Along with skeleton, zombie and vampire costumes, many of tonight’s Halloween revellers will hit the town in pointy hats, black gowns and fake warty noses while carrying broomsticks and stuffed black cats.
But in the past witches were thought to be real – and believers found them everywhere. From the 15th to 18th century more than 200,000 – usually innocent victims of mass paranoia – were tortured, burned or hanged all over Europe.
But how, exactly, did accusers spot their targets? Here are the most bizarre and terrifying examples of how to identify your witch…
Do they look like a witch?
Most accused witches were old, poor and “crone-like”. During an English witch frenzy of the 1640s, the Rev John Gaule insisted that “every old woman with a wrinkled face, a furr’d brow, a hairy lip, a gobber tooth, a squint eye, a squeaking voice, or a scolding tongue is not only suspected, but pronounced for a witch.”
This was the most common way to catch a crone. The suspect was sprinkled with holy water, stripped to her undergarments then trussed up with her right thumb tied to her left big toe and vice versa.
With a rope around her waist she was tossed into a pond or river. If she floated, she was a witch, if she sank she could be hauled out and saved… if she hadn’t drowned.
The theory was that witches reject the sacrament of baptism so water rejects their bodies. Ducking stools were later invented to make things easier for the hunters.
Devil’s marks & witches’ teats
Hunters would strip suspects naked, shave their bodies then publicly examine them for Satan’s brands from when they made their “pacts with the devil”. Or they they might find an extra nipple used to suckle their animal helpers (familiars).
Moles, pimples and birthmarks could all condemn the innocent so folk would cut or burn them off… but the scars were also proof.
Pricks & scratches
Even the faintest freckles were pricked with a needle or blade. If it didn’t bleed or hurt, the subject was definitely a witch. Professional “prickers” were well paid, and tunscrupulous ones used knives with retractable blades that did nothing. The accused might also be scratched by the victims they had “bewitched” and if any symptoms eased as they drew blood… guilty!
The suspect was weighed against a heavy Bible or a stack of them