Let’s Go For a Swim: Matthew Hopkins – Witch Pricker

Hey monster lovers! This month features a guest post by the esteemed Paul Karle, who is covering for me while I am away at the Odyssey Writing Workshop. In it, he covers a bit of a different kind of monster–a man who was depressingly real. I hope you enjoy; I’ll see you on the next full moon.

***

The year is 1645.

You’ve been arrested and locked inside a stinking cell. You aren’t allowed to eat or sleep for hours. You are stripped naked and your body is closely examined. All hair is violently shaved from your body and your head so that nothing can be hidden. There seems to be no concern for your privacy–in fact half the town is watching.

The man leading the investigation isn’t a member of local law enforcement. He’s an out-of-towner. Mild-mannered, perhaps a bit bookish, but obviously smart and perceptive. He points out a blemish on your arm. It’s the devil’s mark, he says. A clear sign you’ve made an unholy covenant with Satan.

You try to argue that it’s just a mole, a mark you’ve had all your life. There’s nothing sinister about it, but you’ve been kept awake for hours, your mind is muddled and your words incoherent.

scottish_witchpricker_needle
Witch pricking needles. Necessary tools of any Jacobian charlatan. Perfect for kids 10 and up.

The investigator orders you restrained. You feel the prick of a needle being stuck in your arm. There is a gasp from the crowd. He finds another mark, this one on your thigh. He jams the needle in. You gasp in pain.

Finally, he examines the bottom of your foot and finds another mark on your heel. He slips the needle into your callused flesh. To your relief you feel almost nothing.

The investigator seems pleased. He explains that a ‘devil’s mark’ doesn’t feel pain like the rest of your body. This is all the evidence he needs to prove that the mark truly is supernatural.

This is a very common sign of witches, you know. It’s how they feed their familiar. Their magical animal companion. The creature sucks blood from the mark as a child would feed from its mother.

A signed confession would seal your fate but you still refuse to provide one. You’re returned to your cell and kept awake for days. You can feel your mind breaking as you sink deeper into exhaustion.

Eventually you will do anything just for a little sleep. Sign anything. Confess to anything. Even if it means your death.

Your shaking hand scrawls out your barely legible confession. The witchfinder watches you with a satisfied expression. He’s the cat who caught the canary. He’ll be collecting his pay shortly; twenty shillings plus expenses. Not a bad price to rid your town of evil.

Matthew Hopkins, Witch-finder.
Hopkins trying his best to look pull off the Quaker Oats look.

This man was the star of the English witch hunts of the 16th century. Matthew Hopkins: self-proclaimed Witchfinder General. A total, murderous fraud.

You’d spit in his face and curse him if you could, but that’s hard to do from the end of a rope.

The spark that launched Matthew Hopkin’s career was struck by King James VI of Scotland–a monarch uniquely obsessed with the study of witchcraft. This guy was seriously into witches. When he became king Shakespeare wrote MacBeth in his honor. He was sure to include three nasty witches right in the first act. That’s some next level fanservice right there.

James even wrote a book on the topic: Daemonologie, In Forme of a Dialogue, Divided into three Books: By the High and Mighty Prince. Despite it’s long-winded title, it managed to create a public fascination with the topic, inadvertently creating the perfect market for Hopkins.

He seized the limelight when he published his unofficial sequel, The Discovery of Witches. He one-upped James’s text by filling it with his ‘personal’ experiences in the finding of witches. It was filled with tall tales that would make a modern day reader roll their eyes.

In one anecdote Hopkins told how he’d spied on some witches in a wood near his house and heard them mention the name of one of his neighbors. He’d tattled to the local authorities and had her arrested. After four days of interrogation she not only admitted to being a witch, but also provided the names of her familiars.

matthew_hopkins with witch familiars
Matthew feeling awkward around some witches and their adorable familiars.

These familiars, it turned out, had some pretty silly names and descriptions. One was Vinegar Tom, a greyhound with the head of an ox. Another was a chubby, legless, spaniel-like creature named Jarmara. After four days without sleep, she was probably just thinking of the family cat.

Hopkins took his show on the road. He journeyed from town to town, investigating any suspected witchcraft through highly questionable methods.

He was at first very fond of the swimming test in which the suspected party was tied to a chair before being thrown into water to see if they would float. Anyone who failed to sink like a stone was clearly guilty. Hopkins explained that witches rejected their Baptism, which meant that all bodies of water would reject them.

Fortunately, even the impressionable public of this time had problems with the swimming of witches. There were obvious risks in being tied to a chair and thrown in the water. It was something that anyone, witch or not, might be concerned about. The practice was eventually abandoned.

Sleep deprivation and ‘witch-pricking’ became the Witchfinder General’s bread and butter instead. He would often stab a needle into a suspect’s ‘devil’s mark’ to see if it bled or caused pain. These days, experts speculate that Hopkins and his ilk may have even used retractable trick needles to sell the illusion. What fun!

Usually the needle was simply inserted into any blemish that looked suspicious in search of one that showed no sensitivity. That’s right–they’d go around sticking needles all over your body to see what kind of reaction they could get. It’s also worth noting that torture had supposedly been outlawed in England at this point. Ahem.

witches_familiars_1579
“Here you go, have some freshly squeezed human-juice. I drained it out of the weeping sore on my arm just for you. Drink it while it’s hot!”

These supposed devil’s marks were a particularly damning piece of evidence. According to Hopkins ‘research’ these marks weren’t just to show your Satanic allegiance. They were also a kind of infernal nipple from which your familiar could suck blood for nourishment. Apparently a legless spaniel can’t survive on Purina alone.

Hopkins blazed a bloody trail across England, his investigations leading to the deaths of an estimated 300 women in just two years. He became a minor celebrity from his witch hunts, but he also amassed a huge amount of criticism. Even Parliament was reticent to give him full recognition, refusing to bestow his self-chosen title of Witchfinder General officially upon him.

As the public fervor surrounding witchcraft faded, Hopkins faded into history. His reputation diminished, and in the eyes of many he became known a ‘fingerman’, an old-timey word for someone who lies and slanders on behalf of the authorities.

Legend says that Hopkins was eventually accused of witchcraft himself and drowned after being subjected to the ingenious ‘swimming’ test. Sadly, this story is nothing more than a hopeful bit of legend. Hopkins succumbed to tuberculosis in his own home, which probably sucked almost as much as drowning.

His legacy lived on across the pond where his book helped inspire the abortion of justice that was the Salem witch trials. Fans of pulp fiction will no doubt recognize him as the inspiration for Robert E. Howard’s puritan witch finder Solomon Kane, though he was truly closer to a Jacobian Joseph McCarthy.

It’s no coincidence that the modern term of witch hunt describes a trumped-up, unjust investigation against an innocent party.

If this sparked your interest in Matthew Hopkins, I recommend you check out the 1968 Vincent Price film: Witchfinder General. This sensationalized account of Hopkins career is cult movie gold. You really can’t go wrong if you’re looking for something morbid to watch.

 

ALL IMAGES COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS. Photo of Witch-Pricker by By Heinrichkramer.

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