Quacks, Who in Cool Blood Undertook to Overreach Mankind (6/6)

Matthew Hopkins
Nothing can place the credulity of the English nation on the subject of witchcraft about this time, in a more striking point of view, than the history of Matthew Hopkins, who, in a pamphlet published in 1647 in his own vindication, assumes to himself the surname of the Witch-finder. He fell by accident, in his native county of Suffolk, into contact with one or two reputed witches, and, being a man of an observing turn and an ingenious invention, struck out for himself a trade, which brought him such moderate returns as sufficed to maintain him, and at the same time gratified his ambition by making him a terror to many, and the object of admiration and gratitude to more, who felt themselves indebted to him for ridding them of secret and intestine enemies, against whom, as long as they proceeded in ways that left no footsteps behind, they felt they had no possibility of guarding themselves. Hopkins’s career was something like that of Titus Oates in the following reign, but apparently much safer for the adventurer, since Oates armed against himself a very formidable party, while Hopkins seemed to assail a few only here and there, who were poor, debilitated, impotent and helpless.

After two or three successful experiments, Hopkins engaged in a regular tour of the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Huntingdonshire. He united to him two confederates, a man named John Stern, and a woman whose name has not been handed down to us. They visited every town in their route that invited them, and secured to them the moderate remuneration of twenty shillings and their expences, leaving what was more than this to the spontaneous gratitude of those who should deem themselves indebted to the exertions of Hopkins and his party. By this expedient they secured to themselves a favourable reception; and a set of credulous persons who would listen to their dictates as so many oracles. Being three of them, they were enabled to play the game into one another’s hands, and were sufficiently strong to overawe all timid and irresolute opposition. In every town to which they came, they enquired for reputed witches, and having taken them into custody, were secure for the most part of a certain number of zealous abettors, who took care that they should have a clear stage for their experiments. They overawed their helpless victims with a certain air of authority, as if they had received a commission from heaven for the discovery of misdeeds. They assailed the poor creatures with a multitude of questions constructed in the most artful manner. They stripped them naked, in search for the devil’s marks in different parts of their bodies, which were ascertained by running pins to the head into those parts, that, if they were genuine marks, would prove themselves such by their insensibility. They swam their victims in rivers and ponds, it being an undoubted fact, that, if the persons accused were true witches, the water, which was the symbol of admission into the Christian church, would not receive them into its bosom. If the persons examined continued obstinate, they seated them in constrained and uneasy attitudes, occasionally binding them with cords, and compelling them to remain so without food or sleep for twenty-four hours. They walked them up and down the room, two taking them under each arm, till they dropped down with fatigue. They carefully swept the room in which the experiment was made, that they might keep away spiders and flies, which were supposed to be devils or their imps in that disguise.

The most plentiful inquisition of Hopkins and his confederates was in the years 1644, 1645 and 1646. At length there were so many persons committed to prison upon suspicion of witchcraft, that the government was compelled to take in hand the affair. The rural magistrates before whom Hopkins and his confederates brought their victims, were obliged, willingly or unwillingly, to commit them for trial. A commission was granted to the earl of Warwick and others to hold a sessions of jail-delivery against them for Essex at Chelmsford, Lord Warwick was at this time the most popular nobleman in England. He was appointed by the parliament lord high admiral during the civil war. He was much courted by the independent clergy, was shrewd, penetrating and active, and exhibited a singular mixture of pious demeanour with a vein of facetiousness and jocularity. With him was sent Dr. Calamy, the most eminent divine of the period of the Commonwealth, to see (says Baxter) that no fraud was committed, or wrong done to the parties accused. It may well be doubted however whether the presence of this clergyman did not operate unfavourably to the persons suspected. He preached before the judges. It may readily be believed, considering the temper of the times, that he insisted much upon the horrible nature of the sin of witchcraft, which could expect no pardon, either in this world or the world to come. He sat on the bench with the judges, and participated in their deliberations. In the result of this inquisition sixteen persons were hanged at Yarmouth in Norfolk, fifteen at Chelmsford, and sixty at various places in the county of Suffolk.

Whitlocke in his Memorials of English Affairs, under the date of 1649, speaks of many witches being apprehended about Newcastle, upon the information of a person whom he calls the Witch-finder, who, as his experiments were nearly the same, though he is not named, we may reasonably suppose to be Hopkins; and in the following year about Boston in Lincolnshire. In 1652 and 1653 the same author speaks of women in Scotland, who were put to incredible torture to extort from them a confession of what their adversaries imputed to them.

The fate of Hopkins was such us might be expected in similar cases. The multitude are at first impressed with horror at the monstrous charges that are advanced. They are seized, as by contagion, with terror at the mischiefs which seem to impend over them, and from which no innocence and no precaution appear to afford them sufficient protection. They hasten, as with an unanimous effort, to avenge themselves upon these malignant enemies, whom God and man alike combine to expel from society. But, after a time, they begin to reflect, and to apprehend that they have acted with too much precipitation, that they have been led on with uncertain appearances. They see one victim led to the gallows after another, without stint or limitation. They see one dying with the most solemn asseverations of innocence, and another confessing apparently she knows not what, what is put into her mouth by her relentless persecutors. They see these victims, old, crazy and impotent, harassed beyond endurance by the ingenious cruelties that are practised against them. They were first urged on by implacable hostility and fury, to be satisfied with nothing but blood. But humanity and remorse also have their turn. Dissatisfied with themselves, they are glad to point their resentment against another. The man that at first they hailed as a public benefactor, they presently come to regard with jealous eyes, and begin to consider as a cunning impostor, dealing in cool blood with the lives of his fellow-creatures for a paltry gain, and, still more horrible, for the lure of a perishable and short-lived fame. The multitude, we are told, after a few seasons, rose upon Hopkins, and resolved to subject him to one of his own criterions. They dragged him to a pond, and threw him into the water for a witch. It seems he floated on the surface, as a witch ought to do. They then pursued him with hootings and revilings, and drove him for ever into that obscurity and ignominy which he had amply merited.

There is a story of Cromwel recorded by Echard, the historian, which well deserves to be mentioned, as strikingly illustrative of the credulity which prevailed about this period. It takes its date from the morning of the third of September, 1651, when Cromwel gained the battle of Worcester against Charles the Second, which he was accustomed to call by a name sufficiently significant, his “crowning victory.” It is told on the authority of a colonel Lindsey, who is said to have been an intimate friend of the usurper, and to have been commonly known by that name, as being in reality the senior captain in Cromwel’s own regiment. “On this memorable morning the general,” it seems, “took this officer with him to a woodside not far from the army, and bade him alight, and follow him into that wood, and to take particular notice of what he saw and heard. After having alighted, and secured their horses, and walked some little way into the wood, Lindsey began to turn pale, and to be seized with horror from some unknown cause. Upon which Cromwel asked him how he did, or how he felt himself. He answered, that he was in such a trembling and consternation, that he had never felt the like in all the conflicts and battles he had ever been engaged in: but whether it proceeded from the gloominess of the place, or the temperature of his body, he knew not. ‘How now?’ said Cromwel, ‘What, troubled with the vapours? Come forward, man.’ They had not gone above twenty yards further, before Lindsey on a sudden stood still, and cried out, ‘By all that is good I am seized with such unaccountable terror and astonishment, that it is impossible for me to stir one step further.’ Upon which Cromwel called him, ‘Fainthearted fool!’ and bade him, ‘stand there, and observe, or be witness.’ And then the general, advancing to some distance from him, met a grave, elderly man with a roll of parchment in his hand, who delivered it to Cromwel, and he eagerly perused it, Lindsey, a little recovered from his fear, heard several loud words between them: particularly Cromwel said, ‘This is but for seven years; I was to have had it for one-and-twenty; and it must, and shall be so.’ The other told him positively, it could not be for more than seven. Upon which Cromwel cried with great fierceness, ‘It shall however be for fourteen years.’ But the other peremptorily declared, ‘It could not possibly be for any longer time; and, if he would not take it so, there were others that would.’ Upon which Cromwel at last took the parchment: and, returning to Lindsey with great joy in his countenance, he cried, ‘Now, Lindsey, the battle is our own! I long to be engaged.’ Returning out of the wood, they rode to the army, Cromwel with a resolution to engage as soon as possible, and the other with a design to leave the army as soon. After the first charge, Lindsey deserted his post, and rode away with all possible speed day and night, till he came into the county of Norfolk, to the house of an intimate friend, one Mr. Thoroughgood, minister of the parish of Grimstone. Cromwel, as soon as he missed him, sent all ways after him, with a promise of a great reward to any that should bring him alive or dead. When Mr. Thoroughgood saw his friend Lindsey come into his yard, his horse and himself much tired, in a sort of a maze, he said, ‘How now, colonel? We hear there is likely to be a battle shortly: what, fled from your colours?’ ‘A battle,’ said the other; ‘yes there has been a battle, and I am sure the king is beaten. But, if ever I strike a stroke for Cromwel again, may I perish eternally! For I am sure he has made a league with the devil, and the devil will have him in due time.’ Then, desiring his protection from Cromwel’s inquisitors, he went in, and related to him the story in all its circumstances.” It is scarcely necessary to remind the reader, that Cromwel died on that day seven years, September the third, 1658.

Echard adds, to prove his impartiality as an historian, “How far Lindsey is to be believed, and how far the story is to be accounted incredible, is left to the reader’s faith and judgment, and not to any determination of our own.”

Dorothy Mateley
I find a story dated about this period, which, though it does not strictly belong to the subject of necromancy or dealings with the devil, seems well to deserve to be inserted in this work. The topic of which I treat is properly of human credulity; and this infirmity of our nature can scarcely be more forcibly illustrated than in the following example. It is recorded by the well-known John Bunyan, in a fugitive tract of his, entitled the Life and Death of Mr. Badman, but which has since been inserted in the works of the author in two volumes folio. In minuteness of particularity and detail it may vie with almost any story which human industry has collected, and human simplicity has ever placed upon record.

“There was,” says my author, “a poor woman, by name Dorothy Mateley, who lived at a small village, called Ashover, in the county of Derby. The way in which she earned her subsistence, was by washing the rubbish that came from the lead-mines in that neighbourhood through a sieve, which labour she performed till the earth had passed the sieve, and what remained was particles and small portions of genuine ore. This woman was of exceedingly low and coarse habits, and was noted to be a profane swearer, curser, liar and thief; and her usual way of asserting things was with an imprecation, as, ‘I would I might sink into the earth, if it be not so,’ or, ‘I would that God would make the earth open and swallow me up, if I tell an untruth.’

“Now it happened on the 23rd of March, 1660, [according to our computation 1661], that she was washing ore on the top of a steep hill about a quarter of a mile from Ashover, when a lad who was working on the spot missed two-pence out of his pocket, and immediately bethought himself of charging Dorothy with the theft. He had thrown off his breeches, and was working in his drawers. Dorothy with much seeming indignation denied the charge, and added, as was usual with her, that she wished the ground might open and swallow her up, if she had the boy’s money.

“One George Hopkinson, a man of good report in Ashover, happened to pass at no great distance at the time. He stood a while to talk to the woman. There stood also near the tub a little child, who was called to by her elder sister to come away. Hopkinson therefore took the little girl by the hand to lead her to her that called her. But he had not gone ten yards from Dorothy, when he heard her crying out for help, and turning back, to his great astonishment he saw the woman, with her tub and her sieve, twirling round and round, and sinking at the same time in the earth. She sunk about three yards, and then stopped, at the same time calling lustily for assistance. But at that very moment a great stone fell upon her head, and broke her skull, and the earth fell in and covered her. She was afterwards digged up, and found about four yards under ground, and the boy’s two pennies were discovered on her person, but the tub and the sieve had altogether disappeared.”

Witches Hanged by Sir Matthew Hale
One of the most remarkable trials that occur in the history of criminal jurisprudence, was that of Amy Duny and Rose Cullender at Bury St. Edmund’s in the year 1664. Not for the circumstances that occasioned it; for they were of the coarsest and most vulgar materials. The victims were two poor, solitary women of the town of Lowestoft in Suffolk, who had by temper and demeanour rendered themselves particularly obnoxious to their whole neighbourhood. Whenever they were offended with any one, and this frequently happened, they vented their wrath in curses and ill language, muttered between their teeth, and the sense of which could scarcely be collected; and ever and anon they proceeded to utter dark predictions of evil, which should happen in revenge for the ill treatment they received. The fishermen would not sell them fish; and the boys in the street were taught to fly from them with horror, or to pursue them with hootings and scurrilous abuse. The principal charges against them were, that the children of two families were many times seized with fits, in which they exclaimed that they saw Amy Duny and Rose Cullender coming to torment them. They vomited, and in their vomit were often found pins, and once or twice a two-penny nail. One or two of the children died; for the accusations spread over a period of eight years, from 1656 to the time of the trial. To back these allegations, a waggoner appeared, whose waggon had been twice overturned in one morning, in consequence of the curses of one of the witches, the waggon having first run against her hovel, and materially injured it. Another time the waggon stuck fast in a gate-way, though the posts on neither side came in contact with the wheels; and, one of the posts being cut down, the waggon passed easily along.

This trial, as I have said, was no way memorable for the circumstances that occasioned it, but for the importance of the persons who were present, and had a share in the conduct of it. The judge who presided was Sir Matthew Hale, then chief baron of the exchequer, and who had before rendered himself remarkable for his undaunted resistance to one of the arbitrary mandates of Cromwel, then in the height of his power, which was addressed to Hale in his capacity of judge. Hale was also an eminent author, who had treated upon the abstrusest subjects, and was equally distinguished for his piety and inflexible integrity. Another person, who was present, and accidentally took part in the proceedings, was Sir Thomas Browne, the superlatively eloquent and able author of the Religio Medici. (He likewise took a part on the side of superstition in the trial of the Lancashire witches in 1634.) A judge also who assisted at the trial was Keeling, who afterwards occupied the seat of chief justice.

Sir Matthew Hale apparently paid deep attention to the trial, and felt much perplexed by the evidence. Seeing sir Thomas Browne in court, and knowing him for a man of extensive information and vast powers of intellect, Hale appealed to him, somewhat extrajudicially, for his thoughts on what had transpired. Sir Thomas gave it as his opinion that the children were bewitched, and inforced his position by something that had lately occured in Denmark. Keeling dissented from this, and inclined to the belief that it might all be practice, and that there was nothing supernatural in the affair.

The chief judge was cautious in his proceeding. He even refused to sum up the evidence, lest he might unawares put a gloss of his own upon any thing that had been sworn, but left it all to the jury. He told them that the Scriptures left no doubt that there was such a thing as witchcraft, and instructed them that all they had to do was, first, to consider whether the children were really bewitched, and secondly, whether the witchcraft was sufficiently brought home to the prisoners at the bar. The jury returned a verdict of guilty; and the two women were hanged on the seventeenth of March 1664, one week after their trial. The women shewed very little activity during the trial, and died protesting their innocence.

This trial is particularly memorable for the circumstances that attended it. It has none of the rust of ages: no obscurity arises from a long vista of years interposed between. Sir Matthew Hale and sir Thomas Browne are eminent authors; and there is something in such men, that in a manner renders them the contemporaries of all times, the living acquaintance of successive ages of the world. Names generally stand on the page of history as mere abstract idealities; but in the case of these men we are familiar with their tempers and prejudices, their virtues and vices, their strength and their weakness.

They proceed in the first place upon the assumption that there is such a thing as witchcraft, and therefore have nothing to do but with the cogency or weakness of evidence as applied to this particular case. Now what are the premises on which they proceed in this question? They believe in a God, omniscient, all wise, all powerful, and whose “tender mercies are over all his works.” They believe in a devil, awful almost as God himself, for he has power nearly unlimited, and a will to work all evil, with subtlety, deep reach of thought, vigilant, “walking about, seeking whom he may devour.” This they believe, for they refer to “the Scriptures, as confirming beyond doubt that there is such a thing as witchcraft.” Now what office do they assign to the devil, “the prince of the power of the air,” at whose mighty attributes, combined with his insatiable malignity, the wisest of us might well stand aghast? It is the first law of sound sense and just judgment,

—servetur ad imum,
Qualis ab incoepto processerit, et sibi constet;

that every character which we place on the scene of things should demean himself as his beginning promises, and preserve a consistency that, to a mind sufficiently sagacious, should almost serve us in lieu of the gift of prophecy. And how is this devil employed according to sir Matthew Hale and sir Thomas Browne? Why in proffering himself as the willing tool of the malice of two doting old women. In afflicting with fits, in causing them to vomit pins and nails, the children of the parents who had treated the old women with barbarity and cruelty. In judgment upon these women sit two men, in some respects the most enlightened of an age that produced Paradise Lost, and in confirmation of this blessed creed two women are executed in cool blood, in a country which had just achieved its liberties under the guidance and the virtues of Hampden.

What right we have in any case to take away the life of a human being already in our power, and under the forms of justice, is a problem, one of the hardest that can be proposed for the wit of man to solve. But to see some of the wisest of men, sitting in judgment upon the lives of two human creatures in consequence of the forgery and tricks of a set of malicious children, as in this case undoubtedly it was, is beyond conception deplorable. Let us think for a moment of the inexpressible evils which a man encounters when dragged from his peaceful home under a capital accusation, of his arraignment in open court, of the orderly course of the evidence, and of the sentence awarded against him, of the “damned minutes and days he counts over” from that time to his execution, of his being finally brought forth before a multitude exasperated by his supposed crimes, and his being cast out from off the earth as unworthy so much as to exist among men, and all this being wholly innocent. The consciousness of innocence a hundred fold embitters the pang. And, if these poor women were too obtuse of soul entirely to feel the pang, did that give their superiors a right to overwhelm and to crush them?


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