Tag Archives: Matthew Hopkins

The Witchfinder in Salem

As tragic and interesting as the Salem Witch Trials are, they are still somewhat limited in the scope of characters and duration. So in the constant and evolving effort to market anything and everything about them, a bit of cultural appropriation always takes place: I see many images from Europe’s longer reign of witch-hunting used in Salem rather indiscriminately every year, most prominently the storied “swimming test”, and the Salem Witch Museum features a “strong Celtic woman, diminished and demonized by the church fathers in the middle ages” even though the myth of the midwife-witch has long been consigned to folklore by European historians. A very popular and creative “immersive media game theater” company called Intramersive Media here in Salem is staging the fourth chapter of their “Daemonologie” series this October at PEM’s Assembly House: an experience entitled “Smoke and Mirrors” centered on a seance in 1849. (I really wanted to go because I haven’t been in the Assembly House forever but that of course would mean staying in Salem for the October weekend performances which I just can’t do; in any case I think they’re sold out!) Now there is only one Daemonologie for me, the famous book by King James VI of Scotland (soon to be King James I of England) published first in 1597: a text that impacted how “witches” were perceived and prosecuted once James acceded to the English throne in 1603. But I don’t think these performances have anything to do with that: it’s just a name: though James perceived witchcraft very personally and perhaps that is the meaning here.

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Alan Cummings as King JamesYou can read the entire first edition of the Daemonologie  of King James by “turning the pages” at the British Library here; Alan Cumming made a brief appearance as a pretty amazing King James in the Thirteenth Doctor’s Witchfinders episode last year.

But I saw the absolute best “transportation” and reincarnation of an icon of British witchcraft just this weekend, standing on a stool in front of the Peabody Essex Museum just before I went in for my new wing tour: Matthew Hopkins, the “Witchfinder General” of Civil-War England! Hopkins was a rather unsuccessful East Anglian lawyer who took advantage of the conflict between Crown and Parliament to proclaim himself the official Witchfinder General, vaguely commissioned to discover, prosecute, and execute “witches” as he crusaded from town to town in his native country. Villages would pay him for his troubles, and consequently he gained both money and fame as he and his associates went about their business between 1644 and 1646, eventually executing between 230 and 300 people for witchcraft, employing uncharacteristically-English torture techniques in the process. The image of Hopkins was transmitted across England in his The Discovery of Witchcraft (1647), and so I immediately recognized him as a familiar figure standing on a Salem street. The depiction was quite good: kind of a combination of the seventeenth-century illustration with (a younger) Vincent Price’s profile in the 1968 film Witchfinder General. 

Witchfinder The-discovery-of-witches-hst_tl_1600_E_388_2British Library version here.

After I got out of the Peabody Essex, I approached this Witchfinder General and asked him if he knew who Matthew Hopkins was and he certainly did. I was informed that Matthew Hopkins was never officially licensed by any authority in seventeenth-century England, but he, the Salem Witchfinder was. The City of Salem had provided his license, a bright pink badge which he displayed. I certainly had no argument with that; he was entirely correct. That was about the extent of our interaction: he allowed me to take his photograph for free but I had to pay if I wanted one with him with my hands encased in his portable stocks. I said no thank you and off I went. So here we have a very official Witchfinder in the Witch City. I’ve been to Manningtree, the beautiful little Essex village where the reign of terror of Matthew Hopkins began, several times, and I’ve never seen him there: no doubt its residents have shunned him, but of course he’s perfectly welcome here in Salem, where all is good clean (licensed) fun.

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Witchfinder Wellcome 1792

20190929_162442The (official) Witchfinder General in Salem, September 30, 2019.


Pyewacket

Pyewacket: lots of cats named “Pye”, why? If you’re of a certain age (born in the 60s at the very least) you might associate this name with the 1958 Jimmy Stewart/Kim Novak film Bell, Book and Candle, in which the modern sexy witch Novak had a Siamese familiar named Pye OR the children’s book by Rosemary Weir titled Pyewacket published a decade later. The origin of this name goes way back to the seventeenth century, when the notorious and self-proclaimed “Witchfinder-General” Matthew Hopkins tried several women for witchcraft (among many others) who claimed to have a number of “imps” or familiars in their service, including Holt, Ilemauzar, Pyewackett, Pecke in the Crowne, Grizzedl Greedigutt, Jarmara, Sacke & Sugar, Newes, and Vinegar Tom. All of Hopkins’ “discoveries” are proudly proclaimed in the 1647 pamphlet THE Discovery of Witches: IN Answer to severall QUERIES, LATELY Delivered to the Judges of Assize for the County of NORFOLK. And now published By MATTHEVV HOPKINS, Witch-finder. FOR The Benefit of the whole KINGDOME.

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Pyewacket finally

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The pamphlet reports that in March 1644 there were some seven or eight of that horrible sect of Witches living in …. a Towne in Essex called Maningtree, with divers other adjacent Witches of other towns, who every six weeks in the night (being alwayes on the Friday night) had their meeting close by his house, and had their severall solemne sacrifices there offered to the Devill, one of which this discoverer heard speaking to her Imps one night, and bid them goe to another Witch, who was thereupon apprehended, and searched by women who had for many yeares knowne the Devills marks, and found to have three teats about her, which honest women have not: so upon command from the Justice, they were to keep her from sleep two or three nights, expecting in that time to see her familiars, which the fourth night she called in by their severall names, and told them what shapes, a quarter of an houre before they came in, there being ten of us in the roome. Holt appeared “like a white kitling”, then Jarmara, “who came in like a fat Spaniel without any legs at all, she said she kept him fat, for she clapt her hand on her belly, and said he suckt good blood from her body”. Next was Vinegar Tom, “who was like a long-legg’d Greyhound, with an head like an Oxe, with a long taile and broad eyes, who when this discoverer spoke to, and bade him goe to the place provided for him and his Angels, immediately transformed himselfe into the shape of a child of foure yeeres old without a head, and gave halfe a dozen turnes about the house, and vanished at the doore”. Sacke & Sugar appears like a black rabbit and Newes, a polecat, and the rest of the imps, including Pyewacket, are not identified, so among them we only have one cat, Holt (kitling is an old form of kitten). I have searched in vain for Pyewacket references in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and found none: the author of the 1950 play on which Bell, Book and Candle was based, the English playwright John van Druten, must have plucked Pyewacket out of semi-obscurity and associated the name with a cat, because by that time, everyone knew that familiars were feline.


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