10 Over the Top Historical Tests for "Proving" Someone Was a Witch
10 Over the Top Historical Tests for “Proving” Someone Was a Witch

10 Over the Top Historical Tests for “Proving” Someone Was a Witch

Natasha sheldon - July 13, 2018

10 Over the Top Historical Tests for “Proving” Someone Was a Witch
Witch Pricking. Google Images.

Pricking

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.‘ Tthe 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.

10 Over the Top Historical Tests for “Proving” Someone Was a Witch
Witchcraft at Salem Village. C 1876. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

The Urine Test

If a community suspected one of their number of being bewitched by an unknown witch or witches, then the victim’s urine could be used to establish for sure if they had been cursed by witchcraft. This ‘urine test’ could even identify who the witch was. Urine was believed to be potent in this respect because of its connection to the victim. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century it was also widely used in medical diagnosis. So it was a ‘logical’ next step in the minds of the people of those times to use it to diagnose witchcraft.

One way of using urine to discover if a witch had cursed a stricken person was to bake a witch cake. This unappetizing confection was created by mixing rye with the urine of the victim and then baking it. The cake was then fed to a dog or if a suspect was already lined up, the supposed familiar. The animal in question was then watched closely. If it began to manifest the same symptoms as the victim, then witchcraft was at work.

The beauty of the witch cake was that it identified witchcraft and the witch at the same time. For as well as making the dog or witch’s familiar ill, the urine cake was supposed to enchant them so that they revealed the witch’s name. At the same time, the witch in question was also supposed to fall violently ill thus inadvertently identifying herself. It was through the use of a witch cake that the first batch of accused witches was rounded up in January 1692 in the Massachusetts town of Salem-although in this case; the result was an indirect one. For the cake did not work and so those who baked the cake found themselves, suspects, instead.

Urine was used to identify witches in other ways. In 1717, the people of Wigston Magna in Leicestershire became convinced that witches were at work within the village. Several of the residents were stricken by an illness that caused “twisting and distorting of their limbs backward and forwards.” One unfortunate woman, Mary Hatchings actually died of the mystery affliction. So they turned to their minister for help identify the perpetrators and cure the afflicted. Unfortunately, the minister found himself to be powerless to do anything. So he sent for a local cunning man to resolve the matter.

The cunning man took samples of the victims’ urine and sealed it in a bottle. He then heated the urine over a fire. As with the witch’s cake, this process was supposed to have a two-fold result. Firstly, it was designed to cure the afflicted – but only if the urine stayed in the bottle. If any escaped as it boiled, then the afflicted remained cursed. However, when the urine was first set to boil, the witch or witches involved were supposed to be drawn into the room against their will, either in their own form or as a dog or cat. In this way, the villagers of Wigston Magna were able to identify their witches as the Clarke family.

The Clarkes were amongst the last witches in England to be subjected to the next witchcraft test.

10 Over the Top Historical Tests for “Proving” Someone Was a Witch
A witch “swimming”. Google Images.

“Swimming”

The concept of ‘swimming” witches seems to have developed from the idea of trial by ordeal. In English Law, the use of ‘swimming can be dated back to the tenth century when King Athelstan decreed that Indicium Aquae could be used as a test of guilt or innocence for a variety of crimes. Trial by water was eventually taken off the statute books in 1219. However, it continued to be a popular, if unofficial test of innocence for certain crimes including witchcraft, until it was re-endorsed by James I in 1597.

By its very nature, water was regarded as a pure thing. Large bodies of water had been used originally for baptism and so the theory behind swimming was that the holy ‘baptismal waters’ of the pond or river would test the suspect’s innocence or guilt. According to James I in his “Daemonologie: ” God hath appointed … that the water shall refuse to receive them in her bosome, that have shaken off them the sacred Water of Baptisme, and wilfully refused the benefite thereof.” So, if the water rejected a suspect, they were impure, an agent of the devil and a witch.

By the late seventeenth century, the growth of witch hysteria meant that “swimming” was an increasingly popular test for potential witches. The suspect could be tested fully clothed although according to Sir Robert Filmer they were usually stripped naked. They were then tied up. The right thumb was bound to their left toe and vica versa so that suspect’s body formed a ball. Finally, a rope was tied about their waist and they were thrown into the deep waters of the pond or river.

To be swum was a lose-lose situation for the suspect whatever the outcome. If they floated, god and the water had rejected them and so they were proclaimed a witch. However, if they sank, unless those holding the rope were merciful and pulled them out in time, the suspect would drown. Those overseeing the procedure could influence the outcome by how they positioned the victim. According to Thomas Ady writing in 1656, it had become common knowledge that if the victim was laid ‘flat on their back and [holding] up their feet with a string’, then they would not completely sink.

Swimming was used in the case of the Clarkes of Wigston Magna in 1717 as the villagers attempted to gather evidence before taking the witches before the Leicester assizes. Contemporary accounts describe how the accused had “their thumbs and great toes tyed fast together and were thrown so bound into the water where tho they strove and used all endeavors to sink yet they all swam like a corke or an empty barrel” This was the last official use of swimming in England. However, the test continued to be used to identify witches right up until the nineteenth century.

A suspect witch, was also judged by their words as well as their deeds.

10 Over the Top Historical Tests for “Proving” Someone Was a Witch
“The Legend of Salem: The Rev. George Burroughs who passed the prayer test- but was still hung. c. 1871. wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

The Prayer Test

The importance of praying correctly and without error is a superstition dating from Roman times. Priests officiating at religious rituals were required to perform every word and gesture exactly and without error. If they made a mistake, they had to begin again, lest their sloppy incantations offended the gods and bring down bad luck. This belief seems to have survived within Christianity and by the seventeenth century, trial by prayer had become yet another test for witches.

The theory was no agent of the devil would be able to pray to God or read from the Bible without tripping over the holy words. So, it became customary to make accused witches recite the Lord’s Prayer or read a passage from the Bible during their trial. They had to do this flawlessly without stuttering, shaking or in any way mispronouncing the words. Considering the suspect was in terror of their life, and were probably already fatigued by previous trials and torments, this was no mean feat. However, no mitigating circumstances were not taken into account by the court. If the accused were innocent, then God would give them strength. So, if they fluffed the recital, they were doomed.

However, to pray flawlessly was no guarantee that you would be proclaimed innocent. One of the accused Salem witches was a former Reverend of the community, George Burroughs. Burroughs was returned to Salem and tried for witchcraft, found guilty and sentenced to hang. However, when he reached the scaffold, he made a speech to the assembled crowd, declaring his innocence. Then he began to say the Lord’s Prayer.

Robert Calef was a witness to the execution. He noted that Burroughs’s prayer “was so well worded” and “uttered with such composedness” and fervency of spirit” that it convinced some of the crowd that the Reverend was innocence. “It seemed to some that the spectators would hinder the execution,” Calef noted. However, the officials of Salem were having none of it for this. Calef described how “Mr. Cotton Mather, being mounted upon a horse, addressed himself to the people,partly to declare that he [Burroughs] was no ordained minister, and partly to possess the people of his guilt, saying that the devil has often been transformed into an angel of the light; and this somewhat appeased the people, and the executions went on.”

Other tests for witchcraft had an even more dubious basis.

10 Over the Top Historical Tests for “Proving” Someone Was a Witch
Tituba and the children, by Alfred Fredericks. From “A Popular History of the United States.” Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

The Touch Test

One of the signs that a person had been bewitched was if they were suddenly stricken by an inexplicable and frightening illness. Common ailments attributed to a witch’s curse included fits, seizures, and paralysis. In such cases, it was widely believed that only the witch who cast the spell could remove it from her victim. After Alison Device, one of the Pendle witches ‘bewitched’ the peddler John Law in March 1612, his son, Abraham Law searched for her and brought her to the inn in Colne, Lancashire where his father lay ill. John Law had probably suffered a stroke. However, the fact that he was stricken immediately after encountering Alison led him to believe she had cursed him.

Abraham Law intended to force Alison to cure his father. However, when she saw John Law, Alison seemed more than willing to do so. Utterly repentant, she admitted her guilt and begged Law senior’s forgiveness. Then she attempted to remove her ‘curse’. Unsurprisingly, there was no change to Law’s condition, a fact that counted against Alison and set in chain the events that led to the Pendle witch trials. Yet despite this clear evidence that witches weren’t always able to undo their ‘magic’ even if they wanted to, the touch test remained a popular test for witchcraft.

The premise of the test was simple. The suspected witch either voluntarily or against their will touched their supposed victim. If they had indeed bewitched the afflicted person, then the curse would immediately lift and the victim would be cured. This in itself was enough to prove the witch’s guilt but if their victim, now free of the curse could now name them as well, so much the better.

The touch test was most famously employed during the Salem witch trials of 1692. The group of ‘bewitched’ young girl’s at the heart of the trials were kept in isolation at the Andover meeting house. This was because they were behaving most strangely, being either catatonic or stricken with hysterical fits. No doctor could help them so witchcraft was suspected. So, on September 7, 1692, the Reverend Barbard gathered a group of suspects up and had them brought to the meeting house. There, he had them blindfolded and then forced the suspects, one by one, to go up to the girls and touch them.

As each of the accused approached them, the girl’s convulsions increased, as did their distress. They began to moan that they were cursed. Finally, the accused were forced to touch them. In each case, the girl’s fits stopped. Now completely calm and coherent, they were able to denounce the person who had touched them as their tormentor. On the basis of this touch test alone, eighteen men and women were arrested and tried for witchcraft.

The next test for witchcraft literally weighed up the likelihood of a suspect’s guilt.

10 Over the Top Historical Tests for “Proving” Someone Was a Witch
The Witch scales at Oudewater weight House. Picture by Onderwijsgek. Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Netherlands license.

Weighing the Witch

One of the more obscure tests for witchcraft was the concept of Witch weighing. This was based on the premise that in order to fly on a broom, a witch had to be light. So, from the sixteenth century onwards, the suspected witches of Germany and Holland were taking to the local weight house that was usually used for weighing goods and produce. An expected standard weight was set and anyone who did not meet it was declared a witch. The method was even endorsed by the Emperor Charles V who made the weight house at Oudewater in the Netherlands the official witches’ weight house because of its reputation for honesty.

However, witches were not tested by iron weights alone. For it was also common to test potential witches by weighing them against either a lone Bible or a whole stack of the Holy books. In this case, it was not the weight of the witch’s body as such that was being tested but the weight of their soul. For the Bible was the word of God and so was seen as acting as a proxy for god in the matter of judging the suspects. However, exactly how weighing by Bible determined that innocence or guilt is somewhat confused, as the criteria seemed to vary from place to place.

Some sources claimed that for the suspect to be proven innocent, they had to balance against the bibles exactly, weighing neither more nor less than the book or books stacked against them. However, elsewhere, the suspect had to be heavier than the Good Book to be acquitted, which was surely easy to achieve unless they were emaciated, or a child. However, in other areas, the witch’s guilt was proven by outweighing the Bible, making acquittal unlikely.

One such case of ‘Witch Weighing’ occurred near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire in 1759. Gentleman’s Magazine reported how Susannah Hannokes, an elderly woman from the village of Wingrove was accused of being a witch by a neighbor. Susannah was accused of bewitching the woman’s spinning wheel to that it would no longer turn. Susannah vehemently protested her innocence and demanded to take an oath in front of a magistrate to prove her innocence. However, her husband upped the stakes and instead demanded his wife was “tried by the church bible” instead.

So Susannah, her accuser and the rest of the village assembled in the parish church and there Susannah was “stripped of all her clothes to her shift and undercoat and weighed against the Bible when to the no small mortification of her accuser, she outweighed it and was honorably acquitted of the charge.”

Other proofs of witchcraft came from the world of dreams and spirits.

10 Over the Top Historical Tests for “Proving” Someone Was a Witch
A witch at her cauldron surrounded by beasts. Etching by J. van de Velde II, 1626. Courtesy of the Wellcome Trust. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

Spectral Evidence

Spectral evidence was a form of witch test that was particularly rife in protestant society. It referred to the belief that an accused witch’s spirit or “spectral shape” could appear to their victims in dreams while the witch’s body lay elsewhere. People believed that the devil could not take the form of any person who was innocent of ties to him. So, if anyone saw- or said they had seen a suspected witch in spirit form- there was every chance that that individual was indeed a witch.

Examples of spectral belief arise in a variety of cases of witchcraft. One of the ‘proofs’ offered against the Clarke family of Wigston Magna, Leicestershire was that they appeared to their victims at night “in their own and other shapes.” At the trial of Alison Device in August 1612, the peddler John Law testified how the witch came to him in spectral form while he lay incapacitated in the inn at Colne. The specter “stayed not long there” and only “looked on him” before going away. However, he was left “sore afraid” and was tormented by the apparition “both day and night.”

The biggest problem with spectral evidence was it could not be tested and so could be simple fancy- or an outright lie. However, it was a proof of witchcraft offered again and again during the Salem witch trials. In making a judgment about the validity of spectral evidence for securing a conviction, the judges turned their attention to witch trials in England that had delivered guilty verdicts based on spectral evidence. The model for their decision was “A trial of witches” written by Gilbert Geis and Ivan Bunn. In particular, the judges’ attention was focused on the case of Amy Denny and Rose Cullender who were convicted and hung in Lowestoft, Suffolk 1662.

Both women were elderly widows. Cullender came from a landowning family while Deny was the widower of a laborer. Both were accused of bewitching thirteen children, causing the death of one. At the trial, testimony was given by some of the bewitched children “that Amy Duny and Rose Cullender would appear before them holding their Fists at them, threatening, That if they related either what they saw or heard, that they would Torment them Ten times more than eve they did before.”

As with the Suffolk case, many of the Salem girls claimed to have been visited in dreams by the accused witches. One was Goody Proctor who reputedly “bit pinched and almost choked” them despite her insubstantial form. The similarities were enough for the judges to allow spectral evidence as admissible evidence at the trial although they did not make convictions on spectral evidence alone, as Cotton Mather had advised them that in some cases, the ‘spectres’ could be illusions from the devil.

However ultimately, prejudice was the only evidence required to identify a witch.

10 Over the Top Historical Tests for “Proving” Someone Was a Witch
Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne and, Tituba. Google Images

Mental Illness and Eccentricity

Ultimately, accusations of witchcraft were based on fear and prejudice. Any individual who stood out from the crowd or did not conform to the social norm was at risk if being judged a witch. Sadly, this meant many individuals suffering from mental illnesses or who exhibited eccentric behaviors because of age or infirmity were at risk. Such people included those afflicted with epilepsy, Schizophrenia, or age-related dementia. According to the National Institutes of Health, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services “a large number of the alleged witches and possessed persons who were burned probably had visible mental disturbances.”

Odd behavior in women was particularly suspected. The Malleus Maleficarum, drawing on the writings of the ancient philosophers constructed an image of women as inherently weak and corrupt- and so especially susceptible to demonic influence. The womb was described as a source of evil, which explained why women were so venomous at menstruation. Women were “more ready to receive the influence of a disembodied spirit.” In doing so they would become a witch and, as a result, their natural erratic tendencies would simply become more exaggerated or perverse.

Talking to yourself was a particularly suspect behavior, especially if the words were inaudible, leading to assumptions that the individual was muttering spells under their breath. This was just one of the traits exhibited by Pendle Witch Anne Whittle alias Chattox which were used as proof of her witchcraft. At the time of her trial in 1612, Chattox was an old lady of around 80 and probably suffering from dementia. However, her eccentric behavior was used against her when the judges were told how Chattox was always “more ready to do mischief to men’s goods, then themselves, her lips ever chattering and walking: but no man knew what”.

 

Where Do we get our stuff? Here are our Sources:

15 Bizarre and Cruel Ways People Tested Witches, Tamar Altebarmakian, Ranker

Woodcuts and Witches, Jon Crabbe, The Public Domain Review

Legal Process: Procedures, Courts & Aftermath of the Salem Witch Trials, Legends of America

The woman who became a witch-pricker, Louise Yeoman, BBC News, November 18, 2012

The Role of Witch’s Cake in Salem, Jone Johnson Lewis, ThoughtCo. March 18, 2017

Urine, Noaiddi.com Traditionell läkekonst, August 3, 2015.

Ducking Stool, Medieval Life and Times Info

Weighing Witches, Strange History, April 16, 2013

The Witchcraft Trial of Reverend George Burroughs. Rebecca Beatrice Brooks, History of Massachusetts, April 9, 2017

The History of Witchcraft, Montague Summers, Castle Books, 1992

The Swimming of Witches, Foxearth & District Local History Society

Malleus Maleficarum, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, (trans. Montague Summers)

The Little Book of Leicestershire, Natasha Sheldon, The History Press, 2017

Oudewater Witches Weighhouse, Holland.com

1662: Rose Cullender and Amy Denny, Bury St. Edmunds witches, Executed Today March 17, 2013

Witch Trials: 4 Real Medical Illnesses That Were Mistaken For Witchcraft And The Devil, Elana Glowatz, Medical Daily, October 19, 2016

The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancashire, Thomas Potts, (ed Robert Poole) Carnegie Publishing, 2012

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