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The sinister figure of the Witchfinder General casts a long shadow over horror fiction, folklore and history. Historian Malcolm Gaskill re-examines the myths and legends of Matthew Hopkins’s vicious campaign against witches, and exposes some alarming truths about ordinary people during the English Civil War. Main artwork by Kevin Llewellyn

Imagine a bloody civil war is raging, and many men from your community have left to fight, perhaps never to return. Horses have been requisitioned, food prices are high, and taxation is crushing. Rumours abound. Apocalyptic visions have been seen in the sky, and speculation is rife about which enemy will arrive first: the Royalist army or the plague. Your parish is blighted by sickness and misfortune, not helped by local conflicts over religion, politics and poor relief. Suspicions are festering that some of your neighbours have made pacts with the Devil, and are to blame for the village’s ills. Magical counter-measures have failed, but it is risky to go to law; no one can remember when a witch was last successfully prosecuted. But just then news arrives that a gentleman is approaching, interrogating suspected witches and forcing the guilty to confess. Your hopes are raised that, however powerless you are to resist the enemy without, at least you can fight the enemy within.

This was a scenario common throughout the eastern counties of England in the years 1645–7. To many people, the fighting between Crown and Parliament was part of a greater cosmic battle between Christ and Antichrist as foretold in the Book of Revelation, and the agency of Satan had never seemed more real. No one believed this more than the gentleman interrogator, Matthew Hopkins (above), the scourge of witches who has passed down in legend as the ‘Witchfinder General’. But who was this enigmatic young man, and what exactly motivated him to ride the lanes and highways of East Anglia in a time of war? The true story is surprising, but lies beneath a thicket of myth and misunderstanding.

Myths and Legends

From the pathos of The Crucible to the whimsy of Harry Potter, witchcraft holds a special fascination for us. Images of witches, whether as victims of oppression or malevolent crones on broomsticks, refuse to leave our culture and consciousness. But the figure of the witchfinder haunts us too: a man of dubious motives and morals, sniffing out handmaidens of Satan in return for a fee. In Hollywood, production has begun on a film in the vein of Pirates of the Caribbean, where witch-hunters try to stop a coven of witches colonising – you’ve guessed it – Salem, Massachusetts. Matthew Hopkins is usually the inspiration for such characters. He has been reborn as ‘Ezekiel Oliphant’, ‘Newton Pulsifer’ and ‘Obediah Wilson’ in recent novels, and elsewhere appears as himself, most recently in Julie Hearn’s The Merrybegot (2005), in which he makes an unlikely excursion to the West Country. Even historical accounts have muddied the waters, most notoriously Richard Deacon’s 1976 biography Matthew Hopkins, Witch Finder General, which blends well-documented truths with bogus ‘revelations’ about Hopkins’s involvement in Royalist spy-rings.

One of the most significant contributions to the legend was Ronald Bassett’s Witch-finder General. “Not for those with delicate stomachs,” warns the blurb of this 1966 novel claiming to be the true story of “one of the most vicious Englishmen who ever lived”. Here, Hopkins is a middle-aged Ipswich lawyer who becomes a pikeman in a parliamentarian regiment to escape his creditors, and from there reinvents himself as “a black-winged Attila, leaving behind him a trail of gibbet-hung corpses”. In 1968, Tony Tenser’s Tigon Films brought Bassett’s book to cinema screens. Directed by young horror auteur Michael Reeves, and starring Vincent Price in the title role, the film has been described as “a Suffolk western”, but it was the movie’s scenes of torture and execution that caused the kind of controversy that would ensure its cult status and permanently fix the popular image of Hopkins and his bloody crusade.

In fact, Hopkins had been fashioned into a folk-devil long before that, his mission having earned the scorn of Sir Walter Scott and, even earlier, Daniel Defoe. Fear and revulsion generated by the tragedy spawned local legends, especially involving ghosts. In the 19th century, sightings of Hopkins’s earthbound spirit were commonly reported to the police in the Essex town of Manningtree where the witch-hunt had begun, and the screams of his victims still echo across the Stour estuary. Over three days in April 2004, Living TV’s Most Haunted broadcast a live ghost-hunt from there, producing results which, however dubious, were none the less interesting from a folklorist’s – and a fortean’s – perspective. Rumours as old as the witch-craze itself claimed that Hopkins had tricked the Devil out of his book of witches, that he had been subjected to ordeal by water, that he had been hanged, or that he had fled – some said to New England. In the oral tradition, then, some of the injustices inflicted by the witchfinder had been put to rights.

Such stories help clear up unfinished business, but lead us further from the truth. So what had really happened? As with most social historical episodes from before the Industrial Revolution, the records are patchy, making it hard to resurrect facts and suppress myths. This is what I had thought about Matthew Hopkins before I helped make a Channel 4 documentary in 2002, which pieced together a continuous narrative of the East Anglian witch-craze, sticking closely to archival sources. At the time, I had recently written a book about the life of spiritualist medium Helen Duncan, and was extending this into research on the supernatural during World War I. But so intrigued was I by the possibility of retelling the Hopkins story that I shelved the Angels of Mons and returned to my more familiar territory of 17th-century witch-trials. Feeling a grudging sympathy for Hopkins, I got in the car and began my own tour of eastern parts to discover the truth.

Dark Origins

The witch-craze of 1645–7 was unique in its intensity and exceptional in the widespread involvement of a witchfinder, and needs to be seen in the context of witch-trials punctuating English life from the time of Elizabeth I. Belief in magic was ancient and inextricably bound up with the fragility of life in rural communities, but in the 16th century an expanding population squeezed resources, provoking disputes between neighbours. Meanwhile, Protestant preaching stirred feelings of individual sinfulness and the omnipresence of the Devil. Tudor state-building also introduced new statutes into public life, including the Witchcraft Act of 1563. In English law, the onus fell upon ordinary people to pursue malefactors, one result of which was a relatively low level of prosecution.

Throughout Europe, hysterical witch-crazes were unusual and perceived to threaten order more than they bolstered it. Talk of the ‘burning times’ (attributed to arch-Wiccan Gerald Gardner) and, in The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown’s assertion that ‘the Church burned at the stake an astounding five million women’ should be taken with a pinch of salt. Historians estimate that there were about 110,000 Continental trials and 40,000 executions. England’s share was probably less than 500 hanged (rather than burned). In south-eastern England, for which most trial records survive, the acquittal rate was over 75 per cent; the Church, incidentally, played no part in capital trials. Cases peaked in the 1590s – a time of acute economic crisis – then declined in the reign of James I whose reputation as a witch-hunter is largely undeserved, at least during his time as King of England. James’s son, Charles I, showed little interest in the demonological fervour associated with Puritanism, and the level of witchcraft prosecutions sank yet further. Even discounting royal apathy, by now judges were becoming sceptical about proof commonly heard in the courts.

Puritans wanted the Church of England to be reformed along strict Calvinist lines, and were thick on the ground in the county of Suffolk. By the 1630s they felt disillusioned that Charles I seemed to be dragging the nation back to Catholicism, depressed by their persecution at the hands of anti-Puritan bishops, and disgusted by the way witches and idolators went unpunished.

The small community at Great Wenham exemplifies these grievances. Godly folk there were led by the minister, James Hopkins, whose righteous anger fuelled the Puritan cause, and whose sons were raised to fight the forces of the Antichrist. The youngest (born in about 1620) was Matthew, about whose childhood little is known except that he was probably sent to a grammar school, but did not follow his father and brothers to university. Instead, he may have been apprenticed to an attorney (his signature appears on a conveyance from 1641) and by 1644 was living across the River Stour at Manningtree.

The territory in which Manningtree was situated, the Tendring Hundred, was dominated by Puritan landlords and magistrates, notably Sir Harbottle Grimston and Sir Thomas Bowes. The start of the Civil War in 1642 caused anxiety, here as elsewhere, and encouraged zealots to take the initiative in the war against evil. For some time, townsmen had believed that strange accidents were the work of witches, and at Christmas 1644 a convulsive illness suffered by the wife of a tailor named John Rivet was the last straw. A cunning woman identified Elizabeth Clarke, a one-legged widow, as Goodwife Rivet’s tormentor – a charge which Clarke admitted. In March 1645, the agitators appointed a minor gentleman named John Stearne to make complaint to the magistrates Grimston and Bowes. Authorised to lead an investigation to find Clarke’s accomplices, Stearne set off for where the suspected witch was being detained, and was joined by Matthew Hopkins.

After three days and nights of watching, Widow Clarke cracked, and through the darkness summoned a parade of creatures, some bizarre hybrids, all of them unnatural. Asked about her fearlessness, she replied: “What, doe yee thinke I am afraide of my children?” Witnesses, including Hopkins and Stearne, testified that she confessed that the father was the Devil, and that the beasts were familiar spirits, which she used to harm others. Having sealed her own fate, the old woman divulged the names of other witches in Manningtree and its environs, and so the witch-hunt gathered momentum.

Spreading Terror

The magistrates travelled the Tendring Hundred gathering evidence and despatching suspects to Colchester Castle. Elizabeth Clarke’s confession had already led to the exposure of the coven that Hopkins believed had sent a bear-like spirit to kill him. When Anne Leech, a widow from Mistley, was examined by a midwife, marks were found “around the privie parts of her body”, prompting her to admit several offences, including murdering the son of a prominent Manningtree Puritan. Now the lid was being lifted on the whole hellish enterprise. People from St Osyth testified against four suspects who had bewitched a carpenter’s apprentice for refusing them wood-chips; the youth’s master said he “hath crowed perfectly as a Cock; sometimes barked like a Dog; sometimes violently groaned beyond the ordinary course of nature”. At Thorpe-le-Soken, Margaret Moone confessed that she had infested a woman with lice, and had helped to kill the boy at Manningtree.

By the summer of 1645, there were 34 women on remand in the squalid dungeon at Colchester, of whom four died before the assizes, probably from plague. Rebecca West, an adolescent from Lawford charged with causing a woman to miscarry, had confessed to marrying the Devil in the guise of “a proper young man”; now she was persuaded by Matthew Hopkins to turn Crown witness against several others and thus escaped justice. Witchfinders, including the search-women who identified the genital teats where imps were supposed to suckle, were becoming increasingly important as fixers, helping secure the sort of graphic proof necessary to persuade a jury.

The 29 surviving suspects were moved to Chelmsford in July 1645, and indicted for “malas et diabolicas artes … witchcrafts, incantac[i]ones”. Owing to the wartime disruption of the administration of justice, the judge was not a professional but a Puritan soldier, the Earl of Warwick. Never before had there been a witch-trial like this in English history. In the end, only one woman was acquitted, but uneasiness about the evidence led to reprieves for nine of the convicts. By this time, Hopkins and Stearne had left Essex to search for witches in Suffolk, but returned as witnesses against several of the accused. Already, it seems, they were courting controversy, having been involved in a tense stand-off in Colchester. Some townsmen had objected to the witch-hunt, possibly because they feared an overfull gaol – a threat to order, public health and the public purse.

In the end, four women were sentenced to be hanged at Manningtree, the remaining 15 at Chelmsford. On the way to the gallows Margaret Moone collapsed and died, crying that the “Devil had often told her she should never be hanged”. One by one, the others climbed the ladder to be turned off by the hangman before a tumultuous crowd; due to her disability, Elizabeth Clarke had to be helped up to a height where the noose could be put around her neck. The nine reprieved women remained in gaol, and would stay there without hope of release until their pardon application was sent to Parliament – a procedure set to take nearly five months. At least one woman died waiting.

In Suffolk, the witchfinders went their separate ways, John Stearne taking the western side of the county, Hopkins the east. Whereas Stearne never strayed far from his family at Lawshall, Hopkins, the younger unattached man, embarked on a trek of perhaps 300 miles (483km), venturing as far as the coast – a feat suited to his self-image as a valiant Christian crusader. A horseman might cover 50 miles (80km) in a day, using the sun and church spires to navigate; maps had become plentiful due to the war, and officers kept tubes of them strapped to their saddles. Hopkins stayed at inns, although he probably accepted private hospitality too. He complained bitterly about his expenses, describing how “his Companie” would travel 20 miles (32km) to investigate a case and might have to stay a week. For this, he said, he would be paid just 20 shillings – still a month’s wage for a labourer.

The confessions extracted in Suffolk were even more extraordinary than the Essex ones. Women confessed that, at moments of despair, they had been approached by a demonic spirit who, in exchange for a blood-pact, promised relief from poverty and salvation. One woman, persuaded that she was too sinful to be saved, allowed herself to be ravished by two great beetles that flew to her in the night. But the satanic illusion soon dissolved. Margaret Wyard of Framlingham said that the Devil came to her “in the shape of a handsome yonge gentleman w[i]th yelloow hayre and black cloaths & often times lay w[i]th her”. Her experience might have revived memories of sensuous romance for a woman whose courting days were behind her, but soon she was struggling to feed seven hungry imps. These creatures – flies, beetles, spiders and mice – clamoured for space at her body, but with only five teats, “when they came to suck they fight like pigs with a sow”. Men, too, fell beneath the gaze of the witchfinders. At Bramford, a man named Payne told John Stearne that many times the Devil had encouraged him to hang himself, but that his route to spiritual oblivion had been witchcraft. Despairing as he sweated and cursed to push a plough, Payne had been approached by Satan who asked for his soul. Craving relief from toil, Payne had relented.

A set of notes about the Suffolk evidence (in the British Library) distinguishes between confessions freely given and those made under duress – not that in contemporary eyes the latter was such a bad thing: many believed that pain was the only means to establish the truth. Torture was, however, prohibited. And yet, in time of war and reformation, ends could easily justify means for men like Hopkins, who took their lead from the Bible rather than from discredited authorities. From the first interrogation at Manningtree, it is plain that psychological pressure, leading questions and sleep deprivation were applied, and that these methods were effective in extracting elaborate confessions. Use of the water ordeal, whereby suspects were believed to be guilty if they floated, was also prominent. James I had sanctioned this in his treatise Dæmonologie, but it remained illegal as an assault against the individual and a sacrilegious test of God.

At the village of Brandeston, the elderly vicar, John Lowes – a contentious figure in the parish – was arrested as a witch, and taken to Framlingham Castle where he was swum in the moat. A man jumped in to act as a control: he sank, but Lowes floated. Forced to run up and down until exhausted, Lowes confessed and showed Hopkins and his interrogators a teat beneath his tongue where he fed his familiars. Lowes related how one of his imps swam to a ship sailing by the mouth of the Stour, at which point it “began tumbling up and downe with waves, as if [the] water had been boyled in a pot”; before long it sank making “fourteen widdowes in one quarter of an houre”. When Hopkins asked if he did not grieve to see so many die, Lowes replied: “No, he was joyfull to see what power his Impes had”.

In Westminster, news of gaols crammed with suspected witches, among them an ordained clergyman, caused consternation in Parliament. A special investigative and judicial commission was appointed, led by judge John Godbold and two Suffolk clergymen, Samuel Fairclough and Edmund Calamy. Towards the end of August, they presided at the assizes at Bury St Edmunds, and amid reports that the Royalist army was close, condemned 18 of the accused before proceedings were halted. Executions followed swiftly the next day, including that of Rev. John Lowes who conducted his own funeral service. The next month a number of other trials took place at Ipswich. One arraigned suspect, Mary Lakeland, was convicted of compacting with Satan to bewitch her husband to death – the crime of petty treason for which she was burned at the stake.

The execution of Mother Lakeland had cost the town of Ipswich over £3, and even a simple hanging cost about £1 – significant sums of money for communities drained by the demands of war. Nor was this the only expense of witchfinding. Following a ruling made by Judge Godbold at the Bury St Edmunds assizes, the authorities at Ipswich ordered a levy to be imposed on the town because “there hath been much monney laid out by severall p[er]sons… in the searchinge watchinge & further p[ro]secutinge of diverse p[er]sons of this Towne suspected for Witches and in the bringinge of them to a legall triall at this Sessions”. Already, the gaoler at Ipswich was in dispute with the inhabitants of Brandeston and elsewhere, and successfully petitioned to have them defray his costs. Throughout Suffolk, people formerly enthusiastic about witch-hunting lost some of their ardour. And debts owing to the witchfinders Hopkins and Stearne now went unpaid.

The Last Gasp

Stories about the witch-trials were exploited by the London press for sensationalist and propagandist ends. Reporting the Bury trial, parliamentarian news-book The Scotish Dove declared that the witches “confessed they had beene in the Kings Armie, and have sent out their Hags to serve them… His Majesties Armie it seemes is beholding to the Devill”. Another publication mentioned a mass trial in Norfolk where witches on the gallows had predicted that the King would be defeated. Many saw the discovery of witches as signs of a world upside down, of nature in turmoil. One report of the Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk trials signed off with news of the births of a limbless hermaphrodite and a one-eyed, eight-footed kitten with the hands of a child. Cheap print heightened national sensitivity to witches; one pamphlet urged people everywhere to “doe their utmost in discovering and finding out wicked persons which by confederacy with the Devill do not onely cast away their soules and bodies, but make spoyle and havock of their neighbours goods”.

There is no doubt that Hopkins’s influence spread far and wide, and connected with pre-existing social and political tensions. Brutal interrogations and ordeals were recorded in Hertfordshire, Cambridge, Sussex, Yorkshire and Cornwall. In Kent, it seems, witch-hunting spiralled out of control: news reached London that “the multitude without order take women (when it is said they are witches) and threw them into a River, to try if they will swim”. In September 1645, a trial at Faversham shared many characteristics with the East Anglian accusations, including a secret assembly of witches forming a compact with the Devil, very like that exposed in Manningtree. Three women were hanged.

Sceptical voices were also raised, but had little impact in towns afflicted by godly anxiety. Defending himself against criticism, Hopkins claimed that he never went anywhere unless invited; he was certainly warmly received in many places and received letters requesting his services. On 15 August 1645, the assembly of Yarmouth “agreed that the gentleman Mr Hopkins imployed in the Countrie for discovering & finding out of witches shall be sent for hither to come to Towne; to make search for such wicked p[er]sons if any be here”. Aldeburgh, another coastal town, invited Hopkins in 1645 and 1646, resulting in a mass trial which cost the corporation over £40 – a seventh of its annual budget.

Spring 1646 found Hopkins and Stearne heading west towards Huntingdon, Northampton and Bedford. Shocking confessions from several Huntingdonshire villages led to a mass trial. The investigation began at Catworth, where Elizabeth Weed was isolated and watched until she admitted she was a witch, sobbing that she longed to be rid of her “unhappy burthen” now that the diabolic contract was nearing expiry. From Keyston came news that Elizabeth Chandler had given herself to “roaring things” which slithered into her bed “in a puffing and roaring manner”, and that she had killed her enemy’s daughter. Interrogated by the lord of the manor, she confessed to entertaining imps named ‘Beelzebub’ and ‘Trullibub’. After resting, however, she seemed perplexed by this.

Also perplexed – and furious – was the vicar of Great Staughton, John Gaule, who decided it was time to make a stand. A parishioner had shown him a letter written by Matthew Hopkins, asking whether he might be welcome in the parish. Gaule replied publicly with a series of caustic sermons in which he observed: “It is strange to tell what superstitious opinions, affections, relations, are generally risen amongst us, since the Witchfinders came into the Countrey”. These he published in a book, Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and Witchcrafts, which condemned Hopkins and Stearne as greedy, ignorant upstarts and worse symbols of rebellion and chaos than the witches upon which they made war. That winter, Gaule’s arguments underpinned a complaint made to judges at Norwich, and led to Hopkins being forced to answer some difficult questions.

Hopkins protested that his motives were godly and sincere, and that he was the victim of malicious rumours. How far he was believed is unknown, but this would prove immaterial. For Hopkins was already sick with consumption, and by August 1647 was home in Manningtree about to breathe his last. John Stearne pressed on into the Isle of Ely, the fenland north of Cambridgeshire, but the outlandish confessions, which had had such a devastating effect in the summer of 1645, were no longer so impressive. The stories were as weird as ever. One man saw the Devil disguised as an angel wreathed in fire; another gave himself to an over-sized mouse; one woman confessed that “a black horse came to hur & crept betwixt hir leggs & carried hir over the Green”; and, in the strangest story of all, a mother explained how she had given her soul to spirits impersonating her dead babies in order to save the life of her only surviving child. The difference now was that the court at Ely was more circumspect in regarding these testimonies as evidence and acquitted accordingly. The idea was gaining currency that, however wicked witchcraft might have been, to quote one editorial: “Life is precious, and there’s need of great inquisition before it be taken away”. The judge at Ely was the same John Godbold who had presided at Bury St Edmunds, and it is possible that he had experienced a change of heart, or had been ordered to exercise restraint.

The trials at Ely in the early autumn of 1647 in many ways lowered the curtain on the East Anglian witch-craze. Hopkins, bellicose soul of the campaign, was dead and buried at Mistley Heath (today an overgrown sheep field), and John Stearne had a declining sense of his own usefulness. Discontent about fees paid to the witchfinders had resulted in lawsuits, debts seemed unlikely ever to be paid, and acquittals were increasing. Stearne retired to his family home, where he wrote a garbled memoir of the witch-hunt, exonerating himself and Hopkins, which he published in 1648 as A Confirmation and Discovery of Witch Craft. He ended his days in contention with his neighbours and constantly short of money.

Legacies of Fear

The witchfinders and their purge were destined to be remembered as a lawless episode of religious mania and political violence. There would never be another Matthew Hopkins, although witchfinders did occasionally make later appearances – like the Scottish ‘witch-pricker’ employed by the city of Newcastle in 1649-50. But by now scepticism of such bullying methods and cruel tests was gaining ground. In 1655, Thomas Ady, a physician, condemned the delusions which “have been impiously acted here in England, of late in Essex, and Suffolk, by a wicked Inquisitor pretending authority for it”. The tempest raised by John Lowes, he said, would have been a miracle even for Christ. In the 1660s, the satirist Samuel Butler ridiculed Puritanism in an epic poem. Hopkins earned a mention: Has not this present Parliament A Ledger to the Devil sent, Fully impower’d to treat about Finding revolted Witches out? And has not he within a year, Hang’d threescore of ’em in one Shire? Some only for not being drown’d, And some for sitting above ground, Whole days and nights, upon their breeches And feeling pain, were hang’d for Witches.

In the end, Butler suggested, Hopkins had “prov’d himself a Witch/And made a rod for his own breech”. This picked up on a rumour that some gentleman had “swum” the witchfinder.

As many as 300 people may have been accused in the East Anglian witch-craze, of whom over 100 were executed. And yet this was not the final tally. Witchcraft trials persisted for the rest of the century, though at a declining rate and with a growing tendency to end in acquittals. The burden of proof fell more heavily upon accusers than it had in the 1590s – or even the 1640s – and judges advised juries to be sure that guilt lay beyond reasonable doubt. Hearsay, once the mainstay of witchcraft prosecutions, was banished. The last execution of an English witch occurred in 1685, the last conviction in 1712. The Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1736, and replaced with a statute forbidding the attempted conjuration of spirits. This legislation was only repealed in 1951, partly due to the conviction in 1944 of medium Helen Duncan for allegedly materialising the dead at her séances (see FT103:24; 104:24; 116:40-43). Belief in the danger of witches did not vanish from rural communities, and sporadic lynchings were reported from the 18th to the mid-20th centuries.

All this credulity and rage serves as a reminder that Matthew Hopkins was not so much the general of the witchfinding movement as an adjutant helping things along. It took a lot of people to hang a witch: witnesses, constables, search-women, midwives, magistrates, gaolers, clerks, judges, jurors, sheriffs, executioners, gravediggers and so on. Witchfinders gave people confidence to act, and they lent their expertise, but little more than that. In some ways, too, Hopkins the bogeyman deserves to be seen as a man of his time, rather like the fanatics of the New Model Army, the iconoclasts who stripped parish churches of their ‘superstitious’ decorations, and the regicides who signed the King’s death warrant. However misguided and intransigent, such men were inspired by the purification of society and the belief that they were living in the “last days” of man. The folk memory of the Witchfinder General owes less to his intrinsic wickedness and more to the way that law-abiding, news-consuming citizens demonise individuals to purge the moral ambiguity of their own lives. To call Hopkins an evil monster is to refuse to understand the hazardous potential of his followers; the same could be said about Hitler or Osama-bin-Laden.

Witches and witchfinding are still with us. The thriving religion of Wicca is proof of the former; the mobs who persecute asylum seekers, travellers and pædophiles are modern heirs to the latter. But one has to travel beyond the developed West to experience a real witch-hunt – action against people believed to use magic for malevolent ends. In South Africa’s Northern Province there were at least 200 lynchings in 1985-95: here, witchfinders sniff out suspects who are banished, beheaded or burnt alive. Similar patterns are visible in Angola, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. In Ituri, a Congolese province, over 800 perished during a single witch-hunt in June 2001. In India, too, perhaps 200 women die every year. The problem is especially acute in Bihar, one of the most lawless states, where ‘ojahs’ identify witches: in 2000, a female witchfinder confirmed the guilt of five suspects who were then brutally killed. We may now have to struggle to imagine life in a witch-panicked village, but it is salutary to think that we are distanced from this reality not by a few hundred years, but by a few thousand miles.

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A witch feeds her familiars with a spoon, from A Rehearsal both straung and true, of Fower notorious Witches, 1579. Image: British Library
Matthew Hopkins interrogates Elizabeth Clarke and Rebecca West, frontispiece to The Discovery of Witches, 1647, by Matthew Hopkins. Image: Pepys Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge
Witches hanged in Elizabethan Essex, from The Apprehension and confession of three notorious Witches, 1589. Image: Wayland Picture Library
Title page to A True Relation of the Araignment of eighteen Witches... at St. Edmunds-bury in Suffolke, 1645.  Image: British Library
The water ordeal inflicted upon a suspected witch, from Witches Apprehended, Examined and Executed, 1613. Image: Wayland Picture Library
Author Biography
Malcolm Gaskill is Fellow and Director of Studies in History at Churchill College, Cambridge. His most recent book is Witchfinders, a full-length study of the witch-craze of 1645–7.


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