Witchcraft was considered one of the worst crimes a person could be guilty of in early America. Those who called themselves witch hunters resorted to an array of tests to validate if a person was a witch or not. Unfortunately for anyone in their crosshairs, their job was to root out witches for punishment and execution, so it was likely the tests were only used as proof of witchcraft, not to determine innocence. The tests and those who administered them were politically motivated and could be bribed to “make the best decision” on a person’s fate. Being charged with witchcraft meant a slow and agonizing period or torture and death, but also meant all property would be confiscated by either the local community officers or the church; often being “redistributed” to worthy non-witches.
The following are some of the common tests used to determine if a person was guilty of witchcraft.
In the case where a mysterious illness or affliction befell and individual, witch hunters would try to determine if the causes were supernatural in nature; determining if the person had been cursed by a witch. In order to find out the culprit, the victims urine would be combined with ashes and flour before being baked into a small cake-like concoction. The cake would then be fed to a dog with the belief that the dog would speak the name of the guilty witch, allowing the hunters to capture him or her.
It was believed that a person afflicted with an illness or disease that was due to a witches curse also developed a supernatural bond with that witch. This test was primarily used to diagnose the cause of fits or spells; ones in which the victim was considered possessed and would roll around in unexplainable fits. The test would be administered when the victim was undergoing one of their fits. The suspected witch would be brought into contact with the person in mid-seizure and forced to lay hands on them. If the victim immediately came out of the fit, then the accused witch was virtually convicted on the spot. This test was subject to multiple abuses and often used when other tests failed to produce the results the witch hunters expected – proof of guilt.
Swimming or Water Test
Accused witches were stripped to their undergarments, tightly bound, and forcibly thrown into a nearby body of water to see if they would sink or float. The logic behind this test was tied to the church’s beliefs around holy baptism. Since baptism required water and it was assumed that witches were never baptized, the witch hunters thought that a witch would not sink. It was as if the water had some sort of understanding of the persons nature and would reject a witch from being submerged. Innocent people should sink to the bottom, while a witch would float. Usually, but not always, the witch hunters would tie a tether to the accused, which allowed them to be pulled from the water if they went under. Despite that fact, many people drowned. Prior to the swimming test, a different water test was performed, albeit a test with a higher potential for loss of life. Accused witches and other criminals were thrown into a raging river and their fate was left in the hands of a “higher power.”
Similar to the water test, ancient witch hunters believed that witches were incapable of speaking the Christian scripture aloud. Accused witches were forced to recite passages from the Bible or to recite the Lord’s Prayer without making any errors. Anyone who failed to speak the passage or prayer perfectly was assumed to be in league with the devil himself. Unfortunately most people we unable to read at the time this test was being administered and were caught in a trap from which there was no escape. The irony to this particular test was that even if a suspected witch were able to recite the words flawlessly, those presiding over the witch trials often dismissed it as a devil’s trick; usually increasing the level of suspicion about the relationship the accused had with Satan.
It was believed that all witches kept sacred artifacts in their possession or nearby as tools of the trade. Some of these “artifacts” were regular household items such as homemade ointments or healing remedies. Others were items which the witch hunters claimed carried dual meaning. A child’s doll in the hands of a witch became a type of voodoo doll and allowed the witch to curse another person. Cauldrons and brooms also were considered items of witchcraft if hunters had already found other incriminating items. Since most of the items the hunters deemed witchcraft items were found in every home, the presence of a single other unique item would usually be necessary to make the equation.
The process of being accused of witchcraft was humiliating and public. It was believed that all witches had marks on their bodies, often hidden in very hard to discover places, that were branded on them by the Devil himself. Accused witches were stripped bare and examined by witch hunters, who were hell bent on finding proof of their association with the dark lord. Some of the marks they claimed were believed to be insensitive to any pain while others could change shape and color at will. And it was believed that all witches had a extra nipple, called a “witches teat,” that was reserved for the witches familiar (spirit animal) to feed from. Since every human being has minor imperfections on their skin, it was an easy task for the witch hunter to cite a mole or freckle as being a witch mark. This test was feared by most of the common folk at the time as it was nearly foolproof. It was so feared that people would take the extreme step of self-mutilation to rid themselves of potentially damning marks, only to have the scars from the removal be used as evidence they were attempting to hide something from the hunters.
Once a witch mark was identified, the witch hunter’s next step would be to prick it with a sharp instrument. This test served several purposes. The marks were supposed to be numb to pain and not supposed to bleed, so pricking the mark should prove beyond a shadow of doubt that the accused was guilty. Witch hunters used a variety of techniques to make sure they got the desired results. They would often try multiple marks or moles on the person to get the desired results or used a specially designed tool which had a retractable lance; the appearance of pricking the devil mark with a long object that seemingly went deep into the witch with no pain or blood was a clever sleight-of-hand, o ne that usually resulted in a conviction. This practice was so common that professional “prickers” emerged. These men were basically confidence men who could perform the ruse without doubt. They earned handsome wages and reputations for their macabre services.
About 80% of all accused witches were female, particularly any female who lived alone or were widowed. Wealthy widows who did not remarry were often targets for accusations so that their property could be taken from them. Beggars were also accused of witchcraft in higher numbers; being cited as cursing those who refused them charity. It served as a way for very pious communities to rid themselves of the downtrodden while at the same time presenting the citizenry with an object lesson about what happens to witches. Community squabbles between neighbors might also result in one of the two or both being investigated for witchcraft, especially if either fell ill directly after the incident. Of course, after this cursory review of the particular tests employed and the lack of culpability of the witch hunters, it’s easy to see that being accused and punished for being a witch was pretty easy. The Christian Church kept their flock in check without much work since the cloud of an accusation witchcraft was always hanging over their heads.
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