Matthew Hopkins was the self-appointed Witch-Finder General in England from 1644-1647. During his time as a witch-finder, there were more people hanged for accused witchcraft than there had been in the previous 160 years. While his witch-hunting tactics were questionable at best, the methods continued to be used for years after his death.
The story of the Witch-Finder General is an interesting one, rife with violence and sensationalism. People died from being accused as witches and Hopkins was paid generously for the dark deeds he committed. Greed has always made people do questionable things, and in the case of Matthew Hopkins, it turned him into a serial killer. Did witches even exist during that time? If they did, Hopkins's controversial tests to prove as much did not reveal worthwhile information.
Continue reading to learn more about Matthew Hopkins and the fascinating history of witch hunting. In the end you be the judge - were there really any witches in England or was it all just mass hysteria?
The early life of Matthew Hopkins is almost a complete mystery up until his witch hunting began. Hopkins was born around 1620 near a small village in Essex, England. His family was reportedly well off and respected by citizens. His father, James Hopkins, was a clergyman of the Church of England. Matthew was one of six children, which we know only from his father's Last Will and Testament. No birth or school records have ever been found relating to Matthew. We do know he had some form of education, due to his handwriting skills and the fact that he was a lawyer before becoming a witch hunter.
The 1640s were an unpleasant time in England due to the ongoing civil war. Death, disease, poverty, and crop failures were rampant. People were already paranoid and under the impression that everything bad that was going on could only be the work of the devil. With all the panic and hysteria, it was a perfect time for Matthew Hopkins to seemingly appear out of nowhere with his new self-appointed job as a Witch-Finder General. Hopkins, a religious fanatic, wanted to rid the world of the enemies of God.
Hopkins studied to be a lawyer and knew that torturing people was against the law in 1640s England. Not one to let laws get in the way of his sadistic practices, he just referred to it as interrogation. To prove that citizens were witches, Hopkins and his assistants would start their "interrogations" with sleep deprivation. The suspects would be forced to stay awake in their homes for however long it took to get a confession. Sometimes this would go on for days. If that wasn't bad enough, they were also not allowed to eat. If the suspected witches grew tired and fell asleep, they would be forced to stand up and walk around while the witch hunters screamed at them to come clean about being a witch. Most of the suspects were willing to confess to anything after days without rest and food.
80-year-old Elizabeth Clarke of Essex, England, was Hopkins's first victim of accused witchcraft. A local tailor by the name of John Rivet was the first to accuse Clarke of being a witch and rumors throughout the town soon followed. Clarke, a one-legged widow, had lived in the town her entire life and was known by all of the residents. Interestingly enough, Clarke's own mother was accused of being a witch and was hanged sometime before. The gossip of Clarke eventually reached Hopkins, who immediately started his interrogation on her. After four days and nights of torture, Hopkins finally got a confession from the elderly Clarke, but he wasn't satisfied with just an admission of guilt from her; he also forced her to name other witches in the town. Clark complied, which led to the arrest of an additional five suspects. During trial, Hopkins gave the following statement regarding Clarke:
“The said Elizabeth forthwith told this informant and one Master Stearne, there present, if they would stay and do the said Elizabeth no hurt, she would call one of her white imps and play with it on her lap. But this informant told her they would not allow it. And they staying there a while longer, the said Elizabeth confessed she had carnal copulation with the devil six or seven years; and he would appear to her three or four times a week at her bedside, and go to bed with her and lie with her half a night together, in the shape of a proper gentleman, with a laced band, having the whole proportion of a man. And he would say to her, “Bessie, I must lie with thee”. And she never did deny him”.
Due to Clarke's forced confession, she was found guilty and hanged in 1645.