Witchcraft – I don’t know if it’s real or not. I’ve never met a witch. I’ve met gypsies, I’ve met Canadians, but never a witch. Yet for much of human history they were commonly believed in. Many were killed after being accused of witchcraft – at least a hundred thousand by some accounts. In truth it could be in the millions. Either way, countless figures of history have been accused of being real witches. Most were just innocent women consumed by a mob of mass hysteria. But some cases are less clear cut. For whatever reason a handful of people have done down in history as notorious, real withes able to command genuine magical powers. Here are ten of them.
10: Catherne Montvoisin
Without a doubt the most notorious witch from history was Catherine Montvoisin. Emerging from 17th century France, she was fortune teller to some of Europe’s most powerful people, including members of the French royal family. But she was no mere fortune teller. She led a secret network of criminals, producing and selling poison. The amount of poison she sold was frankly stunning. It’s thought at least a thousand people died from it. She was also said to lead a coven of real witches, performing black mass rituals, during which she would sacrifice babies to Satan. For a fee, she could also perform spells, placing curses on your enemies, so that their loved ones will die. Through this she grew fabulously wealthy. But in 1670 it all went wrong. In that year the Duchess of Orleans died of unknown causes.
Being only 26, many assumed she was poisoned. Further investigation uncovered the poison ring of Catherine Montvoisin. Without proof she killed the Duchess, she was instead charged with witchcraft, tortured, and burned to death publicly.
9: Agnes Sampson
If you ever meet someone called Agnes, she’s probably a witch – here’s an example. It was the year 1590. The king of Scotland had just been to Oslo, where he married a Norwegian princess. On their journey back, massive storms battered the Scottish fleet. As any good medieval kind would, he blamed witchcraft. By the years end, witch hunts had broken out across Scotland. Dozens of people were implicated, many of which put to death. That fate would befall Agnes Sampson. She was a well known healer, making use of traditional herbal remedies.
With a good record of healing clients, she was accused of using witchcraft to summon the devil, who granted her this magical healing ability. Denying these charges, she was thrown in a dungeon and tortured for days. Eventually she gave a confession. That she was indeed a real witch, had long worshiped Satan, and had even made love for him. So of course they burned her to death. That’s not the kind of confession you can just let slide.
We’ve all heard of the Salem witch trials, but few know how it all began. The first person accused of witchcraft was called Tituba. A native-American, he origin is not entirely known. But she was brought to Salem as a slave, lawfully owned by Samuel Parris. For years she lived with the Parris family, caring for the two young daughters. In time the girls began to experience fits and hallucination. With no obvious cause, the town doctor blamed witchcraft. Tituba was soon accused of bewitching the girls with magic. And so, alongside two other women, she was put on trial. While the other defendants denied all charges, Tituba admitted using sorcery and being a servant of the devil. She admitted possessing people, animals, and mythical creatures.
She even accused other women of practicing witchcraft, including her two co-defendants. Strangely she was only sent to jail, unlike many following victims who were put to death. Her confession birthed a moral panic, eventually leading to more than two hundred people being accused. The Salem witch trials had began. After a year in jail Tituba was sold to a new master, disappearing from history.
7: Ann Hibbins
An entire generation prior to the Salem witch trials, there was a case of witchcraft in the still young town of Boston. The witch in question, Ann Hibbins. Wealthy and well connected, her brother in law was a future governor of Massachusetts. Her husband was a respected magistrate, who condemned another witch to die in 1648. But in 1654 he died, leaving Ann a widow. She was not a popular woman, having sued a group of carpenters several years before. Apparently the local community really loved their carpenters, because it fave her quite the reputation. Jut months after the death of her spouse, she was accused of being a witch, and legal proceedings began.
None of the evidence against her has survived so we can only speculate on what really happened here. But she was found guilty one way or another. Sentenced to public execution, Ann Hibbins was hanged by the neck until dead. Ironically the man who replaced her husband was among those who condemned her to this fate. Moral of the story, never take legal action against carpenters.
6: Moll Dyer
In Southern Maryland is the small town of Leonardtown. With a population of just three thousand there is nothing especially unusual about it, apart from it supposedly being haunted by the ghosts of real witches. According to local legend it all began in the winter of 1697. It was a particularly harsh winter, the town gripped by a vicious snow storm. Blizzards were not unknown to the community. But this one was somehow different, colder and longer lasting than any in memory. Driven mad by such conditions, witchcraft was blamed. The scapegoat, a local woman by the name of Moll Dyer. A beautiful young healer, she had long been part of the community.
But now her knowledge of medicine was just cause for denouncing her witch. With fire and pitchfork they drove her out of town, chasing her into the surrounding woodland. Days later, the storm died down and her corpse was discovered. She was found lifeless, frozen to a large rock outside town. There’s no evidence Moll Dyer even existed, but her story has survived through lore. They say the stone she died on still exists, but is cursed, and just touching it can cause death.
5: Malin Matsdotter
Many Swedish women were accused of witchcraft, but none are more notorious than Malin Matsdotter. In 1668 her husband was put to death after he was caught having sex with a cow. That’s not even a joke, he was executed for bestiality. But the worst was yet to come. At the time Sweden was in the grip of a frenzy. People saw witches everywhere, suspecting there was some kind of mass conspiracy to kidnap children. Now wanting witches to steal their children, people lost their minds. Thousands of people were openly accused either of heresy or being real witches. Hundreds were killed, and in 1676 it was Malin’s turn.
Her own daughter accused her of being a witch, claiming she was in regular contact with Satan. At her trial other women accused her of kidnapping their children for the devil. They warned that if Marlin wasn’t executed they would kill her themselves. This, combined with her daughters claim led the court to an easy verdict. In 1676 she was burned to death, a death so brutal no one was ever again executed that way in Stockholm. Yet it’s said she died without making a sound, owing to the fact witches don’t feel pain.
4: Alice Kyteler
As far as history is concerned, the first witch in Ireland was called Alice Kyteler. Unusually for a 13th century woman, she was married four times, outliving each husband. A notorious figure she was known locally as a ruthless money lender. Along with her second husband she was accused of murdering her previous spouse. So when that husband passed away, and then her next one died also, things were looking grim. She then sued her former step son for money and found a new husband. When that man died, his children accused her of poisoning him. In time rumor spread she murdered them as an offering to the devil, who she had secretly worshiped for decades.
Before long Bishops were accusing her of being a witch and communicating with demons. They pushed for a formal trial. But before that could happen she disappeared. Some say she fled the country and escaped, but in truth we just don’t know.
3: Ursulina de Jesus
In the mid 17 hundreds there was a Brazilian woman called Ursulina de Jesus. Virtually nothing about her is known, but according to surviving court documents she was a witch. On finding out her husband was having an affair, she put a curse of him, causing him to go sterile. Now forever unable to have children, he turned her into authorities. In the blink of an eye she was found guilty and sentenced to death, burned in public like so many others accused of being real witches. She might be the only woman in history ever executed for the crime of “Removing a man’s virility”.
2: Old Demdike
In the north of England can be found one of our world’s most mysterious places: Pendle Hill. Surrounding this hill are a number of villages that in the early 16 hundreds came to be known as a hotbed of witchcraft. For years rumors had told of witches hiding out in the woodlands surrounding the hill. In secret these real witches of the north would gather to cast spells and even commit murder. So in 1612 authorities finally decided to come down hard on this alleged witchcraft. Soon to catch their attention was an old woman called Elizabeth Southerns, known to locals as “Old Demdike”.
She was a half blind 80 year old beggar who lived in a cave with her daughter and grand daughter. They had long been rejected by society, the daughter having some kind of genetic disorder, leaving her face disfigured, and the grandchild being mischievous. Now with a witch hunt gripping the community they seemed an obvious case. Under questioning they admitted being real witches and to selling their soul to the devil. They admitted putting curses on people just for insulting them and to bewitching a local child. So yeah, they were probably witches.
1: Witch of Endor
People don’t often bring this up but the bible tells of a powerful ancient witch. It was the old testament, during the reign of Saul, king of Israel. As king Saul outlawed wielders of magic – wizards, soothsayers, and witches, casting them out of his kingdom. But during his reign the Israelites were under threat of attack by their greatest enemy, the Philistines. Facing warfare, Saul lost confidence in himself and sort out the advice of a witch. Having driven most away it took him a long time to find one, but eventually Saul encountered the witch of Endor. At his request she summoned a ghost for him, that of the prophet Samuel.
To his horror Samuel chastised him for conspiring with a witch and predicted military disaster at the hands of the Philistines. So as far as encounters with real witches and dead prophets go, this one was awkward.