Curious History: ‘Witchfinder General’ Matthew Hopkins, 1647
There was much superstition and ignorance in 17th century England. Witchcraft had been illegal since 1563 and hundreds of women were wrongly accused and punished. ‘Proof’ of being a witch could be a third nipple, an unusual scar or birthmark, a boil, a growth, or even owning a cat or other pet (a ‘witch’s familiar’, or evil spirit). Confessions were often made under torture, and suspects were tied up and thrown into a river or pond. Floating was proof of guilt. After a show trial, the victim was hanged.
Professionals who exposed witches could make a lot of money, as local magistrates paid the witch finder the equivalent of a month’s wages. And the busiest tradesman of all was Matthew Hopkins, a shadowy figure who called himself ‘Witchfinder General’ and had around 300 women executed in East Anglia during the turmoil of the English Civil War in 1645 and 1646. The title page shown here is from Hopkins’s 1647 book ‘The Discovery of Witches’, in which he describes his grim profession:
“…another witch … was thereupon apprehended, and searched by women, who had for many years known the devil’s marks, and found to have three teats about her, which honest women have not: so upon command from the Justice, they were to keep her from sleep two or three nights, expecting in that time to see her familiars, which the fourth night she called in by their several names, and told them what shapes, a quarter of an hour before they came in, there being ten of us in the room,”
[They assumed the shapes of a white kitten, a fat spaniel, a long-legged greyhound, a black rabbit, and a polecat].
(Hopkins, Discovery of witches, 1647).
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