Witch Trials: Stage #1 -- The Accusation

by Jenny Gibbons

The first step in any Witch trial was the accusation -- the point when some individual was charged with Witchcraft. There were three different ways that you could end up on trial: complaint, rumor, or denunciation.

Most Witch trials began when a person thought he'd been bewitched and complained to the authorities. Usually this didn't happen overnight. Studies of English trials show that a village often brooded for decades before launching an accusation. People noted sudden deaths and strange illnesses, "signs" of Witchcraft. Gradually one or two people fell under suspicion. Each odd event increased pressure in the town, until some final straw precipitated a trial. This is one of the reasons that Witches were often elderly. A Witch may have been suspected all her adult life, but it frequently took years for the "pressure" in the town to build to a boil.

A Witch could also be accused because of "general fame" or rumor. In some areas, an inquisitor or judge was allowed to arrest a person if s/he was commonly said to be a Witch. Many modern people assume that this was the "normal" way of starting a Witch trial, that there were professional Witch hunters scouring the land for Witches and forcing the peasantry to betray their wise women. In fact, rumor accusations were quite rare. Very few Witch hunters went out looking for Witches -- the populace were happy to accuse more than they could try.

The third type of accusation -- denunciation -- caused thousands of deaths. It's the legal "innovation" that allowed the great Witch crazes to occur. Denunciations are when one "Witch" accused another. When a suspected Witch was questioned, she was usually asked to name other Witches. Under torture, many did indeed "denounce" other "Witches." Simple math shows the horror of this. Say one Witch denounces five others. Each of them is tortured, each accuses another five. Now 25 more "Witches" are dragged to jail, and the process continues. Denunciations are the driving force behind the enormous crazes where hundreds of Witches died.

What stopped them? Usually fatigue, skepticism, or opposition from high-ranking officials. A few towns tried Witches until they couldn't, either because they ran out of money or, in one chilling case, because nearly every woman in town was dead. Most panics ran until they became "unbelievable." Perhaps too many people had been accused, and the town could not accept that there were that many about. Perhaps Witches began naming "weird" Witches, like devout Christians or ministers. Crazes usually ended when people no longer thought that real Witches were being arrested. Lastly, powerful men occasionally shut down the trials -- usually after they'd been denounced as Witches.

Denunciations are also one of the factors that caused the huge difference in the death tolls of inquisitorial and secular courts. As I've mentioned, inquisitorial courts killed around 1% of accused Witches; secular courts generally killed between 30% to 90%. Why is there such a huge difference? Was the Inquisition that much nicer than the secular authorities?

No it wasn't -- but it didn't allow denunciations. Most secular courts accepted testimony from an accused Witch. If she said she saw Goodwife Morrow at a sabbat, then the court had an eyewitness. And two eyewitnesses was enough for conviction... To the Inquisition, however, a confessed Witch was a liar and a heretic -- and therefore her word meant nothing. Technically, the Inquisition wasn't supposed to investigate a Witch who had only been denounced. In some cases, they did anyways. Inquisitorial courts weren't perfect, and they often broke their own rules. A significant number didn't however. For example, Benandante Paolo Gasparutto (see the biographies) accused several Witches. None were investigated.

Accepting denunciations made a huge difference in the numbers of deaths. All the great Witch crazes happened under secular courts. The Inquisition's one craze (the Basque Dream Epidemic) killed only eleven people (six executions, five deaths awaiting trial, out of 1900 suspects). Inquisitorial trials usually focused on one or two individuals. Denunciations allowed secular trials to mushroom into enormous, lethal affairs.

The Modern Connection: All three forms of accusation exist in our modern legal system. I can accuse someone of a crime. A police officer can launch an investigation based on common knowledge and rumor. He needs evidence, of course, to actually arrest someone -- but he did in the Burning Times, too. Finally, one criminal can denounce another.

The biggest difference is that we don't allow torture. Torture was the prime motivating force behind the panics, for few people could steadfastly refuse to denounce their neighbors when faced with an endless stream of pain and suffering. We offer other inducements, though: plea bargaining, giving State's evidence, etc. There was even one ugly case from Washington State where police allowed a man's minister to harangue him in jail, urging him to confess and denounce other "Satanists" lest he go to Hell. In the end the man broke, naming several other men who had been at a "Satanic sabbat" with him. Investigations ensued. Though these men were never convicted, their reputations were ruined and they spent thousands of dollars defending their innocence.

Return to the Stages of a Witch Trial