The authorities launched a formal investigation. Although some Lille clergy and citizens were skeptical, most believed that the children’s confessions of witchcraft were valid. It thus followed that all fifty schoolgirls should be burned at the stake as witches to make an example of them. The little girls’ lives were only spared at the last minute, after some skeptical priests, aghast at what was about to happen, insisted that the investigators dig in deeper. That was when they finally discovered what the school’s headmistress had done to fill the girls’ heads with thoughts of demonic possession. The children were absolved, and the blame shifted to Madam Bourignon. She barely escaped punishment after the authorities, unsure of her sanity and tired of the whole affair, wound down and closed the investigation.
23. Nut Who Thought Witchcraft and Demons Were All Around Her
Margaretta Peter was born into a large Swiss family around 1794, and from an early age, displayed remarkable religious zeal. By age six, she was a prodigy as a preacher and captivated congregations with impassioned sermons. She revealed a better grasp of the Bible than many grown ministers. She had a strong personality, and spiritually dominated her family and neighbors and turned them into her disciples. At age twenty, Margaretta announced that she was a prophetess, and started a small congregation in her village. She also began to wander the region and preach, and gained a reputation and followers across Switzerland. In 1823, Margaretta began to harp on Satan, demons, witchcraft, and warn her flock that such fell darkness was all around them. Soon, she began to experience prophetic visions in which demons took over the world.
22. A Deluded Prophetess Takes a Stand Against Darkness
Margaretta Peter eventually decided to act, lest the world succumbs to demons and witchcraft. One day, she told ten devoted followers to gather weapons and pray, because the final battle between Satan and Jesus was about to begin. On her instructions, they gathered axes and clubs and whatever weapons they could find and barricaded themselves in a farmhouse attic. She told them that invisible demons had surrounded the house, and then she shrieked that they had broken in. At that point, the disturbed prophetess’ disturbed followers began to wildly swing their weapons at imaginary devils and creatures of darkness only she could see. That went on for hours, in which time the group destroyed the attic in a religious frenzy. It got worse when Margaretta and her followers eventually left the wrecked attic and descended to the ground floor.
21. Pain to Ward Off Demons, Satan, and Witchcraft
On the ground floor, Margaretta Peter and her followers began to hit each other, on the theory that pain would ward off the demons, satanic forces, and witchcraft all around them. They kept at it until the neighbors finally called the police. They arrived to find Margaretta’s followers senseless on the floor, while she continued to beat them. The next day, she told her congregation that more pain was needed to fend off Satan. She then grabbed an iron wedge and began to bludgeon her brother, while her followers went back to beating each other up. Margaretta then announced that her dead mother’s ghost ordered her to sacrifice herself. Her sister stepped up and insisted that she be sacrificed instead. Margaretta accepted and began to bash her sister with the iron wedge. The rest of the congregation joined in, and soon, the sister was dead. When a follower protested, Margaretta assured her that her sister would rise from the dead in three days.
After she killed her sister, Margaretta Peter ordered her followers to crucify her. They were reluctant at first, but she insisted that it was necessary to combat Satan, demons, and witchcraft. She also assured them that she would return to life in three days. So they made a cross, and as the prophetess urged them on, they nailed her to it by her hands, elbows, feet, and breasts. She then ordered them to stab her through the heart. They tried, but couldn’t get it right. So after multiple failed attempts, they took a hammer and crowbar and smashed her head. Then the congregation gathered around the bodies and prayed while they waited for the corpses to come back to life in three days. Needless to say, three days came and went, but the deceased Margaretta and her equally lifeless sister stayed that way. Her disciples were tried for murder, and eleven were convicted and given prison sentences ranging from six months to sixteen years.
The Salem Witchcraft craze of 1692 – 1693 is probably history’s most famous – or infamous – case of mass hysteria. It took place against a cultural and religious background that was predisposed to believe in the supernatural. While witchcraft is laughable to most today, in seventeenth-century Colonial America, and especially in Salem and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, it was taken quite seriously. The belief that Satan could grant witches extraordinary powers in return for their loyalty, and that witchcraft could be used to inflict harm on the good and godly, was taken for granted. The tragedy began in January 1692, when the nine-year-old old daughter and eleven-year-old niece of Salem’s reverend began to have screaming fits. As they shrieked, the girls contorted themselves into unnatural positions, threw things, and made weird noises.
18. The Start of an Avalanche of Crazy Accusations
A local doctor found no signs of physical ailment to explain the girls’ behavior, so he blamed it on the supernatural. Soon, another young girl, aged eleven, began to exhibit similar symptoms. Examined by magistrates, the girls alleged that three women had used witchcraft against them. The accused were the reverend’s black slave, Tituba, an elderly impoverished woman named Sarah Osborne, and a homeless beggar named Sarah Good. Osborne and Good protested their innocence, but for whatever reason – perhaps torture or perhaps a promise of leniency – Tituba confessed to having been visited by the Devil. She described him as a black man who asked her to sign a book. Tituba admitted that she had signed, then went on to point the finger at other “witches”.
Tituba’s confession triggered mass hysteria, and in subsequent months, a flood of accusations poured in. The more farfetched they were, the more they solidified the populace’s belief in the potency of witchcraft and enhanced the panic. When the godly and regular churchgoer Martha Corey was accused of witchcraft, it did not give the good people of Salem pause. Instead, it reinforced their fears: if solid citizen Martha Corey could be a witch, then anybody could be a witch. On May 27th, 1692, the colony’s governor ordered the establishment of a special court to try the accused. Its first victim was Bridget Bishop, an older woman known as a gossip and with a reputation for promiscuity. Her protestations of innocence did her no good. She was convicted, sentenced to death, and hanged on June 10th in what became known as Gallows Hill.
Five more innocents were convicted of witchcraft and hanged in July, 1692, another five in August, and eight more that September. The trials were marked by a lack of due process, and the use of “spectral evidence”. It was basically testimony by witnesses that they dreamt or had a vision that the spirit or “spectre” of the accused witch did them harm. An accuser’s dream or vision that “Jane Doe bit, hit, and punched me“, was admissible evidence in court that Jane Doe had actually bit, hit, and punched the accuser. It made no difference if the unfortunate Doe was nowhere near the accuser that day: her spectre was. Respected theologian and reverend Cotton Mather wrote the court to caution against the use of spectral evidence, but he was ignored.
15. Baseless Accusations of Witchcraft Threatened to Engulf an Entire Colony
The accusations of witchcraft spread like ripples from Salem until they threatened to engulf all of colonial Massachusetts. The governor finally ended the trials and their ever-expanding circle of accusations when his own wife was accused of being a witch. By then, 200 people had been accused of witchcraft, and 20 had already been hanged. Eventually, the authorities admitted that the trials had been a mistake, and compensated the families of the wrongly convicted witch hunt victims. The Salem witchcraft mass hysteria and resultant trials became synonymous with paranoia and injustice. They stand today as a cautionary tale about the dangers of religious extremism, false accusations, and the lack of due process.
Before the modern era, many outbreaks of mass hysteria occurred within religious institutions. Convents, in particular, were prime grounds, ripe for eruptions of contagious mass delusion. That was because convents, especially in the Middle Ages, contained large numbers of nuns who had been forced into them by their families. Once in, they were compelled to lead lives that many found disagreeable. Inside the convents, many of the unfortunate girls or women forced to don the habit and become nuns were confined in prison-like conditions. As seen below, they led a stressful lifestyle that was often not one they had freely chosen.
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