Robert Eggers' mystifying, merciless The Witch is in theaters this Friday, and on Saturday we celebrated at the Alamo Drafthouse Vintage Park with a black magic double feature including Dario Argento's Suspiria and Michael Reeves' Witchfinder General. Suspiria is one of my favorite films, and it looked and sounded extraordinary on the big screen, but Saturday was my first opportunity to see Witchfinder General, in which Vincent Price plays a cruel and immoral 17th century witch-hunter named Matthew Hopkins.
Reeves evidently didn't want Price in the role, preferring Donald Pleasence as Hopkins and taking his resentment out on Price in creative ways throughout the shoot. Whether Reeves' provocations helped guide Price or he was better suited to the role than Reeves could admit, the result is a powerful performance, one that Price, himself, called the finest of his career. Hopkins uses his power to extort sex from beautiful young women, to imprison and torture clergymen he views as career impediments, to cast dangerous aspersions on any person who dares question his authority. He dubs himself Witchfinder General and struts in velvet finery through villages peopled by the suffering and downtrodden. He's an irredeemable villain, and when he (spoiler!) finally gets what's coming to him, our audience broke into spontaneous applause.
The Matthew Hopkins of history didn't receive an axe or ten to the abdomen, more's the pity, but he did die young (at around 27, two decades younger than Price during filming), likely of pleural tuberculosis. From 1644 until the year before his death in 1647, Hopkins and his associate John Stearne were responsible for the deaths of 300 accused witches, mostly women, a fourteen-month campaign that resulted in more hangings than the previous 160 years.
Hopkins wrote in his short book with the long title The Discovery of Witches: In Answer to severall QUERIES, LATELY Delivered to the Judges of Assize for the County of NORFOLK. And now published By MATTHEW HOPKINS, Witch-finder, FOR The Benefit of the whole KINGDOME (which you can read here, thanks to Project Gutenberg) that his supposedly unerring identification of witches was not the result of "profound learning" or "much reading of learned authors," but instead gained by experience. Hopkins claimed to have come upon a coven near his home, and dedicated himself to the hunting of witches immediately after this experience:
The Discoverer never travelled far for it, but in March 1644 he had some seven or eight of that horrible sect of Witches living in the Towne where he lived, a Towne in Essex called Maningtree, with divers other adjacent Witches of other towns, who every six weeks in the night (being alwayes on the Friday night) had their meeting close by his house and had their severall solemne sacrifices there offered to the Devill, one of which this discoverer heard speaking to her Imps one night, and bid them goe to another Witch, who was thereupon apprehended, and searched, by women who had for many yeares knowne the Devills marks, and found to have three teats about her, which honest women have not: so upon command from the Justice they were to keep her from sleep two or three nights, expecting in that time to see her familiars, which the fourth night she called in by their severall names, and told them what shapes, a quarter of an houre before they came in, there being ten of us in the roome, the first she called was
1. Holt, who came in like a white kitling.
2. Jarmara, who came in like a fat Spaniel without any legs at all, she said she kept him fat, for she clapt her hand on her belly and said he suckt good blood from her body.
3. Vinegar Tom, who was like a long-legg'd Greyhound, with an head like an Oxe, with a long taile and broad eyes, who when this discoverer spoke to, and bade him goe to the place provided for him and his Angels, immediately transformed himselfe into the shape of a child of foure yeeres old without a head, and gave halfe a dozen turnes about the house, and vanished at the doore.
4. Sack and Sugar, like a black Rabbet.
5. Newes, like a Polcat. All these vanished away in a little time. Immediately after this Witch confessed severall other Witches, from whom she had her Imps, and named to divers women where their marks were, the number of their Marks, and Imps, and Imps names, as Elemanzer, Pyewacket, Peckin the Crown, Grizzel, Greedigut, &c. which no mortall could invent; and upon their searches the same Markes were found, the same number, and in the same place, and the like confessions from them of the same Imps, (though they knew not that we were told before) and so peached one another thereabouts that joyned together in the like damnable practise that in our Hundred in Essex, 29. were condemned at once, 4. brought 25. Miles to be hanged, where this Discoverer lives, for sending the Devill like a Beare to kill him in his garden, so by seeing diverse of the mens Papps, and trying wayes with hundreds of them, he gained this experience, and for ought he knowes any man else may find them as well as he and his company, if they had the same skill and experience.
Hopkins' crusade, imposed upon the areas of East Anglia, Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire, was not without opposition, mainly from Great Staughton vicar John Gaule, who wrote in his sermon Select Cases of Conscience touching Witches and Witchcraft (which you can read here):
But there are also a sect or sort, that (on the other hand) are as superstitious in this point, as these can be infidelious. They conclude peremptorily (not from reason, but indiscretion) that witches not only are, but are in every place, and Parish with them, every old woman with a wrinkled face, a furr'd brow, a hairy lip, a gobber tooth, a squint eye, a squeaking voyce, or a scolding tongue, having a rugged coate on her back, a skullcap on her head, a spindle in her hand, and a Dog or Cat by her side; is not only suspected, but pronounced for a witch. Every new disease, notable accident, miracle of nature, rarity of art, nay and strange work or just judgment of God; is by them accounted for no other, but an act or effect of witchcraft. And for this the Witch must bee suspected; and this suspition, though it bee but late, of a few, and those the under sort, yet is it enough to send for the Witch-searchers.
[... of Hopkins]
The office of Witchfinding is exceeding doubtful, Because he that offers to take upon him such an office, cannot (I am afraid) to give satisfaction to these doubts, and the like. 1. Through peradventure hee may have procured some Authoritie from men: yet whether he be hereunto called and inabled by God; 2. Whether he is able to execute it with a good conscience voyd of offence both towards God, and towards men; 3. Whether he have any certaine and infallible Rules of Discerning to proceed by; 4. Whether (in this undertaking) he aim not more at a privat Advantage, then at the publick Good? 5. Whether he often times uses not unlawfull and indirect meanes of Discoverie; or incourages not the Common People to use the same? 6 Whether hee may not give occasion to Defame Ten that are Innocent; before he descover one that is guilty? 7. Whether his Carriages in this business, may not be a great occasion to augment the vulgar Peoples superstitions (and very dangerously superstitious) opinions, suspitions, traditions, perswasions, affections, admirations, and Relations?)
Outspoken criticism of Hopkins was very rare and quite risky, and Gaule is now remembered for being one of the few reasonable men who demanded true, legal evidence of witchcraft before punishment. He objected to Hopkins' "unlawful and indirect means of discovery," including the swimming test, pricking and impossibly long hours of sleep deprivation.
Hopkins' was long rumored to have been hanged as a witch himself, in what would have been a very satisfying end to his tale, but in truth it was plain old tuberculosis that got him. Nearly as satisfying as that "pleasing legend," however, is this: John Gaule outlived Hopkins by forty years and, thanks to Reeves' film, Hopkins is now memorialized as an insufferable blackguard and rapist, one who is axed to death on the floor of the very room where he interrogated an innocent woman he accused of witchcraft.