27. The Ancient Chinese Ruler Who Became History’s First Serial Killer
Liu Pengli, a second century BC prince of Ancient China, was a member of the Han Dynasty‘s imperial family. He was also the first serial killer in recorded history. In 144 BC, Emperor Jing, Liu Pengli’s cousin, appointed him to rule the city of Jidong and its countryside. That turned out to be unfortunate for the good people of Jidong, who were governed by Pengli for the next 23 years. Among other things, Pengli liked to murder his subjects for the sheer fun of it.
The psychotic prince probably would have liked Ramsey Bolton from HBO’s Game of Thrones, because like that fictional character, Liu Pengli liked to hunt human beings for sport. A minimum of 100 people were killed by him for his amusement, and odds are that the true number of his victims was much higher. As seen below, his reign of psychotic terror lasted for over two decades, in which his subjects were too scared to come out of their homes at night.
Liu Pengli’s decades-long reign of terror finally ended when one of his victims finally screwed up the courage to travel to the imperial capital, where he complained to the emperor. Because justice was illusory throughout most of history, Pengli got off light: he was not executed, but was simply stripped of his rank and banished. As described by Han historian Sima Qian: “Liu Pengli was arrogant and cruel, and paid no attention to the etiquette demanded between ruler and subject. In the evenings he used to go out on marauding expeditions with twenty or thirty slaves or young men who were in hiding from the law, murdering people and seizing their belongings for sheer sport.
When the affair came to light … it was found he had murdered at least 100 or more persons. Everyone in the kingdom knew about his ways, so that the people were afraid to venture out of their houses at night. The son of one of his victims finally sent a report to the [Han Emperor], and the Han officials requested that he be executed. The emperor could not bear to carry out their recommendation, but made him a commoner and banished him to Shangyong“.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the beautiful city of Saint Pierre was the largest settlement in the French colony of Martinique, and in many ways, it outshone the island’s capital city, Fort-de-France. Saint Pierre was the colony’s economic center, with a busy harbor that bustled with ships as they offloaded imports, and carried off the island’s exports of rum and sugar to the rest of the world. Saint Pierre was also Martinique’s cultural center, known as “the Paris of the Caribbean”.
However, the city had a major drawback: it was nestled beneath a massive volcano, Mount Pelee. On April 23rd, 1902, people began to hear the sounds of a series of relatively small but still alarming explosive pops that came from the mountaintop. Over the next two weeks, the volume and vigor of the explosions increased steadily, until they became greater than anything ever heard since Europeans first arrived in Martinique. Then, on the morning of May 8th, 1902, the top of Mount Pelee blew up in a massive eruption. As seen below, the results were horrific.
24. A Prosperous Town That Vanished Beneath an Incandescent Volcanic Cloud
A column of dense smoke shot skywards from the top of Mount Pelee and formed a mushroom cloud that darkened the sky for about 50 miles. Another dense cloud of glowing black smoke shot horizontally, straight into Saint Pierre. The cloud consisted of superheated steam, gasses, ashes, and dust known as tephra, and it raced into the city at a speed of nearly 420 miles per hour. All the town’s buildings were flattened, and the population was burned or suffocated to death.
Offshore, a witness in a steamship described the city’s horrific fate when the incandescent cloud hit: “The fire rolled down upon Saint Pierre. The town vanished before our eyes“. The eruption killed about 28,000 people in Saint Pierre – the town’s entire population, except for one man: Ludger Sylbaris. A manual laborer and frequent troublemaker, Sylbaris had gotten into a bar brawl on the night of May 7th, just a few hours before the eruption. As seen below, his wayward ways saved Sylbaris’ life.
After a drunken brawl, Ludger Sylbaris was tossed into jail overnight for assault and held in solitary confinement. That was in a partially underground magazine with stone walls, which doubled as a cell. It had no windows, and its only ventilation was through tiny gratings on a door that faced away from the volcano. In short, Sylbaris’ solitary confinement cell was the most sheltered place in Saint Pierre on the morning of May 8th, 1902. That saved his life. When Mount Pelee erupted, it grew very dark in Sylbaris’ cell. A short while later, hot air and fine ash began to enter his cell through the door’s gratings. To stop it, he wetted his clothes with urine and used them to stuff the openings.
That helped a little, but still, it got hot enough to cause deep burns on much of his body. Four days after the horrific eruption, rescuers heard Sylbaris’ cries amidst the rubble of the prison. His miraculous survival garnered worldwide attention, and he got signed on by Barnum & Bailey to tour with its circus. His cell exists to this day, preserved in the rebuilt Saint Pierre. He was lucky, but many more were not. About 30,000 people were killed in the city and its vicinity, in what turned out to be the twentieth century’s deadliest volcanic eruption.
In the 1880s, Imperial Germany established a colony in South West Africa, today’s Namibia. The region was home to African pastoralists such as the Nama people, who numbered about 20,000, and the Herero, a tribal group of about 75,000 cattle herders. The German colonists ruled with a heavy hand and horrific brutality that stood out even amidst the brutal norms of European colonization. A German commander in charge of the region’s conquest stated it in 1888: “only uncompromising brutality will lead to victory“.
The African natives’ livestock and best lands were confiscated and given to German settlers, and the Africans themselves were frequently seized and used as slave labor. Racial discrimination was rife, and most German settlers viewed the natives as a source of cheap labor, while others simply called for their extermination. The Africans’ resentment was further exacerbated by the frequent rape of native women and girls by settlers – a crime that the German authorities rarely addressed, let alone punished.
21. The Holocaust Was Not the First Time that Germans Set Out to Exterminate an Entire People
Unsurprisingly, the German colonists’ abuses alienated the natives of South West Africa. When the Herero and Nama learned that the Germans planned to further divide their lands and herd them into reservations, they rose up in rebellion. In January 1904, they launched a surprise attack that killed about 125 Germans. In response, the Germans sent an expeditionary force of about 14,000 soldiers, led by General Lothar von Trotha. He stated his intent to end the rebellion with a horrific expedient: the extermination of the Herero.
As he put it: “I believe that the nation as such should be annihilated, or, if this was not possible by tactical measures, have to be expelled from the country“. In August, 1904, Trotha’s men defeated about 3000 Herero combatants. As a guide employed by the Germans described what happened next: “After the battle all men, women, and children who fell into German hands, wounded or otherwise, were mercilessly put to death. Then the Germans set off in pursuit of the rest, and all those found by the wayside and in the sandveld were shot down and bayoneted to death. The mass of the Herero men were unarmed and thus unable to offer resistance“.
Led by General Lothar von Trotha, the German soldiers pursued the Herero survivors into the desert. To prevent them from accessing water, they placed armed guards on water sources or poisoned the wells. As a result, thousands died from thirst. On October 4th, 1904, Trotha reported to his superiors: “I believe that this [Herero] nation as a nation must be exterminated… I prefer for the nation to disappear entirely rather than allow them to infect our troops with their diseases“.
As to the Nama, the German settlers called for their extermination. Those who did not flee were sent to concentration camps, and a third of the captives died en route before they reached the camps. Once in the camps, many more died of epidemics and mistreatment. The captives were subjected to forced labor, beaten, whipped, and tortured, while many of the women were raped or made into concubines. In total, about 65,000 Herero, 80% of their total population, perished in the horrific genocide. 10,000 Nama, 50% of that people, were also killed.
19. The Frightful Legacy of This Grandson of Genghis Khan is Remembered in the Middle East to This Day
Hulagu (1217 – 1265) was a grandson of the great Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan, and a younger brother of the Grand Khans Mongke and Kublai. He expanded the Mongol domain into Western Asia with horrific savagery that remains in the region’s memory to this day. Among other things, he destroyed Baghdad and extinguished the Abbasid Caliphate, conquered Syria, and menaced Egypt and the Crusader states. While at it, he also destroyed the culture of medieval Persian, and founded the Ilkhanate in Persia, a precursor of modern Iran.
Genghis Khan had invaded the Islamic Khwarezmian Empire of Central Asia in 1220, and within two years, crushed and conquered it in a campaign that brought the Mongols to eastern Persia. The Muslim world of Western Asia then caught a break for about three decades, as the Mongols refocused their energies against China, the Rus principalities, and Eastern Europe. That reprieve came to an end in 1251, was Hulagu was recognized by his brother the Grand Khan Mongke as ruler of the Ilkhanate in Persia, and was ordered to extend Mongol power into the Islamic world.
18. A Horrific Cult That Was Extinguished by an Even More Horrific Conqueror
As a preliminary, Hulagu attacked and seized the mountain fortresses of the Order of Assassins, a militant Islamic cult led by a series of mystics, each known as the “Old Man of the Mountain”. The Assassins recruited and brainwashed young men with flimflam that convinced them that their leader controlled the keys to paradise. They got recruits high on hashish, and set them loose in beautiful gardens full of gorgeous women. When they came down from the high and woke up, they were back in regular and austere surroundings.
The recruits were told that they had been in been in paradise and that the only way to return was to die while killing for the Old Man of the Mountain. It proved highly effective. The Order of Assassins, with no shortage of randy young men high on hash and desperate to get back to paradise, terrorized the Middle East for generations. The Assassins’ horrific depredations ended when the even more horrific Hulagu showed up with a Mongol army, overran their mountain fortresses, captured their leader, and sent him back to Mongolia where he was executed.
17. Hulagu Wreaked Havoc Throughout the Middle East
After he destroyed the Assassins, Hulagu turned to the Abbasid Caliphate. When the Caliph refused to submit, he was attacked and besieged in Baghdad. Hulagu’s army captured the city in 1258, and in a horrific sack, destroyed it along with all of its treasures, such as the Grand Library of Baghdad. Between 200,000 to a million inhabitants were massacred. A Mongol taboo prohibited spilling royal blood. To get around it, the captured Caliph was rolled into a carpet, which was then trampled by Mongols’ horses as they rode out of Baghdad. That ended the Abbasids, and the Islamic institution of the Caliphate. Hulagu then conquered Syria, and ended the Ayubbid dynasty founded by Saladin. He then set his eyes on Egypt, but on the eve of the invasion, he received word that his brother Mongke had died.
As a potential successor, Hulagu returned to Mongolia. In his absence, the Mongols he left behind under a trusted subordinate were wiped out by the Egyptian Mamelukes at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260 – the first major defeat of a Mongol army, and one that broke the spell of Mongol invincibility. Hulagu was not selected to succeed his brother as Great Khan, so he returned to avenge the defeat at Ain Jalut. Instead, he ended up in a Mongol civil war with a cousin, Berke, leader of the Mongol Golden Horde that dominated the Russian Steppe and Eastern Europe. Berke had converted to Islam, and was enraged by Hulagu’s rampage in the Muslim world. The war with Berke was Hulagu’s main focus for the remainder of his life, until his death in 1265.
Medieval German bandit Peter Niers (died 1581) was a black arts practitioner, and one of history’s most prolific serial killers. He began his criminal career as a highwayman in Alsace, present day France, and eventually headed a gang of about 24 bandits. He also became a key figure in a loose network of bandit and highwayman gangs that joined forces on occasion to conduct major operations that required large numbers of men. His criminal activities spanned a large territory that included western France, the Rhineland, and Bavaria in southern Germany. He was no run-of-the-mill outlaw, however.
What set Niers apart from other bandits was his bloodthirstiness and gratuitous cruelty. He was not content to simply rob or kill his victims. He liked to torture those who fell into his hands and slew them in a variety of fiendishly inventive ways. As he confessed after his arrest, he murdered 544 people over a fifteen-year period, and cut the fetuses out of the wombs of 24 pregnant women. The fetuses were used as ingredients in his black magic, and he consumed them in horrific cannibalistic acts. He was captured in 1577, and under torture, confessed to 75 murders in the previous eleven years. However, he escaped before he could be executed, and went on to commit many more depravities.
15. This Horrific Killer Met a Suitably Horrific End
After his escape, Peter Niers resumed his criminal activities with even greater cruelty and bloodthirstiness. Indeed the majority of his horrific murders and depravities occurred in the four years after his escape. Whereas he had murdered 75 people in the eleven years before his arrest in 1577, he would murder an estimated 569 more people in the four years from 1577 to 1581, when he was arrested for a second and final time. He was taken to the Bavarian city of Neumarkt in der Oberpfalz for a public execution, in which the authorities went Medieval on Niers, literally and figuratively.
Even for an era in which horrific torture and gruesome executions were routine, Peter Niers’ execution, which commenced on September 16th, 1581, stood out as a particularly horrific affair. It was a three-day ordeal, and on the first of them, the authorities flayed Niers’ skin, then poured hot oil on his exposed muscles to slough off layers of his flesh. On the second day, his feet were coated in grease, and his lower body was slowly grilled over a low fire. On the third day, his body was broken on the wheel, with dozens of blows that smashed his major bones to pieces. Finally, the executioners quartered him while still alive, then sawed his body into pieces.
14. The Fickle Prince From Braveheart Died a Horrific Death
King Edward II of England (1284 – 1327), the fickle prince from Braveheart, was the son and successor of Edward I, one of England’s greatest monarchs (and the movie’s baddie king). Edward II was a disappointment to both his father while the latter lived, and to his subjects, after he ascended the throne in 1307. A weak and flighty monarch, Edward II relied on and elevated favorites who misgoverned the realm in his name. To compound the problem, he did little to counter the perception that those favorites were his gay lovers.
Poor government and perceived effeteness in a homophobic age earned Edward the widespread hatred and contempt of his subjects, and brought him to a horrific end. Early in his reign, Edward II angered his barons when he elevated to an earldom a frivolous favorite and rumored lover, Piers Gaveston. The barons demanded that Edward banish Gaveston and assent to a document that limited the king’s power over appointments and finances. Edward caved in and banished Gaveston, but allowed him to return a short while later. In response, the exasperated barons seized and executed Gaveston.
13. This King Humiliated His Queen, So She Deposed Him
In 1314, Edward II led an army into Scotland, but he was decisively defeated at the Battle of Bannockburn. At a stroke, he lost all the gains his father had made with years of toil and great expense to assert English control of Scotland. Humiliated, Edward was unable to resist his magnates when they formed a baronial committee that sidelined him and ruled the realm. It lasted until Edward found another favorite, yet another rumored lover, Hugh Despenser, and elevated him. As with the king’s earlier favorite, the barons demanded that Edward banish Despenser. This time, however, he fought back.
With the Despenser family’s support, Edward defeated the barons and regained his authority in 1322. However, his public displays of affection for Hugh Despenser humiliated and alienated Edward’s queen, Isabella. While on a diplomatic mission to Paris in 1325, she became the mistress of Roger Mortimer, an exiled baronial opponent of Edward. In 1326, the couple invaded England, executed the Despensers, deposed Edward II, and replaced him with his fourteen-year-old son, who was crowned Edward III in January, 1327. Roger Mortimer was made regent to govern England until the new monarch came of age.
12. Edward II’s Killers Chose a Particularly Horrific Way to Do Him In
Roger Mortimer heard of plots to rescue the deposed Edward II. So he had him moved in April, 1327, to Berkley Castle in Gloucestershire, a more secure location. Reports of fresh plots to free Edward caused Mortimer to order him to move to various locations in the spring and summer of 1327 before he was finally returned to Berkley Castle. The continued political instability, and the uncertainty whether one of those plots might finally succeed, determined Mortimer to end the problem once and for all and put Edward II beyond rescue via murder.
Edward’s killers did not want to leave visible marks of foul play on the body. Contemptuous of his perceived effeminacy and homosexuality, they chose a particularly horrific means to do him in on the night of September 21st, 1327. The deposed monarch was held down, and a red hot poker was shoved up his rectum to burn his bowels from the inside. Another version has it that a tube was first inserted in his rectum, and a red hot metal bolt was then dropped down the tube into his bowels. Either way, his screams were said to have reverberated around the castle, and were heard far beyond its walls.
11. Before Al Qaeda or ISIS, There Were These Horrific Extremists
Long before the horrific depredations of Al Qaeda and ISIS there were the even more horrific Khawarij, whose name means “Outsiders” in Arabic. Centuries before Osama bin Laden was in diapers, the Khawarij were a radical fundamentalist faction of early Islamic dissenters who appeared on the scene after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. They came up with the concept of Takfir, whereby Muslims who disagreed with them were deemed apostates and kafirs (infidels). That gave them license to get around the Islamic prohibition against killing fellow Muslims.
As such, the Khawarij established the philosophical foundations for modern terrorists such as the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and ISIS. They emerged when a succession dispute erupted between those who believed that leadership after Muhammad’s demise should be confined to Muhammad’s family and bloodline, and those who thought it should be open to whomever the Muslim community chose. The former, a minority, coalesced around Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib and became known as the Shiites, or faction, of Ali. The latter, the majority, became known as the Sunnis.
10. A Succession Crisis That Birthed Islam’s First Radical Terrorists
The first three Caliphs, or successors of the Prophet, were elected by Muslims from outside his family, who bypassed Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali each time. On the fourth try, after the murder of the third Caliph, Ali was finally elected as the Prophet’s successor. However, the third Caliph’s relatives alleged that Ali was implicated in the murder, and engineered the election of a rival Caliph, Muawiya, with a base in Damascus, Syria. The rival Caliphs went to war, but before the issue was settled in battle, Ali was prevailed upon to accept arbitration. The Khawarij, who until then had supported Ali, opposed arbitration.
They viewed the Caliphate as the collective property of the Muslim community, not the private property of Ali, and reasoned that Ali lacked the authority to make a decision about who gets to be Caliph. Election by the community was the sole legitimate process to bestow the Caliphate upon somebody, argued the Khawarij, and the Muslim community had already elected Ali. When Ali accepted arbitration to decide who would be Caliph, the Khawarij reasoned, he had overstepped his boundaries and usurped a power of decision that was not his to make.
9. Unwittingly, These Early Islamic Radicals Helped Establish the First Muslim Hereditary Caliphate
Ali ignored Khawarij’s objections and went ahead with the arbitration. In hindsight, he might have regretted it. The arbitration turned into a fiasco, and neither settled the succession dispute nor produced a result other than to weaken Ali politically. The Khawarij soured on Ali, whom they now viewed as much of a usurper as his rival. So they decided to get rid of both and hatched an assassination plot to kill the rival Caliphs on the same day during Friday prayers.
The Khawarij assassins who went after Ali succeeded and got their man in 661. However, those who went after his rival Caliph Muawiya only managed to wound him. He survived, emerged as the lone Caliph, and went on to establish the Umayyad Caliphate, a hereditary monarchy in all but name. The Khawarij rose in rebellion against Muawiya, now Islam’s sole ruler thanks to a helping hand from the Khawarij’s botched plot that had killed his rival, but left him alive.
8. These Early Terrorists Saw the Most Minor of Sins as Apostasy Punishable by Death
In their struggle against the first Umayyad Caliph, Muawiya I, the Khawarij contended that he was illegitimate because he gained the Caliphate by force of arms, rather than election by the Muslim community. In the protracted fight that ensued, the Khawarij earned an evil reputation among contemporary Muslims as horrific radicals. On the one hand, they adopted and stuck to democratic and egalitarian principles, whereby governance was to be entrusted to Caliphs elected by and responsible to the Muslim community.
Commendable as those principles might have been, they were more than counterbalanced by a fierce fanaticism that horrified and turned off many. They contended that Muslims who backslid or sinned, such as those who drank alcohol, fornicated, missed the daily prayers, failed to fast on Ramadan, or even engaged in idle gossip, had engaged in behavior that rendered them apostates, and thus worthy of the death penalty. The Khawarij launched a program of terror against the Caliph’s supporters, as well as those who failed to meet their purity standards.
7. Islam’s Early Anarchists Committed Horrific Atrocities
As their struggle with the Umayyad Caliphate and perceived sinners intensified, the Khawarij’s viciousness grew apace. Eventually, they came to view even neutral Muslims as enemies. As they saw it, their failure to support the Khawarij despite the glaringly obvious righteousness of their position proved their apostasy. That rendered them kafirs, and not fellow Muslims whose blood the Khawarij were prohibited from shedding. Horrific atrocities abounded. Captives were tortured and mutilated. Pregnant women had their bellies slit. Entire villages and towns were massacred.
Their most extreme faction, the Azariqah in southern Iraq, separated themselves from the entire Muslim community and declared death to all sinners – defined as all who did not share the Azariqah’s puritanical beliefs – and their families. Their rebellion was eventually crushed, but embers remained, and the Khawarij became the anarchists of Islam’s first centuries, an ever-present irritant and horrific menace. They rejected the Caliphate’s authority and pursued a campaign of terror and assassinations, combined with a low-level insurgency in backcountry regions that flared up every generation or two into a major rebellion that required considerable expense and effort to beat down.
Stella Kubler (1922 – 1994), born Stella Goldschlag, became infamous during World War II as “The Blond Ghost” or “Blond Poison”. Born and raised as the only child of an assimilated middle-class Jewish family in Berlin, she was treated like a princess by overprotective parents. Her family was well off, but not as affluent as other Jewish families with whose children she attended school. During WWII, she became infamous for her collaboration with the Gestapo to track down and denounce fellow Jews who sought to hide from the Nazis.
Stella had herself gone into hiding, and used forged IDs that listed her as Aryan. She was able to pull it off due to a blue-eyed and blond-haired Aryan appearance. However, she was denounced to the Gestapo four months later by a “Jew Catcher” – a Jew who worked for the Gestapo to find other Jews in hiding. Her boyfriend and later-husband offered the Nazis his services to become a Jew Catcher and bragged that he could “assemble an entire train” of Jewish deportees. As seen below, Stella eagerly joined him.
5. A Traitor Who Enthusiastically Helped the Nazis Exterminate Her People
Stella Kubler and her husband became highly effective Jew Catchers. They collected 300 Reichsmarks from the Gestapo for every Jew whom they turned in. The Gestapo also promised to spare Stella’s parents from deportation, so long as she continued to demonstrate her usefulness to the Nazis. Since they had themselves lived in hiding, the couple had an instinct for where to look. Stella in particular, because she knew many of Berlin’s Jews from her years in a Jewish school, was highly effective.
While the decision to become a Catcher might not have been of her own free will, how Stella exercised what freedom of choice she had in her work as a Catcher was entirely within her control. She pursued hidden Jews with tremendous zeal and inventiveness. After their arrest, when her job as a Catcher was presumably over, she enthusiastically participated in the horrific beatings, torture, and humiliation of Jewish prisoners. Despite her services, the Nazis broke their promises and sent Stella’s parents to their death in a camp.
4. Up To 3000 Jews Were Turned In to the Nazis by “The Blond Ghost”
Although the Gestapo broke its promise to Stella Kubler and sent her parents to their deaths, and then sent her husband and his family to Auschwitz in 1943, her zeal on behalf of the Nazis did not falter. She met and married another Jew Catcher, and continued to work enthusiastically for the Gestapo. She thought the Germans would win, and obtained a promise from the Gestapo in 1944 that she would get declared an Aryan after the war. By war’s end, Stella had helped arrested hundreds – or thousands – of Jews, who were subsequently murdered.
The total number of her victims ranges from at least 600 to as high as 3000. They included many of her personal friends, former schoolmates and their families, and even some of her own relatives. Despite her horrific record, she got off light: captured by the Soviets, she was sentenced to ten years imprisonment. After her release, she moved to West Berlin, where she was tried again and sentenced to ten years, but served none of them. She then converted to Christianity and became a lifelong anti-Semite. She committed suicide in 1994, by jumping out the window of her Berlin apartment.
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