Stage #7: Interrogation

by Jenny Gibbons

Stage 7: Interrogation

During torture the judge would ask the Witch questions about her alleged crimes. If the Witch confessed, the torture stopped.

In regular trials, the big limitation on interrogation was that "leading questions" were discouraged. A leading question is a question that suggests (or demands) the answer the interrogator wants to hear. For example, "Did you not, at a diabolical sabbat on All Hallow's Eve, give unspeakable devotion to Satan who appeared before you in the form of a black goat?" is a leading question. Courts were supposed to ask non-leading questions instead, such as "What did you do at the last sabbat?"

Leading questions are bad because they allow the questioner to put words in the mouth of the accused. With our example, the Witch might not have originally known that Satan supposedly took the form of a black goat and visited Witches on All Hallow's Eve. After questioning, she certainly did.

However once the Witch crazes hit, the rules against leading questions were dropped. All manuals for inquisitors contained recommended questions, many of them leading ones. A secular magistrate who was new to Witch hunting could buy lists of standard questions. Many judges used lists of "yes/no" questions; the interrogator would run down the list of questions, checking the ones the Witch denied. If any of her answers were "incorrect" the Witch could be tortured again until she produced the "right" response.

The most deadly form of leading question was the list of suspects. Normally, when you believed that a criminal had accomplices, it was illegal to name the people you suspected. A judge could ask, "Who helped you? Did you not have help?" But they weren't allowed to say, "Goodwife Morrow was there, wasn't she?" Again, this changed in Witch trials. Courts routinely provided Witches with long lists of the people they suspected. All she had to do was say "yes, they were at the sabbat", and her tortures would stop.

Friedrich Spee described the interrogations that he himself had witnessed: "The law prescribes that no one under torture shall be questioned about accomplices by name; but this is disregarded and names are put in the mouths of the accused for denunciation. This is not only customary in many places, but special crimes, places and times for the Sabbath, and other details, are suggested in the questions. . . Some executioners, when preparing the accused for torture, will tell them what accomplices to denounce and warn them not to refuse; they will also tell them what others have said about them, so that they will know what details to confess, and thus make all accord. Thus the protocols are made to agree, and the evidence of guilt is perfect."

If torture didn't make the Witch confess, courts resorted to trickery. The Malleus Maleficarum encouraged judges to lie to Witches, to promise them mercy if they would confess. Wasn't it a sin for the judge to lie? Not if the judges should "employ a mental reservation: when they spoke of mercy they were to mean by that mercy to society, which could best be accomplished through the witch's demise."

This suggestion was widely followed. Brian Darcy, the judge who tried the Witches of St. Osyth (England), tricked Elizabeth Bennett into giving the confession that cost her her life. "They which do confess the truth of their doings," he told her, "they shall have much favour; but the other, they shall be burned and hanged." Elizabeth believed him. She confessed and was killed for it.

Anything that produced a confession was fair play. One inquisitor starved a young Witch for several days then gave him copious amounts of potent wine until, in a drunken stupor, the boy convicted himself and several friends. Sweden would stage mock executions. Unconfessing Witches were condemned and led out to the gallows, firmly convinced that they were about to die. A priest accompanied them, urging them not to face God with this sin on their souls. If they confessed, he said, he would absolve them of their sins. Few Witches accepted the offer. The silent ones stood by the gallows for a few moments, and then were marched back to prison. But those who trusted their priests never saw jail again. They were absolved alright -- and then their mock execution became a real one!

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