The Catholic Church began to outlaw the practice of witchcraft from as early as the 8th century. Between the years of 1450 and 1750, witch finders and hunters became responsible for bringing those accused of witchcraft to justice. Even though historians are unable to determine the exact number of executions that took place as a result of these hunters, they are definitely believed to be in the hundreds of thousands. One of the best examples of the horrors that resulted from the appointing of witch finders was recorded in in a diary, whose contents were used as the motivation for a 1968 horror film ‘The Witchfinder General.’
Written by popular writer Nehemiah Wallington, the diary records the events which took place after Matthew Hopkins, an English lawyer, was appointed by Parliament in order to discover those that were practising sorcery. Between 1645 and 1647, he led a massive witch hunt in the communities within Essex which resulted in 112 killings. Hopkins’ raid was based on the fears and rumours being spread about evil witches in the area, who were supposed to be wreaking havoc and even causing the deaths of entire families.
He was commissioned by local magistrates to question his first suspect in 1645, Elizabeth Clarke, who made her confession while being tortured and also accused several other people of being witches. The first set of trials took place in July 1645, with none of the accused having any legal representation. This resulted in 19 people being found guilty of witchcraft, and sentenced to die by hanging.
Hopkins named himself The Witchfinder General, led a group of witch hunters, and charged large amounts for his services. He documented the methods of his ‘profession’ in a detailed manner, publishing his book shortly before his death in 1647. He described the ways that were used to determine whether or not somebody was actually practising witchcraft. These included examining their naked bodies to discover any tell-tale marks such as moles, pricking the skin, and the ‘swimming’ test in which the person accused was strapped to a chair and thrown in water to determine their innocence – if they floated they were not owned by the devil and would be free to return to their home.
The book was so popular that people started using it as a reference and Hopkins guidelines were followed in many countries, including Europe and the territories they began to conquer worldwide. Following his death, there were many other witch finders that started to offer their services and the heartless profession continued well into the following centuries.