Douglas MacGowan lives on the San Francisco peninsula with his wife, a dog, and far too many cats. He has published eight books in the genre of historic true crime. You can check out his book on the mysterious disappearance of the Sodder children case here.
Although he called himself “Witchfinder General,” there is no evidence that Matthew Hopkins (circa 1620 – 12 August 1647) was ever given a specific title by any political or social authority. But from 1644 to 1647, he traveled England during the civil war, examining suspected witches and various witnesses. He was successful in his own mind, finding more than 300 women guilty of associating with the devil and seeing them hanged because of it.
In 1647 he published a justification of his work titled “The Discovery of Witches,” which outlined in Q & A form his method of work and justifications for that work. Below are some of the questions posed in his book and his responses to those questions.
To begin with, Hopkins answered the obvious question that he was only able to do his work if he himself was in the service of the devil, to which he responded with the biblical quotation about a kingdom divided against itself would surely fall.
When asked where he got his expertise in finding witches, he replied that: ‘(I) never traveled far for it, but in March 1644, he (he always referred to himself in the third person) had some seven or eight of that horrible sect of witches living in the town where he lived, a town in Essex called Manningtree, with diverse other adjacent witches of other towns, who every six weeks in the night – being always on the Friday night – had their meeting close by his house and had their solemn sacrifices there offered to the devil, one of which this discoverer heard speaking to her Imps one night, and (Hopkins) bid (the authorities to) go to another witch, who was thereupon apprehended and searched by women who had for many years known the devil’s marks and found to have three teats about her, which honest women have not. So upon command from the Justice, they were to keep her from sleep two or three nights, expecting that time to see her Familiars, which the fourth night she called in by their several names, and told them what shapes…they came in, there being ten of us in the room.
‘The first she called was “Holt,” who came in like a white kitling (cat). (Then there was) “Jarmara,” who came in like a fat spaniel without any legs at all – she said she kept him fat…and said he sucked good blood from her body. (Next was) “Vinegar Tom,” who was like a long-legged greyhound, with the head like an ox, with a long tail and broad eyes…(it) immediately transformed himself into the shape of a child of four years old – without a head. (Then there was) “Sack and Sugar,” a black rabbit, and “Newes,” like a polecat.
‘…this witch confessed several other witches…and named to diverse women where their marks were.’
But, the questioner says that the devil and his company of demons don’t need any form of food, to which Hopkins counters: ‘He seeks not their blood as if he could not subsist without that nourishment, but he often repairs to them and gets it the more to aggravate the witches’ damnation…(and the devil) does really enter into the body – real and corporal – (and) force that creature…to his desired ends, using the organs of that body to speak withall to make his compact with the witches, be it (in the form of) cat, rat, mouse, etc.’
The questioner then states that the torture of dunking suspected witches into rivers or ponds is insufficient for determining the woman’s guilt. To which Hopkins replies that: ‘it is not denied but many were so served as had (marks on them) and floated, others that had none were tried and sunk…and the devil…advises (the guilty that) they shall sink and be cleared in that way – and they see the devil deceives them again (when they float) and have so laid open his treacheries… Witches deny their baptism when the covenant with the devil, water being the sole element thereof, and therefore…when they be heaved into the water, the water refuses to receive them.’
There are several reasons that he will disbelieve a confession: if ‘drawn from her by any torture or violence, (if it) is drawn from her by flattery (e.g.“…if you confess you shall go home and you shall not go to gaol nor be hanged”), (or if) she confesses any improbability as flying in the air, riding on a broom, etc.’
Finally, Hopkins answered the common criticism that he was a charlatan, going from village to village and taking money from them even though there were no real witches in the town. He countered by saying that he only went to a specific town if he was summoned, he never personally declared that a specific woman was a witch (the determination of guilt was done at a public trial), and that he would charge a village much more if he were only in it for the money.
Hopkins died soon after the publication of his book. His occupation had been devastating: in less than five years he sent more women to the hangman than had been executed in England for witchcraft during the previous 160 years.
After his death, Hopkins would be buried in the graveyard of the Church of St. Mary at Mistley Heath. His manner of death is debated, but one legend has it that he was given the dunking test himself and died by drowning – the sign of an innocent man.
“The Discovery of Witches”, Matthew Hopkins, 1647.