Hopkins, Matthew (d. 1647)
The infamous English ‘‘witchfinder’’ who, with his accomplices,
persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, or killed hundreds of
unfortunate individuals he believed to be involved in the horrors
of witchcraft. Given the amount of damage he accomplished,
it is difficult to realize he operated for only 14 months.
The English philosopher and writer William Godwin commented
‘‘Nothing can place the credulity of the English nation on
the subject of witchcraft in a more striking point of view, than
the history of Matthew Hopkins, who, in a pamphlet published
in 1647 in his own vindication, assumes to himself the surname
of the Witchfinder. He fell by accident, in his native county of
Suffolk, into contact with one or two reputed witches, and,
being a man of an observing turn and an ingenious invention,
struck out for himself a trade, which brought him such moderate
returns as sufficed to maintain him, and at the same time
gratified his ambition by making him a terror to many, and the
object of admiration and gratitude to more, who felt themselves
indebted to him for ridding them of secret and intestine enemies,
against whom, as long as they proceeded in ways that left
no footsteps behind, they felt they had no possibility of guarding
Hopkins began to operate as a witchfinder in March 1645.
He had as a text King James I’s book Demonology. After two or
three successful experiments, Hopkins engaged in a regular
tour of the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, and Huntingdonshire.
One of his confederates was a man named John
Stern. They visited every town in their route that invited them
and were paid 20 shillings and their expenses, as well as whatever
they received from the spontaneous gratitude of those who
deemed themselves indebted to Hopkins and his gang.
By this expedient they won a favorable reception and a set
of credulous persons who would listen to their dictates as if they
were oracles. They were able to play the game into one another’s
hands and were sufficiently strong to overcome all timid
and irresolute opposition. In every town they visited they inquired
for reputed witches. Having taken them into custody the
witchfinders could be sure of a certain number of zealous abettors
and obtained a clear stage for their experiments.
They subdued their victims with a certain air of authority,
as if they had received a commission from heaven for the discovery
of misdeeds. They assailed them with a multitude of artfully
constructed questions. They stripped them naked in
search of the ‘‘devil’s marks’’ on different parts of their bodies,
which they ascertained by running pins into those parts, saying
that if they were genuine marks the ‘‘witches’’ would feel no
They threw their victims into rivers and ponds, declaring
that, if the persons accused were true witches, the water (which
was the symbol of admission into the Christian Church) would
not receive them.
If the persons examined remained obstinate, Hopkins and
his men seated them in constrained and uncomfortable positions,
occasionally binding them with cords, and compelled
them to remain so without food or sleep for 24 hours. They
walked the person up and down a room, one taking him or her
under each arm, till the accused dropped down with fatigue.
They carefully swept the room in which the experiment was
made so that they might keep away spiders and flies, which
were supposed to be devils or their imps in disguise.
The inquisition of Hopkins and his confederates culminated
in 1646. So many persons had been committed to prison on
suspicion of witchcraft that the government was compelled to
take the affair in hand. The rural magistrates before whom
Hopkins and his confederates brought their victims were
obliged, willingly or unwillingly, to commit those accused for
trial. To defend himself, Hopkins published and wrote The Discovery
of Witches, which detailed the symptoms of witchery and
the techniques to find them.
A commission was granted to the earl of Warwick and others
to hold a session of jail delivery against them. Lord Warwick
was, at the time, the most popular nobleman in England. Dr.
Calamy, the most eminent divine of the period of the Commonwealth,
was sent with him to see (according to Richard Baxter)
that no fraud was committed or wrong done to the parties
Warwick sat on the bench with the judges and participated
in their deliberations. As a result of this inquisition, 16 persons
were hanged at Yarmouth in Norfolk, 15 at Chelmsford, and
60 at various places in the county of Suffolk. Bulstrode Whitelocke
in his Memorials of English Affairs (1649) writes of many
witches being apprehended around Newcastle on information
from a person he calls ‘‘the Witch-finder’’—very likely Hopkins.
In 1652 and 1653 the same author spoke of women in
Scotland who were put to incredible torture to extort from
them confessions of witchcraft.
The fate of Hopkins was such as might be expected. The
multitude were at first horrified at the monstrous charges that
were advanced against him. But, after a time, they began to reflect
and saw that they had acted with too much haste. The man
who they at first hailed as a public benefactor they came to regard
as a cunning impostor, dealing in cold blood for personal
gain and the lure of short-lived fame. The multitude rose up
against Hopkins and resolved to subject him to one of his own
tests, which were detailed in his own book, The Discovery of
Witches. They dragged him to a pond and threw him into the
water as a witch. It seems he floated on the surface, as a witch
ought to do. They then pursued him and drove him into obscurity
and disgrace. Whether this story is true or not, Hopkins retired
to Manningtree, Essex, in 1646 and died of tuberculosis
within a year.
Kittredge, George Lyman. Witchcraft in Old and New England.
New York Atheneum, 1972.
Robbins, Russell Hope. The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology.
New York Crown Publishers, 1959.

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