Witch hysteria really took hold in Europe during the mid-1400s, when many accused witches confessed, often under torture, to a variety of wicked behaviors. Within a century, witch hunts were common and most of the accused were executed by burning at the stake or hanging. Single women, widows and other women on the margins of society were especially targeted.
Between the years 1500 and 1660, up to 80,000 suspected witches were put to death in Europe. Around 80 percent of them were women thought to be in cahoots with the Devil and filled with lust. Germany had the highest witchcraft execution rate, while Ireland had the lowest.
The publication of “Malleus Maleficarum”—written by two well-respected German Dominicans in 1486—likely spurred witch mania to go viral. The book, usually translated as “The Hammer of Witches,” was essentially a guide on how to identify, hunt and interrogate witches.
“Malleus Maleficarum” labeled witchcraft as heresy, and quickly became the authority for Protestants and Catholics trying to flush out witches living among them. For more than 100 years, the book sold more copies of any other book in Europe except the Bible.
Often considered to be the first in Europe, the Valais trials began in the French-speaking southern region of Valais and spread to German-speaking Wallis. The trials claimed at least 367 victims (the actual toll may be higher), with just as many men as women killed. It all began in August 1428, when delegates from seven different districts demanded investigations into any accused witches or sorcerers. They established a rule that if any single person was accused of witchcraft three times, they were to be arrested. Once arrested, there was no way to escape; those that confessed were burned at the stake and those who didn’t were tortured until they did confess. While the trials were poorly documented, there are a few records that remain from the local clerk of the court, Johannes Fründ.
Trier: Germany, 1581–1593
One of the largest witch trials in European history started in the rural diocese of Trier in 1581, eventually reaching the city itself six years later. The motives behind this massive witch-purging were likely political. Wanting to prove his loyalty to the Jesuits, the newly-appointed Archbishop Johann von Schöneburg ordered a purge of three groups of nonconformists: Protestants, Jews and witches. Very few of those accused of witchcraft were ever released. Between 1587 and 1593, 368 of the accused from 22 villages were burned alive, almost all confessing under torture. Almost a third of the victims were nobility or held positions in the government or local administration, including judges, burgermeisters, councilors, canons and parish priests.
North Berwick: Scotland, 1590–1592
When King James VI of Scotland sailed to Copenhagen to marry Princess Anne of Denmark, a severe coastal storm forced him to land in Norway and take refuge for several weeks. The storm was blamed on witchcraft, which brewed the king’s obsession with eliminating the practice. He became so obsessed he even penned a book, Daemonologie, endorsing witch hunting. The first to fall victim was Gilly Duncan. Accused of using healing cures and subject to prolonged torture, Duncan confessed to having a contract with the devil. She was burned at the stake for her crime. In total, 70 people were accused of witchcraft, including several members of Scottish nobility, although the actual number of those killed remains unknown. These events had such a profound effect that it’s believed Shakespeare adapted parts of the trial—including the torture rituals—into “Macbeth.” The North Berwick witch trials were the first major trials in Scotland, but many followed, claiming an estimated total of 3,000-4,000 lives between 1560 and 1707.
Fulda: Germany, 1603–1606
After returning from a 20-year exile from his post, Balthasar von Dernbach, the prince-abbot of the Fulda monastery, joined the ongoing efforts of the Catholic Counter-Reformation to thwart perceived religious liberalism. Dernbach launched an aggressive investigation into witchcraft and sorcery to purge the city of Fulda of “improper” things. The most well-known victim was a pregnant woman named Merga Bien. Accused of murdering her second husband, their children and a family member of her husband’s employer, she was tortured and forced to confess. Found guilty, Bien was burned at the stake. The witch hunts were stopped upon the death of Dernbach in 1605.
Pendle: England, 1612–1634
Taking place in Pendle Hill—a poor, lawless region in Lancashire, England, where begging and magical healing were common—these trials were among the most famous and well-documented of the 17th century. The previous decades had been rife with a fear of witchcraft, which was only magnified by the obsession of James VI (now also King James I of England) in purging his lands of witches and sorcerers. Required to report anyone who refused to attend the English Church or take communion, the local Justice of the Peace, Roger Nowell, was also tasked with investigating claims of witchcraft. One such claim was made by a local Halifax peddler who accused a local woman, Alizon Device, of giving him a stroke through witchcraft. Device freely confessed to the crime and implicated many of her family members. Other locals implicated their families, only later to be accused themselves. Altogether, 12 were accused of using witchcraft to murder 10 people. Eleven of the accused went to trial—nine women and two men—and 10 were found guilty and hanged.
Torsåker: Sweden, 1674–1675
The largest witch trial in Swedish history—and one of the largest mass killings of witches in recorded history—saw 71 accused witches, including 65 females, or roughly one-fifth of all women in the region, beheaded and burned in a single day. The bloodshed began when minister Laurentius Christophori Hornæus of Ytterlännäs was instructed to investigate witchcraft within his parish. He ordered two young boys to stand at the doors and identify witches by the invisible devil’s mark on their forehead as they walked into church. Much to the dismay of Hornæus, one of the boys identified the minister’s wife, a situation that was quickly hushed up. The accused were suspected of abducting children and taking them to Satan’s Sabbath (eight festivals celebrated by Wiccans and Neopagans) at Blockula (a meadow popular in Swedish folklore where the devil held court). Relying mostly on children, testimonies were extracted through whippings, forced bathing in frozen lakes or by threats to bake the children in an oven. There were very few records of these trials, and the primary source was recorded 60 years after their conclusion by the grandson of minister Hornæus, who recorded his grandmother’s eyewitness account to the proceedings. The trials were thought to have shaky legitimacy since the commission and local courts failed to report the death sentences to a higher court before carrying them out.
Sources: history.com, Cultures of Witchcraft, The Witch Hunts
As part of the infamous “swimming test,” accused witches were dragged to the nearest body of water, stripped to their undergarments, bound and then tossed in to to see if they would sink or float. Since witches were believed to have spurned the sacrament of baptism, it was thought that the water would reject their body and prevent them from submerging. According to this logic, an innocent person would sink like a stone, but a witch would simply bob on the surface. The victim typically had a rope tied around their waist so they could be pulled from the water if they sank, but it wasn’t unusual for accidental drowning deaths to occur.
Witch swimming derived from the “trial by water,” an ancient practice where suspected criminals and sorcerers were thrown into rushing rivers to allow a higher power to decide their fate. This custom was banned in many European counties in the Middle Ages, only to reemerge in the 17th century as a witch experiment, and it persisted in some locales well into the 18th century. For example, in 1710, the swimming test was used as evidence against a Hungarian woman named Dorko Boda, who was later beaten and burned at the stake as a witch.
2. Prayer Test
Medieval wisdom held that witches were incapable of speaking scripture aloud, so accused sorcerers were made to recite selections from the Bible—usually the Lord’s Prayer—without making mistakes or omissions. While it may have simply been a sign that the suspected witch was illiterate or nervous, any errors were viewed as proof that the speaker was in league with the devil. This twisted test of public speaking ability was commonly used as hard evidence in witch trials. In 1712, it was applied in the case Jane Wenham, an accused witch who supposedly struggled to speak the words “forgive us our trespasses” and “lead us not into temptation” during her interrogation. Still, even a successful prayer test didn’t guarantee an acquittal. During the Salem Witch Trials, the accused sorcerer George Burroughs flawlessly recited the prayer from the gallows just before his execution. The performance was dismissed as a devil’s trick, and the hanging proceeded as planned.
3. Touch Test
The touch test worked on the idea that victims of sorcery would have a special reaction to physical contact with their evildoer. In cases where a possessed person fell into spells or fits, the suspected witch would be brought into the room and asked to a lay a hand on them. A non-reaction signaled innocence, but if the victim came out of their fit, it was seen as proof that the suspect had placed them under a spell.
Touch tests played a famous part in the 1662 trial of Rose Cullender and Amy Denny, two elderly English women charged with bewitching a pair of young girls. The children had been suffering from fits that left their fists clenched so tightly that even a strong man could not pry their fingers apart, but early tests showed they easily opened whenever Cullender or Denny touched them. To ensure the reaction was genuine, judges had the children blindfolded and touched by other members of the court. The girls unclenched their fists anyway, which suggested they were faking, but even this was not enough to prove the women’s innocence. Cullender and Denny were both later hanged as witches.
4. Witch Cakes
A bizarre form of counter-magic, the witch cake was a supernatural dessert used to identify suspected evildoers. In cases of mysterious illness or possession, witch-hunters would take a sample of the victim’s urine, mix it with rye-meal and ashes and bake it into a cake. This stomach-turning concoction was then fed to a dog—the “familiars,” or animal helpers, of witches—in the hope that the beast would fall under its spell and reveal the name of the guilty sorcerer. During the hysteria that preceded the Salem Witch Trials, the slave Tituba famously helped prepare a witch cake to identify the person responsible for bewitching young Betty Parris and others. The brew failed to work, and Tituba’s supposed knowledge of spells and folk remedies was later used as evidence against her when she was accused of being a witch.
5. Witch’s Marks
Witch-hunters often had their suspects stripped and publicly examined for signs of an unsightly blemish that witches were said to receive upon making their pact with Satan. This “Devil’s Mark” could supposedly change shape and color, and was believed to be numb and insensitive to pain. Prosecutors might also search for the “witches’ teat,” an extra nipple allegedly used to suckle the witch’s helper animals. In both cases, it was easy for even the most minor physical imperfections to be labeled as the work of the devil himself. Moles, scars, birthmarks, sores, supernumerary nipples and tattoos could all qualify, so examiners rarely came up empty-handed. In the midst of witch hunts, desperate villagers would sometimes even burn or cut off any offending marks on their bodies, only to have their wounds labeled as proof of a covenant with the devil.
6. Pricking and Scratching Tests
If witch-hunters struggled to find obvious evidence of “witch’s marks” on a suspect’s body, they might resort to the ghastly practice of “pricking” as a means of sussing it out. Witch-hunting books and instructional pamphlets noted that the marks were insensitive to pain and couldn’t bleed, so examiners used specially designed needles to repeatedly stab and prick at the accused person’s flesh until they discovered a spot that produced the desired results. In England and Scotland, the torture was eventually performed by well-paid professional “prickers,” many of whom were actually con men who used dulled needlepoints to identify fake witch’s marks.
Along with pricking, the unfortunate suspect might also be subjected to “scratching” by their supposed victims. This test was based on the notion that possessed people found relief by scratching the person responsible with their fingernails until they drew blood. If their symptoms improved after clawing at the accused’s skin, it was seen as partial evidence of guilt.
Also known as “charging,” this test involved forcing the accused witch to verbally order the devil to let the possessed victim come out of their fit or trance. Other people would also utter the words to act as a “control,” and judges would then gauge whether the statements had any effect on the victim’s condition. Charges were famously used in the 16th century witch trial of Alice Samuel and her husband and daughter, who were accused of bewitching five girls from the wealthy Throckmorton family. During the proceedings, judges forced the Samuels to demand that the devil release the girls from their spell by stating, “As I am a witch…so I charge the devil to let Mistress Throckmorton come out of her fit at this present.” When the possessed girls immediately recovered, the Samuels were found guilty and hanged as witches.
In March 1662, John and Bethia Kelly grieved over the body of their 8-year-old daughter inside their home. Little Elizabeth had been fine just days before when she returned home with a neighbor, Goodwife Ayres. The distraught parents, grasping at any explanation for their loss, saw the hand of the devil at work.
The parents were convinced that Elizabeth had been fatally possessed by Goody Ayres. The Kellys testified that their daughter first took ill the night after she returned home with her neighbor, and that she exclaimed, “Father! Father! Help me, help me! Goodwife Ayres is upon me. She chokes me. She kneels on my belly. She will break my bowels. She pinches me. She will make me black and blue.”
After Elizabeth’s death, accusations of bewitchment flew, and fingers were pointed at numerous townspeople. Hysteria gripped Hartford, a town that a generation before had witnessed the first execution of a suspected witch in the American colonies. Alse Young of Windsor, Connecticut, was sent to the gallows erected in Hartford’s Meeting House Square on May 26, 1647.
Witchcraft was one of 12 capital crimes decreed by Connecticut’s colonial government in 1642. The legal precedent cited by the devoutly Puritan colonists was of a divinely higher order: biblical passages such as Exodus 22:18 (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”) and Leviticus 20:27 (“A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death”).
After Young’s public hanging, at least five other Connecticut residents met a similar fate. However, it was in Hartford in 1662, 30 years before the infamous Salem witch trials, that a witch hunt hysteria took hold, resulting in seven trials and four executions.
Shortly after Elizabeth Kelly’s death, the pious Ann Cole suddenly became “afflicted,” shaking violently and spouting blasphemy. According to one account, Cole was “taken with strange fits, wherein she held a discourse for a considerable time.” Cole blamed her bewitchment on neighbor Rebecca Greensmith, described by one townsperson as “a lewd, ignorant, considerably aged woman,” and others already suspected of witchcraft in the Kelly case. The accused began to accuse others, and even their spouses, of being the true witches. In what became a vicious circle, neighbors began testifying against neighbors. Goody Ayres’ husband, perhaps in an attempt to save his wife, joined in the chorus of Greensmith’s accusers.
The most damning testimony supposedly came from Greensmith herself, who reportedly admitted to having “familiarity with the devil” and said that “at Christmas they would have a merry meeting” to form a covenant. Greensmith implicated her husband and said she had met in the woods with seven other witches, including Goody Ayres, Mary Sanford and Elizabeth Seager. Neighbors testified that they saw Seager dancing with other women in the woods and cooking mysterious concoctions in black kettles.
Two of the suspects, likely the Greensmiths, were subjected to the swimming test in which their hands and feet were bound and they were cast into the water to test the theory that witches are unable to sink. After they were tried, the Greensmiths were indicted “for not having the fear of God before thine eyes; thou hast entertained familiarity with Satan the grand enemy of God and mankind and by his help hast acted things in a preternatural way.” The court’s verdict: “According to the law of God and the established law of this commonwealth, thou deserves to die.”
Rebecca Greensmith had confessed in open court. Nathaniel Greensmith had protested his innocence. But they both met the same fate: the noose. Sanford was also sent to the gallows. After their executions, Cole reportedly was “restored to health.” Ayres fled Hartford, while Seager was finally convicted of witchcraft in 1665, although the governor reversed the verdict the following year. Mary Barnes of Farmington, Connecticut, was also swept up in the region’s witch hunt and executed alongside the Greensmiths.
The four executions of suspected witches in Hartford were to be Connecticut’s last. Another hysteria broke out in Fairfield, Connecticut, in 1692, but none of those convicted met death. Connecticut held its final witch trial in 1697, a half century after Alse Young’s execution. During that period, there were 46 prosecutions and at least 11 executions.
One of the most famous witches in Virginia’s history is Grace Sherwood, whose neighbors alleged she killed their pigs and hexed their cotton. A farmer, healer, and midwife, she was accused by her neighbors of transforming herself into a cat, damaging crops, and causing the death of livestock. She was charged with witchcraft several times. Sherwood was accused of bewitching her neighbor, Elizabeth Hill, causing Hill to miscarry. Other accusations followed and Sherwood was brought to trial in 1706.
The court decided to use a controversial water test to determine her guilt or innocence. Sherwood’s arms and legs were bound and she was thrown into a body of water. It was thought if she sank, she was innocent; if she floated, she was guilty. Sherwood didn’t sink and was convicted of being a witch. She wasn’t killed but put in prison and for eight years.
A satirical article (supposedly written by Benjamin Franklin) about a witch trial in New Jersey was published in 1730 in the Pennsylvania Gazette. It brought to light the ridiculousness of some witchcraft accusations. It wasn’t long before witch mania died down in the New World and laws were passed to help protect people from being wrongly accused and convicted.
On October 15th in 1674, the Torsåker witch trials begin (the largest single witch trial in Sweden) with 71 people (65 women and 6 men) beheaded and burned.
The main accusation against the suspected witches was that they had abducted children and taken them to Satan’s Sabbat at Blockula, the legendary meadow of Swedish folklore where the Devil held his Earthly court during a witches’ festival.
Most of the witnesses were children. Confessions were obtained through whippings, beatings, bathing them in an ice-cold lake, and threatening to roast them in ovens.
Jöns Hornæus, grandson of the priest who oversaw the trial, describes the execution in his book, where he wrote down the exact words of his grandmother, the eyewitness Britta Rufina: Then they began to understand what would happen.
Cries to heaven rose of vengeance over those who caused their innocent deaths, but no cries and no tears would help. Parents, men and brothers held a fence of pikes.