Evidence and Its Role in Witch Trials

By Elaina Alvis

When one pictures witch trials in early modern Europe they might conjure up frightening images angry mobs with pitchforks and torches executing anyone who is suspected of witchcraft. It is true that thousands were executed for witchcraft throughout Europe during the reformation, with sometimes more than hundred accused witches being killed in a single year (Gaskill, 78-80). However, at least in England, these cases weren’t usually the hysteric episodes many have come to visualize when confronted with the concept of witch trials. Evidence in the form of multiple witness statements was an integral part of Witch Trials and was often the deciding factor on the verdict. To greater understand how these cases worked and, we will examine a court document detailing the full trials of four witches from Worcester in 1690. This document describes the specific witnesses and evidences used against them which is an integral part in understanding how people were convicted of such a crime that would be unheard of in court cases today.

The first case concerns a woman named Rebecca Weft, who was accused of witchcraft and diabolical acts including the death of a man named John Hart. A man named John Edes who claims that the accused had confessed to him that she had been in contact with the devil himself and that she had wished to inflict revenge on John Hart (it is unspecified why). John Edes’ claims are supported by the testimony by an unnamed man who makes a similar claim, but he elaborates that Rebecca had told him that she was not only communicating with the Devil but that she had in fact married him and that she asked the devil himself to kill John Hart (Anon, 3). Having sexual contact with the devil was often involved in the accusations of female witches, as female sexuality was in direct relation with demonic magic (Gaskill, 31).The second point of evidence against her is the testimonies of the deceased’s father and the doctor who tended to John. Both claim that the deceased had cried out to Rebecca by name upon his deathbed. Rebecca plead guilty in hopes to gain mercy but, likely due to the heinous testimonies given, the court refused and declared her guilty.

The second case concerns Margaret Landis who was accused of murder of a child through witchcraft and sorcery. The first form of evidence against her was the testimony of the child’s father who observed Margaret clap in a threatening manner at his daughter who had called her a ‘witch’. His daughter then fell ill and died of ‘distemper’ (Anon, 4). An unnamed witness attested to this and added that the girl raved and spoke of seeing Margaret at her bedside ‘making strange mouths at her’ (Anon, 4). Similar to the first case, a doctor testified in support of the claim that Margaret caused this illness. This is likely because explainable deaths, such as the child’s ‘distemper’ were often blamed on witchcraft (Sharpe, 45). The second piece of evidence was that the girl had once claimed that Margaret had attempted to turn her into a witch. Margaret had then forced her to attend what was most likely a witch’s Sabbath, a demonic gathering in which witches engage in acts such as cannibalism and group sex with both humans and demons (Sharpe, 18). Another woman

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A circle of witches and demons, from Nathaniel Crouch, Kingdom of Darkness, 1688

testified to this claim and added that she had conversed with Margaret who was also plotting to inflict harm upon the girl. Margaret, unlike Rebecca, denied these claims and accused the witnesses of having grudges against her. In this case, the court was apprehensive towards convicting Margaret. Some members of the court likely knew of the accused before the trial due to the small size of rural communities at the time and this familiarity could have affected their willingness to convict as they could have been friends or acquaintances of the victim (Sharpe, 47).  Unfortunately, the jury eventually ruled that it would be too dangerous to let her go free, in case she really was a witch, and she too was condemned as guilty.

The third case involved two women, Susan Cock and Rose Hallybread, who were accused of murdering two children, Mary and John Peak. Abraham Chad and Elin Shearcraft came forward with shocking testimonies. To ensure that their testimonies were legitimate, the court separated them and questioned them individually to ensure their testimonies lined up (Anon, 5). This actions demonstrates how the courts attempted to maintain as much truth as possible in these cases, not wanting the witnesses influencing each other’s testimonies. In Abraham’s statement, he claimed to have seen Rose and Susan making a large fire in the latter’s home. He then observed the women holding wax figures made in the likeness of the children and torturing them by sticking pins and needles in their ‘bellies, heads, and eyes’ and burning them over the fire (Anon, 5). Abraham then claims that the next day he had heard from the children’s mother that the children were suffering from the same afflictions as the wax dolls. Elin gave a similar testimony but added that the children had called out the names of the two witches, like John in Rebecca’s case. These corroborating testimonies would have been seen as a clear evidence of witchcraft. Susan and Rose denied these claims but they were ultimately found guilty and sentenced to burn at the stake alongside the previous two women.

Through these cases we can gain invaluable insight into the mindset of those involved in witchcraft trials of the 17th century. It demonstrated how witness testimonies were properly presented in order to qualifiy as legitimate evidence in a witch trial. To convict a witch one needed more than a vague accusation or hunch from a concerned or possibly malicious neighbour, but a concrete testimony supported by the observations of several witnesses. In this way, while the subject may appear outlandish to a modern audience, we might see some logic in the machinations of these trials.

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