Among the most popular supernatural beings, witches rank right up there with vampires and werewolves. Witches appear in everything from The Wizard of Oz to Harry Potter to True Blood. The sheer number of books, television shows, and films that feature witches in main roles would be difficult to list. Yet, while there are many popular fictional witches, there have been numerous historical examples of real people alleged to be witches, just as various historical people have been alleged for various reasons to be werewolves or vampires. This list covers the ten most notable examples of historical people either officially charged for witchcraft in various legal courts and/or depicted as witches in various works of popular culture. This list also focuses only on alleged witches (women) and not alleged warlocks or wizards (men).
10. Christine Therese O’Donnell (born 27 August 1969)
The pretty and single Christine O’Donnell, a friend of left-wing comedian Bill Maher, became a notable American Tea Party Politician and Republican Party Candidate for U.S. Senator in 2006, 2008, and 2010. She lost in all three elections. During the most recent election, O’Donnell received much airtime over a statement she made back in 1999 on Maher’s television show. She claimed to have “dabbled in witchcraft”. As a result, the author and founder of ChristinePac became most known for this comment during the election to such an extent that she ended up releasing a political advertisement in which she claimed she was “not a witch,” but rather “you”.
The advertisement was also mocked and even O’Donnell acknowledged it backfired. What makes this case particularly fascinating is that in the twenty-first century, still someone can be burned at the stake of public opinion for allegedly having had even an interest in witchcraft (quite the insult to the various peaceful Wiccans out there). Never mind that O’Donnell is not even a “witch” anyway, but a practicing Catholic.
9. Catherine Monvoisin (c. 1640 – 22 February 1680)
One of the most infamous incidents during Louis XIV’s seventy-two year reign (the longest in French history) involved fortune teller Catherine Monvoisin. The Affair of the Poisons followed the extreme torture and execution of murderess Madame de Brinvilliers (22 July 1630 – 17 July 1676); she had to drink sixteen pints of water before being beheaded and then burned at the stake for good measure. Brinvilliers’s trial drew attention to other mysterious murders. Monvoisin was among the most famous individuals brought under suspicions of such mysterious unsolved murders.
She was accused of not just of providing poison to various murderers, but also of being a sorceress and as such was convicted of witchcraft and burned to death in public. She was only one of thirty-six people executed during the Affair of the Poisons. Some have speculated the so-called Man in the Iron Mask was also involved in the Affair of the Poisons (hence his punishment), although these beliefs have been doubted due to new evidence suggesting otherwise.
8. Walpurga Hausmännin (died 1587)
France was hardly the only European country in the early modern era to experience serial killers condemned not just for their role in murders but also on inflated charges of witchcraft. Widowed Austrian midwife Walpurga Hausmännin probably was a child murder, but after being tortured for her confession, she was officially executed for witchcraft and even vampirism. According to her confession she had sexual relations with a demon and agreed on a written contract to serve Satan in exchange for being saved from poverty. The demon gave her a special ointment that she could use to inflict suffering upon her victims. She continued to have sexual intercourse with the demon visitor and murdered forty children via the demon’s salve, or by crushing their foreheads, or even sucking out their blood in some kind vampire-esque manner. The allegations against her included acts of cannibalism done with other witches.
What makes her worthy of this list is just how extreme the authorities were in punishing this alleged child killer. First, they confiscated her property. Next, they took her through the city and mutilated her before they reached the place of execution. Along the way, they tore her left breast and right arm with irons followed by her right breast and then her left arm. Next, they tore the left hand When they reached the place of execution, they cut off her right hand and only after that did they burn her alive at the stake. Finally, they dumped her ashes into a stream.
7. The Last Executed European Witch?
Considering that the European witch hunts went on for so many years, the last person to be executed as a witch in Europe would have to be significant for finally ending such a long practiced disturbing epoch in human history. Yet, scholars do not agree on who exactly was the last executed alleged European witch. Here are several of the possible candidates.
First we have Anna Göldi (24 October 1734 – 13 June 1782), known as the “last witch” in Switzerland, who was executed by decapitation for murder. After being tortured, she confessed that the Devil appeared to her as black dog and the two then entered into a pact; however, she was not technically sentenced for witchcraft. Moreover, on 27 August 2008 the Swiss parliament officially exonerated her.
Next, we have an alleged Polish arsonist and witch named Barbara Zdunk (1769 – 21 August 1811) who lived in Prussia. In 1806, Zdunk was blamed and arrested for a fire that ravaged and nearly destroyed the entire city of Rößel. Despite actual evidence, she was not only sentenced for the alleged arson but was also executed by burning at stake on a hill outside Rößel in 1811. Although her conviction was upheld by several appeal courts, some speculated that Polish soldiers were actually behind the fire. As with Anna Göldi, some historians dispute whether or not Barbara Zdunk’s trial should be counted as an actual witch trial in a legal sense, because witchcraft was no longer a criminal offence in Prussia at the time of her sentencing.
Sticking with alleged Polish witches, we next have the widow Krystyna Ceynowa (d. 1836) who also lived in what was then Prussia. Her community held suspicions that she too was a witch, but again, Prussian authorities were no longer interested in having formal witch trials. So, a lynch mob captured her and held an illegal trial in which they tossed her off a boat into the Baltic Sea. The idea being to test if whether she sank or floated to determine if she was a witch. Because she managed to stay a float for longer than the mob would have expected (probably due to her gown and skirt acting as a buoy), they declared her a witch and then killed her with the paddles they had on their boat. Because her death came about from an illegal trial and was more a lynching does it count? I guess it depends on what you want to believe.
As for one of the last confirmed trials for actual witchcraft, we have 63-year-old peasant Anna Schnidenwind (1688 – 24 April 1751) in Germany. She too was blamed for a fire, after of course making a pact with the Devil, that destroyed most of a village, in this case the village of Wyhlen. She was strangled and the burned. As for which of the four you believe deserves the distinction of last executed witch in European history, please indicate as much in the comments.
6. Agnes Waterhouse (c.1503 – 27 July 1566)
Mother Agnes Waterhouse is known not for being the last woman executed for witchcraft, but rather for being the first woman executed for witchcraft in England. She alleged had a Satanic cat that technically belong to another accused witch named Elizabeth Francis. Purportedly Waterhouse’s own daughter testified against her mother who was alleged to used sorcery to kill everything from livestock to her own husband. Along the previous few alleged witches on this list, she was hung rather than burned or strangled.
5. Joan of Arc (ca. 1412 – 30 May 1431)
Saint Joan of Arc is undoubtedly the most famous woman on the list and rightfully so. Her victory in the Hundred Years’ War had incredible consequences for human history, because it meant a turning of the tide in the war and therefore the inevitable failure of England to rule France. Imagine if somehow the two kingdoms had merged, given all that England and France did afterwards. In any case, Joan claimed to hear the voices of saints and persuaded the French king to give her an army to relieve a siege taking place at a major strategic location in France. She succeeded and set in motion the decisive events that eventually lead to the official coronation of Charles VII as king of France and the gradual eviction of England from France.
Nevertheless, her personal military successes did not last and she was captured by Burgundians and put on trial. To her supporters she was seen as divine help, but her opponents saw her as a witch and she was tried for heresy. She was condemned and executed by burning at the stake. Her career has been one of the most celebrated in Western history ever since and as such has appeared numerous time in films, plays, operas, advertising, paintings, video games, well, pretty much any form of media in existence.
4. The Bell Witch
The Bell Witch, also suspected to be a poltergeist rather than a witch, apparently harassed the family of a farmer named John Bell Sr. in Adams, Tennessee in 1817. The attacks included strange noises and phantom face slapping, among other suspicious unexplained happenings. In Martin Van Buren Ingram’s An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch (1894), the author claims that a poltergeist named Kate cursed the Bell family, while others claim the Bell Witch was a slave Bell had killed, someone Bell cheated, or even some kind of bizarre dog-rabbit hybrid. Future president Andrew Jackson, one of America’s bravest and most badass presidents (he dueled, for example) allegedly found the story interesting, but was scared away somehow when trying to investigate its validity. Obviously, so many different takes on what happens leave us a bit suspicious of what really happened.
Making matters worse is that earliest known account of the so-called witch was published in 1866, quite some time after 1817. As such, the whole story, let alone the supernatural aspects, are likely legends. Nevertheless, it has found its place in popular culture. One notable retelling of the story is An American Haunting (2005). This film, which grossed nearly $30 million, suggests that the alleged hauntings were really imagined by Betsy Bell who was being sexually abused by her father.
3. Anne de Chantraine (1605 – 17 October 1622)
Seventeen year old Anne de Chantraine was burned in either Waret-la-Chaussée (now central Belgium), Liège, or in France. Her case in itself is not really that unusual compared to some of the others on this list, but it has attracted interest in both the Francophone and Anglophone worlds. Full length books in French have covered her life and she is one of the main playable characters in a whole series of interactive video board games called Nightmare or Atmosfear,depending on the country of release. She is the titular character in the main game of the series and on the video, which can be viewed in multiple languages on Youtube, she progressively goes from being a beautiful albeit haunting, ghost-like young lady to a monstrous green, squealing stereotypical hag type of witch.
2. The Salem Witches
The Salem Witch Trials are by far the most notorious in American history and have been the subject of numerous documentaries, plays, and films. To Americans living during the Red Scare, the Salem Witch Trials seemed like a good parallel to the paranoia over suspected communists living amongst us. According to the stories, a group of young girls started the pandemonium that resulted in several hangings and the pressing to death of one man. Three people in particular from the trial have achieved the most notoriety and as such of the three females whose names are most typically mentioned with regards to these witch hunts. The first name of note belongs to Tituba, a slave who belonged to Reverend Samuel Parris. In 1692, Betty Parris (28 November 1682 – 21 March 1760), the Reverend’s daughter, and her friend Abigail Williams (12 July 1680 – 1699) accused Tituba of witchcraft. Under coercion, the slave became the first person to confess to witchcraft in Salem Village, claiming that she had spoken with the Devil, rode around on sticks, and that one woman had some kind of strange half bird/half woman creature in her possession.
Betty, Abigail, and Tituba subsequently accused others of witchcraft with their allegations striking us as downright absurd, but were apparently considered credible back then. Miraculously for her, Tituba was not actually executed, but her fate after the trials remains a mystery. She has also been the subject of extensive scholarly debate over her ethnicity. As for Williams, she has become perhaps the most recognized accuser to star in various forms of popular media. She has been portrayed by such mainstream actresses as Winona Ryder (29 October 1971) in The Crucible (1996). In that film, Williams is a bit older than her historical counterpart, but serves as the main female lead. Williams is also one of the key antagonists in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010). Finally, Bridget Bishop (ca. 1632, England – 10 June 1692) is a name people interested in the Salem Witch Trials should be familiar with, because she was the first person of either gender to perish by execution as a consequence of the trials. The allegations against her include attacks on children and even appearing as a specter so as to assault sleeping men. All in the episode was one of the most shameful in American history and came to an end after scores of people were accused and again, after several executions. The incident shows that the era of the witch hunts was not just limited to Europe.
1. Iphigenia, Hecate, and Trivia
Of all the “people” alleged to be witches, to earn first place on our list, she must go back far into mythological history, in this case Greek mythological history. Iphigenia was the daughter of Mycenaean king Agamemnon and his queen Clytemnestra. According to the myths, Agamemnon was punished by the goddess Artemis for killing a deer in a sacred grove. Artemis would not let the king sail for Troy to fight the semi-legendary Trojan War unless the king perform a sacrifice to atone for his actions. To satisfy the goddess, Agamemnon seems to have no choice but to sacrifice his own daughter. According to Hesiod’s Catalogue of Women, Artemis transformed the innocent girl into the goddess Hecate, who is known as the goddess of witches.
So, the possible real person Iphigenia thus did not just become known as any old witch, but the goddess of witches! She is still worshipped by various practitioners of Wicca and was worshipped by Romans as the goddess Trivia. She is considered not just goddess of witches, but also of crossroads. Nevertheless, the story that she was a mortal turned goddess is only version of her mythological origins. Other myths claim she was a more ancient goddess than only coming about during the Trojan War and still other myths claim that she was also the same goddess as Isis from Egypt. Hecate/Trivia is usually depicted in three forms (maiden, mother, and crone) and is generally accompanied by dogs. For being a goddess of witches in Greek and Roman religions as well as modern neo-Paganism, Iphigenia/Hecate/Trivia/Isis, or whatever you choose to caller her, must receive the number one spot on are list of people believed to be witches at some point in history. No one else has been believed a witch by so many for so long.