Naturally the word “encouraging” is being used facetiously here — seeing as most confessions brought about during the witch trials of old were done so through torturous methods that probably only incited lying about witchcraft over any actual confessions.
When you read about some of the methods used to encourage a confession, though, I imagine you won’t be surprised. I probably would have confessed, too, despite not being a witch (though the daily conversations with my cat might lead you to believe otherwise, according to my last post).
Lord’s Prayer Test
The Lord’s Prayer is a well-known verse even throughout non-religious sects of the world. When searching for a witch, it was said that one who’d danced with the devil couldn’t recite it in its entirety without either messing up for forgetting the words.
Never did they take into account, though, that having to recite a long scripture in front of a mistrustful crowd of onlookers probably did nothing for a woman’s nerves — assuming she was even literate in the first place.
This method wasn’t foolproof, as was demonstrated by the only minister ever accused of and found guilty of witchcraft: George Burroughs. Upon the day of his execution, he recited the Lord’s Prayer flawlessly, and stirred uncertainty in some of the onlookers. In one witness account, Robert Calef describes:
When he was upon the ladder, he made a speech for the clearing of his innocency, with such solemn and serious expressions, as were to the admiration of all present: his prayer (which he concluded by repeating the Lord’s prayer) was so well worded, and uttered with such composedness, and such (at least seeming) fervency of spirit, as was very affecting, and drew tears from many, so that it seemed to some that the spectators would hinder the execution.
The accuser said the black man stood and dictated to him. As soon as he was turned off, Mr. Cotton Mather, being mounted upon a horse, addressed himself to the people, partly to declare that he [Burroughs] was no ordained minister, and partly to possess the people of his guilt, saying that the devil has often been transformed into an angel of the light; and this somewhat appeased the people, and the executions went on.
In summary, he says this: While Burroughs perfectly recited the Lord’s prayer, the people watching were quelled of their mounting uncertainty when reminded that the devil is known to be unreliable and tricky, and that was exactly the case with Rev. Burroughs. He wasn’t in fact reciting the Lord’s Prayer from the heart, but rather, had it dictated to him by the devil. Tough break.
Dunking/Trial by Water/Swimming Tests
Perhaps the most infamous method, dunking consisted of strapping the witch down to a dunking stool, and then plunging her into the water of a river or lake, as the name suggests. The lore goes that the water, being an element favored by god, would “reject” anything evil — so, if the accused floated, she was considered rejected by the water and therefore guilty. If she sunk (and subsequently drowned), she was innocent. No one wins in this situation. Well, except maybe the people doing the dunking.
All trials by water follow the same idea, though the actual process would differentiate. In some cases, a witch would be submerged in a body of water with only a rope as her lifeline, and the same sink/float concept would apply. In others, the accused would simply be tossed into a rushing river for God to decide their fate. Personally, it seems to me like a pretty unfair situation when your innocence is determined by whether or not you drown.
Similar to a witch’s teat also mentioned in my previous post, a witch was thought to have certain marks on their body left by the devil that would neither bleed nor be felt when prodded. Special needles were designed and used to do the poking and the pricking, and eventually, a lucrative career could be made out of it.
Professional “prickers” would be brought to a suspected witch, with the expectation that they would successfully locate her mark. The practice was rife with fraud, however, as many of these prickers would use dull or retractable needles in their pricking instruments in order to avoid drawing blood on contact. Finding a witch paid out much better than finding a woman innocent.
Despite the name, a witch cake isn’t a delicious Halloween-themed dessert you might find on Pinterest. Instead, a witch cake is made up of only two ingredients:
- Rye meal
- Urine of the afflicted (cursed) person
After baking this cake, the next step would be to feed it to a dog. If the woman accused of witchcraft howls out in pain after the first bite, congratulations, you have a witch on your hands.
The reasoning behind this practice seems a little farfetched to me (if urine-patty wasn’t strange enough): this has the potential to physically “hurt” the witch because some of her magic is within the person she’s cursed — so, naturally, when that magic is eaten by a dog, it causes her physical pain. I guess.
I really have to wonder how often this was successful in finding a confession, though. In my mind, all I see is a crowd of people watching a dog devour the cake with baited breath, while the accused “witch” just kind of rolls her eyes from behind the witness stand.
Though not a common method, anyone familiar with The Crucible or the Salem Witch Trials in general might recognize the name Giles Corey. Accused of witchcraft, he was eventually slowly crushed to death under the weight of heavy stones when he refused to confess. He’s best known for, instead of admitting to practicing witchcraft, responding with a request of “more weight” whenever prodded for a confession. He was ultimately pressed for two days, more and more weight being applied, before finally dying a martyr.
Particularly popular in Scotland during their witch trials, sleep deprivation played a big role in forcing a confession out of an accused witch. The process would consist of more than simply keeping the victim awake, however, as she would also be subjected to standing for long periods of time, before being forced to run back and forth a small distance. On top of that, the accused were usually refused food or water during the ordeal. The extended period of deprivation usually resulted in a hallucinatory state, or perhaps simple desperation, and would end with a confession of witchcraft.
On top of hallucinations, sleep and food deprivation are known to contribute to heart defects, such as increasing a person’s chances of suffering from a heart attack. With so many of the accused also being elderly, then, is it any surprise that so many accused witches eventually went on to die in jail of “mysterious causes” (aka, malnourishment, unhygienic surroundings, and the overall stress of it all, I imagine), before they were even brought to trial?
In Salem alone, out of the 114 people accused of witchcraft, over a dozen died in jail. Like, hey, sorry to break to you, but if you want to keep your inmates healthy enough to stand trial, food, water, and sleep are three of the basics. But, I digress.
There are probably hundreds of other methods once used to garner confession from a witch, but they have either been lost in time, or were purposefully erased because of their heinousness. All in all, from what records we still have of the witch hunts, I wouldn’t be all that surprised.
All I can say for sure is, these methods were certainly not designed to actually find out the truth, and those practicing them likely knew it. The con artists behind pricking are proof enough of that. They didn’t care for the truth; they only wanted a confession of guilt. They likely engaged in these torturous acts to save or improve their own reputation.
What do you think, after hearing about all of these methods of sussing out guilt? Are there any others not mentioned here that you’re interested in learning about or sharing? Leave a note in the comments!
And, if you’d like to read more, check out these sites: