40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft

Tim Flight - October 15, 2019

Before modern science, people didn’t know who to blame when crops failed, plague spread, or children died young. What couldn’t be explained was often blamed on black magic, and more specifically witches. Countless people were executed for witchcraft across history on the slightest evidence, with many others unrecorded or dying whilst stuck in squalid prisons awaiting trial. Here are merely 40 examples of real people killed because ‘rational’ courts of law judged them guilty – some after the Enlightenment! Why not give kids dressed up as witches a real scare this Halloween by telling them about the following unfortunate people?

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
Emperor Taizong, who accused and condemned Zhang Liang, before 907 AD. Wikimedia Commons

40. Zhang Liang became the first person in recorded history to be executed for witchcraft in 646 AD

Zhang Liang fought many battles for China’s Tang Dynasty, and ended his days as chancellor to Emperor Taizong. Unfortunately, Zhang also counted a couple of sorcerers among his friends, a big taboo in Imperial China. One day, an eavesdropper called Chang Dexuan overheard the sorcerers flatter Zhang he’d make a great emperor. Chang immediately squealed at Taizong about a treasonous plot to overthrow him through witchcraft, with no evidence. Taizong ordered an investigation, and though Zhang protested his innocence, condemned him to death in 646. Zhang has the dubious title of the first person in recorded history executed for witchcraft.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
Witches around a cauldron, woodcut from Reutlingen, 1489. Wikimedia Commons

39. Petronilla de Meath was the first person executed for witchcraft in the UK and Ireland

In Kilkenny, Ireland, in 1324, scheming relatives accused Lady Alice Kyteler of witchcraft. They said she’d killed several husbands, invoked demons, and cast spells. Naturally, this also implicated her maid and confidante, Petronilla de Meath. But whilst Lady Alice legged it to England, poor Petronilla lacked the wealth and connections to follow suit. She was tortured to extract incriminating evidence. Unsurprisingly, Petronilla told them what they wanted to hear, and even claimed Alice regularly had sex with a demon. She became the first person in Britain and Ireland to be burned at the stake for witchcraft in 1324.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
All that remains of the cathedral at Gardar, Greenland, where Kolgrim was executed. Wikimedia Commons

38. The Greenland authorities executed Kolgrim for stealing someone’s wife (sorry, ‘witchcraft’) in 1407

In 1406, a wealthy Norwegian merchant called Torgrim Sölvesson came to Greenland with his wife, Steinunn Ravnsdotter. The following year, Steinunn fell in love with a local man from the town of Gardar called Kolgrim. Besotted, she left Torgrim to live with her new lover. Bad luck, Mr. Sölvesson? Apparently not. Being rich, Torgrim was able to accuse Kolgrim of using witchcraft to seduce Steinunn. Why else would she leave him? Well, local authorities couldn’t think of a more logical explanation, and soon Kolgrim burned to ashes in Gardar’s execution site. Heartbroken, Steinunn died insane soon after.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
A witches’ sabbath, from The History of Witches and Wizards, 1720. Public Domain Review

37. Matteuccia di Francesco was a folk healer executed for witchcraft in 1428

Matteuccia di Francesco was what’s known as a wise woman. She sold herbal remedies from the tiny Umbrian village of Ripabianca to people who couldn’t afford a proper doctor. Unfortunately, in 1426, a Franciscan preacher named Bernardino of Siena came to Todi, where many of her clients lived. He gave sermons on witchcraft, which made many people who’d bought remedies from Matteuccia suspect her of sorcery. Former clients alerted the authorities, who arrested and tortured her. Most of her ‘confessions’, for example, infanticide and flying, repeated ludicrous details from Bernardino’s influential sermons. In 1428, Matteuccia was burned at the stake.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
Agnes Bernauer, 18th-century copy of a 16th-century Bavarian original. Tumblr

36. The Duke of Bavaria chucked his son’s lover, Agnes Bernauer, in the Danube for witchcraft

In 1435, a young nobleman named Albrecht, heir to the Dukedom of Bavaria, fell in love with a commoner. Agnes Bernauer’s father ran a bathhouse in Augsburg; Albrecht’s owned Bavaria. He promised Agnes marriage, and gave her a lady-in-waiting. To stop his son marrying a commoner, furious Duke Ernst waited until Albrecht was away, and accused Agnes of witchcraft. He chucked her in the Danube to ‘see if she’d float’. People thought witches would float, because they’d spurned the sacrament of baptism and so the water would reject them. Agnes unsurprisingly drowned, and poor Albrecht was heartbroken.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
Glamis Castle, Scotland, has a truly terrifying history. Castles of Scotland

35. King James V of Scotland burned Lady Glamis at the stake in 1537

When King James V of Scotland was a teenager, his stepfather, the Earl of Angus, imprisoned him in a castle. Angus ruled Scotland as a regent until the young king turned 16. James celebrated his sweet sixteen by taking his revenge. He immediately arrested the Earl’s sister, Janet, Lady Glamis, for treason, but let her off this time. In 1537, James finally got sick of Lady Glamis, and condemned her for using witchcraft against him. He wasn’t so forgiving this time: she left her dungeon at Edinburgh Castle only to be burned at the stake.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
Don’t mess with this man’s ships! Christian III of Denmark by Jacob Binck, Denmark, 1550. Wikimedia Commons

34. King Christian III of Denmark burned Gyde Spandemager at the stake for bewitching his entire war fleet

In 1543, King Christian III of Denmark sent 40 ships to chase a Dutch fleet from the North Sea. Sadly, the wind wasn’t strong enough, and they got stuck near Elsinore. Bad luck? No, said Christian: damned witches! Soon a merchant’s wife named Gyde Spandemager was arrested and tortured. Spandemager admitted to conducting a spell with a coven on a hill above Elsinore. She was convicted of ‘enchant[ing] the ship of His Majesty, so as to prevent it from getting any wind’. At the eleventh hour, someone provided her with a solid alibi, but Christian burned her at the stake anyway.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
A witch feeding her toad familiars in a woodcut of 1630. History Today

33. In 1563, Agnes Waterhouse became the first woman hanged for witchcraft in England

In 1563, the English Parliament passed the Witchcraft Act, which made all forms of sorcery illegal. In 1566, a 64-year-old woman named Agnes Waterhouse was tried under the new Act. The locals of Hatfield Peverell, Essex accused Agnes and two others of killing livestock, and people through Satanic magic. The principal testimony came from a 12-year-old girl, who’d seen their demonic familiar: a white-spotted cat. Under duress, the confused old woman confessed to all sorts of evildoing and witchcraft. In July, 1566, she became the first person hanged for witchcraft in England. The cat was called Satan, by the way.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
Statue of Alice Nutter in Roughlee, Lancashire, where she lived. Wikimedia Commons

32. Alice Nutter hanged on the evidence of a 9-year-old child

If you thought Agnes Waterhouse was unlucky, wait until you hear who accused Alice Nutter of Roughlee, Lancashire. In March, 1612, a pedlar fell ill immediately after refusing to give an old woman some pins. The pedlar’s son accused the woman, Alizon Device, of witchcraft, and soon a whole coven was ‘discovered’. One of the accused, 9-year-old Jennet Device, was scared into implicating the other Pendle Witches. Jennet accused Nutter of killing Henry Mitton through black magic after he refused to give another witch a penny. Two days after her trial started in August, 1612, Nutter was hanged at Lancaster.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
Lucca hasn’t changed much in appearance since it burned an epileptic in 1571. Get Your Guide

31. Polissena of San Macario had epilepsy, and so the town of Lucca burned her at the stake

The debate over where demonic possession starts and genuine illness begins is still debated in some quarters today. Polissena of San Macario suffered from epilepsy, and had horrific fits. Sometimes she went catatonic (temporarily immobile), rolled her eyes back, convulsed, or shrieked. Polissena always recovered afterwards, and told people she was ill. But to onlookers, this was clearly demonic possession, and in 1571 she was tried for witchcraft. Under torture, she confessed to the usual litany of infanticide, kissing the devil’s bottom, and flying. On this basis, the town of Lucca in Tuscany burned Polissena at the stake.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
James Stewart, the unlucky Regent of Scotland, painted by Hans Eworth c.1561. Wikimedia Commons

30. Janet Boyman accurately predicted the death of Scotland’s regent, and so they burned her

Like Matteuccia di Francesco, Janet Boyman worked as a healer. Her herbal brews and strange instructions to her patients, such as saying certain verses, made her a suspicious character. Even worse, she also predicted the death of the Regent of Scotland, James Stewart. This was a safe bet, given how unstable and contested the Scottish throne was in the 16th century. But when he did, indeed, die, disappointed patients reported her prediction to the authorities. They charged her with witchcraft, and she confessed to consulting fairies to cure people. Enough was enough: she burned to death in Edinburgh in 1572.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
German woodcut of a werewolf by Lucas Cranach the Elder, c.1512. Wikimedia Commons

29. Giles Garnier was burned at the stake for witchcraft AND being a child-eating werewolf

When people kept finding the half-eaten remains of children in Dole, Eastern France, they first suspected wild animals. But one day, hunters surprised a wolf at its human dinner, and it turned into a man! Soon afterward, a man was caught eating a child, and arrested. This was Gilles Garnier, an impoverished local hermit. Under torture, he confessed that a specter in the woods gave him an unguent that transformed him into a wolf. As a wolf, Garnier could catch and eat children at will. Garnier was found guilty of lycanthropy and witchcraft, and burned at the stake in 1573.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
A cunning woman at home in the Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle, UK. Wikimedia Commons

28. When babies died in St. Osyth, locals blamed the midwife and cunning woman, Ursula Kemp

The first of two midwifes on this list, Ursula Kemp lived in St Osyth, England. Kemp lived in poverty, and alongside midwifery offered folk remedies and ‘unwitching’ services as a cunning woman. Unfortunately, when local babies died (distressingly common at the time), people began to suspect Kemp. Those who refused to pay her for her remedies also blamed Kemp for all subsequent misfortunes. After a while, enough people had a grievance to try her for witchcraft. The court promised to spare Kemp’s life if she confessed to everything. She took the opportunity, but they hanged her anyway in 1582.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
Miniature of the birth of Julius Caesar, showing a female midwife, France, late 14th century. British Library

27. Walpurga Hausmannin burned for witchcraft, vampirism and killing children

Another midwife, Walpurga Hausmannin worked in Dillingen, Bavaria. In her long career lasting nearly two decades, 40 infants died. At a time of high infant mortality, this was not surprising. But this was also during the witch craze, and thus highly suspicious. Under torture, Hausmannin said she became a witch after having sex with a demon disguised as a local man. The demon, Federlin, convinced her to kill the infants and women she attended, and even drink their blood. She also confessed to defiling sacraments and selling her soul. In 1587, the Bishop of Augsburg burned her at the stake.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
Virgilia Chew plays Anne Pedersrdotter in a 1934 production of the play written in the witch’s honour in 1908. Portland Museum

26. Without Anne Pedersdotter’s husband, she was burned at the stake

Anne Pedersdotter’s husband was the great Protestant reformer, Absalon Pederssøn Beyer. Disgruntlement with the Norwegian reformation saw people accuse Anne of murdering a bishop through witchcraft for Absalon’s benefit in 1575. But Absalon was too powerful to have Anne convicted, so the charges were dropped. When Absalon died, Anne became a wealthy widow, but one without powerful male protection. In 1590, resentment and envy saw Anne accused of murder through witchcraft. Even her maid testified. Anne refused to confess, and many clergymen backed her up. No one cared: that same year Anne was convicted and burned at the stake.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
Illustration of the events surrounding the North Berwick Witches from the pamphlet Newes from Scotland, London, 1591. Wikimedia Commons

25. King James VI of Scotland tried, condemned and executed the folk-healer Agnes Sampson

When a terrible storm at sea delayed James VI of Scotland’s marriage to Anne of Denmark, he suspected witches. Soon evidence of a coven in Edinburgh was discovered. A terrified servant girl accused of illicit nocturnal behavior tried to save her life by implicating others. One of the accused, Agnes Sampson, eventually confessed to being a witch under torture. James questioned her himself, and Sampson admitted to trying to kill the king and his wife by raising the storm. Satisfied, James overruled the skeptical jury at her trial and burned Sampson and two other ‘witches’ in 1591.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
Frontispiece of a pamphlet about the Witches of Warboys, London, 1593. Blogspot

24. The whole Samuel family hanged in 1593 for witchcraft on the testimony of children

In 1589, 10-year-old Jane Throckmorton suffered a series of (probably epileptic) fits. One day, a wealthy neighbour, Alice Samuel, visited the Throckmorton household during an episode of spasms. Jane screamed that the 76-year-old woman had bewitched her. Alice’s four siblings, aged between 9 and 15, backed her up, and promptly started having fits too. This carried on for years, and eventually, Alice ordered the girls to stop their nonsense. They actually did, and things took a sinister turn. Under interrogation, Alice confessed to all the Throckmortons’ ludicrous allegations, and she was hanged with her husband and daughter in 1593.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
The ruins of the Earl’s Palace, Kirkwall, Orkney, where it all went wrong for Allison Balfour. Wikimedia Commons

23. Allison Balfour of the Orkney Isles was strangled and burned in 1594 after being promised clemency

Patrick Stewart, the Earl of Orkney, feared that his brothers were trying to kill him. When he found one of his younger brother’s servants carrying poison, his suspicions were confirmed. After 11 days of torture, the servant confessed to hiring a coven of witches on Orkney to help him. One of these, Allison Balfour, had the misfortune of working as a local healer. Inevitably, extreme torture of Allison and her family produced her confession. The interrogator, Henry Colville, also promised to spare her life in exchange for a confession. He lied: Allison was strangled then burned in Kirkwall in 1594.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
The town and abbey of Stavelot, depicted c.1730. Wikimedia Commons

22. Jean Delvaux, a Belgian monk, lost his head for witchcraft

There’s a very strong link between historical witchcraft and insanity. Under no duress, and unexpectedly, a Belgian monk named Jean Delvaux suddenly confessed to being a witch in 1597. He said a stranger in the woods promised him wealth if he became a monk. The stranger marked him (definitive evidence of a witch in this period), and gave him poison to kill people. Delvaux also confessed to attending witches’ sabbaths. Naturally, the Abbot of Stavelot informed the authorities. They initially thought he was insane, but when Delvaux stuck to his story under torture they chopped his head off.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
Witches on brooms, from The History of Witches and Wizards, London, 1720. Wikimedia Commons

21. Witchcraft accusations wiped out another entire family, the Pappenheimers, including a 10-year-old boy

The Pappenheimer family scraped a living through begging and odd jobs in Bavaria. They also had to move around a lot, making them extra suspicious. In 1600, a thief was arrested, and accused the whole Pappenheimer family of witchcraft and murder. Perhaps he was trying to save his own skin, or just didn’t like them. Either way, the Pappenheimers were arrested immediately, and imprisoned. The authorities tortured them until they gave a lurid enough confession. Their execution was unspeakably horrible, and involved dismemberment and broken limbs. Thousands of people happily watched a 10-year-old member of the family burn alive.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
Mechteld ten Ham statue in ‘s-Heerenberg. Wikimedia Commons

20. A Dutch city burned Mechteld ten Ham as a witch for causing plague and war with Spain

In 1605, the Netherlands suffered a terrible plague in the midst of a bloody war with Spain on home soil. With so much death, sickness and poverty around, it was only a matter of time until a witch was blamed. In ‘s-Heerenberg, they had just the woman: Mechteld ten Ham. Mechteld was a cunning woman, selling folk remedies to the sick and making predictions about the future. Sick of the accusations of witchcraft, Mechteld asked to be put on trial. Unfortunately, this involved all manner of ridiculous tests and torture. After inevitably confessing to being a witch, Mechteld burned alive.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
Elin was a widow, and thus viewed with suspicion by the patriarchy, just like Elizabeth Sawyer, depicted here on the cover of a play, The Witch of Edmonton, London, 1658. Wikimedia Commons

19. It took 2 separate trials to behead Elin i Horsnäs for witchcraft

Not only was Elin I Horsnäs a widow, she was an argumentative and foul-tempered one. With no male protectors and a habit of making enemies, in 1601 Elin was put on trial for witchcraft. Incredibly, she passed – and survived – the swimming test ordered by Håkan the Witchfinder, and sank to the river bottom. The other two suspects on this occasion were not so lucky. 10 years later, people claimed she’d bewitched livestock and killed her husband. Alas, Elin failed the swimming test this time, and confessed to killing her husband with arsenic under torture. Håkan beheaded her in 1611.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
Tomb of the two sons of Francis Manners, erected by the latter, which records their death by witchcraft, St Mary’s church, Bottesford. Wikimedia Commons

18. Two sisters hanged for bewitching the sons of the Earl of Rutland

Francis Manners, Earl of Rutland, was desperate for an heir to his vast estate. He was thus delighted when his wife gave birth to two sons. Unfortunately, one sickened then died in 1613, and the younger was almost permanently ill, succumbing in 1619. Suspiciously, these misfortunes happened after Manners sacked the Flower family, consisting of a mother and two daughters. Moreover, the Flowers were local healers, and were widely loathed. Threatened with torture, they confessed to murder by witchcraft. Joan Flower died on the way to her trial and her daughters were hanged in 1619. The boys’ grave (above) records their death through bewitchment.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
Anne de Chantraine found unlikely fame long after her death when this video board game starring her was released in the early 1990s. Amazon

17. Anne de Chantraine confessed to witchcraft to avoid torture, but the authorities tortured her anyway before strangling and burning her to death

We haven’t room to discuss torture here, but don’t doubt it was a dreadful prospect. Beyond the pain, refusing to ‘confess’ made interrogators suspect demons were helping the accused resist, and just increased its intensity. Take Anne de Chantraine, for instance. This pretty 19-year-old Belgian girl was arrested for witchcraft – does it matter why?! – in 1622. Rather than face torture, she gave a lurid confession to all manner of diabolic activities. Unfortunately, her confession was so compelling that her interrogator wanted to hear more. He thus resorted to torture anyway, before burning poor Anne at the stake in 1622.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
Katherine Henot memorialized on Cologne Town Hall. Wikimedia Commons

16. Cologne burned the first postmistress in Germany for witchcraft

It seems administrative quibbling spelled the end for Germany’s first female postmistress, Katharina Henot. Henot inherited Cologne’s postal office from her uncle, and became one of the city’s wealthiest and most influential inhabitants. However, Count Leonhard II von Taxis from the imperial court wanted to make a centralized postal service. Henot refused to give up her business, understandably; then a nun got bewitched in Cologne’s convent, and she was accused. Despite maintaining her innocence through her torture, Henot burned alive in 1627. Historians believe Henot’s accusation was orchestrated by wannabe-postmaster Count Leonhard in conjunction with Cologne’s civic authorities. Brutal.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
Königsberg Castle pictured c.1900, near to where Adelgrief was arrested for witchcraft. Wikimedia Commons

15. Johann Albrecht Adelgrief claimed to be a prophet. The authorities thought otherwise…

According to Johann Albrecht Adelgrief, 7 angels came to him from heaven, and told him to cleanse the world of evil. They even gave him authority to command Europe’s monarchs to repent. A learned man from Elbing, modern day Poland, Adelgrief knew several ancient languages and read widely. Most likely, the ‘angels’ were, in fact, books, but like most reformers, Adelgrief’s rabble-rousing speeches in public worried the authorities. Officials seized him at Königsberg (modern day Kaliningrad, Russia), and condemned him as a witch. Adelgrief left this world in the midst of flames in 1636.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
Frontispiece of Matthew Hopkins’s 1647 account of his evildoings, showing the self-appointed Witchfinder General with two of his victims. Shopify

14. The dreadful Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, started his career by hanging a one-legged woman of 80

Matthew Hopkins, the self-appointed Witchfinder General, is easily the most cynical and ruthless figure in the history of witchcraft. Between 1645 and 1647, he condemned a staggering 200 people to death as witches, collecting money for every investigation. His first victim was Elizabeth Clarke, a one-legged woman of 80, accused by a local tailor she’d quarreled with. After depriving her of sleep for several nights, Clarke broke, and confessed. She also identified other members of her coven – all of whom represented a tidy profit for Hopkins. In 1645, Clarke and 19 of the women she named and shamed were hanged.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
Alse Young was executed on the site of what is now the Old State House in Hartford, Connecticut. CTOSH

13. Alse Young became the first American hanged for witchcraft in 1647

Witch hysteria spread to the New World with the arrival of the British in the 17th century. In 1642, Connecticut passed its first law against witches, and in 1645 the settlers executed their first witch. Almost all we know about Alse Young is she was a witch. Records suggest she lived in Windsor, Connecticut, where her husband owned a small piece of land. We don’t know for certain, but perhaps she got the blame for Windsor’s deadly influenza epidemic of 1647. She was hanged for witchcraft in Hartford, Connecticut in 1647. 30 years later, her daughter was also executed for witchcraft.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
The Quaker Mary Dyer being led to her execution on Boston Common, June 1, 1660, 19th century. Wikimedia Commons

12. Alse Young just pipped Margaret Jones to this title…

Hot on Alse’s tail came Margaret Jones at the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1648. Details about the accusation are again sketchy, but Jones worked as a midwife and folk healer. Such professions were enough to make someone a witch. Presumably, babies died or fell ill, and once again the midwife got the blame. The Massachusetts prosecutors carried out investigations based upon Matthew Hopkins’s published methods, and subjected Jones to sleep deprivation. Her guards reported seeing her familiars come and visit Jones in prison. She denied all charges, but the court hanged her immediately after delivering the inevitable guilty verdict.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
The sea around St George, Bermuda, looks idyllic, but Jeane Gardiner was ducked here in 1651. UNESCO

11. Sharp-tongued Jeane Gardiner hanged for witchcraft in colonial Bermuda

Another settler in the New World found herself out of luck in 1651. Jeane Gardiner left Britain to start a new life in Bermuda. Gardiner quarreled with other women on the island, and threatened to punish them, and some later suffered unrelated misfortune. Witch-mania followed the British wherever they settled, and so soon people whispered she was a witch. A jury of women searched Gardiner for a witch’s mark (made by the devil, like a cattle-branding). Twice they threw her into the sea off St George, and she floated. This unequivocally proved her guilt, and she was hanged.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
West Bow: Midnight by A.A. Ritchie, a depiction of Major Thomas Weir’s flaming Satanic coach, Edinburgh, 1843. Urban Ghosts Media

10. Edinburgh executed Major Thomas Weir, a celebrated soldier, after he voluntarily confessed to witchcraft, incest and bestiality

Everyone in Scotland loved Major Thomas Weir, a celebrated soldier, Presbyterian and politician. But in 1670, he suddenly confessed to some appalling crimes. Without coercion, Weir announced that he’d committed incest with his sister and stepdaughter, bestiality, and been a witch. Weir admitted to making a pact with the devil, and owning a magical staff. No one believed him, but his sister corroborated everything, and admitted to keeping familiars. The Court of Edinburgh had no choice but to reluctantly execute one of the city’s most celebrated sons. Both were hanged, and Weir was burned to ashes. The siblings were likely insane.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
Much of Dovrefjell looks like something out of a fairytale, so no wonder it had an alleged witch! FjordNorway

9. Anne Løset celebrated Christmas with Satan and was burned at the stake in 1679

One of the last witches executed in Norway lived in Sunnmøre in the late 17th century. Like many witches, Anne Løset was poor, and had to beg to make ends meet. When refused, hunger and desperation made her scold and threaten others. She made the threats during a period of intense witch persecution, and soon she found herself charged with witchcraft. A priest convinced Anne to confess to harming livestock and the usual witch’s crimes. She even told the court she’d spent Christmas with Satan up in the Dovrefjell mountains. In 1679, Anne was burned at the stake in Rovde.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
The Salem Witch Trials, fancifully re-imagined in an 1892 lithograph. Wikimedia Commons

8. More evil children made Bridget Bishop the first of 19 people executed during the Salem Witch Trials

Remember poor Margaret Jones? Well, John Hale, erstwhile-supporter of the Salem Witch Trials, visited her in prison and watched her hang to death. Like the Witches of Warboys, ‘possessed’ children accused the Salem Witches and caused their deaths. These young girls had read tonnes of English witch pamphlets, and made claims of plagiarising these celebrated accounts. Long story short, 200 people wound up accused through hysteria, accusation and counter-accusation. The first of the 19 victims, Bridget Bishop, denied all allegations, but had plenty of testimony against her, and the court decided she was a liar. Bridget was hanged in 1692.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
A witch performs the Osculum Infame (kissing the devil’s bottom) in an Italian woodcut of 1608. Wikimedia Commons

7. Mima Renard’s success as a prostitute saw her burned for witchcraft in Brazil

Witches often found themselves accused of having monstrous sexual appetites. Witches were thought to use black magic to seduce men to satisfy these urges. Hence the modern verb, ‘to bewitch’ someone. Mima Renard, a beautiful Frenchwoman living in Brazil, fell foul of these beliefs. After an admirer murdered Renard’s husband, she had to turn to prostitution to make ends meet. Furious, cuckolded wives decided she must have bewitched their husbands. When two married clients fought a fatal duel over her, Renard was arrested for witchcraft. The authorities agreed this amounted to sufficient evidence, and burned Renard to death in 1692.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
6 This inconspicuous feature in the middle of a Scottish Road marks where the Paisley Witches were buried. The horseshoe was thought to ward off evil. Paisley Online

6. The six Paisley Witches suffered the last mass execution of witches in Western Europe in 1697

Western Europe’s last mass execution of witches took place in Scotland in 1697. An 11-year-old girl, Christine Shaw, suffered fits, and in her delirium (or hostility) accused 7 women of bewitching her. She also vomited pins, feathers, and other strange items. Doctors could find no medical cause for her condition, and local authorities began an investigation. Those questioned made allegations in turn, and soon 26 people were accused. At their trial, the judge warned the jury that acquitting the accused would make them accessories to the crime. 7 people were found guilty and hanged, including a 14-year-old boy.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
Ducking, a form of swimming a witch, in an 18th-century woodcut. WordPress

5. Ruth Osborne died during a witch swimming in 1751

Many accused witches died without leaving a trace, the victims of unrecorded mob violence. Ruth Osborne is an exception: she drowned at the hands of a mob, but we still know her story. Ruth and her husband, John, lived in a Hertfordshire workhouse. One day Ruth begged for some buttermilk from a farmer. He refused and, when his calves fell sick, blamed the Osbornes for bewitching them. Some years later, the farmer was at a pub, and raised a rabble to ‘swim’ the old couple. Ruth drowned during the mob’s test, 39 years after the last execution of an English witch.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
Witches were often accused of making men infertile, and even keeping penises as pets, like these nuns in 14th-century marginalia. Wikimedia Commons

4. Why made Ursulina de Jesus’s husband infertile? Witchcraft, duh!

People thought witches made men infertile. The Malleus Maleficarum even cites an example of a witch keeping severed penises in a bird’s nest up a tree. Ursulina de Jesus lived in Sao Paolo, Brazil, with her husband Sebastian, an important city figure. When Sebastian realized he was infertile, he naturally blamed Ursulina. The city’s officials arrested Ursulina for witchcraft. Testifying against Urusulina alongside Sebastian was his mistress, Cesaria, who confirmed that he was, indeed, infertile. Poor Cesaria lamented that she couldn’t have any illegitimate children with her lover! This ‘evidence’ was sufficient: Ursulina was burned at the stake in 1754.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
Anna Göldi’s hometown of Sennwald still looks like somewhere a witch might live today. Wikimedia Commons

3. Anna Göldi, the ‘last witch in Switzerland’, died by beheading in 1782

Anna Göldi is known as the last witch in Switzerland. In 1765, she became a maidservant to a magistrate. 17 years later, her employer claimed to find needles in his daughter’s food, and accused Göldi of putting them there by magic. Göldi escaped, but was caught, confessed to clichéd witchcraft after brutal torture, and was beheaded. But where did the allegations come from? Historians suspect she had an affair with the magistrate, who had political ambitions and wanted to hush the relationship up. The Glarus parliament exonerated Göldi in 2008, and there’s even a museum named after her in Ennenda.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
Three Huron-Wyandot chiefs from the Huron Reservation depicted in a painting made in London, 1825. Wikimedia Commons

2. Leatherlips, a Native American leader, lost his life after unfounded witchcraft allegations in 1810

Leatherlips, leader of the Wyandot Indians, made himself really unpopular in the late 18th century. He wished to cooperate with white settlers, and agreed to a truce with them, the Treaty of Greenville, in 1795. He also sold Wyandot land to the whites, angering two Shawnee brothers, Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa. As revenge, the brothers accused Leatherlips of witchcraft, and enough Native Americans resented the peaceful leader to try him. They found Leatherlips guilty in 1810, and he died by tomahawk at the age of 78 in Ohio.

40 Real People Executed for Witchcraft
Bridget Cleary with her husband, and eventual killer, in the late 19th century. Irish Central

1. Bridget Cleary’s husband murdered her in 1894, and she is known as the ‘last witch burned in Ireland’

When Bridget Cleary didn’t come home on time one night in 1894, her husband, Michael, feared the worst. When she returned, he accused her of being a witch pretending to be the real Bridget. Bridget refused to confess, so Michael and his co-conspirators made her sit naked on a peat fire. Still, she refused, but at last, with her body terribly burned, furious Bridget accused Michael’s mother of consorting with fairies. Enraged, Michael poured lamp oil over her and set her alight. Michael buried Bridget in a shallow grave, and did 20 years’ hard labour for her murder.


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

Barstow, Anne. Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts. London: Pandora, 1994.

Borman, Tracy. Witches: James I and the English Witch Hunts. London: Vintage Books, 2014.

Hutton, Ronald. The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017.

Mormando, Franco. The Preacher’s Demons: Bernardino of Siena and the Social Underworld of Early Renaissance Italy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Pickering, David. Cassell’s Dictionary of Witchcraft. London: Cassell, 1998.

Trevor-Roper, H.R. The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries: and Other Essays. London: Harper and Row, 1969.