Most people are aware of the Salem Witch Trials that occurred in early 1690s colonial Massachusetts. However, many are unaware of the witch hunt’s origins. While the Salem Witch Trials were wildly popularized in books, television, and movies, the long forgotten stepping stones of wrongful persecution happened long before any colonial stepped foot in North America. Witch hunts and executions were largely in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Most modern day estimates of the total number of people executed for witchcraft in Europe are between 40,000 to 50,000. That is a staggering number of innocent lives lost based on superstitious fears or political motivation.
In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a Papal Bull; an official Church document that condemned witchcraft. The Pope set forth two inquisitors, Jakob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer, to enforce his new anti-witchcraft law. Sprenger and Kramer produced a book, The Hammer of Witches, that both Protestants and Catholics accepted as an authority on witchcraft. The book contained combinations of both fanciful stories regarding witches and legal arguments against witchcraft. The document provided step by step guidelines on how to identify a witch and a witch’s magic. It is considered perhaps one of the most dangerous books ever written in history due the repercussions witch hunts had on Europe’s populations.
Witchcraft was a crime persecuted with no actual evidence of guilt. The only requirement was a confession from the accused. Such a confession could be gathered by means of torture; depriving the accused of sleep, attempted drowning, and finger and hand torture were all methods an investigator could use to retrieve a confession from a supposed witch. A person deprived of sleep and beaten to a pulp would have been willing to admit to almost anything to avoid any more pain and agony. While most torture methods did become outlawed during the 1600s thanks to more enlightened thought, that did not stop the most zealous of witch hunters from gathering confessions by any means necessary. Witch hunters gained fame and fortune for their persecutions. Very few saw a loss in their reputation. Witch hunters were regularly sought out and employed by villages seeking to imprison and kill the least desirable members of their village.
Over seventy percent of the accused were widowed women. The remaining accused were the poor, elderly, or herbal dispensers. Unfortunately, the truth of the witch trials was that it was largely a system used to weed out women who were otherwise unattached and childless. An irritable, fiery personality seen in women between 40 and 60 was of concern to the community. Undesirables in the community were systematically weeded out by use of the witch trial, however, in the end, no one was truly safe, regardless of class or status. A surly priest was as likely to see flames as a dirty hermitess.
Any misfortune could be blamed on a witch; a frost, a low milk producing cow, disease, or unexpected death. Even benign markings like moles, scars, or birth marks could be used against the accused. The marks, known as “devil’s marks” were said to be extra teats to feed the witch’s familiar, pets that were used to directly communicate with the Devil himself. Clearly, superstition superseded logic during these dark times.
When one thinks of witch trials, immolation, or being burnt to death, was not the main form of execution. Even during the Salem Witch Trials, immolation was banned by English law. Most were hanged, beheaded, or crushed to death by stone. Regardless of how these individuals met their fate, one thing is certain: the absurd accusations were unfounded and their unjust deaths were cruel. We are fortunate to live in a time where one’s innocence exists until proven guilty, and witchcraft is no longer a punishable crime.