This section is from the book "The Book Of Cats", by Charles Henry Ross. Also available from Amazon: The Book Of Cats: A Chit-Chat Chronicle Of Feline Facts And Fancies, Legendary, Lyrical, Medical, Mirthful And Miscellaneous.
This swimming experiment, which was deemed a full proof of guilt if any one subjected to it did not sink, but floated on the surface of the water, was one of the ordeals especially recommended by our king, James I., who, in a work upon the subject, among other things, assigned this somewhat ridiculous reason for its pretended infallibility:- "That as such persons had renounced their baptism by water, so the water refuses to receive them." Consequently, those who were accused of diabolical practices, were tied neck and heels together, and tossed into a pond; if they floated or swam they were guilty, and therefore taken out and hanged or burnt; if they were innocent, they were drowned. Of this method of trial by water ordeal, Scot observes: "that a woman above the age of fifty years, and being bound both hand and foot, her clothes being upon her, and being laid softly upon the water, sinketh not a long time, some say not at all." And Dr. Hutchinson confirms this, by saying, not one in ten even sink in that position of their bodies. Its utter fallacy was shown when the witch finders themselves were thus tested; and the last quoted writer says, that if the books written against witchcraft were tested by the same ordeal, they would in no degree come off more safely.
One of the most cruel cases was that of Mr. Lowes, a clergyman, who had reached the patriarchal age of eighty. He was one of those unfortunate ministers of the Gospel whose livings were sequestered by the parliament, and who was suspected as malignant because he preserved his loyalty and the homilies of the Church. It would have been well for him had this been the only suspicion; but he was accused of witchcraft; and it was asserted that he had sunk ships at sea by the power he possessed, and witnesses were found who swore to seeing him do it. He was seized and tested. They watched him, and kept him awake at night, and ran him backwards and forwards about the room until he was out of breath; then they rested him a little, and then ran him again. And thus they did for several days and nights together, until he was weary of his life, and was scarce sensible of what he said or did. They swam him twice or thrice, although that was no true rule to try him by, for they sent in unsuspected people at the same time, and they swam as well as he; yet was the unfortunate old clergyman condemned to death and executed.
In the book written some years after this, by Mr. Gaul, he mentions their mode of discovering witches, which was principally by marks or signs upon their bodies, which were in reality but moles, scorbutic spots, or warts, which frequently grow large and pendulous in old age, and were absurdly declared to be teats to suckle imps. Thus of one, Joane Willimot, in 1619, it was sworn that she had two imps, one in the form of a kitten, and another in that of a mole, "and they leapt on her shoulder, and the kitten sucked under her right ear, on her neck, and the mole on the left side, in the like place;" and at another time a spirit was seen "sucking her under the left ear, in the likeness of a little white dogge." (See The Wonderful Discovery of the Witchcrafts of Margare and Philip Flower, 1619).
Another test was to place the suspected witch in the middle of a room, upon a stool or table, cross-legged, or in some other uneasy posture, and if she were refractory, she was tied too by cords, and kept without meat or sleep for a space of four-and-twenty hours; all this time she was strictly watched, because it was believed that in the course of that time her imp would come to suck her, for whom some hole or ingress was provided. The watchers swept the room frequently, so that nothing might escape them; and should a fly or spider be found that had the activity to elude them, they were assured these were the imps. In 1645 one was hanged at Cambridge, who kept a tame frog which was sworn to be her imp; and one at Gloucester, in 1649, who was convicted for having suckled a sow in the form of a little black creature. In "a Tryal of Witches, at Bury St. Edmunds, 1664," a witness deposed to having caught one of these imps in a blanket, waiting for her child, who slept in it and was bewitched; that it was in the form of a toad, and was caught and thrown into the fire, where "it made a great and horrible noise, and after a space there was a flashing in the fire like gunpowder, making a noise like the discharge of a pistol, and thereupon the toad was no more seen nor heard." All of which was the simple natural result of this cruel proceeding, but which was received by judge and jury, at that time, of the poor toad being an imp!
Hutchinson, in his essay on witchcraft, says:-"It was very requisite that these witch-finders should take care to go to no towns but where they might do what they would without being controlled by sticklers; but if the times had not been as they were, they would have found but few towns where they might be suffered to use the trial of the stool, which was as bad as most tortures. Do but imagine a poor old creature, under all the weakness and infirmities of old age, set like a fool in the middle of a room, with a rabble of ten towns about her home; then her legs tied across, that all the weight of her body might rest upon her seat. By that means, after some hours, the circulation of the blood would be stopped, and her sitting would be as painful as the wooden horse. Then must she continue in pain four-and-twenty hours, without either sleep or meat; and since this was their ungodly way of trial, what wonder was it if, when they were weary of their lives, they confessed many tales that would please them, and many times they knew not what."
Hopkins' favourite and ultimate method of proof was by swimming, as before narrated. They tied together the thumbs and toes of the suspected person, about whose waist was fastened a cord, the ends of which were held on the banks of the river by two men, whose power it was to strain or slacken it. If they floated, they were witches. After a considerable course of wicked accusation on the part of Hopkins and his accomplices, testing all by these modes of trial, and ending in the cruel deaths of many wretched old persons, a reaction against him took place, probably at the instigation of some whose friends had been condemned innocently, or of those who were too wise to believe in his tests, and disgusted with his cold wickedness. His own famous and conclusive evidence - the experiment of swimming - was tried upon himself; and this wretch, who had sacrificed so many, by the same test, was found to be guilty, too. He was deservedly condemned, and suffered death himself as a wizard."