Tests for Witches: Witchcraft Mark, Witch Birthmarks to Identify a Witch
Witch Tests: 10 Historical Tests for Proving Someone Was a Witch

Witch Tests: 10 Historical Tests for Proving Someone Was a Witch

Natasha sheldon - July 13, 2018

Witch Tests: 10 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 girls 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.

Witch Tests: 10 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 taken 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 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 cause 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.

Witch Tests: 10 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 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.

Witch Tests: 10 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:

10 Ways to Identify a Witch, STACY CONRADT, Mental Floss, OCTOBER 15, 2018

The Horrifying Tests used in Salem to Determine if a Woman was a Witch, Barbara Stepko, The Vintage News, Oct 23, 2018

6 Tests to Identify a Witch, Andrei Tapalaga, History of Yesterday, Jul 17, 2020

18 Reasons One is Executed for Witchcraft during the ‘Burning Times’, D.G. Hewitt, History Collection, January 6, 2019

Witch Pricking And The Devil’s Mark, ALEKSA VUČKOVIĆ, Ancient Origins, 22 MARCH, 2021

The Nine-Year-Old Girl Who Accused Her Family of Witchcraft, Lioness Rue, History of Yesterday, Oct 20, 2020

The Curse of Alizon Device, Alex Indovina, Medium, Oct 31, 2020

The Devil’s Disciples: Twelve Male Witch Trials You Haven’t Heard Of, Natasha Sheldon, History Collection, November 18, 2017

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

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

Ducking Stool, Medieval Life and Times Info

Weighing Witches, Strange History, April 16, 2013

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

The Swimming of Witches, Foxearth & District Local History Society

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

Oudewater Witches Weighhouse, Holland.com

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

Advertisement