Lately, I’ve been a little obsessed with early modern witchcraft.
Perhaps it’s because of the poppet in my hedge. Or perhaps it’s because I took the BBC’s online quiz “Would You Have Been Accused of Witchcraft” (short answer: yes).
Probably it’s a combination of the two: a realization that, had I lived in 17th-century England, the presence of a doll’s head in my yard would have had me tied to the stake before I could say “NOT MY POPPET!” That’s why my nomination for Vile-Hearted Renaissance Peckerhead of the Month is Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled “Witchfinder General,” thought to be responsible for the deaths of over 300 women (and some men).
Hopkins was an innkeeper in the village of Manningtree, across the River Stour from Colchester. According to his own book The Discovery of Witches, composed in question-and-answer form, Hopkins came to witch-hunting after overhearing some women discuss meeting with the Devil in the woods outside of Manningtree:
The Discoverer [Hopkins writes about himself in the third person here] never travelled far for it [experience in witch finding], but in March 1644 he had some seven or eight of that horrible sect of Witches living in the Towne where he lived, a Towne in Essex called Maningtree, with divers other adjacent Witches of other towns, who every six weeks in the night (being alwayes on the Friday night) had their meeting close by his house and had their severall solemne sacrifices there offered to the Devill…
Hopkins claims they mentioned the name of another witch, so he told the authorities and had her apprehended. She was examined “by women who had for many yeares knowne the Devills marks.” She was found to possess the traditional mark of the witch: a third teat, a nipple from which she was thought to suckle her familiar, or “imp.”
As an aside: Supernumerary nipples, often called third nipples, are very common, occurring in about 1 in 18 people: Entry on supernumerary nipples from Medline. They may not be interesting medically, but they sure are culturally:
(Video of Bradley Cooper pranking Ellen Degeneres by showing a third–and fourth, and fifth–nipple.)
After finding this damning evidence of the woman’s pact with the Devil, Hopkins and his associates forced her to stay awake for three nights altogether; on the fourth night, says Hopkins, she surrendered and called five of her imps:
1. Holt, who came in like a white kitling.
2. Jarmara, who came in like a fat Spaniel without any legs at all, she said she kept him fat, for she clapt her hand on her belly and said he suckt good blood from her body.
3. Vinegar Tom, who was like a long-legg’d Greyhound, with an head like an Oxe, with a long taile and broad eyes, who when this discoverer spoke to, and bade him goe to the place provided for him and his Angels, immediately transformed himselfe into the shape of a child of foure yeeres old without a head, and gave halfe a dozen turnes about the house, and vanished at the doore.
4. Sack and Sugar, like a black Rabbet.
5. Newes, like a Polcat.
After this parade of familiars, the woman “confessed severall other Witches” and told Hopkins where to find their “marks” (third teats) and the names of their imps “as Elemanzer, Pyewacket, Peckin the Crown, Grizzel, Greedigut, &c. which no mortall could invent.”
As a result of Hopkins’s investigation, 23 women were tried in Chelmsford; nineteen were hanged and four died in prison.
This success launched a new career for Hopkins. He hired an assistant, John Stearne, and a group of women who examined the accused witches looking for their “witch’s mark” (often, if they couldn’t find a likely third teat in the form of a mole or birthmark, they would prick the woman’s flesh attempting to find one—in effect creating the very mark they were looking for).
Hopkins and his methods were startlingly popular. Torture was illegal, but Hopkins had other ways of extracting “confessions,” the most famous of which was a swimming test. The theory was that since witches had renounced their baptism, water itself would reject them. The suspected witch was tied to a chair and thrown into a lake or river. If she floated, it was a sure sign of her witchiness. If she sunk, she was innocent. Either way, she would likely die.
Though Hopkins was generally successful in his career (Ipswich residents even levied a tax to pay for his services), he was not without enemies. The most effective of these was the vicar of Great Staughton, John Gaule, who, though he acknowledged the existence of witches, deplored the folkloric roots of Hopkins’s methods for gathering evidence. He was particularly opposed to the swimming test, and he successfully lobbied for tougher evidentiary standards in the publication Select Cases of Conscience touching Witches and Witchcrafts.
Hopkins published his work The Discovery of Witches in 1647, in response to Gaule, and its influence was great in the new American colonies. His own witch-finding career, however, was not to survive as long as his influence: he died shortly after the publication of his work in August 1647.
Though Hopkins probably died of natural causes, a tale of karmic justice has grown up around his death: popular local history held that he himself was tried as a witch and died as a result of his own creation, the swimming test.
Blog “Shakespeare’s England” on “Swimming a Witch”
Marks of an Absolute Witch: Evidentiary Dilemmas in Early Modern England by Orna Alyagon Darr (Ashgate, 2011)