‘Tis the season of witches, ghouls, and goblins. As we prepare for Halloween, our thoughts turn to these subjects. Here in Massachusetts, of course, our thoughts turn to Salem, where the infamous witch trials of 1692 started. But this was not the start of rumors of witchcraft. It started in England.
The Witchcraft Act of 1536 made it illegal to be a witch, but it was with the Witchcraft Act of 1604 that it became a serious crime. Witchfinders became very popular during this time. None was more infamous, however, than Matthew Hopkins.
Hopkins is shrouded in mystery. He is thought to be a son of a Puritan minister, born around in Suffolk around 1640, but no baptismal or birth record has been found for him. During the English Civil War, he anointed himself “Witchfinder General” and staged a reign of terror over East Anglia.
He used numerous methods of torture against his victims. Among the most common were sleep deprivation, making accused witches march around night and day without rest. He used knives with retractable blades, allowing him to “insert” the blade into an accused witch without them feeling anything, a true sign of witchcraft. He also had the accused tied up and thrown into water. If they floated, they were witches. If they sank, it showed their innocence (albeit posthumous proof).
Hopkins started his interrogations in Manningtree and Mistely, and the trials were held at the assizes in Chelmsford. In his first trial he managed to have 28 women convicted. Four died in prison, but the rest were hanged. At one point during his terror spree, he saw 19 women hanged in a single day.
The Salem Witch Trials here in America resulted in some 200 people being accused of witchcraft over an eighteen-month period. Twenty of these were put to death. Hopkins’ reign of terror also lasted eighteen months, but just the number of executed stands at 300. He penned a book entitled The Discovery of Witches was published in 1647. And all of this he accomplished while in his mid-twenties.
While his reign as “Witchfinder General” was brief, so was his life. He died at home in Manningtree, Essex, on 12 August 1647. While rumors were rampant about his death being caused by vengeful mobs, the reality is that he likely died of tuberculous. You can read more about him from the BBC in Matthew Hopkins, ‘Witchfinder General’ of East Anglia.