Witchcraze! Persecution of Witches

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft - Judika Illes 2005

Witchcraze! Persecution of Witches

Magical practitioners and shamans historically have to varying degrees been looked upon with suspicion by outsiders to their craft. This is perhaps natural, considering that secrets and mysteries are intrinsic to magical arts as well as the reality that those who can heal can also harm.

If an individual has the capacity to bless others with good fortune, for instance, then that individual also possesses the capacity to withhold that blessing…or worse.

This is true not only of witches, however, but of any specialist. Although it’s a rare occurrence, every once in a while one does hear of a physician who has forsaken the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm but instead emerges as a secret, malevolent Angel of Death. However, those rare occurrences have not caused prejudice against physicians amongst the general public, nor have they caused “physician hysteria”: the panic-stricken fear that every physician is secretly committed to causing only harm.

Likewise, in many traditional societies, it’s recognized that although the occasional witch or shaman may become corrupt, the majority are responsible, ethical professionals. Most traditional societies have age-old legal mechanisms (not necessarily fair or “nice” ones) in place for magical practitioners perceived as malefactors, but this does not reflect negatively on the greater community of magical practitioners, nor does this constitute a “witch panic.”

A witch panic is characterized by an absolutely hysterical, irrational, fear of witchcraft and witches. A witch doesn’t have to cause harm for others to fear and persecute her. In fact, she may not have to be a witch at all: the key word in “witch hysteria” or “witch panic” is not the first but the second. Witch panics are characterized by a crazed terror that there is a secret conspiracy of witches, a fifth column that seeks to undermine society and cause harm to individuals. No need to wait for the witches to prove they mean harm; in a witchcraze, authorities search out any possible link to witchcraft and attempt to terminate it mercilessly.

Although witch panics existed earlier and still exist today, in some parts of Earth, the term “Witchcraze” historically refers to a specific era of European history, also called the “Burning Times.”

Image Witch-hunt indicates a concerted, active search for witches in order to prosecute or eliminate them

Image Witch panic refers to hysterical fear of witches, leading to extensive witch-hunts. Witch panics have historically occurred in waves: hysteria rises to fever pitch, sometimes for years, then abates only to rise again, sometimes years later

Image Witchcraze refers to the peak fever pitch of hysterical witch panics; in some communities, a witchcraze was sustained for years

Image The Burning Times refers to the centurieslong European witch-hunts and witchcraze. In most regions, although not all, those convicted of witchcraft were condemned to death by burning, hence the name. It is to some extent more accurate than “witch-hunt” or “witch panic” because not all or even perhaps most of those convicted of witchcraft were genuinely witches, although many were.

Although the European Witchcraze lasted hundreds of years, covering most of the continent as well as colonies in the Western Hemisphere and claimed as victims, at a minimum, thousands of people, until recently it was a relatively obscure historical subject; it is still generally treated as a footnote or aberration of history.

Many studies of the Witchcraze have, however, been published in the last two decades; in general, their focus is on perpetrators rather than on victims. All sorts of rationales are offered as to why “normal” people went so witch-crazy. Various books posit all kinds of different solutions for that dilemma, from physical causes (ergot poisoning, for instances) to cultural (virulent sexism—victims were, in most regions, overwhelmingly female), and all points in between.

However, to paraphrase author and physician M. Scott Peck, nothing of significance has but one root cause. There is a tendency to study the vast, sprawling topic of the European witch-hunts as an isolated subject, rather than in historical context. It is not really possible to fully understand them without also considering other concurrent historical events:

Image The persecution of landless minorities in Europe: Jews, Romany, and Saami

Image Continued efforts to eradicate all vestiges of Pagan tradition

Image Unresolved issues stemming from, often forced, conversion to Christianity

Image The emotional and psychological impact of the Black Death and other deadly plagues

Image The imposition of feudalism in some parts of Europe and the development of a professional class in others

Image The denigration and demonization of an entire gender (see BOOKS: Witch-hunters’ Manuals: Sprenger).

How many people died in the Witchcraze? There’s the million-dollar question! Figures offered range from as low as the tens of thousands to as many as nine million. The answer to the question, “How many people were killed during the Burning Times?” often reveals more about the orientation of the person quoting the figure than it does about the witch-hunts themselves.

So how many people were killed? Who knows? That’s the honest answer. The records are a mess and often unreliable. Records are missing, truncated, and edited. For instance, a 1412 decree from Aneu, Spain makes references to previous witchcraft trials for which no records and thus no information exist. And documents from those privy to witchcraft trials demonstrate that existing records aren’t necessarily accurate or trustworthy. (See page 800, Germany.)

Many scholars offer documented but conflicting numbers of victims of the Burning Times. Their totals may all be correct; they’re not necessarily using the same numbers. When considering total numbers of those killed, one must consider various factors:

Image Who is being counted as a victim?

Image What years are being considered?

Image What regions are considered in the total count?

Those victims who died during the interrogation process may or may not be counted alongside those who perished during documented executions. Not all executions were documented. Sometimes records of convictions of witchcraft exist with no further information regarding eventual punishment: do you assume that the convicted witch was executed or do you reserve judgment and not count that person among the total number?

When considering total numbers of victims, what years are included to arrive at a total? Some consider only the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the absolute fever peak of the Witchcraze, to be worthy of consideration. Others begin counting much earlier, in the twelfth or thirteenth centuries for instance. Some consider early Pagan martyrs accused of witchcraft to be among the victims of the Burning Times, although others consider this a whole different historical body count.

When did the Witchcraze end? With the last government-authorized execution of witches in Western Europe, or in the whole continent of Europe? Legal executions of witches in Europe did not end until close to the end of the eighteenth century, although by then there were comparatively many fewer of them. Some stop counting once the fever pitch cooled. Repeal of laws against witchcraft was often unpopular with the masses; after the laws were repealed, sometimes fatal vigilante justice took its place (see page 786, England). Are those deaths counted amongst the Witchcraze numbers or not?

And what regions are considered? Witchpanics were overwhelming in some regions (the German lands, Scotland) and lighter in others (Finland, Ireland), however virtually no part of Europe was completely untouched. There were witch-trials and executions in Croatia, Estonia, and Transylvania as well as in France, Italy, and England; are all territories being incorporated into totals or just a few? Some regions have maintained serviceable records; some have hardly any. Lack of records does not indicate lack of witch-trials; it merely indicates lack of documentation, that’s all.

And who exactly do we count in the totals? Many people were charged with multiple crimes: heresy and witchcraft. Do we automatically include anyone with a charge of witchcraft in the totals of victims killed during the Burning Times or is the count more selective? And what of those Jews, Romany, and Saami who were accused of witchcraft or sorcery, although others in their community were killed simply because of their cultural identity with no added charges? Where do you count them?

These are all factors one must consider when meditating on the huge disparity between the totals offered for numbers killed during the Burning Times. In general, those coming up with larger numbers aren’t intentionally exaggerating for political purposes as they are so often accused; they are merely counting a broader spectrum of victims.

The largest number bandied about, nine million, is often criticized as a “feminist exaggeration”; however the first person to quote that number seems to have been Cecil Williamson (see HALL OF FAME). The number was derived by looking at a broad spectrum of historical persecution of witches rather than a narrower one.

Witch panics possessed regional characteristics:

Image In Russia, there was no “witch-hunt” per se; however those attending at court were frequently accused of using witchcraft for political purposes or to harm the royal family

Image In Transylvania, wives and female relatives of political competitors were targeted

Image In Hungary, practitioners of shamanism were targeted

Image In German lands, wealthy people were particularly vulnerable to charges of witchcraft as if convicted land and assets were confiscated by witch-hunters

Image In France, a series of highly publicized cases involved demonic possession of nuns within convents, usually with a priest charged as perpetrator

Included in these pages is but a brief overview of witchcraft persecutions including but not limited to the Burning Times. For reasons of space, the areas that now constitute modern Germany and Italy are considered together although there were no unified nations known as Germany or Italy during that time. Instead, there were independent states, which did not all have the same laws or leaders; hence witchcraft persecutions were worse in one region of what is now one country than in another.

The scope of the entire witchcraze is beyond these pages. What you see here is only representative, not a total. Witches were burned in the Isle of Man as well as in Scotland; Austria had a particularly virulent witchcraze; the Alpine region in general is often considered the geographic nucleus of the Burning Times.

As a rule, regions that placed greater emphasis on torture as a device for uncovering witches discovered greater numbers of witches than those regions that placed less emphasis on torture. Among the primary lessons of the witch-hunts is that if people are tortured, most will confess and tell their torturers whatever they wish to hear. Thus virtually all confessions recorded during the witch trials are suspect and may reveal more about the manias and obsessions of the torturers than about anything regarding the victims, heresy or witchcraft.

Some things to bear in mind: there is a tremendously sexual aspect to the witch trials that is often ignored or glossed over. Women were the majority of the victims; men were, almost without exception, in positions of authority and judgment during this time. Women may have testified against other women but they were not in positions of authority. Sometimes women were hired to examine arrested women; however these hired women were consistently supervised by men. They did not work independently or unsupervised.

Female prisoners, frequently naked, were routinely left alone in rooms with one or more men. Women were undressed, their bodies examined minutely. Their interrogation often involved explicitly sexual subjects: orgies, sex with Satan, demons and imps. Imagine yourself shaved, bound, examined, and asked tremendously embarrassing, humiliating questions by those who hold your life in their hands.

There is a pornographic quality to many trial transcripts. Men accused women of participating in sexual acts; women routinely denied these accusations and then were tortured, often in sexual ways, until they confessed and elaborated on their torturers’ fantasies.

Although trial transcripts often quite explicitly describe the torture of victims, which subsequently cannot be denied, reports of sexual abuse are less forthcoming, perhaps because many (although not all) of those in authority were clerics who had taken vows of celibacy. Women were routinely raped. When reading trial testimony, this can never be forgotten or overlooked, even when not explicitly stated. The history of the witch trials is as much about men behaving abusively toward women as it is about abuses of religious authority. Even when there was not rape, there was constant sexual humiliation and the threat of rape.

Witch-burning evolved into an industry. Some people made fine livings killing others convicted of witchcraft. Many torture weapons still in use were invented during the Burning Times. Ovens were not first used as murder weapons to kill Jews during World War II; they were used in German lands to roast convicted witches 300 years before. It wasn’t fantasy when Gretel burned the witch in the oven in the Grimms’ fairy tale Hansel and Gretel; the candy house in the middle of the forest may have been make-believe but killing witches in ovens was pure reality.

Were any of the victims actually practitioners of witchcraft? Apparently yes, many were, again depending upon definitions of witchcraft. Some were practitioners of magical arts and shamanism. Others held stubbornly to Pagan faiths or traditions. The witch-hunters eventual obsession with Christian-derived demonolatry obscures these practices, and because of the standard use of torture it may be impossible to determine definitively, but within trial transcripts there are occasional hints, pieces, and vestiges of ancient witchcraft, magical, Pagan, shamanic, and Fairy traditions.


Prior to colonial rule, in general, individuals were accused of being magical malefactors and dealt with on an individual basis. Europeanstyle witch-hunts began during colonial rule and still continue. Whether this change of attitude derives from enforced colonialism and/or exposure to Christianity is subject to debate.

Although hysterical witch-hunts and trials are now considered an aberration elsewhere, a relic of history, they are on the rise in sub-Saharan Africa. Witches are accused of transforming into bats and night birds, transforming people into zombis or committing murder via lightning or poison. Witchcraft is also blamed for AIDS.

Image In 1992, over 300 people in Kenya were lynched as witches

Image From April 1994 to February 1995, 97 women and 46 men accused of witchcraft in South Africa were killed by mob violence

Image Between January and June 1998, South Africa’s Northern Province reported 386 crimes against suspected witches including assault, property damage, and murder

The Ministry of Safety and Security of South Africa’s Northern Transvaal Province established a Commission of Inquiry into Witchcraft, Violence and Ritual Killings. A report published in May 1996 stated that thousands accused of witchcraft had been driven from their homes, losing all their property. In September 1998, a conference was held in Thohoyandou, South Africa to develop strategies to lessen the violence.


Hysterical witch-hunting is older than Christianity; Roman persecution of the Bacchanalia is sometimes called the very first “witch-hunt.”

The Bacchanalia was the Latin name for the Dionysian mystery traditions of the Maenads or, as they were known in Italy, the Bacchanals. (See DICTIONARY: Bacchanal, Conjure, Maenad.) Initially held in Etruria, these traditions traveled to Southern Italy and thence to Rome. Rituals were initially restricted to women and conducted secretly three days a year in the Grove of Stimula near the Aventine Hill.

Stimula or Simula is the Roman name for Semele, Dionysus’ mother, goddess of women’s passions, venerated by the Bacchanals.

Men were eventually admitted to the rites, which increased to five days a month. However the majority of the initiates were female. Initially the Bacchanalia was identified with slaves and immigrant women from Greece, the Balkans, and elsewhere but it eventually attracted respectable Roman matrons who assumed leadership roles.

The Bacchanalia became increasingly controversial; it developed a malevolent, mysterious reputation amongst conventional society and was accused of fomenting political conspiracies. The Bacchanals were accused of poisoning, ritual murder, sexual deviance, and treason. The Roman senate issued a decree, the Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus in 186 BCE, forbidding the Bacchanalia throughout Italy except where the Senate itself reserved the right to permit the rites. (The decree was inscribed on a bronze tablet discovered in Calabria in 1640 and now housed in Vienna.)

According to the Roman historian Livy (c.64 BCE—17 CE), the Bacchanals were charged with holding secret nocturnal meetings, allegedly featuring dancing, music, feasting, orgies, homosexuality, and ritual murder. But for the absence of Satan, it sounds remarkably like a European witch-hunters’ sabbat of over a millennium later.

The charges that detonated these witch-hunts allegedly began with a family dispute: a young Roman patrician, Aebutius was asked to leave home by his mother. She later claimed it was because her husband, Aebutius’ stepfather, was strapped for money; Aebutius claimed he was thrown out because he refused to be initiated into the Bacchanalia as his mother allegedly desired.

Aebutius said his concubine Hispala, a freedwoman, had previously attended the Bacchanalia and warned him that it was depraved. Aebutius went to his late father’s sister who advised him to make a formal complaint to the Consul, which he did. Essentially he denounced his mother as a Bacchanal.

Hispala was called in and questioned for details regarding what the Bacchanals were really doing at their secret nighttime revels. She allegedly initially refused to testify but was advised that she herself would be prosecuted unless she provided authorities with information. Hispala first claimed that she only attended the Bacchanalia as a child and so had limited information; after further questioning however she gave more details, describing torch-lit oracular rites by the Tiber River and naming the current leader of the Bacchanalia as Paculla Annia, a High Priestess from Campania.

The Consul held a public assembly where he accused the Bacchanals, now called the Conjurari (“conspirators”), of a criminal conspiracy intended to undermine Roman society. The Senate ordered an immediate extraordinary investigation permitting torture and denying defendants’ rights of appeal. A zero-tolerance policy was instituted in the form of a massive witch-hunt for members of the secret society, followed by mass executions.

Image An edict outlawed initiates of the Mysteries from convening

Image The Senate offered a reward to anyone denouncing participants in the Bacchanalia

Image Officials were ordered to seek out ritual leaders

Image Roman men were ordered to reject participating members of their family (Aebutius was held up as a role model)

The Senate simultaneously enacted legislation against diviners and foreign magicians.

Panic swept first Rome, then all of Italy. There were rumored to be over seven thousand conjurari. Recent initiates were merely imprisoned but thousands were condemned to death. The state allowed men to punish their female relatives in the privacy of their home (to safeguard the men’s privacy, not that of the female prisoners) but if no one was available to execute them privately, it was done publicly. Heads of households thus personally executed wives, daughters, sisters, and slaves or ran the risk of disgracing the family via public executions.

What happened to Paculla, the priestess, is unknown, but her sons were arrested as leaders, tortured to denounce others, and executed. Those they denounced were also tortured until they denounced still others. Thousands were denounced in this way.

Known initiates, both female and male, committed suicide rather than face arrest. Some however escaped, including some who had been denounced but whom the authorities were then unable to locate. These Bacchanals are believed to have escaped into forests and mountains. Many believe these escaped Bacchanals are the prototype for Europe’s future witches.

Even after the Bacchanalia-panic receded in Rome, the hunt for surviving Bacchanals continued throughout Apulia and other parts of the Italian countryside through 185—184 BCE. What happened to Aebutius’ mother is unknown but the Senate rewarded Aebutius and Hispala out of the public treasury and promoted Hispala to a higher social rank so that the couple could be legally wed.

Basque Region

The Basque region spreads over the western edge of the Pyrenees Mountains that divide France from Spain overlooking the Bay of Biscay. There are seven Basque provinces, four in Spain and three in France. The Basque people have lived there since that old proverbial time immemorial; they are believed to have occupied a geographical territory longer than any other European ethnic group.

Their origins are mysterious and continue to confound anthropologists. They are apparently unrelated to any other ethnic group. The Basque language (known in Basque as Euskara) is apparently unrelated to any known language. Some suggest it is the original indigenous, Paleolithic European language. The Basques were comparatively late converts to Christianity, and ancestral traditions including ritual dances and offerings to the dead survived conversion.

There were no Basque witch-hunts per se; instead French witch-hunters and the Spanish Inquisition took turns entering Basque territory to hunt down and execute witches, and the Basque territory was the scene of extensive witch-hunting in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: the Spanish Inquisition targeted Basque witches in the sixteenth century; French witch-hunters targeted Basque witches in the seventeenth.

The ethnic aspect of these witch-trials cannot be forgotten. Basque women were interrogated by French and Spanish men, most of whom could not speak their language and who thus relied on local translators and paid witchfinders.

Traditional Basque society was very different from that the witch-hunters left behind in Spain and France: Basque women were exceptionally independent for their time. Although men wintered at home, a high percentage of Basque men were fishermen who spent the entire summer fishing in Newfoundland. Adult women were, thus, left “unsupervised.”

Spanish and French witch-hunters simultaneously disapproved and were titillated by these women. Witch-hunter Pierre de Lancre, in particular, reveals more about his own sexual fantasies in his memoirs than he does of any witchcraft practices (see BOOKS: Witch-hunters’ Manuals: Pierre de Lancre).

Spain conducted an intensive witch-hunt in Basque territory beginning in 1507. In 1507, over 30 women were burned as witches in Calahorra.

In 1527, a craze began when two little girls, aged 9 and 11, claimed to belong to a coven. They told officials that if they were granted immunity, they would identify other witches for the witch-hunters. They claimed they could recognize witches by gazing into their left eyes: in witches, the sign of a frog’s foot appeared above the pupil.

Officials took the girls, guarded by 50 horsemen, to various towns so that they could identify witches. Upon arriving in a village, the guards arrested all the women. Each child was placed in a separate house and women were sent in one by one to have their eyes inspected. If the girls pronounced a woman a witch, she was arrested. Over 150 were imprisoned and charged with witchcraft based on the testimony of these two children.

Rumors of thousands of Basque witches engaged in Satanic activity spread through France and Pierre de Lancre, an especially aggressive witch-hunter, was sent in his capacity as the French king’s councilor to lead a ferocious witch-hunt through French Basque territory. De Lancre confirmed these rumors: according to him, La Hendaye Beach in French Basque territory had sabbats attended by no less than 12,000 witches.

De Lancre indicted so many witches that the jails literally couldn’t hold them all. He reported executing 600 Basque witches, burned alive at the stake, during four months in 1609.

De Lancre despised and hated Basque people, and especially independent Basque women who were used to acting as heads of their households.

De Lancre was particularly aggravated that women acted as sacristans in church.

He suggested that the Basque witches were part of an international conspiracy with other European witches in order to eradicate Roman Catholicism and Christianity. De Lancre went too far when he began executing priests accused of being or supporting witches: for instance Basque priest Pierre Bocal, accused of wearing a goat mask and presiding over both Christian and Pagan rites and subsequently burned alive. The French public lost its taste for the witchhunts at that point, and de Lancre fell from public favor.

Official records of the French Basque witch trials were destroyed in a fire in 1710. The best surviving source is de Lancre’s own rambling memoirs. To this day, de Lancre’s text provides major source material for most discussions of Basque witchcraft. De Lancre did not understand the Basque language; all interrogations were done via interpreters. The witches’ confessions, offered in Basque, were recorded by de Lancre in French.

British North American Colonies

Witch-hunting did not start in 1690 at Salem Village. Salem was the site of neither the first nor the last executions for witchcraft in British North America. At least 100 British settlers were charged with or convicted of witchcraft before 1690. Those convicted of witchcraft in the British colonies were, like those convicted in England, typically executed by hanging.

Image 1628: A Puritan militia in Quincy, Massachusetts suppresses May Day celebrations including dancing, drinking, and a May Pole.

Witchcraft was against the law in each of the original thirteen colonies. Crimes included astrology, fortune-telling and what are described as “magick arts.”

Image 1642: First Connecticut laws against witchcraft are passed.

Image May 1647: Alice Young is hanged as a witch in Connecticut, the first person executed for witchcraft in British North America.

Image 1648: Margaret Jones, midwife, healer, and the first person executed for witchcraft in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was hanged in Boston on June 15th.

Image 1662: Witches are executed in Providence, Rhode Island.

Image 1662: Ann Cole of Connecticut claims to be possessed by demons. During a fit, she accuses two women of witchcraft. One of them, Rebecca Greensmith, confesses to belonging to a coven and consorting with Satan. She is executed, as is her husband although he protested his innocence until the end. Following Rebecca’s death, at least nine other people are arrested, suspected of belonging to her alleged coven. Most of these people were executed by hanging: trial records are unclear about exactly how many died. However, witch trials and executions continue in Connecticut until 1697.

The Goodwin Witch Trials

The Goodwin witch trials of Boston in 1688, like the Salem witch trials, also involved bewitched children but have failed to grip the public imagination in the same manner as the Salem Village trials.

There are two versions of what precipitated the Goodwin crisis. According to one, the family accused a Mrs Glover, their Irish washerwoman, of stealing their linens; she denied their accusations, responding with a curse. Alternatively, the eldest Goodwin child, a 13-year-old girl, asked the laundress about some missing linens and the laundress retorted with what is described as “very bad language.”

This daughter began to have fits, quickly followed by her sister and two brothers. The children were struck deaf, dumb, and blind, alternately; their tongues were thrust dramatically out and then pulled back with a snap, like a retractable cord. Physicians were called in but to no avail.

Mr Goodwin requested that the town clergy fast and pray for his family. Cotton Mather the witch-hunter was called in to observe. His observations were published as Memorable Providences Related to Witchcraft in Boston, 1689, influencing the Salem witch-trial judges. Most of what is known about the case derives from Mather’s writings. He was not sympathetic to the laundress, describing her as the “daughter of a scandalous Irishwoman.”

The washerwoman was arrested and brought to trial where she claimed that although she understood English well enough, she was unable to speak anything but Gaelic, her native tongue. (Mather claimed her spoken English was previously perfectly functional.) She then claimed that another witch had placed a spell on her to prevent her from communicating. (This other witch apparently counting on the court not to obtain an interpreter.)

It was a moot point; there was no need to talk: the laundress was made to touch one of the Goodwin children in court and the child immediately fell into a fit, tantamount during that era to proof of witchcraft.

The laundress’ residence was then searched and rag poppets discovered. She then confessed to bewitching the Goodwin children via those dolls. The judges interviewed her for hours and ordered the self-professed Roman Catholic to recite the Pater Noster in Latin, which she did except for one or two clauses. She was found guilty of witchcraft; physicians decided she was not insane and she was condemned to hang. Cotton Mather personally accompanied her to the gallows.

Grace Sherwood

Although New England is most closely associated with witchcraft trials, they occurred elsewhere in the colonies too. The most famous American witch trial not occurring in New England was the case of Grace Sherwood of Virginia, in 1689.

When accused of witchcraft, not filing suit for slander was tantamount to confessing guilt. James Sherwood, a carpenter, and his wife Grace brought suits for slander and defamation against two different neighboring families. Two charges were filed, £100 requested per count, roughly equivalent to $2,000 dollars today. One neighbor had accused Grace of using witchcraft to blight their small cotton crop; the other claimed that Grace had appeared at their farm in the form of a black cat, in which shape she jumped on Elizabeth Barnes, whipped her, and drove her “like a horse,” finally departing through the keyhole not the door.

Both charges of slander and defamation were dismissed; the Sherwoods were fined court costs including those incurred by the entertainment of nine witnesses over four days.

In 1704, Grace, now widowed, reappeared in court charging that another neighbor, Elizabeth Hill, had beaten her. Hill did not deny the charges, claiming she was acting in self-defense as Grace had bewitched her. Grace was awarded £1 in damages but Hill and her husband then charged her with witchcraft in court.

On March 7, 1706, a jury of women was directed to physically search Grace for witches’ marks. The forewoman of this jury was Elizabeth Barnes who, years earlier, had been the woman to claim Grace had ridden her in the form of a black cat. Perhaps not surprisingly, several witch marks were quickly found; Grace was convicted of witchcraft.

There was no precedent for witchcraft trials in Virginia. Grace Sherwood was the first conviction. There were various debates as to who had jurisdiction with no one overly eager to assume responsibility. The Attorney General of the Virginia Colony announced that accusations against Grace had been too vague. Her case was turned over to the Sheriff of Princess Anne County, who ordered Grace’s home searched for evidence and Grace to be subjected to a water ordeal: a witch ducking. Grace was formally ducked in a local lake on July 10, 1706; she managed to stay afloat, which was considered a sure sign of witchcraft. Had she sunk like a stone and drowned, she might have been judged innocent. (The spot where she was thrown into the water is still called Witch Duck Point.)

Grace was brought back to shore; once again she was bodily searched by five elderly women. Grace was ordered to be chained and imprisoned, awaiting further trial. There are no records indicating this trial was ever held. In 1740, her three sons presented the court with their mother’s will and proof of her demise. Her estate included 145 acres of land inherited by her eldest son.

Salem Village Witch Trials

The Salem Village Witch Trials of 1690—1692 are the most written about incident of the entire Burning Times.

Many believe the Salem witch trials to be the only witch trials that occurred in the British Colonies. Others believe them to have been the only trials stimulated by accusations from children. (They were not; there was tremendous precedent for children as witnesses throughout the Burning Times and especially in England. The judges of the Salem witch trials were well aware of this.)

Only one thing is very unique and unusual about the Salem witch trials and that is that not long after the trials had concluded, judges, accusers, and the community repented of their actions, many publicly. Judge Samuel Sewall (1652—1730) so repented of his role in the death of the 19 “Salem Witches” that for the rest of his life he wore coarse penitential sackcloth against his skin, beneath his outer garments. Many later appreciated that participation in the witch trials (as accusers and judges) was something of which to be ashamed or embarrassed; hence even the records of these trials demonstrate some gaps. It is believed that families later edited documents to minimize records of involvement.

The name “Salem” means Peace and was derived from “Jerusalem.” The Puritan founders had set themselves a high standard for creating an outpost of God in the wilderness surrounded by Paganism. They lived in absolute fear of the surrounding forest, where witches were believed to make pacts with the devil in the form of Native Americans, especially the local Abenaki who had mounted an aggressive campaign to force the Europeans from their ancestral territory. Many of those involved with the witchcraft trials and accusations had first-hand knowledge of Indian attacks on English settlements. It was a community with a high percentage of people suffering from what would now be considered repressed post-traumatic syndrome.

The epicenter of the Salem witch crisis was the parish home of Reverend Samuel Parris, whose household included his ailing wife, his daughter Betty, two slaves—Tituba and her husband John Indian—and an 11-year-old relative named Abigail Williams, usually described as his niece.

The settlers had an extremely conservative vision of Christianity. No fun was permitted nor leisure time, especially for girls. During the cold winter, Tituba entertained her charges and other young girls with stories while sitting in the kitchen, the one warm spot in the home. Exactly what stories she told them is unknown: the oft-repeated speculation that she told them “voodoo tales” is just that: speculation.

The girls allegedly experimented with household divination: floating egg whites on water to reveal information about future husbands. Betty suddenly began to develop odd symptoms. Reverend Parris consulted physician William Griggs, who was unable to discover any physical cause for Betty’s condition. Griggs suggested the possibility of bewitchment. Betty began to suffer convulsions and fits; she and Abigail accused Tituba, their slave, of bewitching them. Tituba was beaten; she eventually confessed to witchcraft. Two other women, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne, were also accused of tormenting the girls. The circle of bewitched girls grew larger and accusations of witchcraft soon flew against various members of the Salem Village community as well as those from other towns.

Details of the trials are complex; many books from many perspectives examine the crisis in Salem. Stories of the victims are famous: only a few can be briefly told here.

On June 2, 1692 Bridget Bishop was the first to stand trial. Bridget was a tavern keeper, owning two taverns: one in Salem Village and another at Salem Town. Among the accusations against her was maintaining her youthful appearance despite her years. Various upstanding married men of the community testified that she sent her “shape” or apparition to torment them in their dreams.

She was accused of attending witches’ sabbats and giving suck to a familiar in the form of a snake. She was stripped and carefully searched; a “witch’s tit” (an extra nipple) was allegedly found between her anus and pudendum.

Martha Corey was arrested in March 1692, followed by her husband Giles in April. She was sentenced to death on September 10th. Giles stood trial several days later. Eighty-year-old Giles Corey knew that by English law, refusing to plead, whether innocent or guilty, would stall the legal procedure. If he never entered a plea, the authorities would be unable to confiscate his property and assets, which would instead be inherited by his heirs as normal.

Giles Corey refused to plead. He was never convicted of witchcraft, although he is perhaps the most famous victim of the Salem witch trials. Giles Corey was pressed to force him to either confess or plead innocent. The procedure involved lying a person flat on their back with their limbs extended outwards as far as possible so as not to provide any buffering. Stones and heavy iron weights were then gradually piled atop the body: the person must plead or die.

Pressing occurred only once in American history; Giles Corey is the only victim to this date. Technically, it was illegal under law established in England in 1641; the procedure should not have been administered to Corey. As each weight was added, the victim was asked if he would now like to plead. Giles Corey’s only response during the process (and his last words) was the demand “More weight!

Reverend George Burroughs, a Harvard graduate, was the former pastor of Salem Village. Twelve-year-old Anne Putnam accused him of appearing to her in the form of an apparition, torturing her, and demanding that she sign his book, which she refused. Putnam claimed Burroughs’ first two wives appeared to her in sheets with napkins about their heads and told her Burroughs murdered them. Others then came forward and accused Burroughs of being “the devil of a witches’ coven.”

Burroughs was eating dinner with his family in Boston when a marshal arrived with an arrest warrant for “suspicion of confederacy with the devil.” Burroughs, who once held the same position as Reverend Parris did then, was brought back to Salem to face trial as the alleged coven leader. He was convicted. Standing on the gallows, just before his execution, Reverend Burroughs recited the Lord’s Prayer perfectly, which, according to then-popular belief, should have been impossible: it was believed that those in league with Satan could not say the Lord’s Prayer correctly and in full. His recital received an instant reaction: many among the crowd of observers demanded Burroughs be freed. However, Cotton Mather stepped forward and personally convinced those in positions of power that the hanging should proceed; Burroughs was executed.

Sarah Good denied the charges against her to the bitter end. Her very last words, when encouraged to confess by one of her accusers, Reverend Noyes, were to tell him: “I am no more a witch than you are a wizard and if you take away my life, God will give you blood to drink.” Sarah was executed; Noyes died in 1717 choking on his own blood as a result of internal hemorrhaging.

The youngest accused witch was Sarah’s daughter, Dorcas Good, aged four, charged with “suspicion of acts of witchcraft.” While jailed, little Dorcas confessed to owning a snake, a present from her mother, which sucked on her index finger, and displayed a red spot on that finger. Those words condemned her to imprisonment while awaiting trial. Special miniature childsized chains were crafted for her. Dorcas Good remained in jail until December 1692 when Samuel Ray of Salem posted a £50 bail bond for her release. No records indicate whether she was ever brought to trial.

A group of Salem Village girls eventually leveled charges resulting in 150 witch accusations, 141 arrests, 31 convictions, and 19 executions. The accusers were young girls, not politicians; they did not know whom it was safe to accuse. When they accused Lady Phips, wife of the governor, and the pregnant wife of the prominent Reverend John Hale of witchcraft, Hale, for one, began to oppose the whole prosecution, publicly confessing that his previous strong support for the proceedings had been wrong. A number of ministers and other prominent men came to his support and the court recessed.

Between June 10th and September 22nd, 1692, the following 19 people were hanged in Salem Village:

Bridget Bishop

George Burroughs

Martha Carrier

Martha Corey

Mary Esty

Sarah Good

Elizabeth How

George Jacobs

Susanna Martin

Rebecca Nurse

Alice Parker

Mary Parke

John Proctor

Ann Pudeator

Wilmot Reed

Margaret Scott

Samuel Wardwell

Sarah Wilds

John Willard

The final straw occurred when several people accused of witchcraft in nearby Andover responded by bringing a defamation suit against their accusers demanding heavy financial damages. The Salem witchcraze promptly ended.

In May 1693, Governor Phips ordered all those awaiting trial on witchcraft charges be released from prison, once their legal fees were paid. Excommunications were erased.

Canon Episcopi

The Canon Episcopi, one of the first official documents of the Roman Catholic Church regarding witchcraft, was attributed to the Council of Ancyra in 314 CE, however no known document appears prior to the tenth century. Many modern scholars think Bishop Regino, who presented it in 906, actually wrote it himself but ascribed it to earlier sources for credibility.

According to the Canon, no such thing as “witchcraft” exists because only God can possibly have power over humans. Anyone claiming to be a witch or of seeing or experiencing witchcraft is deluded. Furthermore, anyone believing in witchcraft is by definition practicing Paganism and can be prosecuted for heresy.

In early Christian Europe, witchcraft was officially considered an illusion. Those who believed in the possibility of witches were ordered to do penance. The whole concept of witches was described as a Satanic delusion. At that point in history, it may have been perceived as important to deny the reality of witches because they were linked to Pagan female deities like Abondia, Diana, Freya, Herodias, and Hulda: hence denying the witches’ power was inherently denying the power of their deities.

The Canon Episcopi was incorporated into Church law in the twelfth century. It was generally understood that night flight and transformations didn’t occur on the literal level.

By the fifteenth century, witches were accused of worshipping Satan and witchcraft was no longer considered an illusion. Among the most influential voices against the Canon Episcopi was Thomas Aquinas, who wrote that magicians perform miracles through personal contact with demons.

The Canon Episcopi was the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church regarding sabbats until, in December 1484 Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull Desiring With Supreme Ardor, stating that witch hunts were a necessity and emphasizing the realities of witchcraft. The Malleus Maleficarum was published in 1486 at which point, witchcraft, the witch-hunters’ version anyway, was officially perceived as real.

Rather than saying the Canon Episcopi was wrong, Church officials explained that Satan had exploited the document to encourage proliferation of witchcraft: a new army of witches had arisen, more powerful and dangerous than ever before, and so new, drastic measures were necessary.


As demonstrated by the Bacchanalia, witch hysteria existed prior to Christianity. However, the European Witchcraze was almost entirely Church sponsored; legislation against witches was written into official Church documents. The Witchcraze was largely (and officially) based on the premise that an international conspiracy of witches was working tirelessly to overthrow Christian civilization.

In the fifth century, St Augustine wrote that at the very beginning of time, God divided Creation into two contrasting realms: the City of God inhabited by angels and good people (i.e., true Christians), and the City of the Devil inhabited by demons and their Pagan allies.

The two domains battle continually; history records their struggle. Demons (and by extension Pagans, which Augustine once was) are agents of the Devil. Their efforts to corrupt Christian souls never cease. Among their primary weapons of seduction are magic and witchcraft. Even healing charms and protective amulets are demonic.

The following are but some of the official decrees contributing to the persecution of witches (depending, of course, upon one’s definition of witchcraft) and creating the social climate that would ultimately culminate in the Burning Times:

Image In 313, Emperor Constantine makes Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. That year Pagan religions are proclaimed demonic; Constantine decrees that Pagan shrines be demolished or converted to Christian sites

Image In 314, Constantine defends Christian massacres of Pagans in Egypt and Palestine

Image In 314, the Synod of Ancyra decrees five-years’ penance for fortune-telling and for healing illness via occult means

Image In 319, Constantine passes a law exempting Christian clergy from taxes or military service

Image In 335, Constantine decrees death by crucifixion for magicians and diviners in Asia Minor and Palestine

Image In 356, Emperor Constantius decrees the death penalty for all forms of worship involving “idolatry” or sacrifice

Image In 357, Constantius bans all forms of divination, except for astrology

Image In 375, the Synod of Laodicaea forbids wearing amulets on pain of execution

Image In 389, Emperor Theodosius bans all non-Christian calendars

Image In 391, Theodosius prohibits visiting Pagan shrines; even looking at Pagan statues is now a criminal offence

Image In 395, Theodosius decrees that Paganism is a criminal offence; all Pagan events including the Olympic Games are banned

Image In 396, Emperor Flavius Arcadias decrees that Paganism is the equivalent of high treason. Remaining Pagan priests in the Roman Empire are ordered imprisoned

Image In 506, a Visigothic Synod in Languedoc decrees excommunication for anyone practicing divination, whether clergy or layperson

Image In 511, 533, 541, 573 and 603, Frankish Synods in Orleans and Auxerre decree excommunication for fortune-tellers; based on the need for repetition, legislation was apparently not very effective

Image In 528, Emperor Justinianus orders execution of diviners via crucifixion, fire or rending by iron nails or wild beasts

Image In 743, the Synod of Rome outlawed offerings and sacrifices to Pagan deities

Image In 829, the Synod of Paris issued a decree advocating that magicians, sorcerers, and witches be put to death

Image Although the Inquisition was originally created to combat heresy, circa 1326, Pope John XXII also authorizes it to proceed against sorcerers. John defines any deliberate contact with “demons” to be heresy, thus the Inquisition is empowered to act against ritual magicians

Having broadened the definition of witchcraft as a crime, the Church was overwhelmed and unable to handle the flood of cases. The Church now encouraged secular authorities to become involved with all phases of witch-hunting and prosecution. The first secular witch trial is held in Paris in 1390, followed by thousands more in Catholic and Protestant regions alike.

Image In September 1409, new pope Alexander V issues a papal bull complaining that many Christians and Jews practice witchcraft, divination, invocations to the devil, magical spells, superstition, and “forbidden and pernicious arts, with which they pervert and corrupt many true Christians”

Image Pope Eugenius IV (reigns 1431—47) orders the Inquisition to act against all magicians and witches, emphasizing their diabolical associations

Image In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull sanctioning witch-hunting. This was reprinted as an introductory foreword to the witch-hunters’ manual the Malleus Maleficarum. This essentially gave the entire manuscript the papal seal of approval and many believed the Malleus Maleficarum to be an official papal document, thus making the book tremendously influential. (See BOOKS: Witch-hunters’ Manuals: Kramer.)

Protestants emulate the Roman Catholic Church in only one thing: witch-hunts:

Image Lutheran preachers bring the witchcraze to Denmark

Image Calvinist missionaries bring the witchcraze to Transylvania

Image Lutheran preachers lead witchcrazes in Baden, Bavaria, Brandenburg, Mecklenburg, and Württemberg during the 1560s


Witchcraft was prosecuted very differently in England than on the Continent or in neighboring Scotland. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, witchcraft itself was not a crime per se in England. The only witches prosecuted were those using magic to cause physical harm to another person or their property, including animals. Anyone convicted of causing harm via malicious magic was punished in the same manner as someone who caused similar harm in a non-magical way: fines, incarceration, and/or public humiliation such as the pillory or stocks. During the fifteenth century some began demanding a more stringent approach.

English witchcraft trial records are comparatively complete; many fascinating witchcraft trials occurred in England. The following are but a few of the most famous:

Eleanor Cobham

In 1441 Eleanor Cobham, wife of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, was accused of conspiring to kill the king via wax image magic. Two priests, Roger Bolingbroke and Thomas Southwell, were charged as her accomplices as well as Margery Jourdemayne, known as the Witch of Eye because she lived in Eye-next-Westminster.

Jourdemayne had allegedly helped Eleanor wed Gloucester via charms and love spells. In 1430, she was imprisoned for sorcery but released two years later. She then disappears from documents until charged alongside Eleanor.

Eleanor was accused of practicing malevolent magic in order to obtain political power for her husband. The accusations were corroborated by occult scholar Roger Bolingbroke, who was charged alongside Eleanor. Tortured, Bolingbroke confessed that he was a master sorcerer who taught Eleanor everything she knew including wax image magic. He confessed to performing divination at her request.

The childless Eleanor confessed that she made a wax poppet to increase her fertility not to injure or control the king or anyone else. The figure however was judged to be the likeness of the king. Of course, every judge queried was allied with Eleanor’s husband’s enemies.

Father Thomas Southwell was accused of performing a mass over Bolingbroke’s necromantic instruments, seized when Bolingbroke was arrested. None of the accused denied practicing magic but all vociferously denied treason or attempts on the king’s life.

Thomas Southwell died in prison before sentencing. Margery Jourdemayne, the Witch of Eye, was burned at the stake. Bolingbroke was made to stand on a high scaffold in London wearing magician’s robes and surrounded by his ritual tools including the wax figure allegedly made of the king. He was then hanged, drawn, and quartered. His severed head was displayed on London Bridge. His limbs were exhibited, one each in Cambridge, Hereford, Oxford, and York.

Eleanor was convicted and condemned to do public penance on three occasions. She was made to walk barefoot and bareheaded through the streets of London carrying a two-pound candle. She was imprisoned for the rest of her life, first at Chester, then at Peel Castle on the Isle of Man, where she died in mysterious circumstances in 1447.

Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn (c.1507—1536) is the perfect example of political, cynical use of witchcraft accusations. When Henry VIII was in love with Anne, many critics suggested that she had bewitched the king in order to become queen. When Anne first gave birth to a daughter (the future Elizabeth I), then a still-born son, Henry described it as God’s punishment on him for consorting with a witch. He ordered her arrest for treason. (The charge was based on accusations of infidelity.) She was convicted and beheaded in 1536.

During the sixteenth century, witchcraft laws were made more severe. In 1542 a law was passed decreeing mandatory strict sentences—but not death—for conviction of maleficia (see DICTIONARY). In 1562 Queen Elizabeth I passes the Witchcraft Act. A first offense was punishable by being pilloried; the death sentence was only permitted after three separate convictions. Execution is mandated for cases of maleficia involving murder. In 1581 severe physical punishment is mandated for maleficia even if it does not result in murder. (Merely practicing folk magic, however, was not a crime.)

The number of witchcraft accusations rose, as did the number of sensational trials that gripped the public imagination such as the Burton Boy and the Chelmsford Witches.

Witch persecutions were disproportionately strong in Essex and Lancashire; historians suggest that this was in response to religious tension between Roman Catholics and Puritan evangelists.

Chelmsford Witch Trials

Chelmsford, Essex, was racked with witch trials in 1566, 1579, 1589, and 1645.

In 1566 three women were charged as witches in Chelmsford during a two-day trial. Charges included consorting with the devil and harming others via magic (maleficia).

Elizabeth Francis confessed that her grandmother, Mother Eve, had instructed her in witchcraft, teaching her to renounce God and give her blood to the devil. She also confessed to bewitching a baby who then “became decrepit.” She had a white spotted cat named Sathan who was her familiar and obtained goods and sheep for her. Sathan, who could speak English (this ability was not demonstrated at the trial), stole 18 black and white sheep for Elizabeth.

Sathan also helped her obtain a lover; when the lover wouldn’t marry Elizabeth, the cat killed him via witchcraft. On the cat’s advice she became pregnant by Christopher Francis, whom she later married, but the marriage was unhappy. Elizabeth testified that she requested that Sathan kill her child, which he did. She later wanted her husband lamed, which the cat accomplished by transforming into a toad and hiding in Christopher Francis’ shoe. The cat also allegedly killed a neighbor’s cattle.

After 15 or 16 years of service, Elizabeth Francis said she had enough of Sathan the cat and gave him to her impoverished neighbor, 65-year-old Mother Agnes Waterhouse, instructing her to call him “Sathan” and feed him bread, milk, and her own blood.

Agnes Waterhouse confessed to the murder by witchcraft of William Fyness and sending Sathan to destroy a neighbor’s cattle and geese. She also had a toad familiar whom she kept in a pot. She also testified that she tried to get Sathan to kill a local tailor, Mr Wardol, with whom she had a dispute, but Wardol was too strong in his faith.

Joan Waterhouse, her daughter, aged 18, was charged with bewitching 12-year-old Agnes Brown. Both older women confessed but Joan did not, begging for mercy instead, which she received.

Elizabeth Francis was sentenced to a year in prison. Agnes Waterhouse was condemned and hanged on July 29, 1566. Joan Waterhouse, Agnes’ daughter, was found innocent.

In 1579 four women were charged with witchcraft in Chelmsford including Elizabeth Francis who had served one year in jail after being convicted of witchcraft in 1566. Charges included two cases of bewitchment resulting in a person’s death and one charge each of bewitching a cow and a gelding to death. Elizabeth Francis, Ellen Smith, and Alice Stokes were executed by hanging. Margaret Stanton was released for lack of evidence.

In 1589 ten people were accused of witchcraft in Chelmsford. Records show that four were hung and three were found innocent. It is uncertain what happened to the last three defendants.

The Windsor Witches

This 1579 trial was stimulated by the discovery of three female wax images, pierced with bristles and found buried in a dung heap. Four elderly, impoverished women (Mother Devell, Mother Dutten, Mother Margaret, and Elizabeth Stile) were accused of witchcraft. They denied the charges until they were told that leniency would be shown if they confessed. They confessed and were promptly convicted and hanged.

St Osyth Trial

There were approximately 14 defendants in this 1582 trial. Ten were charged with committing murder via witchcraft. (Margaret Murray reported 13 defendants, however many historians believe she manipulated numbers to support her theory of 13-member covens. Trial transcripts allegedly indicate 14 witches.)

The central figure was Ursula Kemp, a professional healer who included folk magic in her practice: it is unclear whether she was tortured. The person who first accused her of maleficia was a former patient who had refused to pay a bill and claimed Kemp had retaliated by worsening the illness.

Kemp’s eight-year-old son was coerced into offering detailed testimony about witchcraft practiced in their home. After her son’s testimony, Ursula confessed to being a witch and named four other women as witches. Ursula claimed to be a solitary witch but said the other women were part of two covens in the area. The four women were arrested and charged; they in turn confessed and named others as witches. Two women, Ursula Kemp and Elizabeth Bennet, were hanged on February 18, 1582. Four others were acquitted. Two women were released prior to the trial’s conclusion for lack of evidence and the rest were incarcerated.

Following Ursula’s death, her body was dipped in tar and displayed, hanging from a gibbet, for almost a month. She was refused a Christian burial and was buried in wasteland. Her remains were discovered during a 1921 excavation just outside the Priory of St Osyth. Metal spikes had been driven through her wrists, knees, and ankles—presumably so she wouldn’t rise again. Her body was displayed before being buried once more under a heap of rubble. Cecil Williamson purchased her remains in the 1940s for £100. (See HALL OF FAME: Margaret Murray, Cecil Williamson.)

The Warboys Witches

The trial of the Warboys Witches in 1593 was a sensational case; it is sometimes cited as a major factor in the passage of the 1604 Witchcraft Act. The Warboys Witches were Alice Samuel, aged 76, her husband John, and her daughter Agnes.

In 1589, Alice was visiting her neighbor Robert Throckmorton in Warboys when his 10-year-old daughter Jane suffered some sort of seizure, for which Jane blamed Alice. Soon other girls in the Throckmorton family, aged 9 to 15, were having fits too and blaming Alice Samuel.

Their parents doubted witchcraft was the cause. Wealthy and well-educated, they consulted the finest physicians possible who could find no physical cause. The fits increased in frequency and in violence. Other women in the household (the girls’ aunt, female servants) started having fits too. At first there was no pattern to these fits but after a while they only occurred in Alice Samuel’s presence. (Alice was frequently summoned to the Throckmorton estate as part of the process of determining what was wrong with the girls. She had no choice but to appear.)

Eventually Throckmorton asked Alice to live in his house, reasoning that the girls couldn’t sustain their fits 24 hours a day. He was right: the fits became intermittent, but instead the girls now began to see demons. A visitor, Lady Cromwell, experimented by burning a little of Alice’s hair in the belief that this could lessen her power. The girls were no better and Lady Cromwell later claimed that Alice appeared in her dreams that night and attacked her. Lady Cromwell developed a long illness and died one year later. Alice Samuel was blamed for her death.

Three years later in 1592, the Throckmorton girls were still pitching fits, still seeing demons, still in misery, and still blaming Alice Samuel. Alice apparently finally had enough: she lost her temper and ordered the girls to stop their nonsense—they did!

The fits stopped. Unfortunately for Alice, this was taken as incontrovertible proof of witchcraft. Alice herself began to wonder if she possessed some kind of power, confiding her fears to a local clergyman. He shared her concerns with others: a formal investigation was opened.

Alice Samuel soon confessed to witchcraft. She was placed on trial for bewitching the ladies of the Throckmorton household and the magical murder of Lady Cromwell.

During that era it was commonly believed that if someone practiced witchcraft, others sharing her household must be practitioners, too, especially daughters. Alice’s husband and her daughter were charged with witchcraft too, although both protested their innocence. The Samuel family was convicted and hanged in August 1593, after which all signs of bewitchment in the Throckmorton household ceased.

The Pendle Forest Witches

The trial of the Pendle Forest witches in 1612 was one of the largest and most complex of the English witch trials. Twenty defendants from two families were charged. The trial was the subject of a 1613 book by the court clerk, Thomas Potts—The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster.

Elizabeth Sowthern, also known as Old Mother Demdike, and Anne Whittle, also known as Old Chattox, worked together for a while selling magic potions. Each lived with her large extended family in Lancashire’s Pendle Forest. Eventually rivalry developed between the two families and a feud developed, each family accusing the other of malevolent witchcraft. Accusations were lobbed against each other: magical baby killing, murder via familiar (spotted dog), Satanic pacts, and so forth.

Authorities eventually arrested the two matriarchs and nine of their relatives; officials later learned that about twenty members of the two families that hadn’t been arrested were conspiring to spring the accused from jail. Nine were caught and jailed for this conspiracy, but were also charged with witchcraft. The new defendants were accused of using magic to murder 16 people as well as assorted cows and horses.

Nine-year-old Jennet Device was the prosecution’s star witness, offering damning testimony against her grandmother (Sowthern/Demdike), her mother Elizabeth Device, her sister Alison, and her brother James. She testified that her mother used witchcraft to kill three people and had a familiar in the shape of a brown dog named Bell.

Mother Demdike, aged 80, confessed that she became a witch 50 years earlier when she was initiated by a boy wearing parti-colored clothing whom she met near a stone pit in Pendle Forest. She had since dedicated herself, her children, and her grandchildren to Satan. (Whether this was code for hereditary witchcraft remains subject to debate.) Her granddaughter Alison testified that Demdike had initiated her into the family coven with the gift of a big black dog.

Mother Demdike was allegedly the leader of one group of witches; her rival Anne Whittle (Chattox) was accused of killing John Device (Mother Demdike’s son-in-law) via witchcraft because he didn’t pay Chattox the annual tax he promised her for not harming him or his family.

The magistrate ordered Demdike and three others be arrested and taken to Lancaster Castle where Mother Demdike died in jail. Ten people were hanged in August 1612 including Anne Chattox and her daughter as well as Elizabeth, Alison and James Device. Young Jennet Device, who was left without immediate family, largely because of her own testimony, was herself hanged as a witch 20 years later.

The Burton Boy

Thomas Darling (c.1582—?) was from Burton-on-Trent and so was called “the Burton Boy.” At age 14, Thomas experienced a brief illness; he began having convulsions and reported seeing visions of demons. Physicians were consulted; most diagnosed bewitchment. (One diagnosed worms.) Thomas was asked who was responsible; he named 66-year-old Alice Gooderidge, with whom he had quarreled in the forest. She was tracked down and tortured to extract her confession. Alice denied being a witch but was unable to recite the Lord’s Prayer, then considered proof of witchcraft. She was tortured until she began to give details of her “crimes.”

Alice said Satan visited her in the form of a dog she had received from her mother, Elizabeth Wright. No record exists of what happened to Wright; Gooderidge died in prison while serving a one-year sentence for witchcraft.

In the meantime, famed exorcist John Darrell cast out Darling’s demons. He suffered no more convulsions. Three years later, Thomas Darling admitted faking convulsions, possessions, and exorcism in order to achieve celebrity and fame. (Some believe Darrell was also involved in the deception.)

In 1604, King James I passed the Witchcraft Act. Death by hanging is decreed for all cases of maleficia, even first offenses not involving murder. It becomes a crime to consort with the devil, concoct potions, and practice divination. Rural practitioners of folk magic were reclassified as devil-worshiping witches.

Elizabethan law had preserved distinctions between “good” and “bad” witches. Reginald Scot’s 1584 book Discoverie of Witchcraft became increasingly influential (see BOOKS: Witch-hunters’ Manuals: Scot). Trial judges more and more found accused witches innocent or even refuse to try them. James changed the law because, in his words, he “found a defect in the statute…by which none died for witchcraft but only who by that means had killed so that such were executed rather as murderers” than as witches.

Following the 1604 Act, professional witchfinders begin to appear, most notoriously Matthew Hopkins. Because English law did not permit brutal torture as in parts of the Continent, English witch-finders devised their own techniques. (What constituted torture was subjective; although “torture” as practiced in Germany and Scotland was forbidden in England, starving, exhausting or otherwise creating “discomfort” was permissible.)

Accused witches were kept awake for days, made to walk continuously, and refused food and water. When exhausted, they were more easily bullied, coerced or tricked into confessions.

Witchcraft was also proven by water ordeal, known as “swimming the witch” or “being swum.” The accused was tied up and tossed into deep water. Most people at that time could not swim. If the person floated, she was guilty. Many panicked and confessed. This ordeal was banned by Parliament in 1645, although it remained commonly practiced.

Matthew Hopkins

Between 1645 and 1646 Matthew Hopkins was responsible for the executions of over two hundred accused witches. Hopkins (c.1621—c.1647), a professional witch-finder, appointed himself Witch Finder General. He received a fee of 40 shillings for each charge and investigation and a bonus per conviction. His profit per “job” ranged from £4 to £26. He traveled through the countryside offering his services.

Hopkins’ family came from East Anglia. He was a Puritan and lived in the village of Manningtree in Essex; very little else is known of his early life. He had been a struggling lawyer but in 1645 began advertising his services as a witch-hunter. Essex was his preferred territory but he extended his efforts throughout East Anglia.

Hopkins placed emphasis on imps, familiars, and witch’s marks rather than on the sabbats popular among witchcraft accusations elsewhere. An accused person was searched for a devil’s or witch’s mark, which was almost inevitably found. Searching wasn’t limited to visual examination: long pins were stuck all over the accused’s body in search of a witch’s mark, which might be visible or merely a spot on the body perceived as being insensitive to pain. If the person didn’t cry out in pain then the witch’s mark had been found. After the mark was discovered, the accused was strapped naked onto a stool or table and left with observers to await the arrival of an imp, familiar, demon or devil. Any appearance was considered sufficient: an ant, a fly, a mouse…

Hopkins had two assistants. John Stearne, a Puritan, searched men, and Mary Phillips, a midwife, searched female suspects for marks, under the supervision of Hopkins.

The first witch Hopkins investigated was old, one-legged Elizabeth Clarke whose neighbors in Chelmsford disliked her. Clarke was tortured and named five others. All were executed. From that very first trial, people were disconcerted by Hopkins’ fees and by the financial incentive he had in discovering and proving witchcraft.

The public became increasingly uneasy about Hopkins’ methods. Opposition to him grew. A 1646 publication, Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and Witchcraft by John Gaule, a clergyman in Huntingdonshire, wrote against the cruelties of witch-hunting in general and attacked Hopkins’ procedures in particular. After publication of Gaule’s book, Hopkins’ business began to taper off.

In 1647, Hopkins self-published a pamphlet, The Discovery of Witches: in Answer to Severall Queries lately Delivered to the Judges of Assize for Norfolk County, that defended his actions and claimed that the sincere desire to eliminate evil (not financial motivation) stimulated his career as a witch-finder.

Hopkins then disappeared. What happened to him? Who knows? Some suggest that Hopkins was himself accused of witchcraft and executed. Others suggest that relatives of a witch he caused to be executed killed him or that a mob seized him and dunked him in the village pond until he drowned (Hopkins was particularly fond of swimming witches). This may be wishful thinking: Stearne, his old assistant, suggested that Hopkins died of tuberculosis.

The Somerset Witch Trials

In 1664, 16 women and 9 men are tried in what became known as the Somerset Witch Trials. They allegedly belonged to two covens, both under the alleged personal supervision of Satan, who appeared to them as a mysterious man named “Robin.” The witches confessed to the charges; they claimed they’d been given devil’s marks and that they had used ointments and incantations to fly off to sabbats. The court, however, didn’t believe their confessions and dismissed the case.

Margaret Murray relied heavily on trial transcripts from the Somerset Witch Trials for her books and theories of witchcraft. See HALL OF FAME: Margaret Murray.

Exeter Witch Trials

In 1682 three impoverished elderly defendants were arrested in Exeter—Susanna Edwards, Mary Trembles, and Temperance Lloyd. Lloyd, who had twice previously been unsuccessfully tried for witchcraft, was accused of leading a coven that included the other two women. It is not clear whether the women were tortured but all three confessed to being witches and consorting with the devil. This was one of the last English witchcraft trials. The judge, convinced that the confessions stemmed from the defendants mental and physical infirmities, wished to acquit the women. The public massed outside the courtroom however roared for conviction and execution, and the judge, fearing public’s reaction, ordered their execution. The three women were hanged in August.

In 1684 Alice Molland was hanged as a witch in Exeter. She was the last person executed for witchcraft by an English court of law.

The last official trial for witchcraft in England occurred in Leicester in 1717. Twenty-five neighbors accused Mother Norton and her daughter of practicing witchcraft. The two women were subjected to swimming and were publicly stripped naked and pricked. However, in court, the presiding judge, Justice Parker, and the Grand Jury found no substance to the charges and released both women.

The Witchcraft Act of 1736, enacted under George II, sharply reduced penalties for practicing witchcraft. The gist was that witchcraft doesn’t exist, therefore no one should in the future be prosecuted for it, but anyone pretending to be a witch or to practice witchcraft should be prosecuted as an impostor.

A substantial segment of the populace disapproved of the Act as being too lenient towards witches, permitting them to get away with their crimes. Thus instead of charging people with witchcraft, mob violence became more customary when witchcraft was suspected. As late as the early twentieth century, stories of mobs attacking suspected witches were not uncommon.

In 1751 John and Ruth Osborne were killed by a mob that suspected the elderly couple of witchcraft. The Osbornes had long been unpopular in their Hertfordshire community; they are described as holding differing political views from their neighbors. A dairy farmer named Butterfield apparently refused Ruth Osborne some free buttermilk; shortly afterwards his cows died. With no cows, he sold his farm and opened a tavern instead. Butterfield then began to have convulsions for which he blamed Ruth, as he had the cows’ demise. Butterfield grumbled to his tavern customers who spread the gossip. A “rumor” spread that on April 22, 1751, the Osbornes would be swum to determine if they were witches. Local authorities hid the Osbornes for their own safety but a mob, led by chimney sweep Thomas Colley, found them on the appointed day. They were stripped naked, tied up, and tossed into a stream.

Ruth Osborne did not sink and so Colley pushed her under with a stick until she nearly died. The crowd then dragged her from the water and beat her to death. Her husband was dragged out as well and beaten; he died several days later.

In 1875 80-year-old Anne Tennant was fatally wounded with a pitchfork wielded by James Haywood, a local farmhand, in the village of Long Compton, Warwickshire. She was pinned to the ground with a pitchfork through her throat; a cross was carved over her breast with a billhook. “I meant to do it!” Haywood said when arrested. Haywood, terrified of witches since childhood, believed there were at least 15 in the area and intended to eliminate them. A jury declared him insane.

The 1944 trial of Helen Duncan (born in 1898) is cited as the reason for the repeal of Great Britain’s 1736 Witchcraft Act. Duncan was a medium. In 1941, she claimed to have spoken with the spirit of a recently drowned sailor. However, the event in which he had drowned had been classified as a military secret; no one outside a very limited military circle was aware of the drowning. The media picked up the story and the government was forced to admit the truth. There was speculation as to what other secrets Duncan might reveal and so she was placed on trial under the 1736 Witchcraft Act as plans for the Allied invasion of Normandy were being finalized.

During her trial, the government argued that Duncan was a life-long fraud and charlatan. However, dozens of witnesses, Duncan’s satisfied clients, testified to the contrary. Helen Duncan was convicted and spent nine months in prison, despite public protest against her incarceration.

In 1945 Charles Walton (1871—February 14, 1945) was discovered murdered. He had been pinned to the ground with a pitchfork through his throat. A cross had been slashed onto his body using a billhook, which was then thrust into his torso. The case became known as the “Witchcraft Murder”; Walton may have been killed because he was assumed to be a witch. A laborer who lived with a niece, he had a reputation as a cunning man with clairvoyant skills. Walton had taken his billhook and gone to trim hedgerows for a local farmer. He was seen at work at midday but never returned home. His niece and the farmer searched for him, discovering his body under a tree.

Scotland Yard was never able to solve the crime despite taking over four thousand statements. Villagers were not forthcoming: Walton was not well-liked. There was much speculation regarding his witchcraft practices and whether he was personally responsible for poor crops in the area. The murder remains unsolved to this day.

Does the murder sound familiar? It occurred but two miles from where Anne Tennant had been similarly killed as a witch in 1875 (see page 794).

In 1951 all British anti-witchcraft laws were repealed. Up until then, books perceived as advocating witchcraft practices and rituals, such as this one, could not be published in the UK.


The earliest French penalties against witchcraft consisted mainly of heavy fines: the fifth-century Salic Law established various levels. A fine of 72 sous and a half golden coin, for instance, was levied upon those who fashioned a witch’s knot and launched mortal curses, but also upon those who defamed a man as a wizard. In other words, one couldn’t make false accusations without penalty, a situation that would change during the Burning Times.

In 589, the Council of Narbonne decrees that diviners be whipped and sold as slaves. Those who consult with them are excommunicated and fined six ounces of gold. The Church designates secular rulers as the recipients of these fines, thus encouraging their cooperation.

Charlemagne (c.742—January 28, 814), ruler of the Frankish lands, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope during a mass on Christmas Day, 800. Charlemagne was no longer merely the leader of a nation; he was the leader of Western Christendom and eligible to lead crusades, his army was now an arm of the Roman Catholic Church. In essence, any war conducted by Charlemagne was potentially a “Holy War,” especially if his opponents were Pagan, even if it was conducted for increased territory.

Charlemagne’s territories eventually spanned Europe from the Pyrenees to the Danube. At the Church’s bidding, he attempted to stamp out all traces of Paganism within his territory: not just “idolatry” but anything remotely occult or magical. Magical practitioners were aggressively persecuted during Charlemagne’s reign. Laws demanded that fortune-tellers, diviners, sorcerers, and witches be handed over to the Church for punishment or, alternatively, used as slaves. First offenders were to have their heads shaved and be paraded through town on a donkey (see ANIMALS: Donkeys). Those convicted of a second offense were liable to have noses and tongues lopped off, while three-time offenders were liable to be executed.

In 873, Charles the Bald decreed, “It is the duty of Kings to slay the wicked, not to suffer witches and poisoners to live…” He also condemned those who consulted or consorted with witches.

The earliest French witch-hunts were heresy-trials conducted by fourteenth-century Inquisitors. The first French secular witch trial occurred in 1390. As secular courts became more involved in witch-prosecution, the French government strengthened its anti-witchcraft laws to increase likelihood of conviction and execution.

France now saw the rise of the celebrity witch-hunter. Nicholas Remy (c.1530—1612), for instance, judge, attorney, and author of the 1595 witch-hunters’ guide Demonolatry (see BOOKS: Witch-hunters’ Manuals: Remy), demanded execution of all witches as well as automatic punishment for their children, an unusual point but one subsequently adopted by many witch-trial judges. As a witch-hunter, Remy was responsible for the execution of over 900 accused witches, personally supervising the torture of over twice that number.

Remy believed his eldest son had been magically murdered in 1582 by a beggar-woman witch after the son had refused to give her alms. From that day forth, Remy was merciless towards witches, conducting a personal vendetta.

In Demonolatry, Nicholas Remy boasted, “so good is my justice that last year there were no less than sixteen killed themselves rather than pass through my hands.” He described children of condemned witches being “stripped and beaten with rods round the place where their parents were being burned alive.” Remy found this insufficient, however: “out of consideration for the public safety, such children ought in addition to be banished or exiled…for experience has shown that they who have fallen into the power of the Demon can rarely be rescued except by death.”

In 1275, the Toulouse Inquisition executes Angèle de Labarthe (or Labara) after she is convicted of eating babies and having sex with the Devil. According to trial testimony, Angèle claimed to have conceived a son by the devil; eyewitnesses testified that the boy had a wolf ’s head and a snake’s tail. He was fed on a diet of dead babies and lived until age 15, but died before her trial and so could not be presented to the court. Angèle is frequently cited as the first woman burned at the stake for having sex with Satan.

The Paris Witch Trial is France’s first secular witch trial, held in 1390. Jehan de Ruilly’s wife Macette fell in love with a handsome young curate; Macette hired Jehenne de Brigue la Cordière (“the rope maker”) a 34-year-old for-tune-teller, to cast a spell to cool her husband’s ardor. The incantations made Jehan ill. La Cordière felt sorry for him and removed the spell. The two women were arrested and charged with witchcraft.

At first la Cordière denied everything, but she was tortured and confessed to casting spells invoking the Holy Trinity and neglecting her prayers. This wasn’t sufficient for the court; tortured again, she recalled that her aunt taught her to summon a demon named Haussibut. She confessed to casting spells via wax dolls and a frog familiar.

Her trial continued throughout the winter and spring, with periodic recesses. She was sentenced to burn but was granted a reprieve because she thought she might be pregnant. Macette initially denied the charges but was tortured on the rack and confessed.

La Cordière’s sentence was reinstated but she appealed to the Parliament of Paris, the highest tribunal in the land. A new set of judges reviewed her case. Both verdicts were confirmed; on August 19, 1391 the two women were taken to the Pig Market and burned alive at the stake.

Between 1428 and 1447 a witchcraze in the Dauphiné region resulted in 110 women and 57 men being burned alive at the stake. In another witchcraze in Lorraine, between 1580 and 1595 over 900 people are burned alive during this period in this one region alone.

La Cordière’s civil trial in a secular court lasted almost a year; Inquisitional trials were typically fast and more discreet.

In 1579, the death penalty was mandated for divination: the Church Council at Melun declared, “Every charlatan and diviner and others who practice necromancy, pyromancy, chiromancy, hydromancy, will be punished by death.”

In 1602, 600 people, including young children, were burned at the stake by esteemed witch judge Henri Boguet (1550—1619).

Father Louis Gaufridi, a 34-year-old priest, was accused of bewitching several nuns at the Ursuline convent in Aix-en-Provence in 1610, and of forcing them to consort with the devil.

In December 1610, Father Gaufridi was interrogated by the Inquisition and tortured for approximately three weeks until he confessed to signing a pact in his own blood with Satan and bewitching the nuns. He confessed that a late uncle left him a collection of books including a magical text rendered in French verse. When, from curiosity, he repeated a conjuration, a demon appeared and made a pact with Gaufridi: his body and soul in exchange for honor, worldly success, and luck with women. He confessed to engaging in orgies at sabbats and presiding over services mocking those of the Church.

Gaufridi retracted his confession but on April 18, 1611 was found guilty of sorcery and sentenced to death. Before his sentence was carried out, however, he was tortured yet again to extract the names of accomplices. On April 30, 1611, Father Gaufridi was tied to the stake, strangled, and then burned. The next day Madeleine was fine but Louise continued to have visions of demons and witches. Other nuns continued to exhibit signs of possession and so finally, they were imprisoned.

The Loudon Witch Trials

The Loudon Witch Trials of 1634 featured the demonic possession of nuns at the Ursuline Convent in Loudon where the defendant, Father Urbain Grandier, had served as priest since 1617. He was a ladies man who reputedly had many mistresses among prominent local women. In 1630, a secular court found Grandier responsible of fathering the local prosecutor’s daughter’s illegitimate child. Only the intervention of the Archbishop of Bordeaux kept Grandier from jail although the prosecutor subsequently held a grudge against the priest. He was not the most dangerous of Grandier’s enemy’s however: Grandier was an outspoken critic of Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister to Louis XIII. Historians believe this to have been his ultimate undoing.

In 1633, Sister Jeanne des Anges, the Mother Superior of the Ursuline Convent, and several of the nuns began demonstrating “classical symptoms” of demonic possession. Grandier was blamed for their condition. Two other priests, enemies of Grandier, were summoned to conduct exorcisms. Sister Jeanne blamed Father Grandier along with a host of impressive demons including Asmodeus and Ashtaroth for tormenting her with demons and sending her depraved dreams. The Archbishop of Bordeaux intervened, sending physicians to examine the nuns. The physicians found nothing amiss and the exorcisms were halted.

Richelieu then intervened, arranging for new public exorcisms and appointing a special investigator. During the public investigation, Grandier’s former mistresses came forward with racy tales of sexual escapades.

Grandier was arrested as a witch. A search was made for devil’s marks, which were found although his supporters present at the search claimed there were none. These supporters were then threatened with charges of witchcraft themselves unless they stopped protesting. Some of the nuns began recanting their previous accusations. Richelieu offered to pay the nuns a pension in exchange for their testimony.

At Grandier’s trial, a document purported to be a pact signed in blood by Grandier and countersigned by Lucifer, Satan, Beelzebub, and other “demons” including Leviathan (who knew this legendary sea creature could write?) was presented as evidence. This rare demonic document was perceived as highly damaging evidence.

Further reading: Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon (Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1952) is devoted to the trial of Urbain Grandier. The Devils (1971), a film loosely based on the case, was directed by Ken Russell, and starred Oliver Reed as Grandier.

In August 1634, Grandier was found guilty and sentenced to be burned alive. He was then tortured so that he’d confess and name accomplices. Despite the brutality of torture (his bones were crushed), Grandier neither confessed nor named names. At his execution, Grandier attempted to make a public statement but several priests doused him with Holy Water and made noise so that his voice could not be heard.

After Grandier’s death, some nuns continued to display signs of demonic possession. Richelieu cut off their pensions and the fits promptly stopped. Sister Jeanne became a healer and prophetess, displaying signs of the stigmata. She died in 1665.

Although some French monarchs brutally suppressed any trace of witchcraft; others displayed more tolerance. Some, like Catherine de Medici, were whispered to be witches themselves. In 1670, 525 people were convicted of witchcraft at Rouen, but their death penalties were commuted to banishment by order of Louis XIV. During Louis’ reign a thriving community of fortunetellers and spell-casters existed in Paris; some may also have provided illicit “pharmacological” services, including abortion and poisons. Many among the upper classes and nobility utilized these services.

In 1676, Marie-Madeleine D’Aubray, the Marquise de Brinvilliers, tried to poison her husband; he had been tipped off, however, and possessed an antidote. The authorities were summoned, and potions were found among the Marquise’s belongings. She was accused of causing the deaths of her father and two brothers. An attempt to kill a sister had allegedly failed. She was arrested, tortured confessed to witchcraft and was beheaded. Under interrogation, the Marquise claimed other high-society people dabbled in witchcraft too. Paris Chief of Police Nicholas de la Reynie began searching for them.

It was then very fashionable among high society to have fortunes told, especially via cards. In 1678, an attorney named Perrin went to a party at the salon of Madame Vigoreux where they were entertained by a card-reader, Marie Bosse, known as La Veuve, “the widow.” She jokingly said that she could retire after only three more poisonings. Perrin later explained that he saw “something” in her face as she joked and he determined to investigate. He contacted the officers who had arrested the Marquise de Brinvilliers. They sent a police officer’s wife to La Veuve to have her fortune told. In what might be perceived as a set-up, the wife complained bitterly of her husband. After her second visit, she went home with a vial of poison.

La Veuve and Madame Vigoreux were arrested, as were those of their acquaintances who shared their professions (charm-sellers, fortune-tellers). Tortured, the women confessed to selling poison and revealed their clients who were subsequently arrested and tortured too. They revealed further sources of poison and more fortune-tellers, who were now linked in the eyes of the law.

Eventually the alleged leader of the “poison ring” was discovered: Catherine Monvoisin, known as La Voisin, an astrologer who read palms and cards. The elite consulted her in her Paris home on Rue Beauregard. She also allegedly sold aphrodisiacs and performed abortions.

In 1664, La Voisin allegedly held her own when invited to the Sorbonne to engage in debate with its male scholars regarding the validity of astrology.

La Voisin was arrested on church steps while leaving Sunday Mass. She was tortured mercilessly for three days but continued to proclaim her innocence. Eventually she allegedly confessed to performing over 2,500 abortions. Her home allegedly contained an abortion clinic and a chapel in which corrupt priests conducted Black Masses. Under interrogation, she revealed names of her clients, some very close to the crown.

In response, in January 1679, Louis XIV created the Chambre Ardente to investigate charges of abortion, infanticide, and poisoning operating under cover of occult services. The Chambre Ardente (“Burning Chamber”) was a secret court that investigated “witchcraft crimes” of the rich and powerful closely connected to the throne. The name didn’t refer to burning people but to describe the room brilliantly lit with burning candles and flambeaux.

Some nobles fled, allegedly helped by the king, but others were implicated including the king’s mistress, Madame de Montespan, mother of six of his illegitimate children. The Chambre Ardente arrested 319 people. Their fates varied: 36 were killed, others were exiled, incarcerated or enslaved on galley ships, although those of noble blood (including the king’s mistress) were set free. (She quietly retired to the convent of St Joseph in Paris in 1691 where she died in 1707.)

La Voisin was burned at the stake on February 20, 1680. Louis banned fortune-tellers and limited the sales of poisons. In 1709, he terminated the Chambre Ardente and ordered that all evidence of its existence be destroyed. On July 13, 1709, the king allegedly burned certain documents personally.

Father Louis Debaraz is usually cited as the last person executed for witchcraft in France, in 1745. He was accused of performing Black Masses in hopes of locating hidden treasure. After a lengthy trial, he was burned alive.

Witchcraft was struck from the French law code in 1791.


The worst atrocities of the Witchcraze occurred in German lands between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. Some suggest that at least half of all witch-trial related deaths occurred in German lands.

The German witch-hunts operated on a particularly broad scale; at its peak almost no one was truly safe. The stereotypical image of the witch-hunt victim is an elderly impoverished woman; these women were certainly killed during the German witch-hunts but the wealthy were targeted too, as were the socially prominent.

Magic and traditional witchcraft were among the duties of the ancient Pagan Germanic housewife. Sagas describe ordinary women routinely practicing magical healing and divination and casting protective spells for the benefit of their families.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries most witch-trials in German lands were tried by Papal Inquisition, not by civil courts. Witches were usually hanged or imprisoned, although they were often dragged out of prison by local townsfolk and burned alive in public lynchings. By the fifteenth century, the customary means of execution for witches in German lands was burning alive, unlike other regions where convicted witches were traditionally strangled before burning.

Local German courts exercised tremendous autonomy over witch trials in their regions. German Inquisitors and witch-hunters developed torture into a fine art. All torture instruments were blessed by a priest before use, and witches were tortured so severely, confession was virtually guaranteed.

Image Victims were force-fed salted herrings to induce thirst and then denied water

Image Victims were stripped naked and frequently raped, sometimes gang-raped, before being led to torture chambers

Image Children of convicted witches were typically treated identically to their parents under the theory that, as acorns don’t fall far from oaks, witchcraft ran in families and the children would inevitably become witches eventually. Children were tortured to provide information about parents and relatives and to provide greater lists of suspects.

In 1563, 63 women were executed in the small Lutheran territory of Weisensteig, and in 1572 the Law Code of Saxony decreed that even “good” witches must be burned.

The region around the city then known as Treves (now Trier) was beset by natural disasters in1580, including storms and plagues of grasshoppers and mice. Witchcraft was blamed; a witch panic ensued. Trials were begun in both ecclesiastical and civil courts. A series of convictions eliminated two entire villages. No one was left. Only two members of the female population of a third village were left alive.

Among the last victims was Dietrich Flade (?—1589), Chief Civil Magistrate of Trier, arrested in 1588 and charged with witchcraft and with showing leniency to witches in his courtroom. Could the judge himself be a witch?

A boy swore he witnessed Flade at a sabbat. A woman about to be killed testified that Flade was a witch in exchange for the mercy of strangling before burning. Flade, brutally tortured, confessed to plotting against the Archbishop of Trier and of throwing dirt into the air, which transformed into crop-eating slugs. He was convicted, strangled, and burned.

Image 1589: In Quedlinburg, Saxony, 133 women are burned as witches in one day

Image 1590: 32 are burned as witches at Nordlingen

Image 1590: A witness writes that in Wolfenbüttel “the place of execution looked like a small forest from the number of stakes”

Image 1590—1: Forty-nine out of a population of 4,700 are burned as witches at Werdenfels in Bavaria

Between 1590 and 1640 Eichstadt was the site of a series of witch-hunts. Conservative estimates of numbers killed range from between 1,500 and 2,000 people. The first wave occurred in 1590, followed by continuous witch panics between 1603 and 1630, slowly tapering off after that.

The Pappenheimers were an impoverished Bavarian family; they worked seasonally as privy-cleaners, supplementing their income with begging. In 1600 the family was arrested in the middle of the night, literally pulled from their beds in a rooming house, and charged with witchcraft. The youngest son, 10-year-old Hansel, was left behind but the next day, their landlord brought the child to the prison where his parents were incarcerated, giving him to the authorities.

The family was tortured mercilessly, including strappado, squassation, and torture by fire (see page 827, Torture). Hansel was caned.

Although all initially pleaded innocent, eventually they confessed to anything put to them. The adults confessed to virtually every unsolved crime of the past decade in that region as well consorting with Satan. They implicated over 400 other people.

It was decided that examples would be made of the Pappenheimers and so their public execution was particularly brutal. Ten-year-old Hansel was forced to watch from the crowd; the Sheriff of Munich was stationed beside him to observe the child’s reactions and to force him to watch the torture and murder of his parents and brothers.

Sixty-year-old Anna Pappenheimer’s breasts were torn off via a torture instrument known as “the spider.” Her severed breasts were first stuffed into her own mouth, then into the mouths of two of her sons who were concurrently being tortured.

Using red-hot pincers, flesh was ripped from the bodies of the male victims. Paulus Pappenheimer, the father, was broken on the wheel. Following the execution, the sheriff brought Hansel back to jail. On November 26, 1600, Hansel Pappenheimer was burned at the stake.

Witchcrazes continued in German lands throughout the seventeenth century:

Image Between 1603 and 1606 Balthasar Ross, Judge of the town of Fulda, orders the execution of 300 witches. He later boasts that because of his activities over 700 people had been executed. He himself is later hanged for embezzling state funds.

Image 1609—1623: A witch panic begins in Bamberg that only continues to escalate. At least 400 people are recorded as executed from 1609 until the ascension to power of a new ruler in 1623, Prince-Bishop Gottfried Johann Georg II Fuchs von Dornheim, whereupon things take a turn for the worse.

Although witch-hunting was well established in Bamberg before his ascension to power, Prince-Bishop von Dornheim streamlined the process by which the accused were interrogated, tried, and executed. From first accusation until execution could now take less than three weeks.

Von Dornheim became known as the "Witch Bishop." He established a professional Witch-hunters’ organization with expert torturers and executioners. Attorneys were hired with express orders to convict. He built a new prison solely to house accused witches. The Hexenhaus ("Witches’ House") was constructed specifically for the interrogation (torture) of accused witches. Suffragan Bishop Friedrich Förner presided over what was essentially an extended torture chamber.

Trials were short and speedy and closed to the public. Defendants were not permitted lawyers. Testimony on behalf of the accused was virtually impossible and a guilty verdict was pretty much a sure thing. Those who criticized procedures, verdicts or the witch-hunters’ organization usually found themselves quickly accused of witchcraft themselves.

Von Dornheim directed that all accused witches be tortured before and after confession. Tortures included dunking suspects in boiling water mixed with caustic lime, forcing suspect to kneel on spikes, and having their armpits set afire, as well as standard tortures like thumbscrews and bone-crushing. Convicted witches often had their right hands cut off before execution.

In general, most defendants in Bamberg were wealthy. Witch-hunters targeted the wealthy, because those found guilty (and once targeted, virtually everyone was condemned) were required to surrender all their property and possessions to the head of the witch-hunting organization, Bishop Förner, who then distributed the funds, rewarding witch-hunters according to the wealth each had collected.

Witnesses were typically paid informants. All accusations were kept secret until after the suspected witch was arrested, eliminating the possibilities of escape and revenge.

Affluent citizens began abandoning Bamberg in fear for their lives. From exile, some petitioned Ferdinand I, Emperor of Germany, to end the Bamberg witch-hunt. The Emperor eventually issued mandates in 1630 and again in 1631 requiring all accusations of witchcraft be made public. The procedure of seizing a convicted witch’s property was ended. Von Dornheim died in 1632 and the witchcraze tapered off.

Johannes Junius, Burgomaster of Bamberg (c.1573—1628) is the sole victim of the entire Witchcraze to speak to us in his own voice without the filter of torturers. A literate, articulate man, he took tremendous effort to write a farewell letter to his daughter, which was smuggled from prison by a jailor and eventually published.

Junius was accused of witchcraft, as, ultimately, were all the burgomasters of Bamberg. On June 28, 1628, he protested his innocence but witnesses testified they saw Junius at a sabbat and at a witches’ dance on the Haupstmoor where a communion wafer was desecrated. Junius still denied the charges and was given 48 hours in jail to think about them. He still asserted his innocence on June 30th and so was put to thumbscrews and boots. He was stripped and searched for a witch’s mark, which was allegedly found. The strappado was administered and finally, on July 5th, he confessed to consorting with Satan since 1624.

The authorities paraded Junius down the streets of Bamberg, ordering him to name other witches. He did but in insufficient numbers; he was tortured again to name more and was then condemned to burn at the stake in late July. Before his death, Junius wrote a letter to his daughter Veronica, which was smuggled out by a jailor and delivered. This is an excerpt of the lengthy letter:

Many hundred thousand goodnights, dearly beloved daughter Veronica. Innocent have I come into prison, innocent have I been tortured, innocent I must die. For whoever comes into the witch prison must become a witch or be tortured until he invents something out of his head…the executioner…put the thumbscrews on me, both hands bound together, so that the blood ran out at the nails and everywhere, so that for four weeks I could not use my hands, as you can see from the writing…Thereafter they first stripped me, bound my hands behind me and drew me up in the torture [strappado; see page 829, Torture]. Then I thought heaven and earth were at an end, eight times did they draw me up and let me fall again, so that I suffered terrible agony…When at last the executioner led me back into the prison he said to me, “Sir, I beg of you, for God’s sake confess something, whether it be true or not. Invent something, for you cannot endure the torture which you will be put to; and even if you bear it all, yet you will not escape, not even if you were an earl but one torture will follow another until you say you are a witch”…And so I made my confession…but it was all a lie…

Dear child, keep this letter secret so that people do not find it, else I shall be tortured most piteously and the jailers will be beheaded…I have taken several days to write this; my hands are both lame…

Goodnight, for your father Johannes Junius will never see you no more. July 24, 1628.

He added a postscript to the margin: “Dear child, six have confessed against me…all false, through compulsion, as they have all told me and begged my forgiveness in God’s name before they were executed…They were forced to say it, just as I myself was…

At the same time as the Bamberg witchcraze, between 1623 and 1632 approximately 900 people including 300 children were tortured and executed at Würzburg, ruled by Prince-Bishop Phillipp Adolf von Ehrenberg, cousin of Prince-Bishop von Dornheim of Bamberg.

A contemporary chronicler wrote:

A third of the city is surely implicated. The richest, most attractive, most prominent of the clergy are already executed. A week ago, a girl of 19 was burned, said everywhere to be the fairest in the whole city…there are 300 children of 3 or 4 years who are said to have intercourse with the devil. I have seen children of seven put to death, and brave little scholars of ten, twelve, fourteen…

Among the victims was Ernest von Ehrenberg, the Prince-Bishop’s sole heir. A guard who permitted some prisoners to escape was executed, as were travelers who had the misfortune to be passing through the region.

In 1630, three women were killed when mandrakes were found in their home in Hamburg (see BOTANICALS: Mandrake), and Rheinbach, near Bonn, was the site of two major witch panics, one in 1631 and another in 1636.

The panics in Rheinbach were documented by Law Court Official Hermann Löher, who estimated that every other family in Rheinbach lost at least one member to the witch-hunts. Löher wrote that what he learned is that those tortured will confess to anything. He urged local German princes to terminate the practice of torture. His opposition to the witch trials put him and his family in jeopardy. He sold his property and fled to Amsterdam in 1636.

Franz Buirmann, who presided over the Rheinbach trials, was authorized by the Prince-Archbishop of Cologne to discover witches and confiscate their property and so wealthy citizens were particularly vulnerable. In 1631, town leaders offered to pay Buirmann to go away, abandon his hunt, and move elsewhere. He took the bribe but returned in 1636 for a new series of trials.

Forty years later, Löher published a description of the panic in Rheinbach Most Pressing Humble Complaint of the Pious Innocents, in which he described how one judge conducted a witch trial. The judge addressed the cowering defendant “Confess your sins of witchery; reveal the names of your accomplices! You filthy whore, you devil’s wanton, you sackclothmaker, you dumb toad!…Tell who it was that taught you witchcraft and who you saw and recognized at the witches’ sabbat.”

Even by the standards of his time, Buirmann was brutal, condemning those few who refused to confess despite torture to death anyway against standard procedure. Instead of the usual stakes, living victims were placed inside dried straw huts, which were then set ablaze. Buirmann held power to override any objections of the civil authorities and had his opponents tried and executed.

It’s estimated that the Rheinbach witch trials of 1631 and 1636 led to the executions of 150 people from the 300 families living in the region. However, many died before reaching trial during the torture and interrogation process. Their numbers are unknown. The Mayor of Rheinbach, Dr Schultheis Schweigel, charged with witchcraft, died after seven hours of continuous torture.

Friedrich von Spee was the leading Jesuit official at Würzburg. His duties included hearing the last confessions of condemned prisoners prior to their executions. In the process he came to the conclusion that virtually all those accused of demonic practices were completely innocent. He wrote, “Grief has turned my hair white, grief for the witches I have accompanied to the stake.”

In 1631, Spee anonymously published a revolutionary book, Cautio Criminalis (Precautions for Prosecutors—see BOOKS: Witch-hunters’ Manuals: Spee), in which he denounced torture, and called for rational trial proceedings with fair use of evidence and permitting defendants legal representation. Spee wrote, “Previously, I never thought of doubting that there were many witches in the world. Now however when I examine the public record, I find myself believing that there are hardly any.” He wrote further, “There is nobody in our day…who is safe, if he have but an enemy and slanderer to bring him into suspicion of witchcraft” and “Often I have thought that the only reason why we are not all wizards is due to the fact that we have not all been tortured.”

Spee claimed that, under the existing system, confessions were inevitable, writing, “If she confesses, her guilt is clear: she is executed; if she does not confess, the torture is repeated—twice, thrice, four times. She can never clear herself; the investigating body would feel disgraced if it acquitted a woman; once arrested and in chains, she has to be guilty, by fair means or foul.”

In Cautio Criminalis Spee exposed what he saw as the true incentive of the German witch-hunts: Inquisitors received payment for each person burned. Assets of the condemned were confiscated. He denounced claims that some confessions were secured without torture, explaining that trial records indicating “no torture” really indicate that “light” torture was used rather than the most severe.

After publication, many Jesuits denounced Spee’s book and attempts were made to suppress it; however it was eventually translated into 16 languages and widely read throughout Europe. Although it was initially published anonymously his fellow Jesuits suspected Spee’s identity and were hostile towards him. Shortly after publication, his superiors transferred Spee to serve as a confessor for plague victims. He contracted the plague and died in 1635 at age 44.

Benedict Carpzov (1595—1666) published Practica Rerum Criminalum in response to Cautio Criminalis in 1635, which justifies aggressive pursuit and persecution of witches: witches deserve fewer rights during trials than other criminal defendants, he writes, because of the danger they pose to society and to judges and jurors. Torture is required in order to extract confessions. Carpzov, Chief Witchcraft Prosecutor of Saxony, personally signed no fewer than 20,000 death warrants.

Image 1651: The executioner in Neisse built an oven in which to roast witches. That first year, he roasted, according to records, at least 42 women and children, including little girls as young as two years old. Over the next nine years, the same executioner roasted at least 1,000 people.

Image 1676: Chaterina Blanckenstein (1610—1679) of Saxony served a child some of her homemade jam. When the child died four days later, the 66-year-old widow was arrested for murder via witchcraft. During her trial, others came forward to blame her for various crimes (she magically overturned a cart, for instance). Despite torture, including thumbscrews and ropes around her neck, Blanckenstein refused to confess. No devil’s mark could be found. The judge decided the case couldn’t be proved and released Chaterina once she paid the cost of her imprisonment, trial, and torture. Neighbors shunned her when she returned home and she eventually relocated. Her daughter, whose name is only given as L. in trial transcripts, remained in town however. L. was arrested on charges of murder by witchcraft in May 1689. A local baby had died unexpectedly. During the investigation into the death it was discovered that the baby’s father owed L. money. Because of the family’s reputation, it was quickly decided that L. was responsible for the baby’s death and arrested. At first sight of the instruments of torture, she confessed. Jailed, L. tried to hang herself two days later, but was discovered and revived so that she could be burned alive.

Anna Maria Schwaegel was the last woman executed for witchcraft in Germany, in 1775. She was a servant in a wealthy household in Lachen. She fell in love with the household coachman who promised to marry her but instead married another. Anna Maria took this very badly, running away to become a homeless, vagabond beggar. Discovered starving, her clothing in rags, she was taken to a church asylum for the deranged where she told the Mother Superior that the devil had seduced her in the form of a coachman. He had brought her to sabbats and encouraged her to commit unspeakable acts. The Mother Superior reported the case to the magistrate of nearby Kempten, Bavaria. Anna Maria was arrested and placed on trial: she repeated her story and was convicted of witchcraft and beheaded.


Iceland had a comparatively brief witchcraze from 1625 until 1683, to some extent imported from Europe by a ruling class of semi-nobles largely educated in Denmark and Northern Germany.

Iceland was unusual because, unlike almost everywhere else during the witch-hunt era, the accused witches were predominately male. Of approximately 170 people accused of witchcraft, less than 10 percent were female. Twenty-one people are recorded burned as witches; only one was a woman. (Iceland’s population at that time was approximately 50,000.)

There is no evidence that physical torture was used in Iceland. One-quarter of those accused were acquitted. Approximately 15 percent of those accused evaded arrest, and records do not indicate what happened to approximately another 15 percent of those accused. Most of those convicted were punished by severe whipping.

In 1639 using runes was defined as witchcraft and the practice was banned. It was decreed that people found with runes in their possession would be condemned to death by burning. In 1681 Arni Pétursson was burned alive in the presence of the Althing, the Icelandic Parliament, for using runes to achieve success at backgammon.

The Inquisition

The Inquisition was a crucial part of the witch-hunts. Although many now joke about the Inquisition, few truly understand its dynamics. The Inquisition was a formal court of inquiry first officially established by Pope Gregory IX in 1233 to deal with heresy in Toulouse, France. It takes its name from “Inquisitorial Procedure” and was based on old Roman legal procedures. Witch-hunting in turn was largely based on Inquisitorial procedure.

The Inquisition was a Holy Office, an arm of the Church. It was administered by Dominican friars who reported only to the Pope, no matter where they were, regardless of region, territory or country.

The Inquisition was created in response to perceived threats to the Church from Christians who protested or deviated from official Vatican practices. It was the responsibility of the Dominicans to identify and eliminate any trace of heresy before it could take root, spread and infect the faithful.

Pope Lucius III authorized the very first Inquisition in 1185 in response to the growth of independent, unorthodox versions of Christianity in Europe. In 1199, Pope Innocent III proclaimed that all property and assets of convicted heretics should be confiscated; they were often shared with local secular governments to encourage their cooperation. In 1233, Pope Gregory IX centralized and formalized the Inquisition. He placed the Dominicans in charge and decreed that no one might interfere with their work.

The Inquisition was based on an accusatorial procedure; it was dependent on denunciations. In other words, somebody had to initiate the process with an accusation that must then be proved or a confession of guilt obtained.

Confession was required from the accused and torture was used to extract it. Torture was perceived as necessary for completing the Inquisitorial process as it was believed no one would confess completely without it. Even those who voluntarily confessed were likely holding something back that they would not voluntarily reveal without torture.

It was permissible to imprison the accused indefinitely on a diet of bread and water both before and after interrogations, scheduled at the pleasure of Inquisitors. If the person never confessed despite torture (unusual, as torture was unlimited), the accused could be imprisoned for life. There was never a point where the accused was required to be released.

If the accused did confess, that confession had to be reaffirmed three days later. The person had to explicitly attest that they confessed of their free will and not because of torture or fear of torture, whether or not this was true.

If one confessed and denounced others, one could theoretically be “reconciled” with the Church. The person would be spared execution and assigned punishment instead, usually fasting, penance, public humiliation (stocks, pillory), and/or pilgrimage. One might be obligated to wear a special uniform for the rest of one’s life, usually a yellow felt cross sewn onto the back and chest of one’s clothing. In Portugal and Spain, these were customary punishments for confessed witches; very few were executed in Portugal and in Spain proper. (The Spanish Inquisition did, however, kill witches in the Basque regions.)

Unlike the old Accusatorial process that was the legal standard before the Inquisition, Inquisitorial proceedings were typically secret, as were the accusations. Previously, accusations were often public; the accuser had to face the accused.

The Inquisition was responsible for collecting information from the public that could lead to the discovery of crimes or identification of criminals. The Inquisition, at its simplest, was a mechanism for social control. Informers were welcomed and frequently paid or otherwise favored.

Under the Inquisition, the accused was seldom, if ever, allowed an attorney. Women, children, and slaves were permitted to testify for the prosecution but were forbidden to testify for the defense. Ecclesiastical courts were empowered to seize the personal property and assets of anyone found guilty of any charges brought by the Inquisition.

The Inquisition never killed or burned a witch. Following conviction, heretics and/or witches were handed over to the secular authorities for punishment. Any official refusing to administer the Inquisition’s decreed punishment was charged with heresy.

The Inquisition was finally restrained in the nineteenth century. The Inquisition survives today but since December 7, 1965 it has been known as the “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”


Ireland is frequently cited as the place where witch-burning began and ended. Some date the Burning Times from the burning of Petronilla of Meath in 1324, and ending with the burning of Bridget Cleary in 1895. However, the last legal European witch execution occurred in Poland in 1793 (see page 813). Bridget Cleary was never formally charged with witchcraft; nor was she tried or executed in legal proceedings. Her husband burned her in their home, on his own volition, in what he claimed was an attempt to exorcise a demon, changeling or witch (see FAIRIES: Fairy Witch).

Despite the notoriety of the Alice Kyteler case, the witchcraze in Ireland was comparatively mild. There were fewer than 10 significant witch trials, the bulk of which were carried out by Protestant (English and Scots) settlers.

The Kilkenny Witch Trials

Beginning in approximately 1320, Richard de Ledrede, Bishop of Ossory, a Franciscan of English descent, aggressively investigated heresies in his diocese under the personal commission of Pope John XXII, in the process discovering, he claimed, the existence of many sorcerers and witches. Chief among them was Lady Alice Kyteler of Kilkenny, also known as Dame Alice Kyteler.

Lady Alice lived in Kilkenny with her fourth husband Sir John le Poer. She was independently wealthy, having inherited the wealth of her previous, deceased husbands. She was descended from a noble Anglo-Norman family who had lived in Kilkenny, a city within the diocese of Ossory, for generations. The ultimate point of the accusations against her was that she had no right to her wealth as it had been obtained by witchcraft and diabolical means.

The adult children of Lady Alice’s previous husbands accused her of killing their fathers to obtain their property. (They were hoping that the property she had inherited would instead pass to them.) They accused Lady Alice of attempting to kill her present husband who at the time was ill with a “wasting disease.”

A maid-servant warned him of the rumors: his children from a previous marriage suspected Lady Alice was poisoning him in order to inherit the estate. Suspicious, Sir John forcibly took Lady Alice’s keys to her private chests and boxes where he allegedly discovered witchcraft tools including magic flying ointment and a sacramental wafer with the devil’s name stamped upon it. Two friars were summoned to carry these to Bishop Ledrede.

Sir John and his children accused Lady Alice and her son from a previous marriage, William Outlawe, of killing her first three husbands with witchcraft and attempting to do the same to John. William Outlawe was a banker and money-lender; documents indicate that many local nobles were heavily in his debt.

Lady Alice’s alleged accomplices, popularly known as the “Kilkenny Witches” included her son, William Outlawe, her maidservant, Petronilla de Meath and Petronilla’s daughter, Sarah, Robert de Bristol, John, Helena and Sysok Galrussyn, William Payn of Body, Alice, the wife of Henry the Smith, Annota Lange, and Eva de Brounstoun.

Alice’s first husband William Outlawe, also a wealthy banker, was the brother of Roger Outlawe, Lord Chancellor of Ireland and chief of the Irish branch of the Order of the Knights of St John. (Husbands two and three were Adam le Blond and Richard de Valle, respectively.)

Bishop Ledrede charged that Lady Alice and company didn’t attend church but had renounced Christianity to sacrifice roosters and peacocks at crossroads to a spirit named variously “Robin” or “Robert Artisson” or “Filius Artis.” This shape-shifting spirit was allegedly Lady Alice’s familiar, sometimes appearing as a cat or a large, shaggy black dog or sometimes as a huge black man accompanied by two tall dark companions carrying iron rods. Robin is described in records as “Aethiopis” or “negro.” Charges suggested that the only reason Lady Alice was rich, fortunate, and privileged was because of this spirit’s patronage.

The Kilkenny Witches were further accused of holding nocturnal meetings in churches, making “infernal candles,” ointments, powders, and unguents from dead men’s nails, botanicals, scorpions, snakes, spiders, and worms. Allegedly these concoctions were brewed in a cauldron made from a decapitated thief’s skull.

Among other allegations against her, Lady Alice was accused of walking the streets of Kilkenny armed with a broom, sweeping toward the house of her son William Outlawe while chanting, “To the house of William my son, Hie all the wealth of Kilkenny town.” Whether or not Lady Alice actually cast this spell, it is authentic, genuine folk-magic.

In essence, Bishop Ledrede was a precursor, a witch-hunt pioneer; as a disciple of Pope John XXII, he was on the cutting edge of witch-hunting. He attempted to bring Alpine-style witchhunting to Ireland; some of the resistance of the local clergy toward him was because of their unfamiliarity with this type of demonolatry.

The Bishop wished to try the case personally but sorcery cases were still considered secular crimes and the Church had no jurisdiction. He was forced to ask the Lord Chancellor of Ireland to issue a writ for the arrest of the accused. The Lord Chancellor, of course, happened to be Roger Outlawe, Alice’s old brother-in-law and William Outlawe’s uncle.

The Bishop then sent a representative to William Outlawe’s house where Lady Alice was now living, demanding that she appear before the Court of the Bishopric. Lady Alice refused, stating quite correctly that the Ecclesiastical Court was not empowered to judge her, or anyone else for that matter, on a case of this kind. Bishop Ledrede responded by excommunicating her and charged William with “harboring and concealing his mother in defiance of the Church.”

Lady Alice fled to Dublin where she called upon influential and powerful contacts.

Arnald de Poer, Government Seneschal of Kilkenny and a distant relative of Alice’s present husband, sided with William and Alice instead of his blood relations. He attempted to have Ledrede reduce the charges against Alice and William but Ledrede refused.

De Poer in turn had the bishop seized and held captive in Kilkenny Castle. Bishop Ledrede was jailed for 17 days until after the date William was supposed to appear in court. (The bishop’s supporters accused William of bribing officers of the law to arrest and detain the bishop.)

Upon his release, the bishop attempted to speak at the secular court but was ejected by the Seneschal. The bishop tried several times to have Lady Alice arrested on charges of sorcery but was unsuccessful.

Finally, Bishop Ledrede publicly named those accused of sorcery and demanded that the secular court give the accused up to the Church. Lady Alice had the bishop indicted in the secular court for slander and defamation of character. In turn, William Outlawe scoured criminal records, discovering an old deed of accusation claiming that the bishop defrauded a widow of her husband’s inheritance. Local ecclesiastical authorities were also unsympathetic to the bishop, describing him as a “truant monk from England” with excessive zeal in carrying out Papal Bulls they had never heard of before, and defaming Ireland by accusing her of harboring heretics.

Lady Alice escaped to England where she lived for the rest of her life. She was denounced in Kilkenny as a magician, sorceress, witch, and heretic. Some suggest Sarah de Meath was brought to England with her.

William Outlawe eventually showed up in court, after much delay, bringing a posse of wellarmed supporters with him. Charges were read out; he was held for nine weeks although sources differ as to whether he was formally arrested. William ultimately begged for reconciliation with the authorities, confessing and renouncing his crimes. In exchange for publicly renouncing his heresies, he received a Church pardon. As penance, he was required to pay for the Cathedral’s new lead roof and fast every Tuesday until a special pilgrimage to Canterbury was completed.

After the case, Bishop Ledrede accused Arnald de Poer of heresy. He was excommunicated and sent to the Dublin Castle dungeons, where he died during the investigation.

In England, the still wealthy and well connected, if excommunicated, Lady Alice continued to exert pressure against Bishop Ledrede, who was also eventually accused of heresy. He was sent to the Vatican for further investigation; while he was gone, his lands were seized.

The fates of accused members of Lady Alice’s Kilkenny coven differed: some were burned at the stake, some “solemnly whipped” through the town and marketplace; some were banished while others fled and disappeared. In the words of Bishop Ledrede, “by the special grace of God, that most foul brood was scattered and destroyed.”

Petronilla de Meath did not escape. She was flogged six times before she publicly confessed to charges of witchcraft and orgies involving Lady Alice. Petronilla claimed to be Lady Alice’s go-between. She claimed that Lady Alice, the most powerful witch in the world, had taught her sorcery and witchcraft. She said she saw Lady Alice’s demon manifest as not one, but three black men, who each had sex with Lady Alice. Petronilla acknowledged that she herself cleaned the bed.

Like William Outlawe, Petronilla confessed; unlike William, she was not pardoned. (Whether this was because she was female and neither wealthy nor noble, or because the court genuinely believed her to be a witch is subject to speculation.) Descriptions of her suggest that she did not repent and expressed pride in her sorcery. Speculation remains as to whether Petronilla was a spiritual witch or Pagan, as she allegedly refused Christian last rites before her execution.

Although Lady Alice is described as the first person tried for witchcraft and heresy in Ireland, and although it is her name that is most commonly cited, it was her maid, Petronilla de Meath, who ultimately paid the price and was the first woman burned as a witch in Ireland. Many mark the beginning of the Burning Times with the death of Petronilla, burned at the stake before a crowd on Saturday, November 3, 1324.

Other trials followed:

Image 1544: An entry in a table from the Red Council Book of Ireland refers to “a witch” sent to the Lord Deputy for examination. However, unfortunately, only the table survived, not the Red Council Book or other records; no further information is currently available.

Image 1578: A witch trial occurred in Kilkenny. Beyond the fact that 36 were executed, few details are preserved

Anti-witchcraft statutes were passed by the Parliament of Ireland in 1586: “Death as a felon” was decreed for anyone convicted of murder via witchcraft, enchantment, charm or sorcery. “Death as a felon” was accomplished by hanging, drawing, and quartering for men or strangulation followed by burning for women.

First-time offenders convicted of practicing witchcraft resulting in destruction or impairment of goods or property were sentenced to imprisonment for one year. In addition, they had to stand in the town square pillory once every quarter year for six hours and confess their sins. Second-time offenders were subject to a mandatory death sentence.

The Island Magee Witch Trial

The Island Magee Witch Trial was the last significant Irish witch trial. In 1710, the home of Mr and Mrs James Haltridge of Island Magee, near Carrickfergus in County Antrim, allegedly began to be plagued by poltergeist-like activity. The Haltridge family perceived it as symptomatic of psychic attack and witchcraft: although the identity was unknown, someone was attacking them. The death during this time of Haltridge’s mother, who lived in the house, was popularly attributed to witchcraft.

On approximately February 27, 1711 18-year-old Mary Dunbar was hired to live in the house as a companion for Mrs Haltridge following the death of her mother-in-law. On her first night in the house, Mary allegedly retired intending to sleep but was shocked to discover that some of her clothing had been removed from her trunk and scattered through the house. While searching for her missing clothes, Mary discovered an apron that had been rolled up tightly and tied with, depending on the version, either five or nine “strange knots.” Mary untied the knots, discovering a flannel cap belonging to the deceased Mrs Haltridge tied up within.

That night, Mary Dunbar was seized with fits: she claimed a knife was run through her thigh and that three women, whom she could vividly describe but not name, afflicted her. At midnight, she was seized with more fits: she had a vision of seven or eight women talking together. During their conversation, which Mary overheard in her vision, they revealed their names. Upon emerging from her fit, Mary identified those names: Janet Carson, Elizabeth Cellor, Janet Liston, Kate M’Calmont, Janet Mean, Latimer and Mrs Ann. Mary was able to provide such vivid descriptions that the women were quickly picked up from various local districts: Janet Mean of Braid Island, Jane Latimer of the Irish quarter of Carrickfergus, Margaret Mitchell of Kilroot, and Catherine M’Calmont, Janet Liston, Elizabeth Sellar, and Janet Carson, all of Island Magee.

The accused were brought to trial on March 31st. Testimony included descriptions of Mary’s fits. Various Presbyterian ministers testified against the accused. (All the accused women were Presbyterian.) No medical evidence was offered nor did the prisoners have an attorney. All denied charges of witchcraft but a jury returned guilty verdicts.

They were sentenced to one year in prison during which time each had to stand in the local pillory on four separate occasions. These pillory sessions attracted mobs who pelted them with eggs and cabbage stalks so aggressively that one of the convicted witches had an eye knocked out.

In August 1807, Alexander Montgomery of Carmoney feared his cow was bewitched. Although she gave plenty of milk, none could be churned into butter. Mr and Mrs Montgomery hired Mary Butters, local herbalist and spellcaster, now known as the “Carmoney Witch.”

Mary Butters instructed Mr Montgomery and a young man named Carnaghan to put their coats on inside out and stay in the barn near the cow’s head until she called them. In the meantime, she prepared a hex-breaking spell in the Montgomery’s kitchen in the presence of Mrs Montgomery, the Montgomerys’ son and an elderly woman named Margaret Lee. Butters’ curse-breaking spell involved boiling nails, needles and pins in a cauldron containing the afflicted cow’s milk and perhaps some other ingredients. Windows and doors were tightly closed; the chimney was sealed up.

Montgomery and Carnaghan waited in that barn for hours. Finally, at dawn, they returned to the house where they discovered everyone passed out on the floor. Mrs Montgomery and her son were already dead. Lee died shortly afterwards. Only Mary Butters survived.

On August 19, an inquest was held and the court determined that death was caused by smoke inhalation and “noxious ingredients.” Mary Butters, however, claimed that a black man carrying a big club appeared during the spell and clubbed everyone present. She was scheduled to stand trial in Carrickfergus in March 1808 but the charges were withdrawn.

In 1821 the Witchcraft Act of 1586 was repealed. Despite this, in 1865 Biddy Early was charged with witchcraft; local Church leaders denounced her as a witch but the charges were dismissed. (See FAIRIES: Fairy Doctor: Early.) Incomplete trial records suggest another witch trial was held at Dungannon 1890.


Witch-hunting was comparatively mild in Italy. Although there were executions by burning, most of those convicted of witchcraft suffered incarceration flogging, penances, and banishment.

In 1181 the Doge of Venice passed laws forbidding sorcery. Trials and executions of witches in Como were held c.1360. Over 300 were eventually executed.

In 1384 Sibillia, wife of Lombardo de Fraguliati, appeared before Friar Ruggiero da Casale, Inquisitor of Upper Lombardy, accused of “dreadful crimes.” She was punished with various penances but in 1390 she was again accused and sentenced to die by a new Inquisitor.

Fragments of the records survive: Sibillia confessed that for years, every Thursday evening she journeyed to pay homage to a sacred being called “Madame Oriente.” Inquisitors identify Madame Oriente in trial records as “Diana, called Herodias.”

Pierina, wife of Pietro de Bripio also appeared before Friar Casale in the same year, and was also assigned penances for heresy. Just like Sibillia, in 1390 a new local Inquisitor, Friar Beltramino da Cernuscullo, sentenced her to death for backsliding.

Pierina told the Inquisition that she had attended Madame Oriente’s Society every Thursday since she was 16. She described Madame Oriente as “Mistress of the Society” in the same fashion that Christ is “Master of Earth.”

The Society roamed through various houses, feasting and drinking. Madame Oriente blessed them and taught them herbal remedies, spellbreaking techniques, and how to locate lost and missing items. Pierina told the Inquisition that Madame Oriente could resurrect dead animals, but not humans. Devotees sometimes slaughtered oxen and ate them. The oxen’s bones were saved and placed atop the animal’s hide. Madame Oriente struck the hide with her wand and the oxen returned to life but could no longer be used for labor.

Later in the trial transcript, possibly after torture, Pierina confessed to giving herself to a spirit named Lucibello and signing a compact in her blood. At this point, she explains that Lucibello led her to the Society, a point not made previously but more in line with the Witch-hunters’ vision of diabolical witchcraft.

In 1428 Matteuccia di Francesco of Ripa Bianca near Deuta was charged with witchcraft, accused of casting spells to prevent pregnancy, cause impotence and ease pain, as well as journeying to sabbats in Benevento by covering herself with ointment made from dead babies, vultures’ fat, and bat’s blood. Allegedly Matteuccia invoked Lucibello who manifested as a goat and carried her on his back through the air to Benevento. She was burned at the stake on March 20, 1428. (See PLACES: Benevento; TOOLS: Flying Ointments.)

Image 1484: Forty-one people were burned at the stake at Como

Image 1510: In Valcanonica, the Inquisition allegedly investigated over 5,000 witches; 70 were burned

Image 1514: A further 300 people were burned at the stake in Como

In 1520, the Venetian government complained about the number of deaths resulting from witch-hunts. Pope Leo X’s response was to voice his support for the Inquisition.

Information regarding the Benandanti, “those who walk well,” derives from Inquisitorial archives in the Venetian province of Friuli, a crossroads area where Italian, Slavic, Germanic, and other influences meet. (See DICTIONARY: Benandanti.)

The Inquisition first learned of the Benandanti in 1575 when a priest heard reports of a man, Paolo Gasparutto, who healed the bewitched and was said to roam at night in the company of witches and spirits. Summoned, Gasparutto acknowledged his activities and the Inquisition was called in. Trials and interrogations were conducted from 1575 to 1644.

The Inquisition tried to get the Benandanti to confess to witchcraft and consorting with the devil—the usual set of accusations—but the Benandanti resisted. They didn’t deny their activities but insisted that they acted in God’s service and protected people from witches. By 1623, however, some Benandanti had confessed to attending sabbats, making diabolical pacts, desecrating crosses, and vampirism.

The Church was not overly enthusiastic about the Benandanti trials, which were not pursued as aggressively as some others. Punishment tended to be banishment or prison. The last major trial took place in 1644 although a few scattered efforts continued until the end of the century.


For centuries, Poland was a bastion of European liberalism and tolerance. A rich herbal and magical tradition was preserved in the country. Russians once viewed Polish magicians with the same awe with which ancient Greeks viewed Thessaly. Alchemists flocked to Polish courts, hoping for patronage and protection. The University of Krakow developed a reputation as a school for sorcery.

However, when Poland came under Russian and, especially, Swedish control, this era of tolerance ended. Poland, too, suffered witch panics. Witch trials were abolished in Poland in 1787 although witches were still burned. Poland is significant in the history of the Burning Times as the case of two women burned in Posen in 1793 is frequently cited as the last legal European witch-burning.


Treatment of those accused of witchcraft during the Burning Times was not random or arbitrary. Legal procedures dictated the entire process from accusation to punishment.

Typically a judge, Inquisitor or witch-finder arrived in town and posted a general summons on public buildings demanding that everyone report any knowledge or suspicion of witchcraft. Everyone was welcome to tattle or settle scores: criminals, children, those bearing grudges. In general, however, no one was punished if accusations didn’t pan out or were later discovered to be false.

The Inquisitor would preach a sermon against heresy and witchcraft, explicitly describing what sort of activities should be immediately reported. All local heretics were invited to present themselves as if they voluntarily confessed, they would usually receive penances and/or fines rather than death, although this was not guaranteed.

Once someone was accused, an order was given for immediate arrest. Generally the accused witch was immediately jailed. Their residence was searched for signs or instruments of witchcraft. Friends, servants or anyone who happened to be present in the home might be seized too. Anyone accused was interrogated; no one was above suspicion.

The accused was presumed guilty. She was not asked “if” she had committed her “crime” but “why” she committed it.

Many Inquisitors, witch-hunters, and judges feared witches and were cautioned to wear bags of consecrated salt as protection. An accused witch was typically led into interrogations backwards as it was believed if she entered face-first and made immediate eye contact with her interrogators, she could cast a spell over them that would cause them to be merciful.

Any hair on the accused witch’s body (including eyebrows and sometimes eyelashes) was often immediately removed, not only to facilitate the search for witches’ marks but also to lessen her power. “Bleeding the witch” (letting small amounts of blood, usually from the face) was also believed to weaken her power and enable a successful prosecution of witchcraft.

Accused witches had fewer legal rights than other defendants, whether in secular or ecclesiastical court, allegedly because it was believed they already had a powerful advantage over judge and jury: they had witchcraft, magic, and the devil on their side! The only perceived way, so witch-hunters claimed, to level the playing field was to deprive witches of all rights. Witches were typically denied attorneys and the right to call witnesses. Witnesses against them were granted anonymity, so no discussion of possible motivation was possible.

Prosecutors could call as many witnesses as desired; these witnesses could also be tortured or intimidated. Children were frequently called as witnesses because they were considered innocent and thus more likely to be truthful than adults.

A suspect’s inability to cry on command was considered an incriminating sign of witchcraft as witches were believed incapable of shedding tears. Some still hold this belief; it is among the themes of the romantic comedy film Bell, Book and Candle. Of course, being able to cry on command didn’t prove that you weren’t a witch.

When a witch was arrested, it was recommended that she be taken away in a basket or atop a plank so that she was unable to touch the ground. It was believed that her power was weakened by loss of contact with Earth.

In general, witches could not be condemned unless they had “freely confessed.”

So they were tortured to confess but then they had to confess again without torture; they had to affirm that they would have confessed without torture before they could be killed.

The accused witch might be promised mercy, which usually meant life imprisonment. However, sometimes judges who promised mercy in exchange for confessions or extra information then turned the witch over to another judge who, having made no such promise, sentenced her to death.

Families of the accused or their estates were typically held liable for all trial, torture, and execution costs.

Witch-hunters’ manuals offered guidelines for the administration of torture and appropriate punishments. Questions used to interrogate witches eventually became so standardized that court clerks often designated them by number in official transcripts rather than writing the entire question out. In other words, if the clerk designated “Question 4,” for instance, other witch-hunt professionals would understand the reference.

Witches were killed by burning because it was believed that this was the only way to rid the world of the “witch’s evil.” From the late fourteenth century to the early eighteenth, burning was the most popular form of execution for convicted witches. In the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, burning took the form of cremation. Witches were executed first, usually by strangling or hanging, and then burned.

In the latter part of the fifteenth century in continental Europe, Scotland, and Ireland (but not England) killing the witch prior to burning became more unusual. Witches were more typically burned alive, usually tied to a stake in the public square.

There was also a spiritual aspect to burning a witch: she was effectively denied Christian burial rites.

In England and her North American colonies, burning witches alive was not legal procedure, no matter how many movies tell you otherwise. Witches were typically executed by hanging. In England, witches were burned alive only if also convicted of treasonous murder or attempted treasonous murder. Treasonous murder was defined as either a man or woman attacking the monarch or women killing their husbands. Punishment by burning for this crime continued as late as the eighteenth century.

If a witch confessed, she was usually strangled first (by hanging or garroting) then burned after death. Once someone was convinced of their eventual doom, this was a tremendous incentive to confess. Uncooperative witches—those who either protested their innocence or recanted confessions—were burned alive, frequently on pyres laid with green wood to prolong their agony. The incentive for not confessing was that theoretically one’s property might not be forfeited.

Death was rarely private. Witch burnings were considered local entertainment. Crowds were encouraged to come out and witness the deaths. Those who avoided these scenes or expressed sympathy or compassion for the witch increased their own vulnerability to charges of witchcraft.

Witches were usually transported to their execution sites in wagons. They might be bound or chained and were usually placed backwards, to decrease their magic power. Crowds were encouraged to throw things at the witch and insult her. They were encouraged to look upon the witch in horror: indeed by the time they saw her on the way to her death, having been starved, beaten, tortured, and raped, terrified and denuded of all her hair, odds are she was genuinely a frightening sight.

The witch might be brought to the execution site naked or in special clothing. In Northern Europe, this uniform was frequently made from nettles, which destroyed the age-old tradition of nettle fabric as it became associated with a convicted witch’s garb. If dressed, the convicted witch’s clothing might be stripped off before the crowd before execution. Among those forced to appear naked during their execution was the fiercely modest Joan of Arc.


There is no witchcraze in Russia comparable to that of Western and Central Europe. Some were accused of witchcraft, and some were executed as witches, but there was no concept of an Inquisitor who would actively go from village to village searching out witches. There was relatively little interest among the authorities in the activities of the Russian serfs provided they accomplished their assigned work, hence the survival of many Russian Pagan traditions.

The concept of witches magically transporting themselves to distant sabbats, demonic pacts, and destructive malefic witches existed in Russia as elsewhere in Europe, but witchcraft and magic were generally recognized as relating to Paganism. Almost all references in Russian ecclesiastic texts prior to the eighteenth century that address anything that might be construed as “magical” condemn the practices as demonic and Pagan.

The role of female witches in rural Russia was to maintain the vestiges of Pagan traditions and devotion to female divinities, as well as providing healing and divination services, preparing feasts for the dead and invoking fertility for barren women, animals and Earth. Knowledge, wisdom, and traditions were preserved via stories. These rural magical and spiritual practitioners were rarely charged with the crime of witchcraft in Russia.

Malevolent witches existed in the countryside too, but many were vampire-witches—those who had already died. Suicides or those who died as a result of alcohol or violence were often believed to transform into vampire-witches. Magical protection against them was required; legal action was impossible. How do you torture and execute someone who is already dead?

As late as the fifteenth century, Pagans were still living in remote areas of Russia. It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that Tsar Ivan the Terrible created the Stoglav Council to eliminate Pagan elements from the population.

So who was legally charged with the crime of witchcraft in Russia? The nobility and those who served them, clergymen, and, following introduction of a military law condemning witchcraft, soldiers. (In 1721, allegedly a great number of grimoires and magical texts circulated through military ranks.)

Instead of witchcrazes, Russia had political witch-hunts. An effective method for getting rid of political rivals was to tar them with associations of witchcraft, which were almost impossible to refute. Political witchcraft, those accused of using maleficia against the royal family and the nobility, wasn’t mere witchcraft: it was treason, an attack on the state.

Image Between 1462 and 1505, three women were arrested for possessing herbs while visiting the wife of Tsar Ivan III. (The implication being that they plotted magic against her.) They were punished by being pushed through a hole in the ice of the frozen Moscow River, then not an unusual punishment for common criminals.

Image In 1635, the Tsarina’s servant dropped a handkerchief that was found to contain a root. Interrogated, she confessed that it was a charm intended to ensure her husband’s love. She was tortured and exiled as punishment.

Image In 1638, a court seamstress was accused of throwing ashes and sand over the Tsarina’s footsteps, a type of spell. Tortured, she confessed that in addition to her magical attack on the Tsarina, she used enchanted salt and soap to encourage her husband’s love for her.

Image In 1671, Marfa Timofeevna, a servant of the Tsarina, was accused of stealing salt and mushrooms that had been prepared for the Tsarina. She confessed to theft, saying she had just stolen them to eat them. Even after torture with the strappado and fire (see Torture, page 829), she confessed to nothing else although her interrogators sought to prove that her plans really included poison, treason, and/or witchcraft.

From the time of Peter the Great, possession of explicitly magical texts was made illegal. If discovered, they (together with other magical items) were supposed to be burned. Possession of herbs and roots was frequently used as evidence against those accused of witchcraft in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Many Russian witch-trial transcripts feature genuine magical practices, as opposed to the absurd diabolical obscenities of many Western trials; however they still may not be authentic. Torture was used to extract confessions. Although the magical practices may genuinely have existed, the purpose of a specific trial may have been political.

Various tsars and their wives were rumored to be magical adepts or to employ witches: Ivan the Terrible, for instance, was allegedly conceived with the help of witches summoned by his father. Ivan allegedly employed witches himself. He was both a practitioner and a persecutor of magical practices.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Russian government department with authority over criminal cases was also given jurisdiction over cases involving sorcery and malevolent magic, as well as blasphemy, false interpretations of scripture, sodomy, and assorted crimes against the Church. Punishment if convicted was for men to be burned alive and women to be beheaded.

In 1715, Peter the Great introduced severe punishment for magic and witchcraft in the military law code: death by burning was decreed as standard punishment for magicians who had caused harm or had dealings with the devil. Punishment of those who had not caused harm or interacted with the devil depended on the specific offense and included house arrest, wearing irons, and being made to run a gauntlet. Those hiring magicians or encouraging others to do so were punished similarly.

In 1753, a group of peasants were arrested for trying to kill their estate’s landowner with magic, a previous attempt with arsenic having failed. They offered one ruble to a local magician, Maksim Markov, so that he would concoct a fatal spell for them. Markov allegedly enchanted some wax for them by reading spells over it in front of an icon and then doing a somersault over a knife stuck in the floor (see ANIMALS: Wolves and Werewolves).

Markov told the conspirators that the wax had to be rubbed on the victim’s shoes, his bed and door thresholds. While attempting to follow his directions, the conspirators were discovered, arrested, and sent to Moscow for trial. Tortured, they confessed. They were condemned to death by burning but the sentence was commuted to 70 blows, slitting their nostrils and hard labor in the dockyards for life.

In the 1850s, a tailor in Siberia was almost beaten to death by a mob who believed him to be a magician responsible for a cholera outbreak. Evidence included casting his fishing line from the left and throwing his beer dregs to the left.


Scotland suffered a particularly bad witchcraze, second only perhaps to the Germanic and Alpine regions. Prior to the sixteenth century, however, there were relatively few witch trials. Scottish law made it difficult to prosecute witchcraft: evidence was required for conviction of murders via charms, potions or other magical means.

In 1563, however, new laws enacted by Mary, Queen of Scots (December 8, 1542—February 8, 1587) broadened criteria for witchcraft crimes. Practice of any kind of magic, beneficial as well as malefic, became subject for trial, not just magic resulting in murder. All witches, as well as those who consult with them, were to be punished by death. The number of witchcraft trials and subsequent executions increased dramatically.

Gerald Gardner quotes Mackay’s History of Extraordinary Popular Delusions statement that from the passing of the 1563 Act until the accession of Mary’s son James VI (June 19, 1566—March 27, 1625) to the throne of England 39 years later, the average number of executions for witchcraft in Scotland was 200 annually, or upwards of 17,000 altogether.

James VI took witchcraft personally, believing that as God’s anointed, he was the primary target of witchcraft. Witchcraft was thus not only heresy but also treason.

Witches in Scotland were generally burned although some were hanged. When the court wished to show mercy, it permitted witches to be strangled after they were tied to the stake but before burning, so that effectively burning was cremation not execution. At the opposite extreme, however, when the court wished to display no mercy, witches were thrust into the fire, pulled out, and thrust back in again repeatedly.

In 1479 the Earl of Mar, together with twelve women and several men, was burned at Edinburgh for roasting a wax image of the king. In 1537, Lady Glamis was burned as a witch for working magic against King James V.

In 1576, Bessie Dunlop of Ayr was burned alive for healing via witchcraft. (No harm had been caused; she was convicted for healing.) Dunlop, described as a “wise woman,” was charged on November 8th. She allegedly claimed her healing powers and clairvoyance (“second sight”) were gifts from the Queen of Elfhame. (See FAIRIES: Nature-spirit Fairies: Elves.)

On May 28, 1588, Alesoun Piersoun (also spelled Alison Pearson) of Byrehill was charged with witchcraft and of consorting with fairies for seven years. Her cousin, William Simpson, six years older, the son of the king’s smith, had allegedly been educated in Egypt by a giant. Will had returned from his travels and discovered that Alison was ailing “powerless in hand and foot” and “afflicted by many diseases.” He healed her, then allegedly took her to Fairy Land where he introduced her to some good witches he had known for years.

The Fairy Folk were abusive toward Alison. She claimed never to be free from various associates who came to initiate her into knowledge, whether she wished it or not. It is unclear whether she meant witches or fairies, or whether the terms are interchangeable. These associates showed Alison how to gather herbs and how to make salves. In short they initiated her as a Fairy Doctor. (In many traditional cultures, it is customary for someone who is healed to be obliged to become a healer.)

Alison developed a reputation as a healer. Even the Bishop of St Andrews requested her help. She prescribed a meal of spiced claret and boiled capon and a Fairy salve for topical application. This prescription worked but the bishop refused to pay her bill and charged her with witchcraft. Tortured, she named prominent people, claiming she saw them at Fairy balls. Alison was strangled and burned.

The North Berwick Witch Trials

The North Berwick Trials of 1590—1592, perceived as an attack on the king, fueled witchcraft hysteria. Approximately 70 people were accused of witchcraft.

This trial convinced King James that he was the target of witchcraft and motivated him to become an “authority” on the subject. James’ fascination with witchcraft grew. He wanted his subjects to appreciate the reality of witchcraft and the dangers it posed. The king published The Daemonologie to counter Reginald Scot’s book disputing the reality of witchcraft. He ordered existing copies of Scot’s book burned. James’ book was often quoted by witch-hunters.

In 1590, Geillis Duncan (aka Gilly Duncan), who worked as a servant for Deputy Bailie David Seaton of Tranent, a small town near Edinburgh, suddenly began exhibiting healer’s skills. In demand for these skills, she began going out at night. This aroused her employer’s curiosity: he suspected she was now in the devil’s employ.

Seaton first tortured Geillis personally using ropes and thumbscrews. She did not confess. Her body was searched and a witch’s mark, a blemish, was discovered on her throat. Her fingers were then crushed and Geillis confessed to witchcraft and began to identify other witches. She named dozens, including school-master John Fian (aka John Cunningham), midwife Agnes Sampson, Barbara Napier, Agnes Tompson, and Euphemia Macalzean (also given as Euphemia Maclean), the daughter of Lord Cliftonhall, Senator of the College of Justice. Those implicated were arrested and tortured. Sampson already had a reputation as a “wise-woman” but the others were described as “respectable citizens.”

Agnes Sampson was well educated and known as the “wisewyff” of Keith. Her head was repeatedly jerked by ropes. The inside of her mouth was punctured with sharp implements. She was kept forcibly awake beyond her endurance. Despite this torture, Agnes continued to maintain her innocence.

All the hair on her body was then shaved; examiners found a devil’s mark on her genitals and Agnes finally confessed. She confirmed whatever her interrogators asked and thus implicated everyone already named by Gilly Duncan. She confessed to 53 charges of witchcraft, most of which involved diagnosis and treatment of illness via magical means. She allegedly placed powdered dead men’s bones under Euphemia’s pillow during labor so that she delivered safely, created magical powders, and kept a familiar, a dog named Elva.

Agnes was brought before King James. She told him tales of witchcraft. On Halloween, she and 200 other witches set out to sea in sieves, drinking wine as if they were on a cruise ship until they reached the church at North Berwick, where they disembarked, made merry, and kissed the devil’s rear.

Their company took over the church as if it was a dance hall. They danced and sang with the devil; Gilly Duncan played a dance tune on the Jew’s harp. The king requested that Gilly be summoned to play for him, which she did, according to trial records, “to his great pleasure and amazement.”

Agnes Sampson told King James that on Halloween in North Berwick, the devil in the form of a man spoke against the king. (Some believed that Earl of Bothwell, next in line to the throne and implicated in the case, was really the one who spoke against the king, whether in the devil’s guise or not.)

Agnes described two sabbats held within the church at North Berwick, one attended by 200 guests, the other by only 100. At the smaller one, she said, the witches paid homage to the devil by kissing his anus. They danced widdershins around the church several times, then John Fian blew the church doors open, like the big bad wolf huffing and puffing the three little pigs’ houses down. Within the church, they lit black candles. Satan mounted the pulpit and preached a sermon, exhorting his faithful to eat, drink, be merry, and “not spare to do evil.” He promised to “raise them all up gloriously at the last day.” The devil then took the coven members out to the churchyard and showed them how to transform corpses into magical charms.

During the winter of 1589/90 King James and his wife Anne of Denmark had experienced storms at sea. Agnes confessed to raising these storms because the devil commanded them to kill James, the devil’s very worst enemy on Earth.

Sounds as if she’s attempting to flatter the king, doesn’t it? James thought so too and initially didn’t buy her story. Agnes Sampson, however, proved her powers to him by telling him something (it’s unknown what; it was private between the two of them and is not included in testimony) that James had said to his wife when they were alone on their wedding night. James then became convinced Agnes was a witch and that her confession was true in its entirety. Why she convinced him is among the mysteries of the witch trials.

Agnes Sampson now testified that she was part of a conspiracy to kill James. In fact, the whole Halloween coven meeting had been focused on the king’s demise. Agnes described making figures, wrapped in linen, which she gave to the devil at the coven. He chanted incantations over them and returned them to her. The figure was passed back and forth among coven members with everyone uttering the devil’s incantation, “This is King James the Sixth, ordered to be consumed at the instance of a noble man, Francis Earl Bothwell.”

Agnes confirmed Geillis Duncan’s confession, saying she saw Gilly dancing with the devil at the Sabbat. Both women testified that John Fian was their coven leader.

On December 26, 1590, John Fian, Master of a school at Saltpans in Lothian, and referred to in trial records as “Secretar and Register to the Devil,” was arraigned for witchcraft and high treason. Twenty counts were brought; conviction of one was sufficient for burning.

He was brutally tortured, but no confession was forthcoming. Other witches suggested that his tongue be searched. Two pins were allegedly discovered thrust in as far as their heads, preventing him from confessing. The pins were pulled out, and Fian was brought before the king where he confessed to whatever was demanded. He confessed to leading a coven in North Berwick but said he abjured the devil and had returned to Christianity. He was returned to jail and placed in solitary confinement.

The night after his confession, someone helped John escape from jail. (There is speculation that Lord Bothwell orchestrated the escape. Another suggestion is that he somehow obtained the keys and released himself.) Eventually recaptured, he recanted his confession, insisting on his innocence. Having recanted, he was re-tortured, this time even worse than before. His fingernails were removed and needles jammed into their places. His legs were completely crushed in the “boots.” He was periodically brought before the king but refused to confess again.

Many came forward to accuse Fian of witchcraft, devil worship, and grave robbing for purposes of obtaining components for potions. There were so many accusations that Fian was deemed guilty even though he never again confessed. Lack of confession despite torture was interpreted as proof of the devil’s protection.

Agnes Sampson and John Fian were strangled and their bodies burned.

Another alleged conspirator, Euphemia Macalzean (aka Maclean), daughter of Lord Cliftonhall, was the wife of wealthy, prominent Patrick Moscrop. A Roman Catholic and a friend of Lord Bothwell, she did not confess despite torture. She hired attorneys to fight her conviction but was executed for witchcraft on July 25, 1591. (Other witches died as early as January 1591.) Euphemia was burned alive and not strangled first, unlike other North Berwick witches including Sampson and John Fian.

Another alleged conspirator, Barbara Napier, wife of an Edinburgh burgess and the Laird of Carschoggil’s sister-in-law, was accused of consorting with Agnes Sampson and consulting Richard Grahame, a necromancer. Her crimes were considered petty witchcraft crimes: for instance she requested assistance from a witch to ease the morning sickness of her friend and patron Dame Jeane Lyon, Lady Angus.

Barbara was arrested but acquitted. King James, however, wrote a letter demanding that she be strangled and burned at the stake and that all her goods be forfeit to him. Barbara responded that she was pregnant and so received a stay of execution. Exactly what happened to her is unclear; some sources state that having given birth she was burned while others suggest that with the passage of time, her case was overlooked and she was eventually released. Richard Grahame, however, the alleged necromancer with whom Barbara Napier consulted, was burned at the Cross of Edinburgh on the last day of February 1592.

Margaret Thompson, another alleged conspirator, died while being tortured.

James chose to personally supervise the torture and interrogation of the accused, taking special interest in demonic sexual practices. He promoted the concept that demonic witchcraft was actively and aggressively practiced and a threat to society. His statute of 1604 was the legal basis of witchcraft prosecutions in Great Britain and her Colonies until 1736.

The king’s cousin, Francis Stewart, Earl of Bothwell, could have succeeded James to the throne were James to die childless. In the wake of the trials, he fled to Naples where, impoverished, he wrote letters denouncing Christianity and urged Christians to deny Christ and their baptism.

In June 1596, John Stuart, Master of Orkney, was accused of consulting with a witch, Margaret Balfour, in attempts to poison his brother the Earl of Orkney and assume his position. In order to elicit her confession, which had not been forthcoming, Margaret’s 81-year-old husband, her son (age unknown) and her 7-year-old daughter were tortured before her eyes. Margaret confessed but recanted later when her family was no longer being tortured. She was burned on December 16, 1596.

The Aberdeen Witch Trials

The Aberdeen Witch Trials of 1597 were among the largest in Scotland. Most of those accused of witchcraft during this panic were elderly women, the majority of whom were accused when a condemned witch seeking leniency claimed to have attended a gathering of over 2,000 witches and named several of her neighbors as attendees.

Several women confessed to making herbal cures, love charms, raising storms, stimulating nightmares, and dancing with demons. A few of the accused committed suicide prior to trial or execution. Twenty-three women and two men were burned in Aberdeen for crimes of witchcraft and magic. Five people were set free because the court lacked sufficient evidence for conviction. However because suspicion of witchcraft remained, they were branded on the face with hot irons and commanded to leave Aberdeen forever.

Following trials and executions, families of the dead were held liable for all costs incurred. The bill for Aberdeen witches, dated February 1596, charged their families for the cost of the coal, peat and tar used to set the fire that incinerated them, as well as the cost of stakes, ropes, and the executioner’s salary and labor for carrying the supplies to the hill where the women were burned.

Isobel Gowdie

Isobel Gowdie is among the most famous witches of the Burning Times although her case is very mysterious and there are many gaps in the account, not least what eventually befell her.

She allegedly volunteered a confession of witchcraft in Auldearn, Morayshire, triggering a series of witch trials when she claimed to be part of a local coven consisting of thirteen members, whom she named to authorities.

Very little is known about Isobel Gowdie other than she confessed to witchcraft on four occasions during April and May 1662. It is unknown why she confessed or even whether her confession was truly voluntary. She was described as an attractive, red-haired, childless woman, married to a farmer and living on a remote farm in Morayshire.

In April 1662, Isobel confessed, saying, “I do not deserve to be seated here at ease and unharmed, but rather to be stretched on an iron rack; nor can my crimes be atoned for, were I to be drawn asunder by wild horses.”

She said the witches of Auldearn were divided into companies called covens. Each coven was commanded by two officers, one of whom was called “The Maiden.”

Isobel began her confession by discussing fairies. She said that she had visited the Queen of Fairy for years and that the Queen provided her with meat. Isobel also used her magic for positive, healing purposes. Based on surviving testimony, neither fairies nor beneficial magic particularly interested her interrogators. They encouraged her to speak of the devil and malicious magic instead.

Isobel told the court that in August 1659, she and the coven disguised themselves in the forms of cats, crows, and rabbits and rampaged through the countryside, eating, drinking, and generally ruining their neighbors’ property. They got into the dye-works at Auldearn and played such pranks that ever after it would only dye one color, black, “the colour of the Devil.”

According to Isobel’s testimony, her life was boring, her husband was boring, and so she became involved with Satan in 1647, first encountering him in the form of a man in gray. She promised to meet him at the local church where the devil stood in the pulpit with his Black Book and insisted she renounce Jesus. He sucked her blood in the church, and then baptized her with her own blood. He renamed her Janet and left a mark on her shoulder, which authorities reported finding. Isobel described the devil as a big, hairy, black man who visited her a few days later when they had sex. She also had sex with a demon while lying in bed beside her oblivious husband. While she was away, Isobel said she put a broomstick in the bed to fool her husband into thinking she was present. He apparently never knew different.

She told her interrogators that the devil had a huge scaly penis and ice-cold semen. Penetration was excruciatingly painful she said, but still the best sex she’d ever had. Sex with the devil, her interrogators recorded, was more pleasurable than any she’d experienced with a mortal man, which may in fact be saying something of Isobel’s experiences.

She described witches’ sabbats attended by covens consisting of thirteen witches each. Witches flew to sabbats on beanstalks and corn straws, which they charmed by shouting “Horse and Hattock, in the Devil’s Name!

Isobel claimed that she transformed herself into rabbit by saying three times:

I shall go into a hare,

With sorrow and sighing and little care

And I shall go in the Devil’s name

Until I come home again

When she wished to transform back, she said:

Hare, hare, God send thee care

I am in a hare’s likeness now

But I shall be a woman soon

Hare, hare, God sent thee care!

Isobel confessed that her coven caused all the male children of the local landowner, the Laird of Parkis, to die via clay image magic. She was unable to demonstrate her powers, claiming that they deserted her when she confessed.

Isobel’s confession was confirmed by Janet Braidhead, whom Isobel had implicated. No record exists as to what befell either of them although one suspects it was not good.

June 1722 saw the last Scottish witch trial: two Highland women, a mother and daughter, were charged with witchcraft and consorting with the devil. The mother was accused of using her daughter as “horse and hattock.” Her daughter had been “shod” by Satan. (The daughter was allegedly lame and unable to use her hands.) The daughter was found innocent but the mother, Janet Horne, was burned alive.

In 1736 statutes against witchcraft were repealed.


The Spanish Inquisition was established by Pope Sixtus IV in 1478, at the request of their Most Catholic Majesties, Ferdinand and Isabella, who were exceedingly distressed by the tolerance of faith and diversity then existing in Spain.

The Spanish Inquisition was a separate organization from the regular Inquisition (see page 806), which reported directly and only to the Pope. Although the Spanish Inquisition was created by papal order, ultimate control lay with a royal council (the Suprema) appointed by the reigning monarch, as were all officials of the Spanish Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisition would periodically descend on a town or village and conduct inquiries into the religious correctness of its citizens.

The Spanish Inquisition’s obsession was with uncovering secret Jews and so it paid comparatively little attention to witches. Providing witchcraft was not aimed directly at the Roman Catholic Church (not in an abstract way, as elsewhere in Europe) it was treated as simple heresy. Following repentance and penance, the witch or wizard was received back into the faith.

The worst witch-hunts occurred in Catalonia and the Basque region. Elsewhere, witches tended to be punished rather than killed. Punishments included the imposition of religious penances, confiscation of property, public flogging, imprisonment, fines or exile.

In the late fifteenth century, Grand Inquisitor Don Alfonso Manriquez issued an edict ordering good Christians to report any instances of fellow citizens practicing magic. The list of crimes to be reported includes:

Image Invoking spirits for purposes of divination

Image Reading or possessing grimoires or other magical manuscripts

Image Creation of mirrors, glass vials or other vessels for purposes of spirit communication

Image Astrology, geomancy, hydromancy, pyromancy, divining by dice or lots, palm reading, dream interpretation, necromancy, divining by smoke or ash, or “any other magic craft”

Gracia la Valle, the first woman burned to death as a witch by the Spanish Inquisition, was killed in Zaragoza in 1498, and in 1582 the Spanish Inquisition forbade the University of Salamanca from teaching astrology, as this was Fortune-telling and therefore heresy. Astrology books were added to the official Index of Forbidden Books.

In 1781 Maria Dolores Lopez, the last person killed as a witch by the Spanish Inquisition, was burned for laying eggs with Kabalistic designs.

The Spanish Colonies (New Spain)

New Spain was a vast territory, including what is now the southwestern United States, Mexico, Central America, parts of the Caribbean, Peru, and the Phillipines.

Papal bulls of 1521 and 1522 initially established the Inquisition in New Spain. In 1571, King Philip II formally established the Spanish Inquisition in Mexico and Peru.

During its initial years, the primary focus was on conversos (converted Jews and their descendants, always suspected of backsliding) and on suspected Protestants. The majority of Inquisition cases involved not witchcraft but priests who had broken their vows, Jewish conversos who had allegedly become Judaized again, Spanish heretics, and blasphemers. This was not that different from Spain. A new factor did exist in the Americas, however: indigenous American spiritual traditions and magical practices.

In 1571, those Indians newly converted to Christianity were exempt from the Inquisition, but a parallel institution was created just for them, the Proviserato.

Women traditionally held positions of prominence in indigenous spirituality healing, and magical practices. Spanish Inquisition documents as well as other colonial-era documents use the term mujeres de mal vivir (“women who live evil lives”) to identify witches, enchantresses healers, and spiritual leaders. Sometimes variations such as mujer-sillas de mal vivir (“worthless women who live evil lives”) were substituted.

In the 1600s the Spanish Inquisition targeted Andean Aymara and Quechua women who sought to maintain indigenous religions. The women are described as “witches” who challenge the authority of Church and state.

Both men and women worshipped the Corn Mother, Saramama, but women felt especially close to her and served as her priestesses. The Saramamas (a genre of deity rather than one exclusive Corn Mother) were the center of women’s spiritual activities.

In the early seventeenth century Bernardo de Noboa was sent by the Archbishop of Lima into the surrounding countryside to root out and terminate Pagan traditions. Noboa brought charges including witchcraft against five women. Isabel Yalpey, Francisca Quispe Tanta, Francisca Quillay Tanta, Francisca Nauim Carhua, and Maria Chaupis Tanta, a priestess of Saramama, were charged with witchcraft, leading and instructing women in idolatrous practices, and teaching ancestral traditions.

Maria Chaupis Tanta, the woman identified as a priestess and described in trial transcripts as a “witch confessor,” was convicted of exhorting Indian women not to adore Christ but their ancestral spirits instead. Her hair was shorn in punishment and she was forced to go out in the manner of a penitent with a rope around her throat, holding a cross in her hands. She was seated astride a llama and paraded through public streets while a town crier denounced her crimes, and she was given 100 lashes. She was then sent to the Church of Acas for ten years to serve at the disposition of its priest.

The other women were given similar sentences. All were sentenced to serve in the same church but were specifically forbidden to meet together in public or private. Directions were given for each woman to be isolated.

By the seventeenth century in the District of Peru, indigenous women were confessing to pacts with Satan and having sex with Satan. Ironically during witch-trial confession transcripts, indigenous women claim the devil appeared to them in the guise of a Spaniard. In Peru, the commonest punishment meted out to women accused of witchcraft was exile to the obrajes, sweatshops where women were forced to spin and weave.

In Guatemala, the maestras (female teachers and masters of magic) were accused of corrupting the masses. Colonial officials expressed less concern for men’s witchcraft societies, which also existed. Women were perceived as the cancerous force. The Inquisition aggressively pursued renowned maestras (or notorious mujeres de mal vivir) as an example and warning to other women. By the 1690s the Head of Guatemala’s Inquisition complained that they lacked sufficient jails to imprison all the mujeres de mal vivir.

Further Reading: Martha Few’s Women Who Live Evil Lives (University of Texas Press, 2002) and Irene Silverblatt’s Moon, Sun and Witches (Princeton University Press, 1987).


Between 1520 and 1699, over 1,000 people were accused of witchcraft and sorcery in Sweden. This is only an estimate as the true number is unknown as some court records were destroyed by fire.

The most famous and best-documented witch panic in Sweden occurred between 1668 and 1670 in the villages of Mohra and Elfdale. Children testified that multitudes of witches brought them to sabbats at a place called Blakulla, where they were placed in the service of the devil.

The citizens of Mohra drafted a petition to Charles XI, the 14-year-old king. He responded by sending two commissions to Mohra with the power to examine witnesses and proceed with legal action. Records of these witch trials were preserved in an official report.

Witnesses claimed that somewhere between 100 and 300 children were carried away to Blakulla. When they returned, they were witches. The children were never physically missing: during the time these witchy revels allegedly occurred, the children were typically at home, asleep, supervised by parents. However, parents noted (and testified) that their children behaved oddly in their sleep: they were restless, unnaturally cold, and difficult to wake up. When they finally awakened, they gave long, detailed descriptions of their journeys.

Three thousand people ultimately testified before the Commission. The confessions of the children uniformly state that they journeyed to Blakulla.

The standard story was that they traveled to a gravel pit near a crossroads and danced around it, then ran to the crossroads and called the devil three times: once softly, once more loudly, and then finally really loudly. They called, “Come Antecessor, carry us to Blakolla!” And immediately he did. The devil is described as having a red beard and sporting a brightly colored wardrobe, favoring the colors red and blue.

Antecessor brings animals for the witches to ride to the sabbat and also gives them flying ointment. Other witches traveled on posts, rails, and sticks with children mounted behind. Secrecy was enforced: if anyone mentioned the name of another witch, except at the sabbats, they were beaten to the point of fatality. At the sabbat, they danced while the devil played the harp.

Seventy people were accused of witchcraft; twenty-three confessed. They were beheaded and their bodies burned. Fifteen children were executed. Thirty-six others, ranging in age from 9 to 16, were sentenced to run a gauntlet and then be caned once a week for one year. Twenty infants were punished otherwise (details unknown); presumably these infants were too young to run a gauntlet.

In another witch panic between 1675 and 1676, at least 157 people were accused of witchcraft; 41 were executed. The death penalty for witchcraft was abolished in 1779 by King Gustavus III.


There were sporadic outbreaks of witch panics in Switzerland from the late fourteenth century to the sixteenth:

Image 1392—1406: Peter von Greyerz of Bern, Governor of the Simme Valley, conducts major witch-hunts

Image 1428: There is a witchcraze in the Canton of Valais region led by the Bishop of Sion, who declared that anyone accused of witchcraft by more than two people should be arrested and forced to confess so that they may be burned; allegedly over 100 are burned

Image 1480: Two women of the Alpine region of Valtellina, Domenega and Contessia, are denounced as “wicked” and condemned to time in the pillory followed by three-years banishment for worshipping the “Mistress of the Grove”

Image 1513: 500 accused witches are executed in Geneva

The last legal execution of a witch in Switzerland occurred in 1782. A physician accused Anna Göldi of casting a spell over his young, ailing son. She was executed by hanging at Glarus.


If you were tortured to name names, who would you name? In the desire to protect those you love, whose names would you divulge? “Standard” tortures during the Witchcraze included:

Image Burning

Image Dipping in boiling oil

Image Flaying of skin

Image Flogging

Image Garroting

Image Impaling on stakes or spikes

Image Inducing thirst by force-feeding salty food or liquids

Image Rape

Image Scalding the body with boiling and/or caustic liquids

Image Scalding liquids poured down throats

Image Sleep deprivation

Image Stretching limbs until bones broke and muscles ripped

Image Vises or other instruments to break or crush bones

Image Whipping

Witch-hunters’ manuals offered guidelines for the administration of torture. Some sort of torture occurred to varying degrees wherever there were witch-hunts; although certain regions are described as lacking torture, what constitutes torture is subjective. Certainly the threat of death was constant. Also, when historians consider torture, they often think in terms of “torture devices” or formalized techniques like the strappado (see page 829), but sometimes overlook rape, sexual humiliation, and intimidation, which were constant.

In regions where torture was comparatively mild, there were many, many fewer convictions and less witch panic.

The worst, most sadistic torture occurred in German regions—also the regions with highest rates of confessions and convictions. Victims in these lands included pregnant women and children as young as two. German witch-hunters tortured accused witches until they confessed or died. Resistance to torture, refusal to confess or perhaps higher tolerance levels to pain was perceived as the devil’s protection and a proof of magic powers.

When a victim died under torture, it was commonly claimed that the devil had killed her either to protect her from further harm (and foil the witch-hunters) or to prevent her from talking and exposing secrets and other witches.

In 1257, Pope Innocent IV authorized torture as a means of extracting confessions.

Many torture procedures still in use today were invented by the Inquisition.

The Malleus Maleficarum insisted that only confessions obtained under brutal torture could be considered valid.

French witch-hunter Jean Bodin advocated the harshest, most brutal torture possible for all witches. (Of course, this was a man who regretted that the experience of burning alive didn’t last long enough.) Bodin advocated torturing children just as brutally as adults so that they would testify against parents, relatives, and other adults. Bodin was proud that, as a judge, he had ordered children and adults burned with hot irons until they confessed to every charge. His success rate was a point of pride for him.

Friedrich von Spee’s publication Cautio Criminalis offers meditations on the nature of torture: Spee noted that any sign of “goodness” in an accused witch was perceived by her Inquisitors as a trick or falsehood. Refusal to confess under torture was not understood as innocence but as proof of connivance with Satan. Spee revealed that in his experience, most official documents stating that an accused witch had voluntarily confessed were fraudulent: some sort of torture was almost always used.

Near the end of the witch-hunt era, perhaps in response to Spee, the use of torture to extract confessions had become controversial, disreputable, and unpopular with the general public as well as many prominent authorities.

Torturers responded to public opinion: they recorded, in official trial transcripts, that suspects had confessed without torture so that confessions would appear voluntary when, in fact, torture was used. This was especially done in cases presented before judges with a reputation for “leniency” toward witches. These falsifications are a further reason why records are unreliable.

Further, action taken during “preparatory examinations” didn’t count as torture. Torture only “officially” began when proceedings “officially” began. Being arrested and searched didn’t count. The accused were customarily stripped of their clothing, roughly handled, and raped: this wasn’t recorded and so didn’t count as torture.

The following are a list of “specialized tortures” used during the Burning Times.

Image Black Virgin: this was a German invention and used mainly in German regions; the victim was placed within a hinged, life-sized iron form with spikes within so that she was pierced when the form was closed around her. Also known as the Iron Maiden.

Image Boots: also known as the Spanish Boots, in honor of the Spanish Inquisition. There were various kinds of boots, the standard was a kind of special leg-ware intended to break legs and crush bones; this torture device encased both legs from the knees to the ankles and was then tightened until bones cracked. A torturer could also intensify torture by hammering wedges between the victim’s knees. Other boots were large metal devices containing the feet and legs into which boiling oil or water could be poured.

Image Creative torture was encouraged: for instance, in sixteenth-century Holland, the victim was bound in a prone position and dormice were placed on their abdomen. A bowl was placed over the trapped dormice and a fire lit on top of the bowl. In their efforts to escape the heat and fire, the dormice dug into the victim’s stomach.

Image Pear: a vise-like device used to pry an orifice open to excruciatingly painful degrees. Mouth, anal, and vaginal pears existed.

Image The Rack: the victim was placed on a board so that their wrists were tied to one end and their ankles tied to the other end. Rollers at each end of the board (the rack) were turned so that the victim’s body was simultaneously wrenched in two opposing directions.

Image Sexual torture: red-hot iron instruments were inserted into vaginas and rectums. Burning feathers coated with sulfur were applied to genitalia.

Image The Spider: a claw-like iron device typically heated in fire until red-hot and then used to gouge flesh, often breasts, from the victim’s body.

Image Squassation: this is essentially the strappado (see below) taken to the maximum degree; the victim was tied up then fitted with weights, potentially as heavy as 600 pounds. The person was repeatedly jerked up to the ceiling, and then abruptly dropped to the floor. Squassation was used sparingly as typically as few as three repetitions were sufficient to kill the prisoner.

Image Strappado: the victim’s arms were tied behind the back; weights were attached to her feet. She was then repeatedly and violently hoisted to hang from the ceiling and then let fall abruptly so that, among other damage, shoulders and assorted arm joints dislocate. Strappado derives from strappare (Latin: “to pull”) and was known as Garrucha in Spain.

Image Swimming the witch: the suspected witch’s wrists were tied to her ankles and then she was tossed into water, usually a stream or river. Traditionally, her left thumb was tied to her right big toe and the right thumb tied to the left big toe. If she floated, her status as a witch was confirmed. If she sank, she had been vindicated and was deemed innocent, although this might be posthumous. Theoretically, she was supposed to be pulled out, however frequently standard procedure involved leaving her in long enough to be sure she was really innocent. Swimming the witch was widely practiced throughout England. It was not considered torture but an ordeal intended to prove witchcraft.

Image Thumbscrew: the victim’s thumbs and/or toes were placed in a device resembling a press. By turning a screw, the device was lowered onto thumbs or toes, crushing them at the base of the nail.

Image The Wheel: the victim was stretched and bound across the spokes and hub of a large wheel. The torturer then used a heavy instrument to break her arms and legs. The wheel might be horizontal but also could be propped upright so that it was vertical in order to provide a better view for an onlooking crowd.

Image Witch’s Bridle or Witch’s Bit: a hoop was passed over the head, forcing a piece of iron with four prongs or points into the mouth. Two prongs were directed towards the tongue or palate, the other two pointed outwards towards each cheek. The bridle was secured with a padlock. A ring was fixed to the back of the collar so that it could be attached to a cell wall.

Witch’s Mark, or Devil’s Mark

A witch’s mark is ostensibly a bodily mark allegedly identifying someone as a witch. Locating the witch’s mark was highly subjective, as was exactly what constituted the mark. However most witch-hunters agreed that a witch’s mark was secret; a pimple smack in the center of your nose was not likely to be a witch’s mark. Favored places included genitals, armpits, beneath the breasts, within folds of skins, beneath eyelids or behind ears and knees.

Among the various things that passed for a witch’s mark were birthmarks, scars, especially scaly pitches that wouldn’t bleed easily if pricked with a pin, also calluses, scars or other hardened patches of skin. Some witch-hunters included moles, pimples, age or liver spots, even hemorrhoids. Withered or extra fingers or any other unique aspects of anatomy were also considered evidence of witchcraft.

Witch-hunters searched for this mark, which allegedly proved that someone had made a pact with Satan. In order to locate the witch’s mark, victims were stripped, shaved, and minutely searched, sometimes in public.

At the height of the Burning Times, some witch-finders claimed witch’s marks were so secret they were invisible, making allowances for when they were not located.

Witch’s Tit

A witch’s tit was believed to be the most definitive form of witch’s mark. Unlike vague witch’s marks, witch’s tits or teats are clearly defined. The witch’s tit is a supernumerary nipple, an extra nipple beyond the standard two, interpreted as intended for the devil or imps to use for sucking blood. It was allegedly a sign of initiation, created by the devil by branding, beating, touching, clawing or licking the witch. The witch’s tit, sometimes classified among witch’s marks, was considered irrefutable evidence of the existence of an imp or familiar.