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Testing the Witch-finder General

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Witches, warlocks and wizards feature in many tales from times past and are part of many children's stories. Often they are strange, weird and even funny characters but, in many parts of England, witches were taken very seriously indeed.

It seems that there was very good money in finding witches in the seventeenth century. Witch-finders earned a very good living bringing witches to trial. Matthew Hopkins, the Witch-finder General, was the most notorious and feared of all. However, it came about, that by a strange twist of fate, the witch-finder got a taste of his own medicine.

Hopkins tried to make a living for himself as a lawyer but was not very good and witch hunting offered a good way to boost his poor income. He had no experience for his job as witch-finder - you couldn't really sign up for a training scheme to become a witch-finder. But he certainly took his job very seriously.

In those days, any strange goings-on in a village would be investigated, from farm animals suddenly being taken sick to someone coming out in a rash! Unfortunately, just like nowadays, villagers would sometimes fall out with the people next door and some used these happenings to get back at their neighbours.

In some cases, just a bit of idle gossip could end up with your best friend's wife being accused of witchery. Hopkins was kept busy travelling from village to village hunting out those suspected of witchcraft.

Hopkins believed that witches got their supernatural powers from 'familiars'. These were usually animals that would accompany the suspected witch, commonly known as pets to you and me! So the suspects were kept in isolation.

Hopkins job was to get the accused to confess and he didn't care how he did it. Hopkins and his assistant, Stearne, would keep a suspect awake for days on end until, so tired and confused, they would say almost anything.

It was believed that witches could be stabbed without any mark remaining on their skin, so they used a knife with a special blade that moved back into the knife handle and left no mark. This allowed Hopkins to quickly and cunningly prove a suspect's guilt.

However, the most famous method he employed was the 'swimming test' or trial by water. The suspect's limbs and thumbs would be tied together and they would be lowered into the local pond by ropes. If they sank and drowned, they were innocent and so would go to heaven. If they floated, heaven had rejected them and they would be tried as a witch.

Fear or superstition saw groups of villagers and clergymen acting as witnesses for Hopkins. Experts were called on to identify suspicious marks on those accused of witchcraft, that were believed to be the marks of the devil.

Hopkins was paid a great deal of money for his work! In the Suffolk village of Stowmarket, Hopkins was paid twenty-three pounds. This was a very high payment indeed when you think a villager's wage was just six pennies a day!

However, as the death toll went up, Hopkins' enemies grew. Angry and frightened village folk said it was greed and cruelty that made him do these things.

Not surprisingly, Hopkins made many enemies. People began to question how he could know so much about witchcraft without himself consulting the devil. Eventually he was charged with using sorcery to steal a book, which listed the names of all the witches in England.

Hopkins screamed that he was innocent of all charges but the angry crowd were not going to be satisfied with that.

They demanded that he do his own 'swimming test'! With his arms tied to his body, he was thrown into Mistley Pond in Essex. Unfortunately for Hopkins, he floated, was dragged out of the water, found guilty at trial and hanged. The Witch-finder had finally got a taste of his own fear and torture!

However, if you are in the area of Mistley, you may still come across the terrifying Witch-finder General. For according to local people, near to the time of the Witches Sabbats, a strange figure is often seen in the area of Mistley Pond. It is the ghost of the Witch-finder General, left to roam the earth, still hunting for the spirits of the witches, or elderly women, he so persecuted.

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