Whether your ancestor was actually a practicing witch, or someone accused of or involved with witchcraft or witch hunting, it can add a touch of interest to your family history. Of course, we're not talking about the witches we think of today - the black pointy hat, the warty nose, and the ragged broomstick. Most women, and men, who were accused of witchcraft, were feared for their nonconformist ways more than anything else. It can still be fun to claim a witch in the family tree.
Witchcraft in Europe & Colonial America
Talk of witches often brings the famous Salem Witch Trials to mind, but punishment for practicing witchcraft was not unique to colonial Massachusetts. A strong fear of witchcraft was prevalent in 15th century Europe where strict laws against witchcraft were put into effect. It is estimated that around 1,000 people were hanged as witches in England over a 200-year period. The last documented case of an individual found guilty of the crime of witchcraft was Jane Wenham, charged with “conversing familiarly with the Devil in the shape of a cat" in 1712. She was reprieved. The largest group of convicted witches in England were nine Lancashire witches sent to the gallows in 1612, and nineteen witches hanged at Chelmsford in 1645.
Between 1610 and 1840, it is estimated that over 26,000 accused witches were burned at the stake in Germany. Between three and five thousand witches were executed in 16th and 17th century Scotland. The anti-witchcraft sentiment that had been growing in England and Europe undoubtedly had an impact on the Puritans in America, ultimately leading to the witch craze and subsequent Salem Witch Trials
Resources for Researching the Salem Witch Trials
- Salem Witch Trials - Documentary Archive & Transcription Project
The Salem Witchcraft Papers from the University of Virginia's Electronic Text Institute provide a wealth of primary source documents, including a verbatim transcript of the legal documents generated during the arrests, trials, and deaths of the accused Salem witches in 1692. The site also includes site lists of jurors, Puritan ministers, judges, defenders and others involved in the Salem Witch Trials, plus historical maps.
- The Associated Daughters of Early American Witches
A membership society geared toward preserving the names of those accused of witchery in Colonial America prior to 1699 and to locate living female descendants of those witches. Contains a comprehensive list of accused witches.
- Genealogy of Witch Trial Ancestors & Families
Genealogy reports for six of the individuals involved in the infamous Salem Witch Trials, including accused witches and officials involved in the trials.
Researching Witch Trials & the Witch Craze in Europe
- The Witch Hunts (1400-1800)
Maintained by Professor Brian Pavlac at Kings College in Wilkes Barre, PA, this site examines the European witch craze through timelines and discussion of common theories, errors, and myths behind the Witch Hunts. You can also suffer through witch hunting first hand in an interesting simulation of a 1628 witch hunt.
- Survey of Scottish Witchcraft 1563 - 1736
An interactive database contains all individuals known to have been accused of witchcraft in early modern Scotland - nearly 4,000 in total. Supporting material provides background information on the database and an introduction to Scottish witchcraft.
- Gibbons, Jenny. "Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch Hunt." Pomegranate, Vol. 5, 1998.
- History of the witch hunt (Geschichte der Hexenverfolgung). Maintained by the Server Frühe Neuzeit (University of München) in cooperation with the Arbeitskreis für Interdisziplinäre Hexenforschung (research group for interdisciplinary witchcraft research). Mainly in German.
- Zguta, Russell. "Witchcraft Trials in Seventeenth-Century Russia" The American Historical Review, Vol. 82, No. 5, Dec. 1977, pp. 1187-1207.