- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 29, 2005


By Malcolm Gaskill

Harvard, $29.95, 384 pages, illus.


The late Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s frenzied pursuit of alleged communists in the 1950s put the term “witch hunt” into permanent American political coinage. Witch hunting is now interpreted as a ruthless vendetta against political opponents, but its true horror was beyond even the paranoid mind of the Wisconsin senator who was ultimately censured and disgraced by his peers. It is estimated that between the 14th and 18th century, witch hunts in Europe took from 50,000 to 100,000 lives of those accused — probably most of them unjustly — of dealing with the devil.

Malcolm Gaskill, director of history at Churchill College, Cambridge University, has written a chronicle of evil all the more haunting for his warning that the unreasoning violence spawned by conflicting religious ideologies remains a present and formidable threat in the age of technology. Witch hunters might be compared to to religious terrorists and although the author does not draw that parallel, his account of the medieval reign of terror inflicted by English “witchfinders” is also a reminder that witch hunting warps minds and claims lives in the 21st century.

Mr. Gaskill questions how much difference there is between the mentality of 20th-century zealots and those of the 17th century. Pointing at the continuing outbursts of ferocious bloodletting in Africa and India, he contends that the savagery of the developing world, is “startlingly similar” to that which occurred in England during a time when the nation was torn by civil strife and religious dissent between the forces of Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans and the doomed King Charles I. “Then as now, witch hunts involved not just savage persecutors tormenting innocent scapegoats, but ordinary people who happened to believe in witchcraft powerfully enough to act out their most violent fantasies,” he writes.

Within less than two years in 17th-century England, the dark crusade of Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne, “two godly men” led to the interrogation of more than 300 and the deaths of more than 100 by hanging, burning or torture. Mr. Gaskill offers bizarre testimony taken under torture b y the witch finders who were paid handsomely by local authority to brutally extract from terrified women admissions about “imps” with such names as Vineger Tome, a cat, and a black rabbit called “Sacke and Sugar” as well as revelations about sexual relations with Satan.

Physical deformities or problems like hemorrhoids were frequently interpreted as “teats” for suckling “impes.” Trials were opportunities for further mistreatment of the terrified “victims of imagination.” Such farcical events also were ruinously expensive to the towns where they were held, with one witch hunt setting back the local economy more than 40 pounds which was one seventh of the town corporation’s annual budget.

Mr. Gaskill’s account of the terror that invaded the English counties of Essex and Suffolk stresses the power of the so-called “godly” to influence and poison the minds of communities. Without the witch hunting craze, Matthew Hopkins would have remained in obscurity as the younger son of an English clergyman. Yet so lurid was his reputation as the “Witchfinder General” that famous horror movie actor Vincent Price took his role in a 1968 film “The Conqueror Worm.”

According to the author, the most chilling aspect of the witch finders was that they were not so much commanders in chief as “catalysts” who confirmed the suspicions of others. They were appointed by parishes to detect grounds for prosecution, no matter how little factual evidence existed. Wisdom and justice had nothing to do with witch hunting.

Moreover, the author notes that witch hunting is still prevalent in today’s poverty stricken nations where the poor and the fearful still “associate misfortune with ill will” and terrorize those whom they victimize. Even in the west, where suspicions of witchcraft have been neutralized by education, medicine and economic prosperity, Mr. Gaskill cautions that many minds “remain strongly influenced by religion and superstition.”

America’s most shameful excursion into witch hunting took place in the Massachusetts town of Salem in 1692, exploding into a frenzy that wound up with more than 150 jailed for witchcraft. Of those, 13 women and six men were hanged. One man who questioned the dubious authority of the court was crushed to death beneath a boulder. The Witchcraft Act which targeted alleged satanic followers was repealed in England in 1736, yet the persecution of those suspected of what was probably always virtually unprovable apparently hasn’t ended. There was a lynching in an English village as late as 1945.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy Newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.



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