XXXVII

Witchcraft⁠—​New York witches⁠—​The Witch mania⁠—​How fast they burned them⁠—​The mode of trial⁠—​Witches today in Europe.

Witchcraft is one of the most baseless, absurd, disgusting and silly of all the humbugs. And it is not a dead humbug either; it is alive, busily exercised by knaves and believed by fools all over the world. Witches and wizards operate and prosper among the Hottentots and negroes and barbarous Indians, among the Siberians and Kirgishes and Lapps, of course. Everybody knows that⁠—they are poor ignorant creatures! Yes: but are the French and Germans and English and Americans poor ignorant creatures too? They are, if the belief and practice of witchcraft among them is any test; for in all those countries there are witches. I take up one of the New York City dailies of this very morning, and find in it the advertisements of seven Witches. In 1858, there were in full blast in New York and Brooklyn sixteen witches and two wizards. One of these wizards was a black man; a very proper style of person to deal with the black art.

Witch means, a woman who practices sorcery under an agreement with the devil, who helps her. Before the Christian era, the Jewish witch was a mere diviner or at most a raiser of the dead, and the Gentile witch was a poisoner, a maker of philtres or love potions, and a vulgar sort of magician. The devil part of the business did not begin until a good while after Christ. During the last century or so, again, while witchcraft has been extensively believed in, the witch has degenerated into a very vulgar and poverty stricken sort of conjuring woman. Take our New York city witches, for instance. They live in cheap and dirty streets that smell bad; their houses are in the same style, infected with a strong odor of cabbage, onions, washing-day, old dinners, and other merely sublunary smells. Their rooms are very ill furnished, and often beset with washtubs, swill-pails, mops and soiled clothes; their personal appearance is commonly unclean, homely, vulgar, coarse, and ignorant, and often rummy. Their fee is a quarter or half of a dollar. Sometimes a dollar. Their divination is worked by cutting and dealing cards or studying the palm of your hand. And the things which they tell you are the most silly and shallow babble in the world; a mess of phrases worn out over and over again. Here is a specimen, as gabbled to the customer over a pack of cards laid out on the table; anybody can do the like: “You face a misfortune. I think it will come upon you within three weeks, but it may not. A dark complexioned man faces your life-card. He is plotting against you, and you must beware of him. Your marriage-card faces two young women, one fair and the other dark. One you will have, and the other you will not. I think you will have the fair one. She favors the dark complexioned man, which means trouble. You face money, but you must earn it. There is a good deal, but you may not get much of it” etc., etc. These words are exactly the sort of stuff that is sold by the witches of today. But the greatest witch humbug of all the witchcraft of history, is that of Christendom for about three hundred years, beginning about the time of the discovery of America. To that period belonged the Salem witchcraft of New England, the witch-finding of Matthew Hopkins in Old England, the Scotch witch trials, and the Swedish and German and French witch mania.

The peculiar traits of the witchcraft of this period are among the most mysterious of all humbugs. The most usual points in a case of witchcraft were, that the witch had sold herself to the devil for all eternity, in order to get the power during a few years of earthly life, to inflict a few pains on the persons of those she disliked, or to cause them to lose part of their property. This was almost always the whole story, except the mere details of the witch baptism and witch sabbath, parodies on the ceremonies of the Christian religion. And the mystery is, how anybody could believe that to accomplish such very small results, seldom equal even to the death of an enemy, one would agree to accept eternal damnation in the next world, almost certain poverty, misery, persecution and torment in this, besides having for an amusement performances more dirty, obscene and vulgar than I can even hint at.

But such a belief was universal, and hundreds of the witches themselves confessed as much as I have described, and more, with numerous details, and they were burnt alive for their trouble. The extent of wholesale murdering perpetrated under forms of law, on charges of witchcraft, is astonishing. A magistrate named Remigius, published a book in which he told how much he thought of himself for having condemned and burned nine hundred witches in sixteen years, in Lorraine. And the one thing that he blamed himself for was this: that out of regard for the wishes of a colleague, he had only caused certain children to be whipped naked three times round the market place where their parents had been burned, instead of burning them. At Bamberg, six hundred persons were burned in five years, at Wurzburg nine hundred in two years. Sprenger, a German inquisitor-general, and author of a celebrated book on detecting and punishing witchcraft, called Malleus Maleficarum, or “The Mallet of Malefactors,” burned more than five hundred in one year. In Geneva, five hundred persons were burned during 1515 and 1516. In the district of Como in Italy, a thousand persons were burned as witches in the single year 1524, besides over a hundred a year for several years afterwards. Seventeen thousand persons were executed for witchcraft in Scotland during thirty-nine years, ending with 1603. Forty thousand were executed in England from 1600 to 1680. Bodinus, another of the witch killing judges, gravely announced that there were undoubtedly not less than three hundred thousand witches in France.

The way in which the witch murderers reasoned, and their modes of conducting trials and procuring confessions, were truly infernal. The chief rule was that witchcraft being an “exceptional crime,” no regard need be had to the ordinary forms of justice. All manner of tortures were freely applied to force confessions. In Scotland “the boot” was used, being an iron case in which the legs are locked up to the knees, and an iron wedge then driven in until sometimes the bones were crushed and the marrow spouted out. Pin sticking, drowning, starving, the rack, were too common to need details. Sometimes the prisoner was hung up by the thumbs, and whipped by one person, while another held lighted candles to the feet and other parts of the body. At Arras, while the prisoners were being torn on the rack, the executioner stood by, sword in hand, promising to cut off at once the heads of those who did not confess. At Offenburg, when the prisoners had been tortured until beyond the power of speaking aloud, they silently assented to abominable confessions read to them out of a book. Many were cheated into confession by the promise of pardon and release, and then burned. A poor woman in Germany was tricked by the hangman, who dressed himself up as a devil and went into her cell. Overpowered by pain, fear and superstition, she begged him to help her out; her beseeching was taken for confession, she was burned, and a ballad which treated the trick as a jolly and comical device, was long popular in the country. Several of the judges in witch cases tell us how victims, utterly weary of their tormented lives, confessed whatever was required, merely as the shortest way to death, and an escape out of their misery. All who dared to argue against the current of popular and judicial delusion were instantly refuted very effectively by being attacked for witchcraft themselves; and once accused, there was little hope of escape. The Jesuit Delrio, in a book published in 1599, states the witch killers’ side of the discussion very neatly indeed; for in one and the same chapter he defies any opponents to disprove the existence of witchcraft, and then shows that a denial of witchcraft is the worst of all heresies, and must be punished with death. Quite a number of excellent and sensible people were actually burnt on just this principle.

I do not undertake to give details of any witch trials; this sketch of the way in which they operated is all I can make room for, and sufficiently delineates this cruel and bloody humbug.

I have already referred to the fact that we have right here among us in this city a very fair supply of a vulgar, dowdy kind of witchcraft. Other countries are favored in like manner. I have not just now the most recent information, but in the year 1857 and 1858, for instance, mobbing and prosecutions growing out of a popular belief in witchcraft were quite plentiful enough in various parts of Europe. No less than eight cases of the kind in England alone were reported during those two years. Among them was the actual murder of a woman as a witch by a mob in Shropshire; and an attack by another mob in Essex, upon a perfectly inoffensive person, on suspicion of having “bewitched” a scolding ill-conditioned girl, from which attack the mob was diverted with much difficulty, and thinking itself very unjustly treated. Some others of those cases show a singular quantity of credulity among people of respectability.

While therefore some of us may perhaps be justly thankful for safety from such horrible follies as these, still we can not properly feel very proud of the progress of humanity, since after not less than six thousand years of existence and eighteen hundred of revelation, so many believers in witchcraft still exist among the most civilized nations.