13. Disobedient Medieval Nuns Could be Burned at the Stake for Witchcraft
Among other things, medieval nuns were expected to be celibate, and submit to poverty and hard work. They were expected to unquestioningly obey authority figures who had the right to compel compliance with coercive measures. Those ranged from the imposition of extra labor to confinement in cells, to the deprivation of food and water. Physical chastisement and punishment were also available. They ranged from whipping and caning in-house, to turning over the most defiant nuns to ecclesiastic courts. There, if things went particularly bad, a hardheaded nun could end up burned to death for witchcraft or demonic possession. Such conditions of communal longstanding stress and fear are textbook causes for the outbreak of mass hysteria. It is thus not surprising that nunneries frequently experienced eruptions of mass delusions.
The pressure cooker of medieval convents led to a bizarre collective craze of mass meowing. One day, a nun started to meow like a cat. Back then cats were not viewed by Europeans as cute and cuddly pets, but as creatures associated with Satan, witches, and witchcraft. Soon, other nuns joined in and started to meow. Before long, the whole convent was meowing. It eventually became chorus-like, as all the nuns joined in collective caterwauling for several hours each day. Understandably, the cacophony alarmed and upset the neighbors, particularly in light of cats’ association with the Devil and demonic possession and witchcraft. Please to stop were not heeded, so soldiers were eventually called in ordered to whip the meowing sisters into silence. That finally brought the mass hysteria outbreak to an end.
History is full of conmen, but few were more sinister and terrible 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, 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 plenty of employers who paid him handsomely. It would be funny, if not for the fact that Hopkins got scores of innocents killed based on evidence that he had manufactured. He was active for only two years, but in that brief span, he got over 100 people executed.
In a stretch that lasted for fourteen months, Matthew Hopkins 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. Witches and sorcerers supposedly neither felt pain nor bled when pricked. In of itself, that was not conclusive proof that an accused was a witch or sorcerer. However, pricking was circumstantial evidence that could be used along other evidence and testimony to tip the scales towards conviction. Because everything about witch hunts was terrible, it is perhaps no surprise that witch-finders used trickery. As seen below, Hopkins was a master of brazen flim-flam.
Witch finders routinely manipulated the process to demonstrate that they had, indeed, found a witch – and thus deserved to get paid. Devices with sharp needles were thrust into “normal” volunteers to draw blood. Then, through sleight of hand, a different trick needle was substituted to use on those accused of witchcraft. Some devices had hollow handles with retractable needles. They gave the optical illusion of being plunged into an accused’s flesh without drawing blood. Sometimes the witch-finders used needles with a sharp end for demonstration on random volunteers, and a blunt end to use on the accused. Special trick needles with bends created the illusion of “piercing” a witch’s tongue without drawing blood. Trick knives were also used, with hollows to make it look like they had “cut” through an accused’s flesh or tongue without drawing blood.
Matthew Hopkins began his career as a witch finder in May 1644, when an associate, John Stearne, accused six women of having tried to kill him with witchcraft. Hopkins saw a business opportunity and falsely declared himself “Witch Finder Generall” with a commission from Parliament. At the time Parliament had never heard of Hopkins, let alone commissioned him to find witches. 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. They included sleep deprivation, dunking victims in water, and tying them 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.
7. This Conman’s Malign Legacy Helped Fuel the Salem Witchcraft Craze
Matthew Hopkins’ terrible flim-flam bore its grisliest results on August 27th, 1645, in the small town of Bury St. Edmunds. That day, thanks to the machinations of the self-anointed “Witch Finder Generall”, 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. A year later, 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.
One of the worst examples of modern Satanism scares began in 1983, when a mentally unstable mother alleged that Ray Buckey, an employee of the McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, had molested her child. She went on to add that people in the school had “relations” with animals, that Ray Buckey’s mother and preschool owner Peggy McMartin had perforated a child under the arm with a power drill, and that “Ray flew in the air”. Police were skeptical, but nonetheless sent a letter to other parents at the school and asked them to question their children about abuses at the school. As parents talked to their children and other parents, other accusations of child abuse trickled in.
5. Bizarre Allegations of Witchcraft Were Taken Seriously
Soon, the accusations of molestation at the McMartin preschool turned into a flood. Wild, weird, and increasingly incredible claims were made of satanic abuse and witchcraft that stretched credulity amidst a mass hysteria of false accusations. Social workers were brought in to gather more information. Between a combination of incompetence and leading questions, the children’s accusations grew steadily wilder and more bizarre. In addition to being molested by Ray Buckey and his mother Peggy McMartin, the children alleged that they had been made to participate in satanic rites. In those dark rituals, they were forced to drink the blood of a baby whom they had witnessed being sacrificed in church.
The McMartin preschool children also said that they had witnessed witchcraft, saw witches fly, that they had been abused in a hot air balloon and in (nonexistent) tunnels beneath the preschool. One child claimed to have been molested by actor Chuck Norris. Other children added that, after they were abused in secret rooms, they were flushed down toilets, then cleaned up and presented to their parents. The accusations were incredible, but they found receptive ears. They came at a time when America was in the grip of widespread fears of ritual abuse of children, connected in some way to satanic worship, witchcraft, and dark magic rites.
3. Witchcraft Hysteria Meets an Unscrupulous District Attorney
With elections drawing near, ambitious Los Angeles District Attorney Ira Reiner unscrupulously sought to capitalize on the Satanism and witchcraft hysteria. So he slapped Ray Buckey and his mother Peggy McMartin with 208 counts of child molestation. They were arrested in 1984, and the investigation lasted for three years, until 1987. Mother and son were then put through a three-year trial that lasted from 1987 to 1990. It was the longest and most expensive criminal trial in American history. At its conclusion, a jury acquitted Peggy McMartin of all charges, while Ray Buckey was acquitted of 52 of 65 charges, with the jury deadlocked on the remaining counts 10 to 2 in favor of acquittal. Those charges were then dropped, and the mass hysteria and subsequent trial concluded without a single conviction.
2. When British Intelligence Created a Satanism and Witchcraft Scare
On what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday“, January 30th, 1972, British paratroopers shot 26 Catholic protesters in Northern Ireland. Fourteen died. An already tense situation known as The Troubles got orders of magnitude worse. Urban guerrilla warfare erupted, as Catholic and Irish nationalist hostility towards Britain skyrocketed. Many who until then had been content with protests and civil disobedience now flocked to join paramilitaries and fight the state. Before anybody knew it, the British military and police had their hands full trying to keep a lid on things. British military intelligence turned to psychological warfare in an attempt to lessen public support for the paramilitaries. As the violence mounted, Captain Collin Wallace, a British Army psychological warfare specialist, executed a plan to link the armed groups with Satanism, witchcraft, and black magic.
British military intelligence wanted to create the idea that Irish paramilitaries and their violence had unleashed evil forces. Against the backdrop of newfound fears triggered by recent movies like The Devil Rides Out and The Exorcist, Wallace and his men scattered upside-down crucifixes and black candles across war-torn Belfast. Simultaneously, the authorities leaked stories about demonic rituals, witchcraft, black masses, and tied them to run-of-the-mill crimes. In the last four months of 1973 alone, over seventy articles about devil worship and the like were published. As a result, a panic about Satanism, black magic, and witchcraft swept through Northern Ireland. As Collin Wallace explained years later: “Ireland was very superstitious and all we had to do was bring it up to date“. As an added bonus from the authorities’ perspective, the manufactured hysteria helped keep kids home at night, and away from buildings used for undercover surveillance.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading