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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Essex

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Myths and Legends
Witch-finder witch?

It was also believed that witches could be stabbed without having any mark remaining on their skin, so Hopkins would use a knife with a retractable blade, allowing him to quickly and cunningly prove their guilt. However, a favorite confessional torture of Hopkins was the infamous "swimming" test. The suspect's limbs would be bound together and they would be lowered into pond water by ropes. Hopkins saw the principle as being simple – if they sank and drowned, they would be innocent and in heaven; if they floated, they would be tried as a witch. He found this devious method simple and effective.

Partly through fear, groups of villagers would act as witnesses for the prosecutors, and Hopkins and Stearne would find ready support from local clergymen. In the Manningtree area, a group of "women searchers" – a panel of professed experts whose names regularly appeared in various indictments, were called on as witnesses to suspicious lumps or other marks on witches. It was with this wider support that Hopkins was able to prosecute his witch-finding exploits.

Hopkins had implicated 36 women by the spring of 1645, and had seen 19 of them tried and executed at Chelmsford by 17th July 1645. He wrote a short pamphlet: 'The Discovery of Witches', published in 1647; with this publication, he was able to define "witchcraft" to the public. In his pamphlet, Hopkins argued that experienced searchers, "Can justify their skill to any 'critic' indeed, these skills were fundamental to the discovery of witches. True experts would not be confused by bogus witches' teats and would be able to show good reasons why such marks are not natural, neither that they happen by such natural cause".

Hopkins and Stearne, along with local justices, clergymen and other notable inhabitants believed they were performing a public service with the witch-hunts. But local country-people said that it was Hopkins' personal financial greed that motivated his intentions. Hopkins denied these accusations, citing that, although Stearne and he put themselves at risk with their work, they were welcomed and given "thanks and recompense". But records from their actions in Stowmarket alone show Hopkins was paid £23, and in Aldeburgh he was paid £6 – a relatively high payment when compared with the average countryman’s wage of just 6d a day. It was estimated that his fees may have totalled about £1000.

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