Horrific Facts from History that Will Invade Nightmares

Horrific Facts from History that Will Invade Nightmares

Khalid Elhassan - October 31, 2021

Horrific Facts from History that Will Invade Nightmares
A 1584 book’s depiction of trick pricking needles and knives used by witch finders. British Library

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.

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

Horrific Facts from History that Will Invade Nightmares
Contemporary woodcut of a mass execution of English witches. Norfolk Chronicle

1. The Biggest Mass Execution of Witches

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

American Heritage Magazine, August, 1961, Volume 12, Issue 5 – Prelude to Doomsday

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace – The Kingdom and the Caliphate: Duel of the Islamic States

Carroll, Leslie – Royal Pains: A Rogues’ Gallery of Brats, Brutes, and Bad Seeds (2011)

Cracked – 5 Horror Scenes Deleted From History For Being Too Creepy

Crone, Patricia – God’s Rule: Government and Islam (2004)

Dodd, Gwilym – The Reign of Edward II: New Perspectives (1966)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Hulegu, Mongol Ruler of Iran

Encyclopedia Britannica – Kharijite

Encyclopedia Britannica – Saint Pierre 1902 Volcanic Eruption

Heritage Daily – Matthew Hopkins, the Real Witch Hunter

Hildinger, Erik – Warriors of the Steppe: A Military History of Central Asia, 500 BC to 1700 AD

History Collection – Here Are 10 Horrible Realities You Would Face as a Citizen of Ancient Greece

Jackson, Peter – The Mongols and the West: 1221-1410 (2014)

Jones, Dan – The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England (2012)

Klaits, Joseph – Servants of Satan: The Age of the Witch Hunts (1985)

Lindqvist, Sven – Exterminate All the Brutes: One Man’s Odyssey Into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European Genocide

Meyer, Beate, et al (Eds.) – Jews in Nazi Berlin: From Kristallnacht to Liberation (2009)

Military Heritage – Count Dracula’s War on Islam: A True Story of Power, Cruelty, and Betrayal

Museum of Unnatural Mystery – The Real Dracula: Vlad the Impaler

Past and Present Society, No. 167 (May, 2000) – Ninth Century Muslim Anarchists

Smithsonian Magazine, October 28th, 2015 – A Brutal Genocide in Colonial Africa Finally Gets its Deserved Recognition

Thurston, Robert W. – The Witch Hunts: A History of the Witch Persecutions in Europe and North America, 2nd Edition (2007)

Tovar, Diana, UC Santa Barbara – Stella: the Story of Stella Goldschlag

Treptow, Kurt W. – Vlad III Dracula: The Life and Times of the Historic Dracula (2000)

Wikipedia – Edward II of England

Wikipedia – Liu Pengli

Wikipedia – Ludger Sylbaris

Wiltenburg, Joy – Crime and Culture in Early Modern Germany (2012)