How would you hold up against the Witch-finder General?
Matthew Hopkins – the self-styled Witch-finder General – is one of the most infamous characters involved in the 17th century witch trials. And, the English Civil War provided the perfect mix of fear, suspicion and a vacuum of authority in which he could ply his trade as a ‘fingerman’ – an informer…
Hopkins’ reign of terror across East Anglia lasted from 1644-46, during which it’s believed he and his fellow ‘witch-pricker’ John Sterne were responsible for the deaths of around 300 unfortunates charged with witchcraft – in total, more than were hanged for witchcraft in the entire preceding 100 years.
Torture was illegal in England – but that didn’t mean Hopkins couldn’t devise devious, cruel – and invisible – methods of torment to get a suspected witch to confess. These included meagre diets or starvation, tethering limbs and sleep deprivation – still used in warfare today – which was known as ‘watching’.
Hopkins would also use a blunt knife or one with a retractable blade to ‘cut’ the witch’s skin – if she didn’t bleed, she was guilty… He can also take credit for the infamous swimming test – the accused witch was tied to a chair and thrown into deep water. If she floated – or was repelled by the water – she was a witch, and if she sank (or, more often than not, drowned) she was innocent.
Hopkins would also look for the mark of the devil on the body, via which it was believed the witch’s familiar would suckle on her blood. Groups of local women, and sometimes clergymen, would act as witnesses to marks on the witch, and speak for the prosecution.
Across Europe, torture methods included thumbscrews and the horrific ‘Spanish boots’ – boots made of metal, into which boiling water or molten lead was poured, with the accused witch’s feet inside…
Hopkins’ first victim was the one-legged Elizabeth Clarke, whose mother had been hanged for witchcraft. The confession he extracted from her led to her pointing the finger at five other women. Hopkins claimed he’d eavesdropped on one of witches’ meetings, and witnessed Elizabeth ‘speaking to her imps’.
Elizabeth was stripped naked and was found to have ‘three teats about her, which honest women have not.’ She was then sleep deprived for three days and given no food. She confessed on the forth day, when she also implicated the other women.
Elizabeth apparently confessed to having five familiars: Holt, a white kitten; Jarmara, a fat spaniel ‘without any legs at all’; Sack and Sugar, a black rabbit; Newes, a polecat and Vinegar Tom – a ‘long-legged’ greyhound with a head like an ox. Hopkins claimed eight people had also seen these animals.
In later investigations, interrogations produced familiars named Elemanzer, Pyewacket, Peck in the Crown and Grizzel Greedigut.
Elizabeth Clarke’s case was detailed in Matthew Hopkins’ 1647 book the Discovery Of Witches.
The last execution for witchcraft, the hanging of Alice Molland, took place in Exeter in 1684.