These days, when we hear the words “witch-hunt,” we tend to relate it metaphorically to certain ideological hate campaigns. Go back a few hundred years, and in Europe witch hunting was quite literal. In the 17th century, colonists living in America accused various people of using witchcraft, often leading to women being hanged, burned or drowned. The most famous case is probably that of the Salem witch trials, an incident now said to be the result of mass hysteria and religious paranoia that led to 20 people being executed. But who were these supposed witches and what were they accused of doing? Has there ever been any solid proof that witches exist?
First of all, we’ll focus mainly on witches throughout history. We should know that witch hunts still occur today in some parts of the world, mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa, India, Nepal, Papua New Guinea and Saudi Arabia. We don’t mean to undermine the plight of those accused in those countries by not talking about their hardships, but it’s not something we will get into today. Ok, now for the witches of history.
10. The Salem Witches
So, we’ll start with the famous trial. It’s at number 10 because it involved not one but numerous witches and none of them did anything too out of this world. It all happened in Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693, and 200 people in all were accused of being witches. It started when two young girls began having fits and contorting, much like you see in possession movies these days. It started happening to other girls, and then others, hence we call it “mass hysteria”, which is not uncommon in the world today in various forms. One doctor said it was the devil’s work, and girls blamed older women for inflicting them with a curse. The women denied it, but one of the accused made matters bad for the rest when she said, “The Devil came to me and bid me serve him.” More accusations followed, more paranoia, more charges. 20 were killed in the end, and all a waste of life as the judges who sentenced those women apologized and said it had all been a mistake. The trials soon became known as the tragedy of Salem.
9. Mother Shipton
This is the case of a Yorkshire girl born in the 15th century in a cave that you can visit today. It’s said she was hideous in appearance, born with twisted fingers, crooked legs, an oversized head, and boils all over her face. Back then, the villagers didn’t chalk this up to disease, but said she was the devil’s child. It’s said her power was her ability to see into the future, and she wrote a number of prophetic verses. It’s even said she predicted the Great Fire of London. She died, still ugly, at 73, and it’s now thought her predictions were largely embellished.
8. Florence Newton
Over in Ireland, we have Florence Newton, the so-called Witch of Youghal. She was a beggar who made the mistake of begging at the house of a nobleman in 1660. The maid of the house refused her, and it’s then that she was apparently cursed by Newton. Soon the maid started having fits and it took several men to hold her down. According to the Irish Times relaying the story, she started “vomiting needles, pins, wool and straw.” Newton was blamed and jailed for being a witch, whereupon it’s said she cursed a prison guard and he died, too. More people came forward saying they’d seen this witch floating in the air, firing stones from her body. She was brutally tortured in prison while undergoing witch tests. No one knows what happened to her after that, but the moral of the story is, it sucked back then being poor and needy.
7. Angele de la Barthe
Now for a French witch, and this time the accused came from a rich family. It’s said that she was condemned to death by the Inquisition in 1275, but before that she had been accused of all kinds of sorcery, and that her worst mistake was to make love to the devil himself and become pregnant by him. This poor newborn was said to have been born with a wolf’s head and a serpent’s tail, and if that wasn’t enough to cause some amount of consternation in the community, it’s preferred diet was dead babies dug up by its mother. French scholars now tell us someone might have made this entire tale up in the 15th century.
6. Catherine Monvoisin
Sticking with France and someone definitely real, was Catherine Monvoisin. This sorceress sold all kinds of potions she had concocted that could do many things including abort children or make people fall in love with you. She also provided deathly poisons that it’s said killed thousands. She was convicted of witchcraft and burnt at the stake on 22 February 1680.
5. Agnes Sampson
Agnes Sampson could empathize with this cruel way of being put to death. The Scottish woman was part of one of the first big witch hunts in the world, known as the 1590 North Berwick witch trials. Agnes was seen as a sort of ringleader, and while her day job was as a midwife and general healer, she was accused of being in league with the devil and of being a witch. She was also accused of summoning a great storm to try and sink the ship of Queen Anne, the wife of King James VI of England. For that, she was burned alive.
4. Marie Catherine Laveau
Let’s now look at a more modern witch, and a happier ending. This is the story of Marie Catherine Laveau, aka, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. Yes, she practised voodoo, but it’s also said she was a hairdresser. What’s known about her is still being debated, with some people saying she could read minds, heal people, and that she was also the go-to person when it came to pinning voodoo dolls. Unlike Hollywood depiction, though, if such pins are used in Voodoo rituals, it’s usually to create healing or positive energy. So, was she a witch? Well, if she was, then she seemed to have her clients’ best interests at heart.
3. Merga Bien
Back to more gruesome tales, we have perhaps Germany’s most famous witch, Merga Bien. She died at the Fulda witch trials that took place in Germany from 1603 to 1605, but she could be said to have been the supernatural enemy number one. She was burned along with another 200 accused witches, and, to make matters worse, she was pregnant at the time. The authorities said that was ok as she was carrying the child of the devil. It’s believed with the power of Satan, she killed her second husband, their children, and some unfortunate person working at their house. She didn’t really stand a chance as she was forced to confess this relationship with the devil, and on to the stake she went.
2. Isobel Gowdie
Now, Isobel deserves a special place on this list because unlike those ostensible witches we have mentioned that were tortured and executed, this witch said she was a witch and didn’t deny anything. In fact, she was quite forthcoming. She told her accusers in Scotland that she was part of a coven, and said she was in league with the devil. Apparently, she went into detail about how her and Satan got it on, so to speak. She was under suspicion by neighbors and authorities for a while, but when arrested, just let it all out. She could fly into people’s houses, turn into birds, cats or rabbits, cast spells on people, spoil crops, you name it, if there was a witch-related ability, she could do it. It’s thought she was executed, although no records exist to back this up. These days more rational people hypothesize that this regaling shapeshifter was not a witch but was suffering from psychosis brought on by Ergotism. In short, that’s fungus poisoning.
1. Alice Kyteler
Our number one witch is one of the first recorded witches in Europe, from Ireland specifically. In the 13th century, this woman married four times, which was somewhat unusual. She was accused of using witchcraft to kill one of these husbands, and on top of that was accused of communing with demons, animal sacrifice, corrupting Christians, and sleeping with the devil. She got away with it, too, as before the authorities could do their worst, she escaped and was never seen again. Unfortunately, her servant was apprehended and not surprisingly she was tortured until she admitted to being part of all of the above crimes. Her testimony makes Alice sound like an exemplary witch, given that to summon a demon, she cooked-up a stew of blood, animal intestines, boy’s clothes, a robber’s head, spiders, worms, scorpions and some herbs. (we don’t know how she got a hold of scorpions in Scotland). The servant was burned at the stake and was the first person in Ireland to be executed like this for such a crime.
So, these are just a few witches of the world. Can you add to this list? Do you have a relative that was rumored to be a witch? Let us know in the comments!