Witch Hunts

by | Jun 24, 2019

A detail from the painting “Witch Hill/ The Salem Martyr” by Thomas Satterwhite Nobel, 1869. A woman, found guilty of witchcraft, walks to the gallows with the hangman and judges. (AP)

When we think of witch hunts we here in the U.S. likely think of the Salem Witch Trials that occurred in 1692 and 1693. Over that time period over 200 people (mostly women) were accused of practicing witchcraft and 20 were put to death.

While the death of 20 people due to superstition and hysteria is tragic, it pales in comparison to the witch hunts in Europe that occurred from the 15th to 17th centuries. The estimates of total executions for witchcraft in Europe range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands with most estimates ranging from 80,000 to 500,000 deaths(there is no way to know for sure).

While some men were accused of being witches, the vast majority of the accused were women and “consisted primarily of outcasts and other suspicious persons. Old women. Midwives. Jews. Poets. Gypsies. Anyone who did not fit within the contemporary view of pieous Christians were suspect, and easily branded ‘Witch’. Usually to devastating effect.” Source.

Causes of the Witch Hunt Madness

Why did this epidemic of witch hunts occur? There are a number of reasons.

People of that time seriously believed in evil spirits, demons and the devil. They actually believed that there were those among them who practiced dark magic. According to Smithsonian Magazine: “many practicing Christians, and those of other religions, had a strong belief that the Devil could give certain people known as witches the power to harm others in return for their loyalty.” It was thought that demons were everywhere and you could be possessed by one quite easily.

For example, “St. Gregory of Nice relates a story of a nun who forgot to say her benedicite, and make the sign of the cross, before she sat down to supper, and who, in consequence, swallowed a demon concealed among the leaves of a lettuce.” Source. Given these outlandish beliefs, it is not surprising that a society could develop a collective mania that there were those among them who were possessed and causing bad things to happen.

Evidence of their beliefs in evil spirits were the misfortunes for which they had no explanation: diseases, storms, droughts, floods and the like. “Accusations of witchcraft and witch hunts often originated in economic or social disruptions at the local level: agrarian failures; persistent inclement weather; new economic or commercial patterns in a region; or disputes between neighbors over property, social standing, or any number of issues.” Source. According to researchers out of Durham University, “witchcraft transcended scientific theories of cause and effect, thus providing explanations for otherwise inexplicable happenings.” Thus, witch hunts were somewhat of a self-reinforcing mania.

Personal grudges and political disputes were also common sources of accusations of witchcraft. What better way to get rid of a rival than have them executed for being a witch! The execution of Joan of Arc for witchery is a prime example.

Pope Innocent VIII Fans the Flames of Witch Hunts

Mania about demons and witches was not confined to the common person. Pope Innocent VIII himself warned of witches in a papal bull issued in 1484. It said the following:

Many persons of both sexes, unmindful of their own salvation and straying from the Catholic Faith, have abandoned themselves to devils, incubi and succubi, and by their incantations, spells, conjurations, and other accursed charms and crafts, enormities and horrid offences, have slain infants yet in the mother’s womb, as also the offspring of cattle, have blasted the produce of the earth, the grapes of the vine, the fruits of the trees, nay, men and women, beasts of burthen, herd-beasts, as well as animals of other kinds, vineyards, orchards, meadows, pasture-land, corn, wheat, and all other cereals; these wretches furthermore afflict and torment men and women, beasts of burthen, herd-beasts, as well as animals of other kinds, with terrible and piteous pains and sore diseases, both internal and external; they hinder men from performing the sexual act and women from conceiving, …they blasphemously renounce that Faith which is theirs by the Sacrament of Baptism, and at the instigation of the Enemy of Mankind they do not shrink from committing and perpetrating the foulest abominations and filthiest excesses to the deadly peril of their own souls, (…) the abominations and enormities in question remain unpunished not without open danger to the souls of many and peril of eternal damnation.

Needless to say, having a Pope issue an edict confirming the existence witches and witchcraft was a major event and served to fan the flames of witch hunt mania. Supposedly, a major reason for issuing the bull was to counter Protestant objection to the Inquisition. Note two further facts: (1) the Inquisition was a major institution for the hunting and execution of witches and witch trials made up a substantial portion of its trials, and (2) Protestants loved a good witch hunt as well; Calvin and Luther were firm believers in witchcraft and very supportive of hunting witches.

The Malleus Maleficarum

The Malleus Maleficarum was published in 1488, just four years after the papal bull, written by two well regarded German friars. The book was a sensation and became the chief guide for discovering, hunting, prosecuting and executing witches. From its publication in 1488 until 1678 it sold more copies of any other book other than the Bible. Here’s a pdf of the Malleus Maleficarum. It’s a fascinating work to skim through and would be quite humorous if not for the death and carnage it caused.

Prior to the Malleus Maleficarum witchcraft was a crime but often not punishable by death. The Maleficarum made the point that witchcraft was a crime against God which should be punished by death.

“It been said that The Malleus Maleficarum is one of the most blood-soaked works in human history, in that its very existence reinforced and validated Catholic beliefs which led to the prosecution, torture, and murder, of tens of thousands of innocent people.” Source.

Tis’ a Fair Court

After being accused, potential witches were often tortured until they admitted to practicing witchcraft. After hours or days on a rack (or other torture device) an accused who previously claimed innocence would often confess to being a witch to end their suffering.

In addition to torturing out confession, there were also a number of tests to determine whether a person was a witch.

The most common test to determine if a person is a witch was called “swimming.” The test was administered by having the hands and feet of the suspected witch tied together in an “X” shape – with the right hand tied to the left foot and vice-versa. They were then wrapped up in a blanket and laid on their backs in a lake or other body of water. If they sank they were innocent (and often drowned) – if they floated they were a witch! Note that if the accused was laid carefully in the water they often floated.

Another popular test was to have the accused recite the Lord’s Prayer with the thought that a witch, being in cahoots with the devil, would be unable to do so correctly. If she missed a word, including a mispronunciation, she was deemed to be a witch.

So, what do you do with a witch? Often they were executed. There were two common methods:

(1) hang them and then burn their body

(2) tie them to a stake and burn them alive

The Sort of Tale of Witchcraft Which Sparked Witch Hunt Madness

We love stories (especially scary ones) and often prefer explanations (even ridiculous ones) to uncertainty. Here’s a great example of a witchcraft story that could rile up a populace into witch hunting mania.

A case of witchcraft, which created a great sensation in its day, occurred in 1588, at a village in the mountains of Auvergne, about two leagues from Apchon. A gentleman of that place being at his window, there passed a friend of his who had been out hunting, and who was then returning to his own house. The gentleman asked his friend what sport he had had; upon which the latter informed him that he had been attacked in the plain by a large and savage wolf, which he had shot at, without wounding; and that he had then drawn out his hunting-knife and cut off the animal’s fore-paw, as it sprang upon his neck to devour him. The huntsman, upon this, put his hand into his bag to pull out the paw, but was shocked to find that it was a woman’s hand, with a wedding-ring on the finger. The gentleman immediately recognized his wife’s ring, “which,” says the indictment against her, “made him begin to suspect some evil of her.” He immediately went in search of her, and found her sitting by the fire in the kitchen, with her arm hidden underneath her apron. He tore off her apron with great vehemence, and found that she had no hand, and that the stump was even then bleeding. She was given into custody, and burned at Riom in presence of some thousands of spectators.

Mackay, Charles. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841)


  1. My ancestry is connected to the Salem Witchcraft Trials. In fact, Mercy Disbrow’s trial in about 1661 was the case that debunked Witcraft in colonies. She was initially convicted of being a Witch, but an appeal’s Courte over turned the verdict essentially ending Witchcraft trials in the colonies.

  2. To add on, in Salem it was a town full of Puritans that are known for their literal interpretation of the Bible. They live a very restrained religious lifestyle that’s a bit different than other Christians and are very superstitious . Also people like Cotton Mather (an author and Puritan minister) helped fuel the witch trials by his work. Bascially the only reason the witch trials ended was because the governor of Massachusetts wife was accused and at that point he said enough is enough. There’s a lot of theories for why the witch trials happened in Salem. As you mentioned, it’s been engrained in European for thousands of years. That’s defintiely A big part of it.

    Also, Social and economical stresses could’ve caused Rivalries between families. False accusations is definitely a possibility.

    Anlther possibility is the Growth of Ergot, a fungus in the local grain supply (due to a wet winter) that gives psychedelic effects. It could be people were eating this Ergot and going crazy and tricking the town into thinking they’re involved with witchcraft.


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