Female mercury smuggler

No one knew how old she was. She probably wasn’t quite sure about her age either. A pedlar from Šebrelje lived with her youngest son Florjan. What she managed to grow in the field, she wore in a vivid color bag, sewn from patches of various pieces of cloth, to sell in Idrija. With the earnings she was purchasing Idrija lace and reselling it elsewhere.   

She was talkative, less reserved people would call her sassy. With sophisticated chattering she managed to sell some lace or some carrots well. From constantly wearing the bundle on her back, she gave the impression that she was already a little hunched over. It was hard to live then, she was poor and without a husband. Wrinkles on her face and a pointed chin may have made her look older than she really was.

Her name was Marina Melhiorca. Melhiorca is probably a diminutive of the female form of the male name Melchior. The name is of Hebrew origin and is said to be the name of the oldest of the three wise men, the one who brought gold to the newborn Jesus.

But behind her sparkling eyes hid a cunning woman. She associated with thieves of mercury, there were 9 of them. They were stealing it from mine in Idrija, and Melhiorca smuggled it out of Idrija and selling it. Supposedly she didn’t make any big money out of it.

Mine’s manager Steinberg was concerned about the frequent theft. They soon arrested a mercury buyer and, fearing they would pluck his nails and stretch him on a tensioner, he told everything, and also betrayed the reseller. Since Šebrelje, where Melchiorca lived, fell under the administration of the Tolmin lords, the administrator asked them to bring her to the border of the Idrija lords. On Christmas Day, the bailiffs trudged on the newly fallen snow, and when they caught her, they shook off on her all the frustrations of the long tiring journey and wet shoes. They beat her so hard so that she could barely breathe.       

In Idrija, she was thrown into prison at Gewerkenegg Castle. Instead of torturing her, they sent her a priest to give her the last sacraments, as they were convinced she would not survive. Although the priest visited her twice, the poor thing was not taken by the devil. Mine’s manager took pity on her and had her moved into the jailer’s quarters so she could sleep on the straw bedding and recover.

When she was interrogated, she kept coming up with improbable imaginations, new fabrications and spinning scruples, and with some intangible wording, her statements were below any reasonable level of credibility. The thieves she indicted have escaped. Only after half a year, three of the nine were arrested with the help of arrest warrant. Then the farmer who bought mercury escaped first, and over time the rest of bored thugs. Melchiorca didn’t like an unfair situation, so she too ran away after a year.

She returned a few weeks later and saved Steinberg from embarrassing mess. She said she was worried for her son, but she also took pity on elderly jailer, so she came back. The warden intended to hang signs with the words “thief” around the necks of the prisoners, and for Melchiorca “thieves helper”. Thus, they would be publicly shamed for an hour at the place where miners gather for work. Since everyone except Melchiorca escaped, he even considered a more severe punishment for her – he was supposed to send her to the galley. His superiors were against this barbaric idea, and he was pulled by his ears for all the slips.

What then really happened to Melchiorca is left somewhere in that past where nothing tangible is stored. The story of her has been revived from the dead in recent years. The scheming smuggler really did exist, and maybe it’s just that the semi-romantic story of the female smuggler is more important than its ending. The trial against her and the thieves of mercury lasted an abnormal 3 years, from 1729 to 1731. Some documentation is being archived in Idrija and Graz.

At the time of writing, the Idrija City Museum has exhibited motifs from the picture book titled “Melchiorca the Smuggler”, published in December 2020, in Gewerkenegg Castle. Apart from the reception of the castle in Idrija, you can also buy the artfully made picture book at the Cerkno Museum or order it by mail or online.

Published by: City Museum of Idrija

Text: Marija Terpin Mlinar

Illustrations: Irena Gubanc

The picture book can be ordered at the following links:

The story of Melchiorca lives on to the fullest. The text of the song entitled Melhiorca was written by Milan Jež, performed by D’Butls with the Divje Babe Trio and the group Pomladni dan (Spring day).