Sometimes all it takes is one influential person and a handful of people desperate for answers. That certainly is what seems to be the case in Margaretta Peter’s story.
Peter was Swiss-born the youngest of six on Christmas day in 1794, and it would take her less than three decades to garner intense and loyal followers willing to do anything for her. Being born in to a religious family isn’t out of the ordinary even by today’s standards, but Peter delivered her own sermons at the age of six. Her father, a Zwinglian Protestant, believed she was sent by God for a divine purpose, and the rest of her family believed that too.
Not much later Peter moved to her uncle’s to work as a house keeper. Here she learned of the fundamentalist Pietists. When she moved back home, her family noticed a different, more depressed side of her. She didn’t appear to be in the same zealous spirits as usual. Now she seemed more serious, more contemplative. She explained how she was thinking more and more about all the sin in the world, especially her own. It’s unclear what types of sins she referred to, but her grim attitude deepened as the years went on.
Upon arriving back home, she met the three new servants in her father’s household who would soon become her most faithful followers. One of the servants, Margaret, hoped Peter’s fervent prayers would heal her epilepsy. Ursula, another servant, even accompanied Peter on her trips throughout the country preaching her word. Peter’s sister Elizabeth, another of her faithful followers, often went with her as well. Peter was not in short supply of those ready to help her spread her doctrine. It’s unclear what her doctrine looked like exactly, but as her story progresses, it gives an idea of what it might have looked like. Even when her messages grew stranger, darker, her followers clung closer to her.
On one of her journeys throughout Switzerland she went missing with her sister. Authorities searched for them for days, finding nothing to lead to their discovery. The two turned up on their own in early January of 1823, and it was here when Peter became even darker in her doctrines and demeanor. Not long after this incident did she begin preaching about Satan’s influence throughout the world. She claimed a huge spiritual war will rage soon, and she and her followers need to be prepared.
Peter, along with her followers, locked themselves in the Peter house. The public was denied entry during this time, including the local pastor. In spite of his concern for the Peter household and her followers, they cut themselves off from any outside influence as Satan and his demons roamed outside the house.
Servant Margaret’s seizures sparked Peter to “prophecy” and preach about demons’ attempts to infiltrate the house. Peter’s constant praying, fasting, and speaking convinced those around her that something dark was going to happen imminently on this earth. Perhaps her words were just that convincing, perhaps it was her zeal and passion. Perhaps her followers had been searching for any kind of truth to speak into their lives and their own passion for Peter fueled her own.
Claiming Satan and his demons were close, she ordered her followers to destroy the room they currently occupied. They broke furniture, hammered walls, ripped curtains, rugs, shattered mirrors. The public was drawn to the commotion and soon the police were as well. The men were separated and the women were forced into a room together. The police were working on sending Peter and her sister Elizabeth to an insane asylum. If this was the worst Peter could do—convincing others to destroy a room with her in the belief of warding off demons—then perhaps they had stopped her from doing something worse.
In the heat of the moment, however, Peter asked her women followers if they were willing to go through physical pain for God. Her sister Elizabeth not only consented, she struck herself with one of the tools used to destroy the room. Peter wasn’t satisfied with her sister’s display of physical pain, so she struck her sister. Soon the other women took turns bludgeoning and striking Elizabeth until she was dead.
One can only guess the reactions of the women who took part in beating this woman to death. Were they shocked? Were they even aware of what they had done, or were they too blinded by Peter’s influence?
Elizabeth’s death still did not satisfy Peter. She “prophesied” her own crucifixion. In fact, she ordered her followers to do it immediately. For once they were apprehensive. They could harm one of their own, but they didn’t want to harm their leader. Peter assured them, however, that she would raise herself and Elizabeth from the dead three days later.
By then the police had left the house, leaving Peter’s followers to carry out her demand. They mounted her on one of the walls in the house. There’s no record of how long she hung there, but she urged her followers to kill her. Once a blow to the head did just that, they left her mounted to the wall for three days. Peter’s father didn’t get the police until two more days had past when she and her sister were still dead. The police charged everyone involved with varying prison sentences, ranging from a few months to 16 years. Her father was sentenced to eight years in prison. The Peter house was then leveled to deter anyone from pilgrimage to the site.
This story may read as simply grim rather than bizarre or mysterious. Then again, how does one person draw several followers to her. Not only that, how does she convince them to harm another follower and then finally harm her? Sometimes it comes down to the right circumstances, the right moment in history when all of these people’s paths crossed. Heaven’s Gate was comprised of two leaders who convinced dozens to leave their families, their jobs, and release all of their life earnings to the leaders. Charles Manson—a man who spent more of his childhood and adolescence behind bars than outside them—created a commune who carried out one of the most violent murders of the mid-20th century. He was a man without societal status, who on paper would appear as not influential at all, yet his followers devoted their entire lives to him.
Margaretta Peters was incredibly influential at the age of six. Perhaps God did have divine plans for her. Perhaps she used her influential gifts for her own gain rather than God’s Kingdom. Much of her story is lost to history, which makes most of it mysterious. Most of the time the stories that cause us to speculate and wonder are the most interesting ones.