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.