A Bewitching History

Writer: 
August 1, 2009

Germany was considered the heartland of witch trials in early-modern Europe: It was home to roughly half of the 100,000 trials held between 1450 and 1750. But witch hunts took place elsewhere in Europe and in the U.S. Here s a sampling of notorious cases:

  • In January 1692, in Salem, Massachusetts, Betty Parris, the minister s daughter; her cousin Abigail Williams; and her friend Ann Putnam fell prey to seizures and entered trancelike states. The eventual diagnosis was witchcraft, and the girls, who ranged in age from nine to twelve, were asked to identify the individual responsible. Among the townspeople accused was Tituba, the Parris servant, who confessed to practicing witchcraft and testified that Salem was home to other witches. In all, nineteen people, fourteen women and five men, were hanged.
  • In March 1612, Alizon Device, a beggar in the town of Lancaster, England, confessed to bewitching a peddler, causing him to become sick after he refused to give her pins. She also implicated her grandmother and members of the rival Chattox family. Over a five-month period, more and more people were accused and imprisoned. In August, Jennet Device, Alizon's nine-year-old sister, testified that members of her own family, including her grandmother, the Chattoxes, and others were witches. Ten people were hanged.

  • In North Berwick, Scotland, in 1590, Gilly Duncan, the maid of the deputy bailiff, was accused of being a witch when the bailiff noticed that she had a unique ability to heal and that she was sneaking out of the house at night without permission. While being questioned, she reported that witches were plotting to kill King James VI. Seventy alleged witches were tried, tortured, or killed.

  • In 1675, Barbara Kollerin of Salzburg, Austria, was put on trial for theft and sorcery. While being interrogated, she betrayed her son, Paul Jacob Koller, accusing him of having a pact with the devil. Though Paul was never apprehended, a boy with close ties to him was. He admitted that Paul, whose nickname was "Magician Jackls,"  was the leader of a gang of children, to whom he taught black magic. Magician Jackls was also infamous for ruining crops by enchanting vermin. As authorities sought to punish Paul's followers, 139 people were executed for witchcraft over fifteen years.

  • Julius Echter von Mepelbrunn, the Prince Bishop of Wurzburg, Germany, from 1623 to 1631, persecuted his people for acts ranging from Satanism to walking through town without a legitimate reason for doing so. Starting in 1626 and lasting until 1631, 219 alleged witches, including the Prince Bishop's own nephew, were executed.

  • In 1644, a tailor in East Anglia, England, concerned about his wife s failing health, became convinced that she had been bewitched by two of their neighbors, including Elizabeth Clarke. A  witch-finder general  who investigated Clarke ordered that she be deprived of food and sleep until she confessed to practicing witchcraft. On the fourth night of the inquisition, she confessed and named other townspeople. One hundred additional people were arrested, and twenty-nine of them were executed.

  • In 1706, in Virginia Beach, Virginia, Grace Sherwood, a widow who did not get along well with her neighbors, was accused of practicing witchcraft. She was tried and ordered to perform the water test, which she failed because she floated meaning the devil existed within her. She was incarcerated for eight years. Hers was the last witch trial in North America.