The Most Infamous Witch Hunters In History

If you're seeking some new faces to glue on your dartboard, this list of the most infamous witch hunters in history is perfect for you. Throughout the history of witch trials, starting in Europe and moving to New England, an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 people were accused, tried, and executed for witchcraft, and 80% of them were women.

As if murdering for no reason wasn't enough, witch hunters also employed painful and humiliating strategies to gather evidence of witchcraft. It was also one of the highest-paid gigs in the 16th through 17th centuries.

Whether witch-hunting was a money-making scheme or a way to win the loyalties of powerful rulers or religious leaders, the reason was never actual witchcraft.


  • Matthew Hopkins Gave Himself The Title Of Witch Finder General

    Matthew Hopkins first popped up in the historical canon in 1644, when he bought an inn with his father's inheritance in a town called Manningtree in Essex, England. This period was the perfect opportunity to get into the witch-hunting business thanks to King James I, who first pushed the paranoia that the land he ruled was chock full of demons and witches. In 1597, the king wrote a book called Demonologie, a guidebook to the occult. 

    When Matthew Hopkins met up with fellow "witchfinder" John Stearne in Manningtree, they were off to the races. Stearne first accused a group of 36 poor, uneducated women. Nineteen were found guilty and hanged, and the witch-hunting team was paid handsomely for their efforts. Following the first trial, the two men continued on as a team, with Stearne doing the accusing and Hopkins finding the evidence, which was usually a birthmark or a confession made after days of torture. They employed prickers, or people to stab the accused with a sharp object, proving them a witch if they didn't bleed. Some prickers created knives with retractable blades, a parlor trick to prove the impossible. They even hired other poor, desperate women to be what they called seekers, who were spies to find evidence on the accused women. 

    Hopkins and Stearne became so renowned, their services were called upon by the governments of surrounding towns, eventually trying and hanging witches in Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire, Suffolk, Essex, Bedfordshire, and Huntingdonshire. Some criticized them, saying the women weren't given a fair trial, even questioning why the Devil continued to target only poor, disenfranchised women. This did not stop the duo. They became the witchfinders of the land, and eventually, Matthew Hopkins was given the title of Witch Finder General. It was later discovered that Hopkins had made the title up and given it to himself. 

    The lucrative business lasted a year, and according to some estimates, Hopkins and Stearne caused the deaths of nearly 300 women between 1645 and 1646. Finally, a Puritan preacher named John Gaule wrote a book calling out their deadly scam. The gig was up for the Witch Finder General and his sidekick, and Matthew Hopkins died shortly after, presumably from tuberculosis. He did spend his last years penning a book called A Discovery of Witches to defend the legitimacy of his so-called business, and the book eventually became a popular read in New England during the Salem Witch Trials.

  • Heinrich Kramer Wrote The 'Malleus Maleficarum,' And The Catholic Church Found It Too Extreme

    Heinrich Kramer Wrote The 'Malleus Maleficarum,' And The Catholic Church Found It Too Extreme
    Photo: Unknown author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    When it comes to the guy who literally wrote the book on witchcraft, we have Heinrich Kramer to thank. Born in France in 1430, Kramer was religious from a very young age, joining the Dominican Order of Monks. He continued to make his way up the ladder of the Catholic Church and was appointed as inquisitor in his 40s for multiple regions of Europe we now know as Austria, Czech Republic, and Italy. 

    Kramer worked with another theologian, Jacob Sprenger, to write the most famous book on witchcraft of all time: The Malleus Maleficarum, which translates to “The Hammer of Witches.” When Kramer presented the book to the board of other inquisitors, it was shot down for being too extreme and straying too far from traditional Catholic demonology. In the 15th century, the Catholic Church ruled Europe with an iron fist, killing anyone who disagreed with them, so them seeing a book as extreme is quite significant.

  • Christian Caldwell Disguised Herself As A Man To Become A Witch Pricker

    In 1662, a man named John Dickson was hired as a contractor by the town of Elginshire, Scotland. The man would be paid daily to hunt witches, with a generous bonus every time a witch was correctly identified. The strange thing about John Dickson: He was the alias created by Christian Caldwell when she dressed as a man to get the job as a witch pricker. Like most career paths in 17th-century Scotland, it was a job only men were allowed to have. 

    Witch Prickers claimed they were experts in seeking out and prosecuting witches by pricking them with sharp objects. The prickers searched for an area on the accused's body that neither bled nor caused pain when stabbed with a needle. To find it, the prickers stripped the accused, usually a woman, of her clothes and shaved her entire body to look for a "devil's mark," or a birthmark that was supposed to indicate a mark left by Satan when the witch signed a pact with him. Prickers wouldn't stop until they found the spot, stabbing the victim over and over with different sharp needles and knives. This humiliating and painful torture was often performed in broad daylight in the center of the town square. 

    Why would Christian Caldwell want to take on this job? There are two good reasons: By pretending to be a pricker, she would avoid ever being accused or pricked herself, and the job of a pricker paid really, really well. The bonus made for identifying a witch would equal two months' salary of a skilled tradesman at that time. 

    Caldwell's scam only lasted a short while before she flew too close to the sun, accusing a highly educated court messenger of witchcraft. His connections with the court led to her interrogation, and eventually, her gender was revealed. Strangely enough, she did not suffer the same fate as the 10 victims who died from her pricking proof. She was exiled to Barbados to work on a plantation on the same day her last victim burned at the stake.

  • Sebastian Michaelis Investigated The Demonic Possession Of A Nun, But He Convicted The Priest Who Accused Her Instead

    Not much is known about Sebastien Michaelis, the French inquisitor of the late 1500s and early 1600s. What we do know is that later in his career, he considered himself a Demonologist, specializing in possessions. Before dabbling with demons, Michaelis served as the vice inquisitor on a number of witch trials from 1581 to 1582, leading to the conviction and death of 14 women for their alleged crime of necromancy. 

    It wasn't until 1610 that Michaelis had his first run-in with a demon. He was called to a convent at Aix-en-Provence, France, where a priest, Father Louis Gaufridi, and another man, Jean-Baptiste Romillon, claim that a young nun named Madeleine was possessed by demons. Madeleine turned the tables on the accusers, claiming that Father Gaufridi was possessed and the Devil made his breath into an aphrodisiac in an attempt to seduce her into joining him in his collaboration with Satan. 

    Sebastien Michaelis set to work searching for evidence of Madeleine's claims, and lo and behold, the Devil's Mark was found on the priest's body. Father Gaufridi confessed to his crimes in jail, likely from torture, and was burned at the stake in 1611. Sebastien Michaelis went on to write a book on his experiences with demons titled Pneumologie: Discours des Esprits.

  • Prince and Bishop Balthasar Von Dernbach Burned A Pregnant Woman At The Stake For Witchcraft

    Prince and Bishop Balthasar Von Dernbach Burned A Pregnant Woman At The Stake For Witchcraft
    Photo: Unknown author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Prince Bishop Balthasar von Dernbach was a strict Catholic who led the Fulda Witch Trials in Germany from 1603 to 1606. The prince was a leader of the counter-reformation and incited the witch trial to purge Fulda of the religious disobedience that he believed was caused by sorcery. 

    Von Dernbach's most famous victim was a pregnant woman named Merga Bien who was accused and jailed for witchcraft in 1603, despite her husband begging for her freedom. The basis of her conviction was that she had been married three times, her first two husbands dying and appointing their assets to her. In jail, she was brutally tortured until she confessed to murdering her second husband and their children, as well as attending Sabbat with the Devil.

    She and her third husband were married for 14 years before conceiving a child, which caused the courts to believe she was using contraception, a big no-no in early 17th-century Europe. Eventually, they tortured Merga Bien into admitting that the baby was conceived by Satan himself, and she burned at the stake in 1603. 

    Prince Bishop Balthasar von Dernbach's reign caused the death of around 205 people before his own death in 1605.

  • Pierre De Lancre Claimed A Whole Region Of 30,000 People Was Affected By Witchcraft

    Pierre De Lancre Claimed A Whole Region Of 30,000 People Was Affected By Witchcraft
    Photo: Anonymous / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Pierre De Lancre was a lawyer who was appointed by King Henry IV to investigate witchcraft after his long-held position as the lawyer of the Parlement of Bordeaux. He proved he was the man for the job by bragging about 600 people he had tortured and killed during a span of four months. The area King Henry IV was concerned with was the Basque territories, an area of land between France and Spain on the coast of the Bay of Biscay. According to Pierre De Lancre's expert investigation, the entire Basque region was afflicted by the workings of witchcraft, including the priests.

    In 1609, Pierre De Lancre encouraged the king to kill all 30,000 of the Basque-speaking people in the province of Lapurdi. Thankfully, De Lancre's plan to commit genocide against the Basque people didn't end up happening, but he still managed to torture and kill somewhere between 30 and 80 innocent souls.