Pricking was the method used to test if a mole or blemish was indeed a devil’s mark. The theory was that if the area in question did not bleed or cause pain to the suspected witch when a small sharp instrument pierced it, then it was the genuine article and proof of a pact with the devil. ‘A spot that I have seen, as a small mole, horny and brown colored, throw which mark, when a large pin was thrust..till it bowed and became crooked, the witches, both men, and women nather felt a pain nor did bleed nor knew the precise time when this was doing to them, (their eyes only being covered), ” wrote Robert Hink, a Minister at Aberfoill in 1691.
Accounts of witch pickings make gruesome reading. On March 10, 1611, a French priest, Louise Gaufridi, from Marseilles, France was charged with sorcery. To establish his guilt, two doctors and two surgeons were assigned to find his witch mark. They found three little marks upon his body ‘not very different in color from the natural skin.’ The uncertainty of the marks meant that pricking was in order. So the surgeons proceeded. They pierced the mark on Gaufridi’s right thigh up ‘to the depth of two fingers breadth.‘ The mark did not bleed and nor did Gaufridi feel any pain. This was enough to convict him.
As in Gaufridi’s case, it was usually doctors or surgeons who carried out the pricking. However, in Scotland, the task was carried out by a specialist group of professional Prickers. This group was so well respected and established that they even had their own guild. The Pricker’s social standing was hardly surprising as in Scotland at least, they could command hefty fees. In the seventeenth century, a good witch pricker could command a fee of six shillings per day for maintenance while carrying out his task and at the end £6 for every witch identified.
Needles, pins and, bodkins usually used for punching cloth were all the tools of the pricker’s trade. However, because of the fat fees on offer for convictions, many if not most prickers used fraudulent methods. Some of the devices prickers used were specially designed to have retractable points, so it only appeared as if the end had pierced the suspected witch’s skin. This design ensured that when the bodkin was ‘withdrawn’ there would be no blood- and the victim would not have felt a thing.
Sometimes prickers were used in cases where no witch’s mark was detected. In these cases, the authorities assumed that the witch’s mark was invisible – so the whole of the suspect’s body was stabbed, prodded and pricked until the investigators found a spot that did not bleed or hurt. However, sometimes neither doctors or professional prickers were used to detect the witch’s mark but instead the witch’s supposed victim. People believed that the symptoms of those cursed by a witch would improve if the victim drew blood from their tormentor. So using the victim to prick the witch had a double advantage: not only did it free the victim of their curse but it provided proof of who bewitched them.
Drawing blood was not the only way that a victim of witchcraft could be used to help test a potential witch.