Matthew Hopkins – Witchfinder
THIS “worthy” of witchcraft flourished about the middle of the seventeenth century, when the delusions of the witching frauds were at their full height. He assumed the title of witchfinder general, and travelling through the counties of Essex, Sussex, Norfolk, and Huntingdon, pretended to discover witches, superintending their examination by the most unheard-of tortures, and compelling forlorn and miserable creatures to admit and confess matters equally absurd and impossible; the admission of which was the forfeiture of their lives.
Sir Walter Scott describes Hopkins as follows: “He was, perhaps, a native of Manningtree, in Essex; at any rate, he resided there in the year , when an epidemic outcry of witchcraft arose in that town. Upon this occasion he had made himself busy, and affecting more zeal and knowledge than other men, learned his trade of a witchfinder, as he pretended, from experiment. He was afterwards permitted to perform it as a legal profession, and moved from one place to another, with an assistant named Sterne, and a female. In his defence against an accusation of fleecing the country, he declares his regular charge was twenty shillings a town, including charges of living, and journeying thither and back again with his assistants. He also affirms, that he went nowhere unless called and invited. His principal mode of discovery was, to strip the accused persons naked, and thrust pins into various parts of their body, to discover the witch’s mark, which was supposed to be inflicted by the devil, as a sign of his sovereignty, and at which she was also said to suckle her imps. He also practised and stoutly defended the trial by swimming, when the suspected person was wrapped in a sheet, having the great toes and thumbs tied together, and so dragged through a pond or river. If she sank, it was received in favour of the accused; but if the body floated, (which must have occurred ten times for once, if it was placed with care on the surface of the water,) the accused was condemned, on the principle of King James, who, in treating of this mode or trial, lays down, that as witches have renounced their baptism, so it is just that the element through which the holy rite is enforced, should reject them; which is a figure of speech, and no argument.
It was Hopkins’s custom to keep the poor wretches waking, in order to prevent them from having encouragement from the devil, and, doubtless, to put infirm, terrified, over-watched persons in the next state to absolute madness; and, for the same purpose, they were dragged about by their keepers, till extreme weariness, and the pain of blistered feet, might form additional inducements to confession.
Excerpt from The Cabinet of Curiosities, or Wonders of the World Displayed – 1840
Further Reading and External Links
1968 Witchfinder General Serialization on YouTube