Black Magic: 6 Infamous Witch Trials in History
In one of the earliest recorded witch trials, in 1543, a woman named Gyde Spandemager, the wife of a merchant, was accused of casting spells that caused the winds to fail as Danish warships pursued an enemy Dutch fleet.
After being tortured, Spandemager confessed to witchcraft and named several other people as accomplices, who were then also tortured and put on trial. None of the others confessed, but authorities executed Spandemager by burning her at the stake.
Several celebrated witch trials in Denmark resulted in the executions of hundreds of people. Historians estimate that around 250 alleged witches were executed in the Danish district of Jutland alone during the 1600s.
After storms almost wrecked the ship carrying the princess to Scotland, the royal couple met in Norway to be married. But storms also struck the ship carrying the newlyweds back to Scotland.
When the Danish minister of finance was accused of underequipping the ships for the storms, he then accused a group of women in Copenhagen of casting spells to raise the bad weather.
One of the suspects, a woman named Anna Koldings named five other women as witches, who all admitted under torture they had sent the devil to climb up the keel of the ship carrying the princess. Koldings and 12 other women were burned at the stake in 1590.
In 1590, James set up his own tribunal to investigate accusations of witchcraft in the town of North Berwick, near Edinburgh. By 1592, the tribunal had tortured and put on trial approximately 70 suspected witches, including some Scottish nobles.
Many were burned at the stake, including Agnes Sampson, an elderly and respectable woman who denied, while under severe torture, that she was a witch. Finally, however, she broke down and confessed to plotting with the devil to kill the king.
In 1615, Kepler’s 68-year-old mother, Katharina, was accused of witchcraft by neighbors in her hometown of Leonberg. The accusers claimed Katharina used spells to make her enemies ill and that she could transform herself into a cat.
Although Katharina was never put on trial, her investigation lasted six years, including 14 months when she was chained to the floor of a prison cell in an effort to get her to confess. Johannes Kepler loyally defended his mother throughout her ordeal, and Katharina was set free in 1621 — but died just six months later.
The trials began after a group of young girls in Salem Village began having fits of contortions and screaming, and accused several local women of bewitching them.
A special court was set up to hear the cases, and by September 1692, more than 150 men, women and children had been accused of witchcraft. The town executed 19 of the people by hanging.
But public opinion turned against the witch trials, and in 1711, a different Massachusetts court annulled the guilty verdicts against those in Salem still accused of witchcraft.
Wenham initially denied being a witch, but a potion was found in her rooms, and she stumbled while reciting the Lord’s Prayer, which people suggested was evidence of witchcraft.
But Wenham’s witch trial became a cause célèbre in English society, and even the judge took a lenient view. When the prosecutors suggested that witnesses had seen Wenham flying, the judge remarked that flying was not illegal.
The trial eventually found Wenham guilty, but the judge set aside her conviction and suspended the death penalty. She died a free woman, in 1730.