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In our day and age, we are taught acceptance of other people and their lifestyles. At no other point in history have people felt more comfortable of being themselves than they are right now, though humanity still has a long way to go. Throughout history there has been a fear of persecution over wrong accusations. However, in some countries, this is still the case. One of the most horrific trends of persecution was that of the witch trials.
Salem Witch Trials, America
The best-known trial is that of Salem, in Massachusetts, America. The events that took place at the end of the 17th century have become so well known that they are often depicted (sometimes wrongly) in modern-day media. The trials began in 1692 after two girls claimed to be possessed. Their bizarre actions convinced their father and uncle, Samuel Parris, who was the minister of Salem (link 1) that they were indeed at the mercy of Satan.
The first woman accused, Bridget Bishop (link 1), was found guilty of selling her soul to the Devil and was hanged on June 10, 1692 (link 2). Between 150 (link 1) and 200 (link 2) people were accused of practicing witchcraft over the few months after Bridget’s death. Paranoia and mass hysteria spread, leading to 20 people being executed. During the sheer panic, two dogs (link 2) were killed on suspicion of witchcraft.
The last bout of executions took place on September 22, 1692 (link 3). After this, the population decided that the treatment of the accused was not morally acceptable, and the hangings no longer took place. The executions were conducted on a small hill, called Proctor’s Ledge, at the base of Gallows Hill in Salem. The victims were hanged by a rope tied to a tree. Contrary to popular belief, none of the victims were burned at the stake. Burning at the stake was more popular in countries with a strong Catholic church because it did not involve the shedding of blood, which was not allowed in the Catholic doctrine. It also ensured that the victim would not have a body to take with them to the afterlife (link 2).
Lancashire Witch Trials, England
The trial of the Pendle Witches occurred in the autumn of 1612 (link 4), with 20 people being accused overall. Sixteen of these were women. Some of them appear to have genuinely believed in their own 'guilt', and probably considered themselves to be witches. They were village healers who 'practised magic' in return for payment (link 6). The origin of the Pendle Trials began during the reign of King James, ruler of both England and Scotland. At the time, James was paranoid and feared rebellion after the failed assassination attempt to take his life, the Gunpowder Plot, in 1605 (link 5).
The first woman accused of witchcraft by a Halifax peddler named John Law was Alizon Device (link 6). He claimed that she caused him to have a stroke, and Alizon admitted to her 'crimes'. Nine-year-old Jennet Device, a relative of Alizon, testified against her own family during the trial, ultimately condemning them to death. Several years later, Jennet herself was accused of being a witch, and was burned at the stake. Despite the multiple deaths, this was not the only witch trial to occur under the rule of King James.
North Berwick Trials, Scotland
In 1589, King James made the crossing from the UK to Denmark in order to meet his bride, Anne. A vicious storm delayed his crossing and, paranoid as ever, James placed the blame on witches. This sparked the witch trials of North Berwick.
Around 70 to 200 people were put on trial (link 7) and around 4000 people were killed overall in the persecution that swept Scotland. In 1590, a young servant called Gilly Duncan, from Edinburgh, had been arrested for suspected witchcraft after some of her healing cures were branded as ‘miraculous’. Gilly denied allegations but, after being tortured, confessed to being a witch (link 8).
When we read the forms of torture used on the accused, we can see why they would confess, regardless of whether they were innocent or not. The ‘Breast Ripper’ was used; a device that did exactly as the name implies. It consists of 4 pronged levers that would encase the breast of the accused ‘witch’, and then tear it from her chest with a considerable amount of inflicted trauma (link 7). Another form of torture used on witches was the ‘Scold’s Bridle’, a metal device that fit around the head and had metal protrusions that would slide into the victim’s mouths making it impossible to talk. You could be accused simply for having red hair, for having an unusual ‘devil’s mark’ (what we would call a birthmark) or for being left-handed. Traditionally older women and those who worked with herbs and medicines or midwives would also be targeted.
Basque Witch Trials, Pyrenees
The witch trials in Basque occurred in the 17th century, from 1609 to 1611 (link 9). The Spanish Inquisition sought out heretics, which included those condemned of practising witchcraft, with the help and permission of the Catholic Church. The attention of the religious officials was drawn to Zugarramurdi, a small village in Basque, as a woman claimed to have had dreams of some villagers participating in a coven within a local cave (link 10).
Those accused were put on trial, and, for those found guilty, a public spectacle was made of their deaths scheduled specifically for Sundays so that people could attend (link 9). They were marched into town in a state of dishonour, and were burned at the stake later that day. It’s believed that the Church accused around 7,000 people of witchcraft; tried several thousand of them, and about a dozen died as a result.
The Witches of Ribe, Denmark
Between 1572 and 1652, 13 cases of witchcraft appeared in the courts of Ribe, in Denmark (link 11). Overall, there were 22 trials, 18 charges, and 11 cases of witches being burned at the stake (link 12). The first woman was Johanne Christendatter Rugge, who was killed in 1572, though little is known about her. The last person to be executed in Denmark on charges of witchcraft was Anne Palis (links 11 and 12).
The best-known victim was Maren Spliid, a beautiful woman who worked in an inn owned by her husband. Maren was accused of witchcraft by her neighbour, Didrik, who claimed she and two other women (both of whom he didn’t recognise) had broken into his house. He stated that Maren had forced his mouth open whilst the other two held him down, and breathed into his throat. Afterwards he vomited up a strange lump that officials claimed to be of ‘dark origin’ (link 12).
Maren’s husband managed to get the charges dropped, but Didrik unearthed more evidence, and the case was presented to King Christian the Fourth. Maren was found guilty and was hung on the November 9, 1641 (link 11).
Valais Witch Trials, France (modern-day Switzerland)
The Valais hunt took place between 1428 and 1447 (link 13), considered to be the first series of trials in Europe, fifty years before the phenomenon spread. On August 7th, 1428, delegates from seven districts in Valais demanded that officials investigated alleged witches and sorcerers. If someone was accused of being a witch by three people or more, they were arrested. Those that were arrested would be killed (link 14).
The events originated in southern French-speaking Valais and spread north to the German-speaking Wallis. Within one and a half years, between 100 and 200 people had been burned to death. The hysteria had by then spread to the French and Swiss Alps, from St. Bernhard in Savoy to Briançon in Dauphiné. From these territories, it spread until the persecutions died out in 1447 (link 15). About as many men as women are believed to have been killed.
Wurzburg Witch Hunt, Germany
The trials from 1626 to 1631 were the biggest mass trials and executions ever seen in Europe. One hundred and fifty seven men, women and children were burned alive at the stake in Wurzburg, with 900 burnt altogether over the entire area.
The persecutions were orchestrated by Julius Echter von Mespelbrunn, Prince Bishop of Wurzburg, and his nephew Philipp in the years after the Catholic re-conquest of Germany in the 1620s. In his reign of eight years, he was responsible for burning 900 people, including his own nephew, nineteen Catholic priests, and children who were said to have had intercourse with demons. People from all walks of life, including nobles, were arrested and charged, for reasons ranging from murder, or simply for being unable to give a satisfactory explanation of why they were passing through town (link 16).
Friedrich Spee, a Jesuit and a confessor of witches in the great persecution (which turned his hair prematurely white), claimed that all the confessions were worthless, being based solely on torture, and that not a single “witch” whom he had led to the stake had been guilty. The trials were put to an end in 1631 when the city was taken by King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden.
Doruchów Witch Trials, Poland
The Doruchów trials in the 18th century were the last mass trials of sorcery and witchcraft in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (link 17). The trial allegedly resulted in the execution of 14 women in 1775, and led to the ban on witch-burning in Poland. A reassessment of the original documentation places the trial in 1783, with 6 victims, and having no effect on any of the laws concerning witch-burning.
An investigation into sorcery was approved after a local nobleman's wife was affected by an outbreak of sickness. Women were accused of having caused the illness using magic, and 14 people were arrested and interrogated. The Polish parliament had previously banned local magistrates from handling witchcraft cases, and so the trial was conducted by the court of the nearby cities of Grabów and Prosna. Three died from the torture, and the remaining eleven were burned at the stake (link 18).
The last official witch trial in Poland took place in 1793. Those arrested were deemed guilty of witchcraft and burned.
Papua New Guinea Witches
The torture and execution of people accused of witchcraft are still found in Papua New Guinea, with the UN estimating that 200 witches are killed annually (link 19). Those subjected to the allegations are tortured, mutilated, and humiliated, often being abducted by mobs that murder them without any form of trial.
The hunting of witches first came to the attention of the public after the killing of Kepari Leniata. At 20 years old, the mother was accused of killing a young boy with sorcery. She was stripped naked, tortured with a branding iron, bonded, and finally set alight. Most witch hunts take place in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Witchcraft is secretive, with most killings are not reported. Though the government recognises white magic, black magic is punishable by two years in jail. The ritual killings are mostly committed by mobs of men. The accused is first tortured until confessing to being a witch and then is forced to name other “witches.” She is then publicly executed.
Saudi Arabia Witch Customs
There’s no definition within Saudi Arabia for what witchcraft is, so those detained are at the mercy of the judges who are usually religious clerics. Evidence presented generally involves witness statements, personal belongings that could be used for magical purposes, or a history of strange requests or purchases that could be construed as being linked to sorcery. The judges are given total freedom to weigh what is presented through their own interpretation of Sharia Law (link 20).
In 2007, an Egyptian pharmacist was sentenced to death and beheaded for allegedly casting magical spells to dissolve a marriage and for committing the sin of placing the Quran in a restroom. The offense that ultimately cost him his life was the perceived dabbling in black magic. In another case, a woman was arrested and tried for sorcery after she was found to be charging people money for spiritual healing. The woman was detained, tried on scant evidence, and eventually sentenced to beheading (link 20).
Many of the victims are foreigners. Saudi Arabia is a haven for foreign migrant workers from Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Africa, who come with their own traditions and customs, many of which are misconstrued as witchcraft by the Saudi government. The Anti-Witchcraft unit was responsible for over 118 arrests within its first year of operation alone (link 20).
- Link 1: http://www.history.com/topics/salem-witch-trials
- Link 2: http://historyofmassachusetts.org/salem-witch-trials-victims/
- Link 3: http://www.time.com/3398176/salem-witch-trials/
- Link 4: http://www.pendlewitches.co.uk
- Link 5: http://www.visitlancashire.com/inspire-me/pendle-witches
- Link 6: http://www.witchcraftandwitches.com/trials_pendle.html
- Link 7: http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofScotland/North-Berwick-Witch-Trials/
- Link 8: http://www.witchcraftandwitches.com/trials_north_berwick.html
- Link 9: http://www.all-that-is-interesting.com/basque-country-witch-trials
- Link 10: http://www.ancient-origins.net/history/zugarramurdi-witch-trials-welcome-spanish-salem-003840
- Link 11: http://www.visitribe.com/In-int/south-jutland/history/maren-spliid
- Link 12: http://www.danhostel-ribe.dk/en/maren-spliid-witch
- Link 13: https://books.google.co.uk/books?redir_esc=y&id=Qr6_q-chR6MC&q=valais#v=snippet&q=valais&f=false
- Link 14: https://www.revolvy.com/main/index.php?s=Valais%20witch%20trials
- Link 15: http://www.witchcraftandwitches.com/trials_valais.html
- Link 16: http://www.witchcraftandwitches.com/trials_wurzburg.html
- Link 17: http://www.liquisearch.com/doruch%C3%B3w_witch_trial
- Link 18: http://www.witchcraftandwitches.com/trials_doruchow.html
- Link 19: http://www.nationalgeographic.com.au/people/witch-hunting-in-papua-new-guinea.aspx
- Link 20: http://mysteriousuniverse.org/2015/07/the-anti-sorcery-squad-of-saudi-arabia/