18 Reasons One is Executed for Witchcraft during the ‘Burning Times’

18 Reasons One is Executed for Witchcraft during the ‘Burning Times’

D.G. Hewitt - January 6, 2019

Between the 16th and 18th centuries, a moral panic spread through large parts of Europe and North America. People were seeing witches everywhere. Even the slightest problem was blamed on witchcraft, from a horse falling lame to a child falling ill. As the panic spread, self-proclaimed experts issued guidance on how to identify witches. They also issued guidance on what was to be done with anyone found guilty of practicing bloodshed – not for nothing is this period also known as the ‘Burning Times’.

Nobody knows for sure how many people were accused of being a witch during this time. However, it’s estimated that as many as 60,000 people were executed for witchcraft in Europe alone. Similarly, in North America, Puritans feared that there were many amongst them who were worshipping the Devil. Farcical trials were held, sometimes involving dozens of suspects. Most famously of all, the Salem Witch Trials saw more than a dozen innocent people executed after they were blamed for making some young children suffer seizures.

So, how did the people of this time identify witches in their midst? Here we have 18 signs witch-hunters might have seized upon, some more bizarre than others:

18 Reasons One is Executed for Witchcraft during the ‘Burning Times’
Women were much more likely to find themselves on trial for witchcraft. Smithsonian.

18. You were a woman: Simple sexism was behind many accusations of black magic, and 3 in 4 people put to death for being witches were female

Plenty of men were accused or sorcery during the so-called ‘Burning Times’, or the witch trials that swept across Early Modern Europe. However, women were much more likely to be accused of being a witch. What’s more, they were also more likely to be executed for allegedly practicing black magic. According to most accounts, around 75% of all the people executed for witchcraft in Europe between the years 1580 and 1630 were women. However, the actual proportion might have been higher still since women were less likely to be given a fair trial than men were. Thousands more innocent women may have been killed by mobs, with their deaths never recorded.

This gender bias was all too evident at the Salem Witch Trials in colonial Massachusetts in 1692. There, the vast majority of the 200 people accused of sorcery were female. Moreover, of the 19 people who were put to death, 14 were women. This was merely a symptom of a highly patriarchal society. Puritans took the story of Adam being tempted by Eve as a literal fact. Moreover, women who were independent or self-educated were viewed with suspicion and made for convenient scapegoats when things went wrong, such as when a harvest failed or livestock died.

18 Reasons One is Executed for Witchcraft during the ‘Burning Times’
Self-proclaimed witch-finders believed they could identify witches by how they looked. Wikimedia Commons,

17. You ‘looked the part’: As witch hunts became increasingly commonplace, so-called ‘experts’ believed they knew what a witch looked like

For witch-hunters, the simplest ways were often the most effective. Quite simply, by the mid-17th century, a popular idea of what a witch looked like had emerged. If a woman had a visible wart or a crooked nose, or if she limped or had a hunched back, chances are someone would accuse her of being a witch. Looks on their own were not enough to haul a woman before a grand jury. However, the transcripts of numerous witch trials show that appearance was often used as supporting evidence and might even be enough to see a woman hanged.

In 1640s England, the Revered John Gaule, who fancied himself an expert in rooting out witches, issued his thoughts on the matter. He explained: “Every old woman with a wrinkled face, a furr’d brow, a hairy lip, a gobber tooth, a squint eye, a squeaking voice, or a scolding tongue is not only suspected but pronounced for a witch.” Given the intense paranoia and hysteria of the time, many people took this advice to heart, leading to a wave of older women being accused of black magic by their neighbors, even their families.

18 Reasons One is Executed for Witchcraft during the ‘Burning Times’
Middle-aged and older women were more likely to be tried as witches than younger females. CBS.

16. You were aged 40 or over: Older women were treated with suspicion, especially if they loved alone

At times, witches were seen everywhere. Indeed, anyone could be a witch, man or woman, young or old. But nevertheless, the vast majority of accused were not only women, they were women of a certain age. In 1692, when America was gripped by the Salem Witch Trials, the vast majority of the 200 suspects were women in their late-40s or 50s. Some were older still. Mary Bradbury was believed to be 77 or 80-years-old when she was brought before the grand jury. She was acquitted but was viewed with suspicion by her neighbors for the rest of her life.

In Scotland, meanwhile, the last person to be executed on a charge of witchcraft was an elderly lady. Janet Horne was tried and killed in 1727, just six years before the crime of witchcraft was abolished in Britain. It’s almost certain that Horne was suffering from dementia. This would have explained her seemingly bizarre, even sinister behavior. So, when her neighbors accused Janet of riding her own daughter like a pony to go and meet the devil, the local magistrate believed them. While her daughter managed to escape, Janet was convicted. Despite her advanced years, she was stripped naked and forced to walk through the streets of her hometown. She was then covered in tar and burned alive.

18 Reasons One is Executed for Witchcraft during the ‘Burning Times’
Women unable to have children were blamed for casting spells on infants. Wikimedia Commons.

15. You were childless: When children fell ill for no apparent reason, it was often believed that the local childless woman had cursed them out of jealousy or spite

Many accusations of witchcraft were made after a child, or several children had fallen ill or even died suddenly for no obvious reason. Indeed, the most famous witch trial of all, the Salem Witch Trial, came about after small children in the Massachusetts village started suffering from seizures. Almost without fail, childless women would be blamed. It was commonly believed that such women were simply jealous of mothers with their children and used their black magic to make them suffer. Notably, this extreme suspicion of childless women is still evident in some parts of the world even today.

Eunice Cole, sometimes also known as ‘Goody Cole‘ was a New Hampshire woman accused of witchcraft on three occasions during the 1660s and 1670s. On each occasion, the fact that she and her husband didn’t have children of their own was brought up as proof that she was a witch. While she escaped execution, Cole served three spells in prison. Moreover, when she died, it’s believed her neighbors drove a stake through her heart and buried her in an unmarked grave so that their children would be safe from her malicious spells.

18 Reasons One is Executed for Witchcraft during the ‘Burning Times’
Young women who had extramarital sex might be named as witches. BBC.

14. If you were sexually progressive: Sex outside of marriage has long been frowned upon, but in the 17th century, it could get you hanged for being a witch

For most of history, women were expected to follow strict roles. This was especially true when it came to sex and sexuality. Transgressing from these was a sure-fire way of earning the suspicion of your neighbors and being accused of being a witch. The Malleus Malifcarum¸the 16th-century guide to spotting witches was hung up on sex. It noted that women were naturally temptresses, capable of leading good men astray. It also warned that witches had insatiable carnal lusts – as such, a woman having sex outside of wedlock was almost certainly involved in some kind of black magic.

Certainly, this was the case for Alice Lake. A resident of Dorchester, Massachusetts, she was a young mother of five. In 1651, her youngest child died of unknown causes. The grief-stricken Lake claimed she could sometimes still see and hear the infant. This was enough for her neighbors to accuse her of witchcraft. Then, when the prosecutors revealed that she had had children out of wedlock, she was found guilty and executed. As the court noted, Lake “played the harlot…being with Child.” It’s said she even confessed to being in legion with the devil before she died – though the ‘confession’ would have been given under extreme duress.

18 Reasons One is Executed for Witchcraft during the ‘Burning Times’
The Salem Witch Trial heard how Sarah Good would talk to herself, and this was seen as proof of evil. Pinterest.

13. You talked to yourself: As the Salem Witch Trials showed, simply muttering under your breath could be seen as being a sign of black magic

Lots of people talk to themselves on occasion. At most, it’s seen as a harmless affliction. Not so in the 17th century. Back then, being seen muttering to yourself may be taken as evidence of being possessed by evil spirits or of casting spells on your neighbors. This was the case with Sarah Good, one of the women accused of practicing black magic during the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Good, the grand jury was told, would frequently be spotted walking around her small village muttering to herself. So, when some local girls accused her of being one of several witches who had attacked them with evil spirits, she was bound to be found guilty.

And found guilty she was. Despite the fact that Good was pregnant at the time of the farcical trial, she was sentenced to death by hanging. She was allowed to give birth in prison, but then, within a matter of days, she was brought before the hangman alongside several of her co-accused. Good maintained her innocence to the very end. Interestingly, her last words were directed at the judge, Revered Nicholas Noyes. She warned him that, if she were to hang, “God will give you blood to drink.” Some 25 years later, Noyes died a violent death – choking on his own blood.

18 Reasons One is Executed for Witchcraft during the ‘Burning Times’
In some cases, women were killed as witches for the most trivial of reasons. Wikipedia.

12. You didn’t dress smartly enough: In some witch trials, an individual’s refusal to dress like everyone else was seen as something distinctly sinister

At the height of the 17th century’s witch hunts, even something as seemingly insignificant as the clothes you wore could mark you out as a witch – and lead to your eventual trial and execution. Suspicion of different dress was especially strong in the Puritan communities of North America. And, again, it was women who were expected to follow strict dress codes, and who would be judged the most harshly if they attempted to show any individual taste of sense of style. Bridget Bishop, one of the first people arrested during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 found this out the hard way.

Bridget was hauled before the court in June of that year, the first of the accused to face the grand jury on charges of witchcraft. The prosecution made a point of stressing that she wore black clothing and “odd costumes”. Both were against the Puritan dress code. What’s more, her coat was shown to be torn and weathered. This, along with her so-called “immoral lifestyle” (what exactly this meant is not clear) was regarded by the grand jury as enough to convict Bishop on all the charges brought against her. One week later, she was hanged.

18 Reasons One is Executed for Witchcraft during the ‘Burning Times’
Petty criminals were often the victims of unjust witch hunts. Pinterest.

11. You had a criminal record: Women of ill repute would often be blamed when things went wrong, and with a little coercion might confess to practicing witchcraft

Throughout history, those people living on the margins of society have often been used as convenient scapegoats when things went wrong. And this was certainly the case across Europe in the Middle Ages. According to the official history of the northern Italian region of Trentino, when harvests failed or people or animals were struck down with unexpected illnesses, ‘witches’ would be blamed. Notably, accusations of witchcraft “were largely made against marginal figures in society, old men, widows, young prostitutes, and woman who stole in order to stay alive”. In many cases, they would be arrested and then ‘confess’ to using black magic following interrogation.

This was the case in the village of Brentonico, in the region of Trentino, in 1716. When a child went missing, a woman called Maria Bertoletti Toldini was accused of abducting him. What’s more, she was also accused of throwing him into a vat of molten cheese! It was alleged that she did so because she was a witch. Just a few days after being accused of the crime, she was found guilty of witchcraft. She was beheaded in front of her fellow villagers and her body burned. More than 250 years later, the people of Brentonico moved to pardon the poor lady, acknowledging that the charges were completely unfounded, and she was simply a scapegoat whose past reputation was held against her.

18 Reasons One is Executed for Witchcraft during the ‘Burning Times’
The definitive Middle Ages guide to finding witches was a massive best-seller. Wikimedia Commons.

10. You were guilty by association: If you knew or were related to a known ‘witch’, you might have found yourself hauled before a grand jury

According to the Malleus Malifcarum, the best-selling Medieval guide to identifying and then punishing witches, most witches were either born evil or were possessed by evil spirits from an early age. At the same time, however, it was also believed that women could train to become witches. As the noted witch-hunter William Perkins stated: “Witchcraft can be learned”. As such, simply being around someone accused of witchcraft, or being related to an alleged witch, might have been enough to ensure you were hauled before a grand jury at a sham witch trial yourself.

Guilt by association was a common theme at the infamous Salem Witch Trials. For instance, Dorothy Good was accused of being a witch even though she was only four years old; simply being the daughter of one of the main accused, Sarah Good, was enough. Sisters, friends and husbands of the initial accused were also brought before the court, often on the flimsiest of evidence. Notably, this led the New England authorities to issue advice, recommending that evidence needed to be more than simple hearsay or guilt by association – even if this was issued too late for several of the Salem villagers.

18 Reasons One is Executed for Witchcraft during the ‘Burning Times’
Women of means, and those not reliant on men, were treated with intense suspicion in the past. Wikimedia Commons.

9. You were financially independent: Sexist beliefs in the subservience of women meant that those who didn’t need a man’s support were often suspected as witches

Back in the 16th and 17th centuries, independent women – that is, women who lived alone, without a man to support them – were often viewed with suspicion. And if an independent woman was financially comfortable, then jealous neighbors might well accuse her of being a witch. Indeed, according to the records, around 9 in 10 of the women executed for witchcraft between the years 1620 and 1725 were financially independent. In almost every case they had no brothers so were the sole inheritors of family wealth. Despite this, many juries were advised that they had acquired their wealth through black magic and were urged to find the women guilty.

While neighbors might have been jealous of an independent woman’s wealth, religious inquisitors were more concerned by the way they lived outside of the gender norms of the time. A lack of male control was particularly worrying and seen as a near-certain sign that a woman was up to no good. What’s more, women who could read and write, or who showed obvious signs of intelligence or learning, might often come under suspicion, as might a woman who knew how to perform ‘manly’ tasks or even knew how to swim!

18 Reasons One is Executed for Witchcraft during the ‘Burning Times’
Left-handed individuals have long been viewed with suspicion, including by witch trial juries. Pinterest.

8. You were left-handed: According to many traditions, there was something ‘sinister’ about being left-handed, and it was seen as one obvious sign that someone was a witch

Witch-hunters were always on the look out for things that made people – or, more likely, women – stand out. And since, statistically speaking, most people are right-handed, being left-handed was often seen as being the mark of a witch. This wasn’t just during the high point of the European and North American witch hunts in the 16th and 17th centuries. Suspicion of left-handedness has been around for centuries. It’s even been called ‘a mark of the devil‘, and so any woman seen using their left hand for writing or for other common, everyday tasks, might have found herself under suspicion of practicing dark magic.

The Church were at the forefront of promoting suspicion of left-handers. Priests and bishops would cite passages from the Bible to support the idea of left-handedness being the sign of the devil; for instance, the Gospel of Saint Matthew warns that, on Judgement Day, the righteous will pass to God’s right, while the sinners will be sent to the left. The fact that a woman was left-handed was routinely brought up as evidence during witch trials, though this alone was rarely, if ever, seen as conclusive proof of her guilt.

18 Reasons One is Executed for Witchcraft during the ‘Burning Times’
Women living with cats for company were widely assumed to be witches or up to no good. Wikimedia Commons.

7. You had a cat: For centuries, people really did believe that women who lived alone with cats for company were probably in league with the devil

Quite when black cats started to become closely associated with witchcraft is open to debate. Certainly, in Britain, the link can be traced back to the Celtic peoples, before the arrival of Christianity. They believed that cats were actually humans who had committed bad deeds in their lives and so, after dying, were forced to return to earth in feline form. From that point onward, cats were seen as malevolent spirits, with their independence and slightly aloof nature not helping their cause. Cats were also blamed for the Black Death in the 14th century. Thousands were killed, allowing rats – who were really responsible for helping the plague spread – to thrive.

The Pilgrims who settled in North America brought European superstitions across the ocean with them. So, during the height of the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries, a lady living on her own with a cat or other household pet for the company was immediately put under suspicion. According to some witch-hunters, women would even suckle their cats or allow their animal companions to feed on their blood – third nipples, moles or warts were seen as tell-tale signs for this. As well as cats, pet snakes, even pet dogs were might also be seen as witch’s companions and get their owners in serious trouble.

18 Reasons One is Executed for Witchcraft during the ‘Burning Times’
Learned women, above all midwives, were often believed to dabble in black magic. Bustle.

6. You were a midwife: Wise women used their knowledge of herbal medicine to help others give birth safely – but it left them open to accusations of witchcraft

For hundreds of years, female healers were viewed with suspicion. Above all, midwives were at risk of being seen as witches. They just couldn’t win: if a woman gave birth to a healthy baby and lived, the midwife would be accused of having used magic or making a deal with the devil. Or if the baby or mother died, the midwife might also be blamed and accused of cursing the birth. Fueling this suspicion was midwives’ use of herbs and other natural remedies. The fungus ergot was used to stop bleeding after childbirth, for example, often saving the mother’s life, but putting the midwife at risk of being accused of casting spells.

The Malleus Maleficarum, meaning “Hammer of Witches” was written in 1484 by two reverends, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenge. The hugely influential book called midwife-witches the ultimate evil. They warned people to look out for women who wanted to offer newborn babies up to the devil. However, by the late-17th century, the persecution of innocent midwives had largely stopped. As men started to take over the medical professions, including midwifery, the effectiveness of herbal remedies and natural medicines became increasingly accepted, leading to a significant drop in the number of women being accused of witchcraft simply for helping another woman give birth.

18 Reasons One is Executed for Witchcraft during the ‘Burning Times’
Women suspected of witchcraft would be examined for tell-tale marks. Wikimedia Commons.

5. You had a third nipple: Prosecutors were always on the lookout for tell-tale ‘signs of a witch’, especially on female bodies

For centuries, witch-hunters believed that sorcerers and other practitioners of black magic bore distinctive marks. Tell-tale ‘Devil’s Marks‘ included third nipples, otherwise known as the ‘witch’s teat’ as it was thought that Satan himself would suckle on it. What’s more, birthmarks and large moles would also be taken as signs of the occult. Since witch-finders maintained that the devil would change the shape and color of the marks he made on his followers, almost any physical imperfection or skin blemish could be enough to see someone accused of being a witch.

Unsurprisingly, peasant women would often ask friends, relatives or trusted doctors to remove moles from their bodies. Or, if there was a witch hunt in their area, they might try to do it themselves. Of course, that only meant that the resultant scar would be taken as proof of the devil! And even if there were no marks, an inquisitor would often prick the accused body to find one. A lady called Catherine Boyraionne, the records show, had hot fat applied to almost every part of her body by a priest. She died whilst in prison, most probably from the horrific injuries sustained during her trial.

18 Reasons One is Executed for Witchcraft during the ‘Burning Times’
Just struggling to read a Bible passage could be enough to get you hanged. Pinterest.

4. You were illiterate: Even if you were dyslexic or just hated speaking in public, failure to quote fluently from the Bible might be seen as a sign of being possessed by evil

The Middle Ages was no time to be a dyslexic or to suffer from a stammer. Even a common affliction like struggling to speak in public could see you put on trial for witchcraft. That’s because it was believed that witches were unable to recite prayers or passages from the Bible. In what became known as the ‘Prayer Test’, women or men suspected of practicing black magic would be given a Bible and asked to read a passage aloud from it. Alternatively, they may be put on the spot and asked to recite a well-known prayer.

Failure to read clearly and without hesitation or struggling to remember the words to a common prayer may have been taken as a sign that the devil was inside you. This was certainly the case in England in 1712. In one of the country’s last witch trials, the accused, a lady called Jane Wenham, struggled to recite several passages of the Lord’s Prayer. However, even saying a prayer fluently wasn’t enough to save you – as George Burroughs found out during the Salem Witch Trials. On the gallows about to hang for being a sorcerer, he recited the Lord’s Prayer perfectly. Even then, his accusers believed it was a trick of the devil and killed him anyway.

18 Reasons One is Executed for Witchcraft during the ‘Burning Times’
Many believed that witches were able to make milk go bad just by walking by. Wikimedia Commons.

3. You forgot to throw out old dairy products: Believe it or not, curdled milk was offered up as evidence that women were witches

Quite where the idea that witches caused milk to curdle has never been firmly established. However, scholars of the history of witchcraft have found this mentioned in texts dating back to the start of the 16th century. For instance, there was the old English tale of ‘Old Mammy Red or Marblehead’, who could curdle milk as it came out of a cow and could even then magically transform it into blue wool. And like many such superstitions, such a belief was brought across the Atlantic to the Americas by Pilgrim settlers. Before long, America’s witch-hunters were busy looking in people’s pantries, looking out for tell-tale signs of spoiled dairy.

The most notable case of curdled milk being cited as evidence of black magic was at the Salem Witch Trials in 1692. Here, the grand jury heard that several of the accused had spoiled milk in their houses, while neighbors also attested that some of them caused milk to curdle just by walking past it. It must be remembered that this was a time when many families relied on their cows to survive. Should a cow stop producing milk, or should the milk be of poor quality, it could leave a person or family on the brink of destitution and starvation. It would also leave them angry and looking for someone to blame – and often, a ‘strange’ female neighbor was the easiest target.

18 Reasons One is Executed for Witchcraft during the ‘Burning Times’
Strong-willed women were not trusted, and sometimes accused of being witches. Pinterest.

2. You had a reputation for being argumentative: Nobody liked or trusted an assertive woman back in the 16th and 17th centuries

If being an independent woman was enough to set tongues wagging at the height of ‘witch hysteria’ in the 16th and 17th centuries, then being assertive and argumentative was almost guaranteed to get you labeled a witch. While men might have been able to get away with arguing with their neighbors, women could not – especially those who lived alone, without a man to ‘control’ them. Being drunk and disorderly was no excuse, nor was being in an abusive relationship – as Rachel Clinton found out to her cost in Salem in 1692.

Clinton, who was in her 60s when she was accused of being a witch – more specifically, she had been blamed for making a child’s elbow blame, and even for making a man’s beer go bad – was destitute and somewhat eccentric. The prosecutors at the Salem Witch Trial directly linked her argumentative nature with the practice of black magic. They told the grand jury: “Did she not show the character of an embittered, meddlesome, demanding woman—perhaps in short, the character of a witch? Did she not scold, rail, threaten and fight?” In the end, Clinton was released after several months in jail. She died soon afterward, alone and with her reputation in ruins.

18 Reasons One is Executed for Witchcraft during the ‘Burning Times’
Petty squabbles could lead to unfounded accusations of witchcraft being made. New England History.

1. You had made enemies: In many cases, people were accused of being witches by neighbors bearing grudges and seeking revenge

Sometimes – quite often, in fact – men or women did nothing to give the impression they might be witches. However, at the height of the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries, just an anonymous accusation might be enough to get someone hauled in front of a grand jury and tried for witchcraft. Indeed, there are plenty of examples where unfounded accusations were made against neighbors, former friends or even family members. Sometimes they were made in order to deflect attention away from someone else. Or sometimes an argument got out of hand or a love affair turned sour – and a woman would end up being labeled as a witch.

The last person to be executed for witchcraft in Switzerland, for instance, did nothing worse than bring a love affair to an end. Anna Goldi had embarked on an affair with a rich politician whilst employed as the family nanny. When she brought the affair to an end, the powerful man denounced her as a witch. He even claimed that she had used black magic to make his daughter suffer from convulsions. She was also accused of talking with the devil. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Goldi ‘confessed’ to all charges – though only after she had been strung up by just her thumbs – and she was executed soon after.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“History of Witches”. History Channel.

“The Mysterious Enslaved Woman Who Sparked Salem’s Witch Hunt”. History.

“17 Signs That You’d Qualify as a Witch in 1692”. Mental Floss.

“Midwives and Witches.” Bronwyn Backstrom (Vanderbilt University) Wonders & Marvels.

“Italian village calls for retrial of 18th century ‘witch’ accused of throwing child into vat of boiling cheese.” The Telegraph, October 2015.

“Witch-Hunt: Mysteries of the Salem Witch Trials.” Marc Aronson.

“A Brief History of Witch Hunts, Real and Imagined.” Mother Jones, November 2017.

“A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials.” Smithsonian.

ThoughtCo – Sarah Good Biography.

“The history of witch hunts in America and Europe.” The Washington Post, October 2017.

“Five myths about the Salem witch trials”. The Washington Post.

“How the Germans went crazy for witch hunts.” The Local Germany, May 2014.

“What Caused the Salem Witch Trials?” History of Massachusetts Blog.

“The Salem Witch Trials.” National Geographic Kids.

“Last Person Executed as a Witch in Europe Gets a Museum”. Smithsonian Magazine.