Witchcraft Trials


The first record of a witch being burned at the stake in the British Isles was the execution of Petronilla de Meath at Killkenny, Ireland, on November 3, 1324. But from that time until the witch craze ended in the eighteenth century, Ireland would neither try nor burn any more witches. England did not really succumb to the witch craze that seized Central Europe. There was no law against witchcraft in England until 1542—and that law was repealed in 1547. Perhaps because the nation had a strong central government, as opposed to the independent city states which at that time created constant political turmoil within so many of the European countries, England did not tolerate wholesale witch burnings. The few burnings that did occur took place on the borders where different religious faiths were in conflict and the people were more disposed to see Satan in the other person's manner of worship.

The first recorded execution of a person associated with witchcraft occurred in 1441, but the convicted woman, Margaret Jourdemaine of London, was put to death not because she was a witch, but because she had been found guilty of murder. In 1563, perhaps in reaction to the witch craze in Europe, a new law against witchcraft was passed, and a 63-year-old widow named Agnes Waterhouse was condemned to death in 1566 for bewitching a man to death.

Torture could not be used against accused witches in England; therefore, only about 20 percent of those suspected of dealing with the devil were executed. The single period during which something approaching the witch hysteria on the European continent blighted England occurred during the English Civil War during the 1640s when the central government's power collapsed and opposing factions struggling for dominance were more likely to accuse their opponents of trafficking with the devil.

The last witches executed in England— Temperance Lloyd, Susanna Edwards, and Mary Trembles, all of Bideford, Devon—were all hanged on August 25, 1682. The death penalty of witches in England was abolished in 1736. Estimates of the number of witches put to death in England are about 400, and approximately 90 percent of those condemned were women.

Alleged murders by witchcraft and subsequent trials for witchcraft have not disappeared from the world scene, and the fear of cursing, hexing, and causing death by witchcraft remains very powerful in many nations.

In 1998, in scenes reminiscent of the Salem witch hunts, mobs in Indonesia attacked and killed 153 people who were accused of practicing sorcery. In an eight-year-period, from 1990 to 1998, more than 2,000 cases of witchcraft-related violence, including 577 murders, were recorded in the northern corner of South Africa.

In June 2001, the London Sunday Times reported that the president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, feared that he and his government had become the victims of black magic directed at them by powerful Sangomas (witchdoctors). In August 2001, a teenaged girl in Nigeria confessed to taking part in the ritual killing of 48 people after being initiated into a secret witchcraft cult. Three men were arrested by police in that African nation after they were found in possession of a human skull that they were using in Black Magick rituals.

The Washington Post reported on November 28, 2001, that Black Magic murders in the state of Maranhao in northeastern Brazil had claimed the lives of at least 26 boys. Although as many as one in six Brazilians practice a form of religion that combines Roman Catholicism with the ancient beliefs of African and Amazonian magic, such as Tambo de Mina, Umbanda, and Macumba, the priests of those religions denied any part of the mutilation deaths of the young boys. Authorities remained convinced that Black Magic witchcraft was somehow behind the murders.

In December 2001, the Romanian Parliament announced that it was passing new laws to regulate the thousands of witches practicing in their country. It was suggested that politicians be given special advice on how to deal with the witches after the finance minister sufferred a broken leg the day after he introduced a special tax on witches.

Although the widespread horror of the Inquisition being visited upon innocent individuals and hauling accused men and women into torture chambers has receded into a shameful chapter in human history, trials for witchcraft have by no means been relegated to the Middle Ages.

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