Seventeenth-Century Supermax: The Origins of Solitary Confinement

by | September 25, 2023

Spencer Weinreich is a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows and Lecturer on the History of Science at Harvard University. He is currently working on a history of solitary confinement, entitled An Experimental Box. The Malefizhaus, described in this piece, is also the subject of Dr. Weinreich’s recent article in the Journal of Social History, “Why Early Modern Mass Incarceration Matters: The Bamberg Malefizhaus, 1627–31.

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Hell has been a very small place for a very long time. The first prison designed for solitary confinement opened its doors in the city of Bamberg in the last days of 1627. It was called the Malefizhaus—that is, the “witchcraft house”—and was the final horror of one of the bloodiest witch-hunts in human history, a prison without precedent, but eerily familiar. 

Bamberg was the capital of the prince-bishopric of Bamberg, a middling territory of the Holy Roman Empire, in the southeast of what is now Germany. In 1627, Bamberg was haunted. That, at least, was the conviction of its rulers. They saw a land overrun with witchcraft. To quote Friedrich Förner, the auxiliary bishop, (second-in-command to the prince-bishop himself): “[T]here is no town, no castle, no canton or village where the devil does not lead, establish, and gather such wasters and squanderers of souls.” The demonic threat had to be met with unflinching violence: “[I]t is assuredly a thousand times better that the magistracy should punish such persons […] and secure the salvation of their souls,” rather than surrender Bamberg to damnation. Witches had to be “wiped out and driven out”—a mission handed down from God himself.

Medieval and early modern witch-crazes were wars on supernatural crime—brief, furious episodes entailing the mass arrest, incarceration, trial, and execution of hundreds and thousands of accused witches. States across Europe and beyond engaged in prison-building to unleash carceral violence systematically. 

However, no state had a prison quite like the Malefizhaus. A contemporary engraving explained that the prison was intended “for the punishment and redemption of those wicked persons, rejected and abandoned by God, the damned sorcerers and evildoers.” The complex stood on the eastern edge of the city center, on the banks of the Regnitz River. It was not especially large—approximately 80 feet long and 37 feet wide, with a smaller annex that held the torture chamber. 

In contrast to the faceless, lifeless architecture of contemporary prisons, the façade of the Malefizhaus fairly shouted at passersby. Over the doorway was a Latin inscription from Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid, the cry of a tormented soul in the underworld: “You who are warned, learn justice, and not to despise the gods!” Above this stood a statue of Justice personified, blindfolded and wielding a sword in one hand and a set of scales in the other. Higher still were two menacing inscriptions from 1 Kings 9:8–9, in which God himself sets out the consequences of worshiping wrongly: “This house shall be made an example of: every one that shall pass by it, shall be astonished…”

Inside stood twenty-six cells, where accused witches would suffer solitary confinement in numbers never before seen in history. The cells of the Malefizhaus were cold, dark, and airless. Each measured 5’3” by 12’4”—so narrow, according to one protest, that they endangered the jailer as well as the jailed. Bambergers as young as nine were confined in the Malefizhaus, and at least one pregnant prisoner lost her unborn twins. Another protest on behalf of the Bamberg prisoners denounced the use of “sleeplessness” as a torture, as well as food deliberately prepared with a great deal of salt, so as to further torture the prisoners with thirst. Those suspected of trying to communicate with the outside world were shackled; their families paid exorbitant bribes for the mere sight of them.

The Malefizhaus was a place of torture, in every sense: the witch-hunters were deliberately using isolation to extract confessions from the incarcerated. And it worked. In the words of one prisoner, the former Bamberg mayor Johannes Junius, anyone “will confess in the [Malefizhaus] if he once finds his voice, he must go on, whether it is right or not.”

This seventeenth-century Supermax disappeared men, women, and children. From tailors and shoemakers to mayors and high officials, anyone might be “wretchedly and mercilessly seized and upon trifles led into the horrid Drudenhaus, like cattle to the slaughter.” Its shadow fell over the entire principality, terrorizing the populace with the ever-present threat of incarceration, the secrecy of the proceedings, and the notorious torments inflicted upon the prisoners.  To protest the treatment of the prisoners, as the dean of Bamberg cathedral seems to have done, was to invite accusations of witchcraft.

If twenty-six cells seem to pale in comparison with the millions incarcerated in contemporary prisons and jails, the Malefizhaus loomed large against the far smaller population of early modern Bamberg. The Bamberg witch-hunt’s nearly one thousand victims represent something like one percent of the principality’s population. I calculate that in one year, the Malefizhaus incarcerated close to one in every one thousand Bambergers. As a proportion of the population, it was as though the entire United States federal prison system, including those on probation and parole, were in a single prison. 

But those within the walls were not forgotten. It was the families of the incarcerated and the executed who brought about the end of the Bamberg witch-hunt. It was they who exposed what went on in the witch-hunt’s “horrific prison, the hags’ or witches’ house.” It was they who compelled the Holy Roman Emperor to act. Georg Wilhelm Dümbler, a Bamberger who lost a wife and two children to the Malefizhaus, wrote that the prince-bishop of Bamberg had brought the region “to a wretched, miserable grief and utterly destitute state,” and then explained exactly how he had done it: “[T]hree years ago, he built an unprecedented witches’ house, and in it many cells, not for the guarding but more for the afflicting of the prisoners and inmates.”

The prince-bishop defended his prison with an excuse still brandished by jailers to this day: others had it worse. He insisted that “there are many among his honest subjects who do not have such good bedding, food, and drink in their own houses as the prisoners have.” This was not enough to stave off imperial intervention, which installed new judges to supervise the witch-hunt, curtailing further trials and releasing many of the incarcerated. The ultimate fate of the Malefizhaus itself is not certain—it may have been torn down, or it may have been allowed to fall into ruin. A retirement home now stands where the Malefizhaus stood.

But the torments of solitary confinement have not changed very much in the centuries since Malefizhaus. The average solitary confinement cell in a contemporary American prison—6’ by 9’—is slightly smaller than those of the Malefizhaus. Judith Vazquez recalled the traumatic forced ending of her pregnancy, “in my cell without any medical aid,” in a New Jersey state prison. Preteens in Missouri have been subjected to solitary confinement in their very school system. In 2019, Andrea Hernandez was held in solitary confinement in California in conditions that allowed her only three hours of sleep each night. Countless incarcerated are subjected to “nutraloaf” and other punishment diets. Terrill Thomas died of thirst in his cell in 2016. Solitary confinement is used to coerce suspected gang members into informing on others. The outrage of shackling continues, as does the obscene extortion of incarcerated individuals and their families, coining money from human connection.

If there is any light to be found in the gruesome history of the Malefizhaus, it is that the first solitary confinement prison ended in abolition. As the Malefizhaus fell, so too can its descendants. What began in 1627 can be ended.

Drawing and floorplan of the Malefizhaus. Artist unknown, probably Peter Isselburg (1580-1630).


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