The Spellbinding Stories of 6 Historic Witches

Cygnis insignis via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Cygnis insignis via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain / Cygnis insignis via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Today, we regard witches as fictional characters but here are the stories of six women who had a real magic moment.


The details of Ursula Southeil's life were handed down orally for some time before being published and have become harder to believe as the centuries passed. According to some legends, Southeil was born in 1488 to an unwed teenage mother in a cave locating in Knaresborough, North Yorkshire, England. (The site of the famous mineral spring that created the cave became a tourist attraction early on.) Other accounts paint her as a witch, the product of a prostitute mother and the devil himself for a father. Either way, she would go on to be known as Mother Shipton, a woman thought to be prophetess and known for her unfortunate looks. (After the prosecution of witches in England ceased in 1736, the legend began referring to her as a prophetess.)

Her predictions were said to be given in verse, like her contemporary Nostradamus. Unfortunately, Mother Shipton never wrote any of those prophetic verses down. The first record of them appeared in 1641, 80 years after her death. The prophesies that “came true” were the ones that were attributed to the long-dead Mother Shipton after the predicted event, and those that predicted a future after publication did not. The most famous of those was the vision that the world would end in 1881. It is very possible that Ursula Southeil was a locally-known medicine woman of some sort, but her much later fame as a prophetess or witch is attributed to the promotion of the cave and mineral spring. She died in 1561 at the age of 73. 


Born in 1570, Katharina Henot was the first female postmaster in Germany, a position she and her brother had inherited from their father. Henot was well-respected in the city of Cologne, but she was also caught up in the series of witch trials in the city that ran from 1626 to 1631. In 1627, she was accused of causing sickness amongst a group of nuns. Henot was tortured over a period of several months, but refused to confess to witchcraft. She was found guilty and sentenced to be burned alive at the stake.

However, the court proceedings in Henot’s case were suspect from the beginning, and did not follow legal procedure of the time. In 2012, the case was retried, and Henot was exonerated, almost 400 years after her death.   


Alse (or Alice) Young was born in 1600 in Windsor, Connecticut. We know very little about her besides the fact that she was the first person to be hanged for witchcraft in the American colonies in 1647, just five years after witchcraft became punishable by hanging in Connecticut. It was the beginning of a witchcraft scare in Connecticut that resulted in quite a few trials and some executions between 1647 and 1662. That’s when Governor John Winthrop declared that one accuser or witness would not be enough to convict someone of witchcraft. Accusations became much less common afterward. The tragic implication is that Young and most of her fellow victims were convicted and executed on the word of a single person. Young had a daughter named Alice Young Beamon who was also accused of witchcraft, 30 years later. Fortunately, Beamon was not executed.


Between 1668 and 1676, over 200 people in Sweden were condemned to death for witchcraft. That era of witch trials ended with the execution of Malin Matsdotter, possibly because her death was particularly horrific. Matsdotter was also known as Rumpare-Malin. Born in Sweden in 1613, she was accused of witchcraft by her daughters. They said Matsdotter kidnapped her own grandchildren and took them to a witches sabbath rite. Matsdotter denied all charges, and refused to confess to the crime. Her attitude and refusal to confess, even under torture, led to a unique sentence: she would be burned alive. Other convicted witches in Sweden were strangled or beheaded before burning. Matsdotter was executed on August 5, 1676, the same day as another convicted witch, Anna Simonsdotter Hack, nicknamed “Tysk-Annika” (German-Anna). Hack went to her punishment with humility, praying to the end. She was decapitated before the fire was ignited. Matsdotter stood firm and reiterated her innocence as she was burned alive.

Afterward, there were a few more people accused of witchcraft, but executions were stopped. Only one more “witch” was executed in Sweden, and that wasn’t until 1704. After the case of Malin Matsdotter, the accusers were more likely to be arrested instead, and some were even executed for perjury.


We don’t know what year Tituba was born, or what name she was given at birth. But she was a real person and, barring fictional characters, is America’s most famous witch. Samuel Parris brought her back to Boston from his sugar plantation in Barbados in 1680, along with two other slaves. When Parris started a family and moved to Salem Village, Tituba accompanied them. Then, after 9-year-old Betty Parris and her cousin 11-year-old Abigail Williams started exhibiting strange and unexplained behaviors, thought to be the first hint of supernatural possession, Tituba became a suspect. As a slave from the Caribbean, she was a convenient scapegoat. Once witchcraft was mentioned, the young girls accused Tituba, along with several other women of Salem, of oppressing them. Samuel Parris beat Tituba until she confessed to any and all accusations.

Tituba was arrested, along with Sarah Osborn and Sarah Good, on charges of witchcraft on February 29, 1692. It was the beginning of the witch hunt frenzy that gripped Salem in 1692, in which hundreds were accused of witchcraft, twenty people were executed (including Sarah Good), and five died while jailed (including Sarah Osborn). But Tituba, the only one of the three who confessed to practicing witchcraft, sat in jail until the hysteria died down. She was never brought to trial. However, she stayed in jail for 13 months because Samuel Parris refused to pay the fees for her release.


In Britain, the Witchcraft Act of 1563, under which many people were prosecuted, was replaced with the more enlightened Witchcraft Act of 1735. The later law did away with the crime of witchcraft itself and ended the era of witch hunts and executions, but replaced it with the crime of pretending to be a witch or to possess supernatural abilities. It was, in essence, a law against fraud.

Helen Duncan was a Scottish medium who traveled through Britain in the early 20th century, telling fortunes and holding séances. She conjured up “ectoplasm” in her act using special effects trickery. Authorities usually ignored such activities unless someone complained. But then World War II happened. British authorities learned that Duncan had revealed the sinking of two British ships during various séances, despite the news being censored by the government. She was arrested in January of 1944. The charge could have been treason or even espionage, but that would have been difficult to prove, especially without disclosing government secrets. Instead, Duncan was tried for witchcraft under the 1735 law. She was jailed for nine months, and by the time she was released, the war was over. The Witchcraft Act of 1735 was finally repealed in 1951.    

See also: Historic Werewolves and Historic Vampires