Few confidence tricksters throughout history were more sinister, cold-blooded, and horrific than Matthew Hopkins (1620 – 1647). In 1644, amidst the chaos of the English Civil War, he claimed to be England’s official “Witch Finder General” – a title and office that did not exist. He then traveled around the country, mostly in East Anglia, to offer his services – for a fee – to local governments to root out witches. Fears of witchcraft and sorcery were rife at the time, so Hopkins found many employers who paid him handsomely.
The entire affair would be humorous, if not for the fact that dozens of innocents were killed based on evidence manufactured by Hopkins. He was active for only two years, but in that time, he got over 100 people executed. In a fourteen-month stretch, he got more people convicted and executed than all English witch hunters of the previous 160 years. Indeed, Hopkins is responsible for about a fifth of all English witchcraft executions from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries. As seen below, he pulled it off with brazen flimflam.
2. Fraudsters Used Special Trick Devices to “Prove” Witchcraft and Sorcery
In Matthew Hopkins’ day, there was a widespread belief that witches and sorcerers neither bled nor felt pain if they were pricked. In of itself, that was not proof positive that a person accused of witchcraft or sorcery was actually a witch or sorcerer. However, pricking was circumstantial evidence that could be used alongside other evidence and testimony to tip the scales towards conviction. Because everything about witch hunts was terrible, it is perhaps unsurprising that witch finders used flimflam. They routinely manipulated the process to demonstrate that they had, indeed, found a witch – and thus deserved to get paid.
Sharp needles were thrust into “normal” volunteers to draw blood. Then, through sleight of hand, a different needle was substituted to use on the accused. Some trick devices had hollow handles with retractable needles, that gave the optical illusion that they had been plunged into an accused’s flesh, yet failed to draw blood. Sometimes they used needles with a sharp end for demonstration, and a blunt end to use on the accused. Special needles with bends created the illusion of “piercing” a witch’s tongue without drawing blood. Trick knives were also used, with portions cut out of the blade to make it appear as if they had “cut” through an accused’s flesh or tongue, yet drew no blood.
The horrific career of Matthew Hopkins as a witch finder began in May 1644, when an associate, John Stearne, alleged that six women had tried to kill him with witchcraft. Hopkins saw a business opportunity and falsely declared himself “Witch Finder Generall” with a commission from Parliament. He then offered his services to towns and villages to root out witches in their midst, force their confession, and get them hanged by the authorities. His investigative methods amounted to torture. The accused were deprived of sleep, dunked in water, and tied in uncomfortable positions for hours. He also used fake prickings and trick knives to demonstrate that the accused, like witches, did not bleed when pierced or cut.
Hopkins’ flimflam bore its grisliest results on August 27th, 1645, in the small town of Bury St. Edmunds. That day, thanks to his machinations, eighteen men and women were hanged together for witchcraft. It was England’s biggest mass execution of witches. Hopkins retired in 1646 after he had earned a small fortune – and also because his activities had started to attract unwelcome attention from Parliament. In 1647 he published The Discovery of Witches, an instructional manual, and died shortly thereafter of tuberculosis. His malign legacy lived on, however. The following year, executions for witchcraft and sorcery began in New England, where authorities used The Discovery of Witches as a roadmap. The Salem Witch Trials of 1692-1693 also used the methods outlined in Hopkins’ book.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading