Archive for January 14th, 2011

Sometimes you run across things in history that sound so odd  to our own modern sensibilities that they seem like they could be fictional in nature.  Such is the case with Matthew Hopkins, the self-proclaimed Witch-Finder General  who flourished in 1640’s England.

Because of the power and influence of the church, anyone who held contrary views was considered a heretic and was therefore assumed to be in an alliance with the Devil.  Hopkins saw a great opportunity in this belief and in the years 1645 to 1647 travelled from town to town through the English districts cleansing the towns of witches, for which he was paid a handsome fee.  In those few short years, Hopkins was responsible for the death of 300-400 people he deemed to be witches.

He would use a variety of tests to determine whether the accused was indeed a witch.  His assistants would shave the body of the accused and Hopkins would search for a devils-mark.  It could be a mole, a birth mark or a third nipple.  He would then prick it and if it failed to bleed the accused was a witch. 

Then there was the time honored tradition of tying the accused to a chair and heaving them into a pond.  Float and you’re a witch.  Sink, you’re not a witch and you’re safely at the bottom of a pond.  This method was eliminated by Parliament during this time.  Even then it seemed a little out there.  He also used sleep deprivation and other traditional methods used for extracting confessions from those accused, who often happened to be older women, many widows. 

 It is believed that Hopkins also used a spring-loaded blade for his testing which meant that when he pricked the skin, the blade would appear to enter the skin but would in fact push back into the handle, leaving no mark or blood.  A little insurance that there were enough witches in town to make it worthwhile.

Thankfully, Hopkins’ actions raised a lot of eyebrows and opposition was raised against his campaign by a vicar who went so far as to publish a treatise condemniong Hopkins and his ways.  Hopkins reacted with his own pamphlet, The Discovery of Witchcraft, from which the illustration shown above is derived.  As a result of this opposition an investigation was launched which ended when Hopkins retired from his odd vocation in 1647.

There is little known of Hopkins after this .  It is held in legend that he met his death when he was confronted by townsfolk who were up in arms over his activities and was subjected to the water test.  Most others believe he died from tuberculosis.  Whether he believed his own words or was simply a charlatan out to make a pile of dough will never be known.  But it made for an odd, and terrifying , tale that one wishes were fictional.

I  wonder who will be our time’s Matthew Hopkins five hundred years in the future?  What  beliefs of ours will be made to look ridiculous with time?  I’m sure there will some…

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