Famous Impostors : Witchcraft and Clairvoyance Matthew Hopkins
There is one thing more evil than oppression in the shape of wrong-doing, and that is oppression in the guise of good. Tennyson, in one of his poems, speaks of the dishonest pharmacist who “pestles a poison’d poison.” This is a refinement of iniquity; a poisoned poison is not even an enlargement of evil but a structural change eliminating the intention of good and replacing it with evil intent. Witches were quite bad enough; or rather they would have been, had that which was alleged of them been true. But a man who got his living by creating suspicion regarding them and following it out to the practical consummation of a hideous death, was a thousand times worse. To-day such a functionary as a witch-finder exists, it is true; but only amongst the very lowest and most debased savages. And it is only by the recorded types made known to us that it is possible even to guess at the iniquity of their measures, the vileness of their actions. In the full tally of the two centuries during which the witch mania existed in England, it is impossible to parallel the baseness of the one man who distinguished himself in this loathsome occupation. The facts of his history speak for themselves. Matthew Hopkins was born in Suffolk early in the seventeenth century. He was the son of a minister, James Hopkins of Wenham. He was brought up for the law, and when enrolled as an attorney, practised in Ipswich; but after a while he moved to Manningtree where, after he had given up the law, he took to the calling of witch-finder, being the first person in England to follow that honourable trade.
If he had had no suitable opportunities of earning an honest livelihood and been graced with no education, some excuse might have been offered for his despicable calling. But when we remember that he passed his youth in a household practising religion, and was a member of a learned profession, it is difficult to find words sufficiently comprehensive for the fit expression of our natural indignation against him. If picturesque profanity were allowable, it might be well applied to this despicable wretch and his nefarious labours. In no imaginable circumstances could there possibly be anything to be said in mitigation of his infamy. When we think that the whole ritual of oppression was in his own hands—that he began with lying and perjury, and ended with murder; that he showed, throughout, ruthless callousness for the mental and physical torture of great numbers of the most helpless class of the community, the poor, the weak, the suffering, the helpless and hopeless; that when once his foul imagination had consecrated any poor wretch to destruction, or his baleful glance had unhappily lighted on some unsuspecting victim there was for such only the refuge of death, and that by some means of prolonged torture, we cannot find any hope or prospect even in evil dreams of the nether world, of any adequate punishment for his dreadful sins. When we remember that this one man—if man he can be called—was in himself responsible for what amounted to the murder of some two hundred women whom he pursued to the death, the magnitude of his guilt can be guessed but not realised.
He occupied three whole years in his fell work; and in those years, 1644, 1645 and 1646, he caused a regular reign of terror throughout the counties of Huntingdon, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. He had a gang of his own to help him in his gruesome work of “discovering” witches; amongst whom was a wretch called John Stern and—to her shame—a woman, whose name is unrecorded. These three had a sort of mock assize of their own. They made regular tours of discovery, at a charge of twenty shillings for expenses at each place they visited. There appears to have been a fee paid or exacted for each witch “bagged”; and such was his greed that after a while he actually lowered the price. In 1645, which was perhaps his “best” year, the price declined to a shilling a head. Hopkins and his gang took comfort, however, from the fact that the industry was a growing one. The trade had only been initiated in 1644, and already in a year’s time he had in one day procured the execution of eighteen alleged witches; and at the end of that assize, after the gaol delivery had been effected, one hundred and twenty suspects still awaited trial. In the skilful hands of Matthew Hopkins, trial was only a step on the road to certain execution by one of the forms in use. Here came in, not only the witchfinder’s legal knowledge, but also his gift of invention—the latter being used in the formulation of so-called “tests” which were bound to be effective. Of these the simplest was the water test. The subject’s thumbs were tied together and she was then thrown into water of sufficient depth. If she did not drown, it was taken as a proof of guilt; and she was hanged by form of law. In some cases, as an alternative, she was burned. If she did not stand the test her friends had the pleasure of knowing that she was pronounced to have died innocent. In any case there was no further trouble with her. Such was the accuracy as well as the simplicity of similar “tests” that, in the twenty years previous to the Restoration, between three and four thousand alleged witches perished in England from one cause or another. Hopkins professed to be both just and merciful. He seemed generally willing to afford a “test” to the accused; though, truth to tell, the result was always the same. In such cases the test was eminently calculated to evoke confession, and such confession, no matter how ridiculous or extravagant it might be, was simply a curved road to the rope or the torch instead of a straight one. One of these pleasing “tests” was to place the old woman—they were all women and all old—sitting cross-legged on a stool or table where she could be well watched. She was generally kept in that position under inspection, without food or water, for twenty-four hours. At the end of that time such resolution as had remained disappeared, and in the vain blind hope of some change for the better, some alleviation however slight of the grinding misery, of the agony of body and mind and soul, they confessed. And such confessions! The very consideration of such of them as now remain in the cold third-person method of a mere recorder, almost makes one weep; there is hardly a word that is not almost a certificate of character. With every desire to confess—for such was the last hope of pleasing their torturers—their utter ignorance of confessional matter is almost a proof of innocence.
Just imagine the scene—a village or hamlet, or the poorer quarter of a small country town with squalid surroundings, marking a poverty which in this age has no equal; a poor, old, lonely woman whose long life of sordid misery, of hunger and the diseases that huddle closely around want, hopeless, despairing, recognising her fate through the prolonged physical torture with which age and infirmity rendered her unable even to attempt to cope. Round her gathered, in a sickly ring, a crowd of creatures debased by the exercise of greed and cruelty to a lower level than the beasts. Their object is not to inquire, to test, to judge; but only to condemn, to wreck, to break, to shatter. Some of them, she realises even in her agony, are spurred on by the same zeal which animated the cruelty of followers of Ignatius in the grim torture-chambers of the Inquisition.
The poor dazed, suffering old creature, racked with pains prolonged beyond endurance, tries to rally such glimmerings of invention as are possible to her untaught, unfed mind; but finds herself at every failure fluttering helplessly against a wall of spiritual granite which gives back not even an echo to her despairing cry. At last she comes to that stage where even fright and fear have no standing room, and where the blank misery of suffering ceases to be effective. Then the last flicker of desire for truth or rectitude of purpose dies away, and she receives in feeble acquiescence such suggestions as are shouted or whispered to her, in the hope that by accepting them she may win a moment’s ease of body or mind, even if it be her last on earth. Driven beyond mortal limits her untutored mind gives way; and with the last remnants of her strength she yields her very soul to her persecutors. The end does not matter to her now. Life has no more to offer her—even of pain, which is the last conscious tie to existence. And through it all, ghoul-like, watching and waiting for the collapse, whilst outwardly he goes through the mechanical ritual of prayer, we see in the background the sinister figure of the attorney, preparing in his mind such evidence as he may procure or invent for his work of the next day.
It needs the imagination of a Dante to consider what should be the place of such an one in history, and any eternity of punishment that that imagination could suggest must be inadequate. Even pity itself which rests on sympathy and is kin to the eternal spirit of justice, would have imagined with satisfaction the wretched soul going through a baleful eternity clinging in perpetual agony of fear to the very King of Terrors.
In judging Matthew Hopkins one must not, in justice to others, accord him any of the consideration which is the due of good intent. Not a score of years after his shameful death, a man was born in a newer land far beyond the separating sea, who through his influence, his teaching, the expression of his honest conviction, was the cause of perhaps more deaths than the English anti-witch. We refer to Cotton Mather, who believed he wrought for the Lord—in his own way—in New England. But guilt does not attach to him. He was an earnest, though mistaken man, and the results of his mistaken teaching were at variance with the trend of his kindly, godly life.
It must be pleasing to the spirit of the Old Adam which is in us all in some form, to think of the manner of the death of Matthew Hopkins. Three years had exhausted not only the material available for his chosen work, but, what was worse for him, the patience of the community. Moreover, he had given cause for scandal in even his own degraded trade and in himself, the filthiest thing in connection with it. Not content with dealing with the poor, helpless folk, whom he had come to regard as his natural prey, he went on fancy flights of oppression. At last he went too far. He ventured to denounce an aged clergyman of blameless life. The witch-fever was too strong for justice in any form, and neither age, high character, nor sacred office could protect this gentleman of eighty years of age. He too was tortured, till in a moment of unhinged mind, he confessed as he was ordered, and was duly hanged. This was in 1645. The old man’s death was not in vain, for it was made the occasion of much necessary plain speaking. Presently the public conscience was wakened; chiefly by another cleric, the Rev. John Caule, vicar of Great Staughton, Huntingdonshire—all honour to him!—who, though strange to say he believed in witchcraft, realised the greater evil wrought by men like Hopkins. He published a pamphlet in which he denounced Hopkins as a common nuisance. The result, if slow, was sure. The witch-finder never recovered from the shock of Caule’s vigorous attack. In 1647, on information based on Hopkins’ own rules, he was arrested and subjected to the test which he had devised: he was tied by the thumbs and thrown into the water. Unfortunately for himself he withstood the test—drowning, except for a short period of pangs, is an easy death—and so was by process of Law duly hanged.
One can imagine how the whole atmosphere of the country—surcharged with suspicion, fear, oppression, torture, perjury or crime—was cleared by the execration which followed the removal of this vile wretch.
The Wandering Jew
Arthur Orton (Tichborne claimant)
Chapter VIII. Hoaxes, etc.
A. Two London Hoaxes
B. The Cat Hoax
C. The Military Review
D. The Toll-Gate
E. The Marriage Hoax
F. Buried Treasure
G. Dean Swift’s Hoax
H. Hoaxed Burglars
I. Bogus Sausages
J. The Moon Hoax
The Bisley Boy