Stage #4: The Witch is Arrested

by Jenny Gibbons

Stage 4: The Witch is Arrested

If the authorities believed that the accusation had some merit, the Witch was then arrested and placed in jail unless she could post bail.

Bail plays a tiny role in the Witch trials. Most areas didn't allow bail. Moreover Witches tended to be very poor, and few could take advantage of it. But for wealthy Witches, bail could be a life-saver. Both because it kept you out of prison (which was usually a lethal sty) and because it held out the possibility of escape if you were willing to forfeit your bail. In Salem, Philip and Mary English were allowed to wander Boston during the day; not surprisingly, they took this opportunity to flee to New York and escape trial.

"Going to jail" doesn't sound so awful -- but it was the final stage of the "trial" for many Witches. Early modern jails were filthy and disease ridden. They were periodically swept by plagues, and in some areas up to one third of all accused Witches died from disease awaiting trial. In fact, "jail death" killed more Spanish Witches than the Inquisition! There's no predicting how long your trial might take. You might be dead within a week (like the Gamperle family). However, many Witches spent a year or more waiting for their case to be heard. For them "jail death" was a severe threat.

"Jails" varied wildly from place to place. Many towns had regular jails. Some German cities tried so many Witches that they had special "Witch-prisons" just to handle those cases. The Spanish Inquisition had special prisons called "the Secret Jails." When you were sent to the Secret Jails, you disappeared off the face of the planet. No one except the Inquisition knew where you were, or even if you were alive. No one -- not the king, the bishop, or your relatives -- had the right to know what had happened to you. And you stayed there, often in solitary confinement, as long as the Inquisition wanted.

But in many of the more rural areas, there were no jails. So where did courts put their accused Witches? Church and inquisitorial courts would often imprison Witches in monasteries, though this tended to annoy the monks.

Secular courts that didn't have prisons came up with some weird solutions. Most times they simply locked you up in any sort of strong building or room. Finnmark (Norway) used a castle's dungeon, popularly known as "the witches' hole." Scottish Witches could be locked up in barns, church steeples, and tollbooths.

Denmark imprisoned the Witch in her accuser's home, a practice that left the Witch open to endless abuse by the people who thought she'd harmed them! I don't know of any detailed descriptions of this in English, but to get a taste for what these Witches went through, you can read the account of the Witches of Warboys (England).

When the Throckmorton children became possessed they claimed that Alice Samuel had bewitched them. For the next three and a half years Alice was forced to live with the Throckmortons, enduring daily scratching, constant pressure to repent, and a revolting amount of verbal and emotional abuse. Alice was rarely allowed out of the children's' presence; she even had to sleep with them. After a couple years of these torments she broke down and confessed, condemning herself and her entire family.

All of this was horrible, but it got much, much worse if you were poor. Many areas expected you to pay for your own food and upkeep while you were in prison. How could you make money while you were in prison? You couldn't -- and so many prisoners could not afford to pay for their food. They were still fed (early courts weren't cruel enough to starve prisoners to death). However the prisoner was now a debtor. So even if the original charge against them (Witchcraft) was dropped, they still weren't released from prison until their food bill was paid. And since the prisoners had no way of earning money, they languished in jail until some outside person -- family, friend, kind stranger -- paid their bill.

America offers several monstrous examples of this. Margaret Jacobs, one of the Salem Witches, couldn't afford to pay her "bill" because the town had confiscated all of her family's goods. Thus she was forced to remain in jail -- even though the charges against her had been dropped -- until a kind stranger heard of her plight and paid her debts. Sarah Dastan wasn't so lucky. Found "not guilty," she nevertheless died in jail while her family tried to raise the money to release her. For a slave or an indentured servant the situation was nearly hopeless. Both Tituba and Mary Watkins had to remain in jail until new masters were willing to buy them.

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