been the proper thing. But no one appeared to look at the case in that light. Roberts was a well-known mining man, and when his wife, his partner in some of his enterprises, and a number of neighbors all insisted that he was under the influence of a witch’s spell, and when this was backed up by one of the leading lawyers of the city, who undertook the man’s defense, the community was naturally startled and astounded.

The trial has proved to be one of the most remarkable on record. Roberts, the defendant, is a man about 36 years of age, who talked and acted as rationally as the sanest man in the courtroom. In fact, the proceedings were conducted on the theory that the man was perfectly rational, and that all the strange occurrences were the result of some sort of unhallowed sorcery practiced by the mysterious Catherine Rothenberg, who had given him some information about a mine in which he was interested. He made her a wager of $100 that she could not give him certain information concerning another property, but, much to his surprise, she told him what proved to be the exact truth.

The trouble began, according to Roberts, when the woman asked him to place some powder on the door of a certain person, who, she said, had wronged her. The powder was prepared according to the most approved witch formula, and warranted to bring all sorts of misfortune, sickness and trouble on the heads of those against whom it was used. Roberts refused to have anything x to do with the woman’s revenge, and, he says, brought her wrath down on his own head.

Robert’s wife was not partial to the Jewess either. The consciousness that her husband called at the Rothenberg house, arid was subject to the witchery of those wonderful black eyes, to say nothing of any more occult power, was hardly calculated to insure the good woman’s peace of mind. One day she called at the Rothenberg house and told Mrs. Rothenberg she didn’t believe in her power.

“You don’t?” the woman is alleged to have replied; “I’ll make you. I’ll cripple your children, paralyze your husband, and bring you so that you shall beg your bread.”

Then the strange thing happened. Roberts did become ill. He was unable to sleep at night. His actions in the mine were so strange that the men refused to work where he was, fearing for their safety. Roberts described the pains in his head as terrible.

“It seems as if there was a buzz-saw tearing through my brain,” he said, “and little augers were boring through my eyes.” There was no doubt that his condition at the time was very serious. Physicians and friends all agreed at the trial that for several months the man was in mental and bodily distress, and both husband and wife were firmly convinced that the cause was the power of Catherine Rothenberg.

How to break the spell was a problem that long troubled Roberts. Finally, however, he remembered the woman had once told him that if the person on whom the spell was cast drew blood from her mouth, at the same time repeating a mystic formula, the charm would be broken. This course Roberts resolved to pursue. His only difficulty was in remembering the cabalistic words. However, he went to the woman’s home and there found her rocking a baby to sleep. Roberts seized her by the throat, and then ensued a struggle, in which sufficient blood was spilled to break a dozen charms. But Roberts said he realized that the blood-letting was of no avail without the mystic formula. In spite of the torture to which she was subjected, the woman refused to reveal the words, but finally, on threat of instant death, she complied, and crying, “My power is gone,” sank unconscious to the floor.

Roberts left the house, he declared, a new man. “I weighed myself next day after a good night’s rest and a hearty meal and found I had gained four pounds,” he said joyfully. His friends and the doctor testified to the improvement in his physical and mental conditions, and his appearance on the witness stand was certainly corroborative of the statement that he now was in excellent health.

Roberts’ attorney, during the progress of the trial, demanded that he should be permitted to introduce evidence to prove that the Rothenberg woman was a witch. General Jones, the public prosecutor, and a former attorney general of Colorado, wrathfully objected to such testimony. But Roberts’ attorney insisted.

“We are prepared to prove that this woman has, by some hypnotic or occult power, put a spell upon this man, which he could only break by drawing her blood, and this act I will prove to be perfectly justifiable, simple self-defense.”

The judge ruled that the testimony was competent, as tending to bring to light all the facts, and as one-third of the community believed this sort of thing it should all he brought out.

General Jones tried to protest. “Great heaven,” said he, “is this case being tried in Colorado in the nineteenth century, or are we baiting witches in the seventeenth century? I object to this court turning back the clock two hundred years.”

But the dock went back just the same, and a dozen men and women told of the uncanny actions of Catherine Rothenberg. She had made one family sick with the measles by sprinkling earth from a murderer’s grave in a water barrel; she had crippled a man who had refused to give her $5 when she demanded it; she had threatened to bring calamity to the Roberts’ household, and had been seen in the local cemetery at midnight at the grave of a local celebrity [named Minnick], who had departed this life at a rope’s end in early days. There were other witnesses who saw her eyes roll and shoot pale fire, and Roberts himself had noticed strange blood marks in the corners. This was the testimony duly sworn to and attested in a court.

After an extensive argument by attorneys, the incident, so far as the legal proceedings were concerned, ended by the judge imposing a $30 fine on Roberts for “blood-letting,” as he put it.

Catherine Rothenberg denies the possession of the strange powers attributed to her. She claims to be a spiritualistic medium, and, while in the clairvoyant state, has caused a local sensation by her remarkable utterances, and her friends assert that she is a high priestess in the spiritualistic world. What to them, of course, are highly developed mediumistic powers, are to others exhibitions of hypnotism and clever acting, while some see in the whole business evidences of witchcraft and sorcery. As to this we offer no opinion; the interesting part of the controversy to the student of psychology is the fact the belief in witchcraft continues to survive in a flourishing and civilized community.

Suggestive Therapeutics December 1899

See also Fort Worth [TX] Morning Register 17 September 1899: p. 11

How much did Mrs. Rothenberg’s “exotic” beauty factor into the accusations against her? And just how anti-Semitic was Colorado in the late 19th century? (chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com) Just as it has been suggested that many witch accusations had their roots in commercial greed or those petty disputes that poison village life, it sounds as if jealousy of the bewitching Mrs. Rothenberg fueled some of the rage, with outsider-hatred fanning the fire. I wonder what would have happened if she had just stuck to being a local Spiritualist celebrity?

There is a Katie Rothenberg [1869-1923] buried in Mount Nebo Memorial Park, Aurora, Colorado, with her husband Charles [1862-1948] Checking the census for 1900, we find Charles, a tailor, and his wife Kate still living in Leadville. He was an Austrian; she was German. They married in 1886 and had two out of four children still living, Benjamin, age 8 and Eva, age 1. By 1910, they had moved to Denver. I would suspect it was not long after the 1900 census; the trial was in the last quarter of 1899. I’m not sure how you could face your neighbors after such an ordeal.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.