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?
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.
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.
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.
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.