How Did They Spot a Witch in the 1700s?

Not all accused of witchcraft were as obvious as the cauldron-stirring trio from MacBeth.
... Images

Given the strict religious atmosphere of the 1700s -- a time that tolerated little deviation from established doctrine for either Protestants or Catholics -- spotting witches only required pointing out violations of those tenets. Because religious doctrine is often open to interpretation, and religious leaders like Cotton Mather in Salem, Massachusetts and Inquisitors in Europe were willing to hang or burn people at the slightest hint of "unholy" eccentricity, accusations usually resulted in the death of the accused.

1 Eye Witness Accounts

Many of the infamous Salem witch-trials of the late 1690s began through accusations by young girls claiming to have seen certain village women engaged in activities associated with witchcraft -- from dancing naked in the woods to flying on broomsticks. It wasn't an essential requirement to actually see anyone doing any of these things. The willingness to say that you saw someone performing these acts was generally good enough to get them arrested. While witch-hunting declined in later years, so-called eye-witness accounts continued to play a major part in witch-trials throughout the Western world as long as those trials continued -- even into the 1800s in many places.

2 Confessions

Because torture was an acceptable and common form of “getting at the truth,” and that the torture did not stop until the confession was obtained, many of the accused were condemned by their own testimony. Testimony often included -- as a requisite for release -- the indictment of “accomplices” in witchcraft and satanic rituals, which further added to the number of victims in prison awaiting torture and trial.

3 Incriminating Evidence

So-called witches were distinguished from more “righteous” individuals in many places where witch-hunting was common by such things as keeping a black cat, using a cauldron to cook in, having and using ointments and salves, and even owning a broomstick. Any of these things, could get you into hot water -- never mind that all were deemed perfectly normal household trappings before the witch-hunting fever.

4 Devil's Marks

If all else failed to convict, the tell-tale marks set upon people accused of witchcraft by the devil in claiming them as his own were sure to seal the verdict. Any freckle, mole, birthmark or other blemish upon the skin was a sure sign of a witch. Considering the rarity of perfect skin, it could be surmised that this measuring stick would surely net the desired goal. It might also account for the Puritan habit of covering from casual view every possible inch of exposed skin. If no likely-looking mark could be found, the inquisitors set about pricking the skin all over with needles until they eventually found an insensitive area -- the hallmark of the devil's mark.

5 The Witches Teat

A supernumerary nipple was always cause for a witch-alarm, given the likelihood of its being used to suckle a familiar or the devil's offspring, but any protuberant blemish such as a large mole or wart might warrant suspicion. Pricking these “blemishes” with needles to see if they bled or hurt somehow proved their function. The witches teat is not to be confused with a witches' or devil's mark, though they may appear similar. The mark constituted the sign of a covenant with the devil, while the teat served to nourish -- with blood rather than milk -- a demonic being.