‘The Witch’ (in cinemas 11 March) is being called one of the best – and most disturbing – horror movies in years. Such incidences of supposed witchcraft have troubled society for centuries, making for tales as dark as those seen on screen.
And in many cases much darker.
The Salem Witches
Perhaps the most famous cases of so-called witchcraft in history (and an inspiration for ‘The Witch’), the Salem Witch Trials began in 1692 in Massachusetts, now viewed as a notorious instance of mass hysteria caused by an era of religious extremism and fear, plus incidences of Native American retribution and an epidemic of smallpox.
When two girls began suffering fits and uncontrollable screaming, it was deemed the work of witches. 20 were implicated and executed - nearly all by hanging – 14 of whom were women. The trials were later deemed unlawful, but lasting damage had already been done, leaving an indelible stain on American history.
The Pendle Witches
The trials of the Pendle witches preceded Salem by almost a century, occurring in 1612 in and around Pendle Hill in Lancashire, a place thought 'wild and lawless’ at the time. 12 were accused of the murders of 10 people in the local area by the use of witchcraft, among them six from the same family, the Demdikes, and others from the Chattox family. It’s thought the families were in competition making their livings from healing, begging and extortion. 10 were executed, and despite a petition delivered to the then Home Secretary Jack Straw in 1998 appealing for their pardon, the convictions still stand.
Agnes Sampson was the most feted of those accused in the North Berwick witch trials in East Lothian in 1590, which saw more than 100 accused and 70 executed. A respected healer and a midwife, she was among a supposed coven which sought to sink the ship of King James VI’s new Danish bride in a supernatural storm, and then the King’s own ship after he set sail to retrieve her. The King questioned Agnes personally, subjecting her to horrific torture, including the use of an iron muzzle called the Witche’s Bridle. Extracting a confession, she was garrotted and burned at the stake. Her ghost is said to roam the halls of Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh.
Bridget Cleary was murdered by her husband Michael Cleary in 1895. He claimed that he did so because he believed his wife had been consumed or possessed by a fairy changeling, Cleary often referred to in folklore as 'the last witch burned in Ireland’. After a violent argument, conducted in front of relatives and neighbours, Michael Cleary set her alight with lamp oil, possibly while she was still alive, insisting to those in attendance that the changeling would die, and his wife would be returned. He was found guilty of manslaughter, and spent 15 years in prison, while nine others were indicted on charges of 'wounding’. The story lives on in Irish culture, a popular – but macabre – nursery rhyme reading 'Are you a witch, or are you a fairy, or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?’
Anna Göldi is often cited as the last person to be executed for witchcraft in Europe. Working as a maid for a wealthy physician in Glarus, Switzerland, it was claimed that she had put needles in bread and milk served to her employer’s daughter using witchcraft. She was arrested, and tortured, after which she admitted a pact with the devil. Though she retracted her confession once the torture was over, she was sentenced to death by beheading in 1782. The incident was widely decried across the country and also by the Holy Roman Empire. In 2007, her death was officially acknowledged as a miscarriage of justice. Her exoneration was granted 226 years after her death, her trial branded illegal. It later emerged that Göldi had threatened to reveal an affair she was having with her employer.
‘The Witch’ comes to cinemas on 11 March. Watch a trailer below.
Image credits: Rex/Wikipedia