Centuries-old freedom fighter exhumed

What do you get when you have a Swiss freedom fighter, a religious war, and a murderer dressed like a bear? If you said an odd chapter in Graubünden’s history you would be correct. Jürg Jenatsch was a Protestant pastor and freedom fighter in the late 16th century, who was reportedly murdered during Carnival. His grave is marked inside Chur’s cathedral, though experts don’t know if it is really him. The body was exhumed earlier this month and DNA tests are expected soon. WRS’s Tony Ganzer reports.

What could be the grave of Jürg Jenatsch is beneath the floor of Chur’s cathedral, just meters from the menacing pipe organ. A large stone tablet hangs on the wall above the resting place, saying Jenatsch is there. The same Jenatsch who was a Protestant pastor, who later converted to Catholicism during the politically confusing 30 Years War, in the early to mid 1600s. Aside religious conflict, Jenatsch later became a freedom fighter to return sovereignty to his native Graubünden.

REITMAIER: “He was kind of an ambiguous person in history.”

Thomas Reitmaier is the head archaeologist for the canton of Graubünden.

REITMAIER: “In the 19th he became a myth for freedom and for the new canton of Graubünden. In 20th century he was criticized for he was a murderer and so on. I think its quite an ambiguous person in history but for the Grisons of course it’s one of the most well-known persons in history, and so also the grave where he’s buried in the cathedral is very important.”

The myth of Jürg Jenatsch has spread in popular culture, books, film, but the basic story line is constant. This powerful political player and freedom fighter was murdered during Carnival or Fastnacht. Some reports say one killer was dressed as a bear. And the murder weapon was an axe, perhaps the same axe used by Jenatsch in a killing years before.

REITMAIER: “So it was kind of a revenge or something like this, no one knows exactly.”

You don’t think it was a religious conflict happening at Fastnacht?

REITMAIER: “It could be of course, that is the background of the war, and all these conflicts between whole Europe, Austria and Spain, and of course Germany, French, and the Grisons was involved in this.”

Reitmaier and a team of researchers began looking into Jenatsch’s murder to see if the body in Chur’s cathedral was as its grave marker said. This latest exhumation was not the first, and was not the first option for modern day detectives, either.

REITMAIER: “The first excavation was done by Erich Hög. He was an anthropologist from Zurich, and he did the excavations at the end of the 50s. He found and excavated the body, and described it, and did lots of research, but none of these papers done by Erich Hög were published, so no one knew did he really find Jürg Jenatsch? Is it a real person? Where was the skull? It was kind of a myth the skull was somewhere in Switzerland, no one knew.”

Reitmaier requested to exhume the body again, to coincide with renovations at the cathedral. In the meantime experts looked at clothing and artifacts that had been buried with the body.

REITMAIER: “We tried to get some DNA sample of blood remains on the equipment, on the clothings, but it didn’t work. So we tried to get the permission at the Bishop’s office to reopen this grave. And surprisingly we get permission early this year, in February.”

How important do you think this is, just to put the whole project to rest now 5, 6 decades later?

REITMAIER: “I think it is very important. Firstly, we can finish a research project started more than 50 years ago. We can publish the whole stuff, so the story finds an ending I think.”

So now anthropologists are examining the remains. A skull is being examined for signs of trauma by an axe. And DNA samples have been taken from living Jenatsch relatives. If all goes well, and the tests are conclusive, some more of the myth of Jürg Jenatsch might instead be confirmed as history.

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