For centuries, many men and even more women have been tortured and executed because of the belief in malevolent witchcraft. It is a very dark period of human history, and sadly it still continues to this day in countries around the world.
Much of the fear about witches and witchcraft stem from a lack of knowledge and paranoia. When something bad happens, people look for ways to explain it. In the past, without another explanation, people have blamed problems, both big and small, on witchcraft. Once they believe the problem was caused by witchcraft, it was simply a matter of finding a scapegoat. Sadly, this led to terrible forms of torture, where people falsely confessed and they were executed in brutal fashions. It is estimated that 50,000 to 200,000 people died throughout history because they were a victim of a witch hunt and trial.
Perhaps the oldest witch trial on record is that of the death of Greek intellect, Hypatia, who was born around 355 AD in Alexandria. Her father was Theon of Alexandria, a well-respected mathematician and astronomer, and he taught his daughter math and science. As an adult, Hypatia was a leading mathematician, astronomer, and teacher. As for her religious beliefs, her philosophy was Neoplatonism, which was considered Pagan.
The problem was that Hypatia lived in a time when there was a lot of unrest and disagreement between the city’s three main religions; Christianity, Judaism and Paganism. After Cyril became Archbishop of Alexandria, the atmosphere took a turn for the worse. Hypatia was accused of witchcraft, which stemmed from her Pagan beliefs. In 415, while riding her chariot to work, Hypatia was pulled off of it into the street by a mob of angry Christians. She was attacked with abalone shells and flayed alive. Her remains were set on fire and her works were destroyed as the Christians tried to remove her from history. Cyril was later canonized as a saint.
Today, Hypatia is considered the first famous “witch” to be punished by Christian authorities. She is also remembered as a powerful symbol of feminism and a martyr of science in the face of ignorance.
9. Angéle de la Barthe
Supposedly, Angéle de la Barthe was born around 1230, in Toulouse, France. She was a noblewoman and a Gnostic Christian, which was a sect that was considered heretical by the Catholic Church. In 1275, she was accused of having sexual relations with Satan and she was impregnated by him. She gave birth to a baby that had the head of a wolf and a serpent’s tail. It ate human flesh and De La Barthe stole infants to feed it.
When De La Barthe was arrested, she tortured and confessed that the accusations were true. She was sentenced to death and was burned alive.
The problem with the De La Barthe trial is that historians aren’t sure the trial even happened because there was no mention of it in Toulouse’s records. Also, at the time, it wasn’t illegal to have sexual relations with demons. But if Angéle de la Barthe was executed for witchcraft, she would have been the first person in Europe to suffer that fate.
8. Petronilla de Meath
One of the earliest group accusations of witchcraft happened in Kilkenny, Ireland, in 1324. The Bishop of Ossory accused Lady Alice Kyteler of sorcery, demonism, and murder. According to the Bishop, Kyteler became rich by killing her former husbands through witchcraft. The bishop also ordered that Kyteler and her confidante, Petronilla de Meath, to be tortured. When De Meath was tortured, she said that both she and Kyteler were witches. She said that they could apply an ointment to a beam of wood and it would give them the ability to fly. After the confession, De Meath was forced to publicly admit that Kyteler and her followers were witches.
Kyteler managed to get out of Ireland, taking De Meath’s son Basil with her, and avoid execution. De Meath and some other servants were burned at the stake, while others got off light by just being whipped and tortured.
7. The Chelmsford Witches
Under the reign of Queen Elizabeth, there were three major acts written to punish witches. The second of these acts was passed in 1563, and it made summoning an evil spirit, whether it did harm or not, illegal with a mandatory jail term. If the spirit or spell led to someone’s death, then the witch could be executed.
The first people to be tried under this law were three women living in the town of Hatfield Peverel; Agnes Waterhouse, her daughter Joan Waterhouse, and Elizabeth Francis. What connected all three women was a white cat with black marks on it.
One of the women accused, Elizabeth Francis, said that she was taught witchcraft at the age of 12 by her grandmother, who told her to renounce God and give her blood to the devil. Her grandmother also gave her a cat named Sahtan (or Satan) as a familiar, which is an animal that is enabled with supernatural powers and it helps the witch. Elizabeth held on to the cat for 15 or 16 years and then grew tired of it. She traded the cat to Agnes Waterford for a cake, and Francis taught Agnes everything her grandmother had taught her about witchcraft.
Elizabeth was tried first and she confessed and was given a year in prison. Agnes went on trial next and she also confessed to a number of crimes, including bewitching people and killing them. She also confessed to killing her neighbor’s livestock. During her trial, a 12-year-old girl testified that Agnes had cursed her. According to the girl, after being cursed, a large black dog started terrorizing her. The testimony was damning and Agnes was sentenced to death. Agnes’ daughter, Joan Waterhouse, pleaded for mercy and was found not guilty.
On July 29, 1566, 63-year-old Agnes Waterhouse was hanged and she became the first person executed in England for witchcraft. Also, in the end, the reputation of witchery never escaped Elizabeth Francis; she was arrested twice more for witchcraft and was hanged in 1578.
6. The Pendle Witches
In the late 1500s and early 1600s, paranoia was high in England; the Guy Fawkes gunpowder plot had failed in 1605. King James I was a strong proponent of witch hunts and even wrote a book on the topic called Daemonologie. This atmosphere led to one of the most infamous witch trials in English history, the trial of the Pendle Witches.
The case started in March 1612 in Lancashire when a young woman named Alizon Device was accused of witchcraft. The son of a peddler said that Alizon cursed his father and he died as a result of it, so Alizon was arrested. Alizon confessed, but she also accused her neighbors of witchcraft. Alizon said that Anne Whittle and her daughter Anne Redferne had cursed four people and they had died. Whittle and Redferne, in turn, accused Alizon’s grandmother, a woman known for her cunning, named Demdike of being a witch. Then on Good Friday, when all good Catholics should have been at church, Alizon’s mother, Elizabeth, threw a party. There were rumors that it was a gathering of witches and most of the people at the party were arrested.
In total, nine women and two men were charged with witchcraft and the key witness was Jennet Device, Elizabeth’s nine-year-old daughter. Jennet testified that the accused were witches. After a two day trial, 10 of the accused, including Jennet’s sister, brother, mother, and grandmother, were all found guilty and hanged. One other accused died before the trial, and only one accused person was found not guilty.
This case was incredibly influential because writings from the trial were used in reference handbooks for magistrates, including magistrates in the American Colonies. The handbook encouraged authorities to use the testimony of children in witchcraft trials. As for Jennet, this type of testimony would come back to haunt her because in 1633 she was accused of being a witch by a 10-year-old boy.
5. The Pappenheimers
The Pappenheimers – Paulus, 57; his wife, Anna, 59; and their three sons, Gumpprecht, 22, Michel, 20, and Hansel, 10, were vagrants living in Bavaria in 1600. They made their pitiful living by cleaning privies, which are similar to outhouses. In February 1600, they were arrested on vague, petty charges and unfortunately for the Pappenheimers, the Duke of Bavaria wanted to use the family as an example to stop the spread of highway robbery and murder, so they were tortured while being interrogated. When they were, 10-year-old Hansel said that the family were witches. Soon the rest of the family started to admit to witchcraft, like flying on sticks. On July 29, 1600, the family was executed. First, they were tortured and mutilated in front of a crowd, and then Hansel was forced to watch his family be burnt to death and then he was burned alive himself.
What is amazing about this witch trial is that while it was terribly gruesome, incredibly detailed records of the torture, confessions, and the execution were saved. It also created a new law in Bavaria, that witchcraft was a serious problem and extreme measures were needed to wipe it out.
4. The Paisley Witches
Like too many other trials on this list, the trial of the Paisley Witches was started by the accusations of a child. In this case, it was 11-year-old Christian Shaw, who supposedly became possessed in 1696 and she accused seven or eight people in the town of Paisley of bewitching her. As the year went on, witnesses claimed that they saw Shaw fly and she would cough up strange things, like coal and hair. In early 1697, over 30 people were accused and four women and three men were sentenced to death. Out of the seven, only six would make it to their execution; one of the men committed suicide in his cell. The rest of them were garroted and then their bodies were burned. Finally, their ashes were placed in a grave that was sealed with a horseshoe.
Now, this could have just been another generic, albeit sad, witch trial. But as one of the women, Agnes Naismith, was being executed, she cursed the townspeople of Paisley and their descendants. As time went on, the legend of the witches grew and it was said that if the grave was ever disturbed, then the people of Paisley would be cursed. And in the 1960s, that very thing happened. During construction, the horseshoe was removed and in an amazing coincidence, the town’s economy took a downturn. In 2012, it had the most empty shops on any high street in the United Kingdom.
As for Christian Shaw, she and her mother toured Europe, and in Holland, they found out about the process of making fine thread. They smuggled pieces of the spinning machine used to make the thread to Paisley and started a thread company that became one of the main industries in the town.
3. Trier Witch Trials
One of the largest witch trials in Europe’s history started in 1581, in the rural diocese of Trier before spreading to the city. It was led by Archbishop of Trier, Johann von Schöneburg, who ruled through tyranny and cruelty. When he took power in 1581, he ordered the purging of Jews, Protestants, and witches. Between 1581 and 1593, over 368 so-called witches were executed. These witches included respected citizens; one-third of the people executed were nobles or held highly respected jobs like professors, rectors, and judges. In some cases, villages were decimated; two villages had only one survivor, a single female. It is also important that the 368 executions were only recorded in 22 villages; that figure doesn’t include executions in rural areas, so it is believed that the real number of executions is even higher.
2. Gilles Garnier
Many of the people on this list are victims of paranoia and hysteria, but Gilles Garnier might actually be the only person on this list who committed real crimes; and his crimes were much worse than any of the imagined offenses.
From accounts at the time, Gilles Garnier was a reclusive loner living in the woods around Dole, France. Despite being a solitary man, he married in 1572. The problem was that Garnier was ill-equipped to provide for his family because he wasn’t a very good hunter. That’s when Garnier started hunting something else entirely; human children. The first murder happened around September 29, 1572, when Garnier killed a 10-year-old girl, supposedly while in the form of a wolf, and brought some of the flesh home for his wife to eat.
Throughout the autumn, more children, both boys and girls between the ages of nine and 12, were found murdered and mutilated. This caused a stir in the town who believed that it was a werewolf who was committing the murders. People thought it was a werewolf because at a number of the murder scenes, people happened to walk by and see a humanoid-wolf being who would run off into the woods once it realized it had been seen. Then in January 1573, there was one last murder. This time villagers heard a child screaming and the sounds of a wolf. They ran to the scene and witnessed a wolf run away from the child, but as it did, it turned into human form and people realized it was Garnier.
Garnier was arrested, put on the rack and he confessed to killing the children and eating them if they entered the forest. At his trial, more than 50 people testified and he was found guilty of lycanthropy and witchcraft. He and his wife were burned at the stake on January 8, 1573. Today, it is unclear if Garnier was actually a serial killer and cannibal, or if he was an innocent man who was just another victim of the witch trial mentality.
1. Salem Witch Trials
By far, the most famous witch trials in history are those that happened in Salem Village, Massachusetts. The infamous period in American history started in January 1692, when 9-year-old Elizabeth (Betty) Parris and 11-year-old Abigail Williams began to have fits where they would violently contort their bodies and they would have outbursts of screams that couldn’t be controlled. Betty and Abigail, who were the daughter and niece of the minister of Salem Village, Samuel Parris, were taken to a doctor and his diagnosis was witchcraft. A short time later, other girls in the village started to show the same bizarre symptoms as Betty and Abigail.
In late February, three women were arrested for witchcraft. They were Tituba, a Caribbean slave owned by Minister Parris; Sarah Good who was a homeless beggar; and Sarah Osborn, an elderly and poor woman. At their trial, their accusers appeared in court and they were unable to control their spasms, contortions, and screaming. Osborn and Good denied they were witches, but Tituba admitted to witchcraft. It is possible that she thought she might have saved her life if she told the villagers about other witches, so she accused other townswomen. In turn, the women Tituba accused pointed their fingers at other townspeople for being witches.
With so many accusations of witchcraft mounting, a special court was formed called the Court of Oyer and Terminer. The first case that was decided was against Bridget Bishop. She was hanged on June 10, 1692, on a place that would come to be called Gallows Hill. In July, five more people were executed, including Sarah Good. In August, five more people executed and in September, a further eight people were hanged. Besides the 18 executions, seven people, including Sarah Osborn, died in prison. Finally, a man named Giles Corey was crushed to death with stones after refusing to enter a plea at his arraignment. Tituba, who was partially responsible for spreading the rumors, was never indicted for witchcraft.
By October, public support of the witch-hunts had waned and the Court of Oyer and Terminer was dissolved. By 1693, all the people who were accused of witchcraft were pardoned by the governor and in 1711, the Massachusetts Colony passed legislation that restored the good names of the people who lost their lives and they also provided financial compensation to their families.