It was once suggested that Matthew Hopkins, the witch-finder general, had become infallible in his ability to track down witches because he himself had employed a bit of sorcery and managed to steal one of Satan's address books so that he might copy down the names of the devil's disciples. Although Hopkins served England in the self-appointed capacity of "witch-finder" for a period of only two years, his name remains synonymous with the overzealous persecution of those men and women suspected of witchcraft. From 1645 to 1647, Hopkins and his two eager assistants, John Sterne and Mary Phillips, scoured the counties of eastern England searching for those who had Satan's mark upon them.
Little is known of the early life of Hopkins until he appeared on the scene as one who received payment for finding witches on behalf of various villages whose townspeople suspected evidence of Satan's disciples in their community. He was the son of James Hopkins, a minister of Wenham in Suffolk, and there are records to indicate that he became an unsuccessful lawyer in Ipswich. After moving to Manningtree circa 1644, he apparently appointed himself to the position of a witch finder and added the title "general" for its prestige value. Records suggest that Hopkins may have owned or been shown associated with the Thorn Inn in the adjacent parish of Mistley, and it is here in the inn that he began holding his first witchcraft trials. With his knowledge of English law and his earnest belief in the power of witchcraft to work evil on the simple and unsuspecting Christian villagers, Hopkins undoubtedly felt that he had all the qualifications necessary to become a professional witch-hunter. It is known that both Hopkins and his assistant Stearne were Puritans, and those who knew them stated that they were men of deep religious convictions.
Hopkins seemed to have a general knowledge of some of the European literature on witchcraft—enough, at least, to have become convinced that all witches received a familiar, an imp often disguised as a cat or some other
Because torture as an aid to interrogation was forbidden in England, Hopkins devised a system of watching, searching, and swimming to test those individuals who had been accused of practicing witchcraft. The suspect would be stripped naked, covered with a loose-fitting gown, and forced to sit on a chair in the middle of a bare room. Then witnesses would watch the accused witch for hours, day and night, for several days if necessary. All this time, the alleged witch must be kept awake, sitting on the stool, forbidden to lie down, so the witnesses could detect a familiar if it should creep up to feed on its host. If the accused should begin to slump forward in sleep, he or she was immediately pushed erect and walked around the room to force him or her to remain awake. Since this process would often be continued for days, the suspect's feet might become bloody and bruised from the walking. While such an exhaustive and cruel regimen might not technically have been considered torture, its brutal effects produced the same results from its hapless victims.
In The Discovery of Witches, a pamphlet Hopkins published in 1647, he wrote that on one occasion he and Stearne witnessed six imps attempting to sneak into the room where a witch was being watched. One was a whitish thing, not quite as large as a cat; another was something like a dog with sandy spots; and a third resembled a greyhound with long legs. It seemed the other three got away before the two witch-hunters got a good look at them. On this particular occasion, six townspeople whom Hopkins had gathered as volunteers in the watching part of the ordeal swore that they, too, had seen the imps approaching the witch, and their testimony was often used by Hopkins to silence those skeptics who might doubt the reality of demonic familiars.
The "swimming" part of Hopkins's three-part test was a foolproof method of determining the guilt or innocence of a witch. Hopkins would have the witches bound in a painful position with their right thumb to their left big toe and their left thumb to their right big toe, then he would order them thrown into a river or a deep pond. If the witches sunk and drowned, they were innocent. It was clear that they possessed no supernatural powers, after all. If they somehow managed to stay afloat, however, they were judged guilty of witchcraft and men with long poles would push them under the water until they drowned. Either guilty or innocent, of course, the accused witch was eliminated as a real or a potential emissary of Satan on Earth.
Hopkins died on August 12, 1647. John Stearne attempted to carry on in the witch finder's footsteps for about another year, but the witchcraft craze was dying out in England.