Puritan Operator Made Fortune Killing Evil Witches: Lewis Lapham

It’s impossible to know how many tens of thousands of European women were killed as witches, but it was clearly a growth industry. During the 17th century, Puritan Matthew Hopkins set himself up as “Witchfinder General,” moving from town to town throughout Britain, zeroing in on possible suspects.

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Elizabeth Clarke was his first victim, accused by a local fortune-teller of using evil powers to make the tailor’s wife ill.

After three days of sleep deprivation and forced walking, Clarke confessed to “carnall copulation” with the Devil, and implicated other women. Hopkins gave evidence himself, testifying that one of Satan’s imps -- disguised as an animal -- had attacked his greyhound. Clarke and the others were sentenced to death by hanging.

Hopkins was paid 20 shillings per conviction, equivalent to a month’s wages for a laborer or foot soldier. On one exceptionally profitable day, he had 19 witches hanged. By the time he died in 1647, during a period of deprivation for most people, Hopkins had put together a tidy little fortune.

I spoke with Charlie Campbell, author of “Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People,” on the following topics:

1. Disaster Explained

Source: Overlook Press via Bloomberg

The cover jacket of "Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People," by Charlie Campbell. Close

The cover jacket of "Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People," by Charlie Campbell.

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Source: Overlook Press via Bloomberg

The cover jacket of "Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People," by Charlie Campbell.

2. Meting Out Punishment

3. Witch Hunts

4. Whipping Boys

5. Holocaust

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(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

To contact the writer on the story: Lewis Lapham in New York at lhl@laphamsquarterly.org.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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