Five Lesser-Known, But Incredibly Vicious Witch Trials
You have to hand it to the tourism board of Salem, Massachusetts. When you think of mass execution based on superstition and lack of due process (and hence quaint festivals and B&Bs galore), you think of Salem. The city hardly has a monopoly on historic witch trials, though. In fact, it wasn’t the first, the last, the biggest or particularly remarkable in any way outside of being the only one Arthur Miller wrote a play about. Those honors go to…
The First Witch Trial in America: Hartford, Connecticut
Salem wasn’t even the first American witch trial. That took place in 1647 in Windsor, Connecticut, but the state didn’t really come down with witch fever until 1662, when the parents of a dead eight-year-old girl looked around for someone to blame and settled for accusing a neighbor of witchcraft. Soon, everyone in Hartford was accusing everyone of witchcraft, including the husband of the original suspected witch, who tried to throw the town off her scent by accusing another woman altogether. You’d need a wall full of red string to map all the accusations.
That woman, Rebecca Greensmith (great witch name btw), was a real interesting lady. Described as a “lewd, ignorant, considerably aged woman,” she not only readily confessed, she took her husband down with her. Though he maintained his innocence, both were subjected to the old “throw ‘em in a lake and see if they float” test and convicted for “not having the fear of God before thine eyes,” which is apparently a crime. They were two of the four people executed for witchcraft in Hartford in the hysteria, the other half of whom were presumably not playing a morbid prank on their spouse.
The First Witch Trial in Europe: The Valais Region of Switzerland
Before the American witch craze, however, there was Europe, where the first witch trials of the Middle Ages took place in the Valais region of Switzerland, which is interestingly also where the last European woman was executed for witchcraft in 1782. Yep, we still had witch trials during the lifetime of Jane Austen.
The Valais trials differed from most others in several important ways. For one thing, most of the victims were men, usually peasants who “refused to submit to the religious or political authorities” since the whole thing was kicked off by complicated and boring Middle Age political tensions.
They were also massive in scope, lasting from 1428 to 1436 and killing 367 people. All it took was three people to call you a witch, at which point the standard procedure was to torture a confession out of you, then off to the stake you went. Say what you will about those Swiss witch burners, but you can’t say they weren’t efficient.
The Biggest Witch Trial: Bamberg, Germany
Fun fact: Germany is responsible for a whopping 42 percent of executions for witchcraft, largely thanks to the Bamberg witch trials. Between 1626 and 1631, almost 1,000 people were burned as witches in the city, all because the local Prince-Bishop was determined to blame someone for the Little Ice Age. Eventually, someone was arrested and tortured and named the names of people who were also arrested and tortured and named names until the witch market was as saturated as a supernatural Lularoe.
After five years, one accused witch’s husband fled to Nuremberg to complain to the Emperor, presumably amounting to, “Come on, now, isn’t this getting a bit ridiculous?” The Prince-Bishop was subsequently fired, but at some point, he’d begun seizing the lands of the executed witches, so he was basically the Lord of Bamberg anyway. Let this be a lesson, kids: Institutional corruption pays the most.
The Highest Profile Witch Trial: The Affair of the Poisons
The Affair of the Poisons was another of the largest witch trials in European history, which was impressive because it involved so many rich people, who usually escape even real justice. It all started with a Parisian noblewoman named Marie de Brinvilliers, who was convicted in 1676 of the poisoning deaths of her father, brothers and a whole bunch of randos who served as her guinea pigs. With her last words, she claimed that “half the people in town are involved in this sort of thing, and I could ruin them if I were to talk,” though she was almost certainly just talking shit. The population of Paris couldn’t support that kind of mass serial killing.
Nevertheless, King Louis XIV, who was already super paranoid about poisoning, lost his damn mind. He instructed the city police to keep an eye out for poison murderers, and by 1679, they’d settled for arresting a local “fortune teller and amateur apothecary.” When her client records were revealed to include several members of court, including a former mistress of the king, all hell broke loose. Over the next three years, 442 people were charged with crimes related to “involvement in evil spells and composing, distributing and administering poison,” 34 of whom were formally executed, with dozens of other suicide and torture deaths. It only stopped when those torture sessions kept turning up the name of another one of the king’s mistresses and he’d decided that was enough, instructing officers to “shut up” and “get her name out of their mouths.”
The Most Audacious Witch Trial: Torsåker, Sweden
You might have noticed by now that most witch trials begin with one guy convinced everything wrong with society is because of witches, which is remarkably similar to how modern conservative politicians regard drag queens, and the Torsåker witch trials were no different. Sweden was in the middle of what’s referred to as The Great Noise, which began in 1668 when — no shit — a little boy accused a little girl of walking on water after she beat him up. It’s toxic masculinity all the way down.
By 1674, the assistant parish minister of Torsåker, Laurentius Christophri Hornaeus, became determined to wipe out witchcraft from his town in the appropriately named region of Ångermanland, and the ensuing witch trial was notable not only for its size, killing a full one-fifth of the women in the parish in a single day, but for Hornaeus’s unusual methods. He pried accusations not from hysterical adults but children who he threatened, one of whom had so little idea what was happening that he accidentally and embarrassingly accused the minister’s wife. Hornaeus assured their compliance through impressively creative torture techniques, including dunking them in holes in frozen lakes and forcing them into ovens that he threatened to cook them in.
Good job, Horny — to catch a witch, you literally became a fairy tale witch.