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Old 06-18-2012, 04:48 PM
Alan Smithee Alan Smithee is offline
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On drowning suspected witches

It's well known (or at least widely reported) that one of the most popular methods of determining the guilt or innocence of a woman accused of witchcraft was to throw her in a lake. If the woman survived, it meant that the waters associated with baptism had rejected the tool of Satan, and the woman was immediately burned. If she drowned, she was declared to have been innocent. According to this Staff Report it happened "as late as the 1690s."

Everything else I've heard about the witch trials of that era fit with what I know about hysteria and prejudice and normal human irrationality, except the part about declaring a woman who drowned to have been innocent. It seems like the enormity of drowning an innocent woman would have been shocking to anyone, even in the midst of such a political hysteria, and that cognitive dissonance would prevent anyone involved from accepting that this is what they had done.

Are there any records of women drowning during the trial by water and of the reaction of the authorities or the crowds? Were such women actually declared innocent, or were they recorded as witches justly executed? Was there any apparent awareness (as there surely would have been) of the absurdity of a trial that is fatal to the innocent?

Also, did it ever occur that a woman who accidentally fell into water from a boat or pier and survived was declared to have been a wich on that basis?
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Old 06-18-2012, 05:12 PM
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engineer_comp_geek engineer_comp_geek is offline
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The idea wasn't to drown the innocent and execute the floaters. The test was to see if she sank or floated. If she floated, she was of course executed for witchcraft. If she sank, though, they didn't just leave her to drown. The woman would be rescued before she drowned, and would then be declared innocent.

In practice, though, the suspected witch wasn't always rescued in time if she sank, and some women did drown.

I will see if I can dig up some cites for you.
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Old 06-18-2012, 05:12 PM
Odesio Odesio is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Alan Smithee View Post
It's well known (or at least widely reported) that one of the most popular methods of determining the guilt or innocence of a woman accused of witchcraft was to throw her in a lake. If the woman survived, it meant that the waters associated with baptism had rejected the tool of Satan, and the woman was immediately burned.
It was a form of torture designed to elicit a confession. The goal wasn't to kill the person being dunked, but, hey, accidents happen. It was also a form of punishment for various minor crimes. The idea of dunking witches had to do with the belief that they reject the baptism when they made a pact with the devil.

Quote:
It seems like the enormity of drowning an innocent woman would have been shocking to anyone, even in the midst of such a political hysteria, and that cognitive dissonance would prevent anyone involved from accepting that this is what they had done.
In England 1724 a mob lynched an accused witch and drowned her in a nearby body of water. Being an extra-legal activity the government was none too pleased and after a trial two of the mob leaders were hanged. The truth is that accused witches did sometimes die while being tortured or incarcerated before their guilt could be determined one way or the other.

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Are there any records of women drowning during the trial by water and of the reaction of the authorities or the crowds? Were such women actually declared innocent, or were they recorded as witches justly executed? Was there any apparent awareness (as there surely would have been) of the absurdity of a trial that is fatal to the innocent?
Dunking wasn't usually fatal. Think of it as a particularly elaborate form of water boarding. I never came across any records of the crowd getting upset when an accused witch died before he or she could be brought to trial. But I concentrated mainly in Scotland and they weren't so big on dunking.

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Also, did it ever occur that a woman who accidentally fell into water from a boat or pier and survived was declared to have been a wich on that basis?
Nah, they knew about swimming.
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Old 06-18-2012, 05:16 PM
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Perhaps I'm mistaken but I was under the impression that their limbs would be bound in some way in order to prevent false positives caused by being able to swim.
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Old 06-18-2012, 05:38 PM
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Wikipedia, with no cite given:

Quote:
The ordeal would normally be conducted with a rope holding the subject connected to assistants sitting in a boat or the like, so that the person being tested could be pulled in if he/she did not float; the notion that the ordeal was flatly devised as a situation without any possibility of live acquittal, even if the outcome was 'innocent', is a modern elaboration.
From here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trial_by_ordeal

Quote:
In 1613, Mother Mary Sutton and her daughter were accused in Bedford of bewitching a seven year old boy to death. The child's father, Master Enger, did not know what to do. "As he was thus wrapped in a sea of woes, there came a gentleman, a friend of his, forth of the North," who hearing of the Sutton women "advised him to take them, or any one of them to his mill dam, having first shut up the mill gates that the water might be highest, and them binding their arms cross, stripping them into their smocks, and leaving their legs at liberty, throw them into the water; yet lest they should not be witches, and that their lives might not be in danger of drowning, let there be a rope tied about their middles..." If either suspect did not sink, local women should examine her for marks; if found, she should be thrown in water again with "her right thumb bound to her left toe, and her left thumb bound to her right toe, ... when if she swim, you may build upon it, that she is a witch. I have seen it often tried in the North country."
From here:
http://faculty.history.wisc.edu/somm...67/367-131.htm

The wikipedia article on Grace Sherwood:

Quote:
Similarly, when the judges ruled, with Sherwood's agreement, that she undergo trial by water, they took the (extraordinary for such things in general) step of explicitly charging the sheriff and his men with keeping Sherwood alive and in good health. "The weather being very rainy & bad so şt. possibly it might endanger her health it is therefore ordr.", wrote the judges, that the trial be postponed to a better day and that "boats & men" be on hand "alwayes having care of her life to pe.serve [sic] her from drowning".
From here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grace_Sherwood
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