You don’t need to be under a spell to know that witches have had a bad run of it in history. In fact during the Early Modern Period (1400-1700), an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 souls were executed for allegedly doing the Devil’s work. To get you in the spirit of the season, we looked at five famous “witches” who’ve haunted the ages.
When there are so many myths built around a person, what does it say about that person? For Ursula Southeil, better known as Mother Shipton, perhaps the added mystery — however fictitious — is a testament to her enduring reputation.
Mother Shipton was a feared and highly regarded English prophetess of the 16th century. Born to a mother, who was also suspected to be a witch, Mother Shipton was described as hideously ugly and disfigured — so much so, that the locals called her “Hag Face” and believed her father to be the Devil.
Despite her unfortunate appearance, she was said to have been England’s greatest clairvoyant and was often compared to her male contemporary Nostradamus. According to legend, she had predicted the Spanish Armada, the Great Plague of London, the Great Fire of London, the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, and some even speculate, the Internet: “around the world thoughts shall fly in the twinkling of an eye.”
Thankfully for her sake, Mother Shipton did not die by the sword like so many accused witches before and after her. Instead she died a normal death and is said to have been buried on unholy ground on the outer edges of York around 1561.
It was the perfect storm to kill witches… and that included Agnes Sampson, a Scottish midwife and healer.
In early 1590, King James VI of Scotland married Anne of Denmark-Norway, who, along with her court, had been fearful and bewildered by the subject of dark magic. The Queen’s fears got the better of her new king, and after the two experienced dangerously treacherous storms en route to sailing back to Scotland, James VI launched a campaign against witches. Why? Because he came to the conclusion that witches had cast a spell on Mother Nature and started the horrendous storm.
Of the 70 people accused of being witches in the North Berwick area between 1590-1592, Agnes Sampson was one of them, thanks to another accused witch, Geillis Duncan.
The confessions were brought on by torture, and the questioning often times came from the King himself. But legend has it that Agnes doggedly denied the charges against her, among them that she had attended a witches’ coven on Halloween night to help create the infamous storm that plagued the King and Queen’s voyage.
Unfortunately, however, the torture was too much for her take and it broke her spirit. Sleep deprived and exhausted by being bound in a witch’s bridle, an instrument that inserted four prongs in the mouth and was attached to a wall, she confessed to being allies with Satan and conspiring to kill the King.
She was strangled and burned to death.
Merga Bien stirred the pot — many believed both literally and figuratively. A well-to-do German heiress in the 17th century, Merga was on her third husband when her fate was sealed.
Despite it being a relatively peaceful period in history, poor Merga happened to live in Fulda, Germany, a place far removed from stability. Having returned to power after a long exile, staunch Catholic reformer Prince-abbot Balthasar von Dernbach ordered a massive witch hunt in the area between 1602-1605 to purge all liberal, ungodly activities.
Of the over 200 people who were accused of and executed for being witches in Fulda, Merga was considered to be the most famous. The circumstances that led to her death were ill-timed: She had just returned to the city after arguing with one of her husband’s employers and she found herself pregnant.
What made the latter odd was that she had been married to her third husband for 14 years and they had never before conceived. Naturally, the townspeople believed the only way she could have gotten pregnant was through her having sex with the Devil!
Along with that lascivious supernatural act, Merga was forced to admit to having killed her second husband and children, one of the children of her current husband’s employers, and that she had attended a black sabbath. She was burned at the stake in the fall of 1603.
What goes around comes around. Malin Matsdotter was a Swedish widow of Finnish descent who was accused by her own daughters of being a witch. But in this case, there was no sorcery involved; instead, the daughters’ charge was that she abducted their children and took them to a satanic sabbath. Malin, along with Anna Simonsdotter Hack, were the last victims executed for being witches during the great Swedish witch hunt of 1668-76, often referred to as “The Great Noise.” What makes Malin Matsdotter unique is that she’s considered the only witch in Swedish history to have been burned alive.
Normally, witches were decapitated or hanged to death before their bodies were burned at the stake (which was Anna Simonsdotter Hack’s fate), but it appears Malin’s refusal to admit to her guilt made the authorities less gracious in their sentencing.
Unlike her fellow death mate, Anna, who humbly asked for forgiveness (although never really admitting to being a witch), Malin firmly maintained her innocence and her goings out made history. In the end, she refused to shake hands with her daughters, and as one of them called out for her to repent, “[Malin] gave her daughter into the hands of the devil and cursed her for eternity.” As the flames covered her body, she reportedly did not scream nor did she appear to be in pain — for the locals, it was further proof she was a witch.
Nonetheless, shortly after her death, one of her daughters was convicted of perjury and she, too, was forced to walk through death’s door.
The Salem Witches
Of all the witch trials in history, The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 in Massachusetts is arguably the most famous. They occurred during a time of great insecurity in Puritan colonial America: the trauma of a British-French war on American soil still lingered, there was fear of Native American retribution, smallpox had spread throughout the colonies, and longtime jealousies between neighboring towns were coming to a head.
In January 1692 two young girls began suffering from fits, uncontrollable screaming, and body contortions. A local doctor diagnosed the girls’ conditions as the work of witches, although toxicologists in recent history have offered a more palatable explanation, believing the girls were poisoned by a specific type of fungus that was found in their food supply. Symptoms of ingesting the fungus explained the girls’ responses (i.e. muscle spasms, delusions, etc).
More young women began mirroring the symptoms and by February, three women were accused of bewitching the two young girls: a Caribbean slave named Tituba, a homeless beggar named Sarah Good, and an impoverished elderly women named Sarah Osborn.
Seeing that her fate was sealed, Tituba confessed to being a witch and began accusing others of dark magic. Other women followed her lead and hysteria ensued. On June 10, the first alleged witch, Bridget Bishop, was hung at the gallows in Salem and many more died thereafter. In total over 150 men and women were implicated during this period.
By the late 1690s the trials were deemed unlawful, and a decade later financial restitution was given to those families whose loved ones had been executed or damaged by the hysteria. Still, the pain and resentment of what happened in Salem lived on for centuries to come.