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

The Spellbinding Stories of 6 Historic Witches

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


Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
8 Legendary Monsters of Christmas
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The customs of the holiday season, which include St. Nicholas Day, New Years Day, and Epiphany, as well as Christmas, often incorporate earlier pagan traditions that have been appropriated and adapted for contemporary use. Customs that encourage little children to be good so as to deserve their Christmas gifts often come with a dark side: the punishment you'll receive from a monster or evil being of some sort if you aren't good! These nefarious characters vary from place to place, and they go by many different names and images.


As a tool to encourage good behavior in children, Santa serves as the carrot, and Krampus is the stick. Krampus is the evil demon anti-Santa, or maybe his evil twin. Krampus Night is celebrated on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day in Austria and other parts of Europe. Public celebrations that night have many Krampuses walking the streets, looking for people to beat. Alcohol is also involved. Injuries in recent years have led to some reforms, such as requiring all Krampuses to wear numbers so they may identified in case of overly violent behavior.

Krampus may look like a devil, or like a wild alpine beast, depending on what materials are available to make a Krampus costume. In modern times, people can spend as much as they like to become the best Krampus around—and the tradition is spreading beyond Europe. Many cities in America have their own Krampus Nights now.


Jólakötturinn is the Icelandic Yule Cat or Christmas Cat. He is not a nice cat. In fact, he might eat you. This character is tied to an Icelandic tradition in which those who finished all their work on time received new clothes for Christmas, while those who were lazy did not (although this is mainly a threat). To encourage children to work hard, parents told the tale of the Yule Cat, saying that Jólakötturinn could tell who the lazy children were because they did not have at least one new item of clothing for Christmas—and these children would be sacrificed to the Yule Cat. This reminder tends to spur children into doing their chores! A poem written about the cat ends with a suggestion that children help out the needy, so they, too, can have the protection of new clothing. It's no wonder that Icelanders put in more overtime at work than most Europeans.


Flickr // Markus Ortner

Tales told in Germany and Austria sometimes feature a witch named Frau Perchta who hands out both rewards and punishments during the 12 days of Christmas (December 25 through Epiphany on January 6). She is best known for her gruesome punishment of the sinful: She will rip out your internal organs and replace them with garbage. The ugly image of Perchta may show up in Christmas processions in Austria, somewhat like Krampus.

Perchta's story is thought to have descended from a legendary Alpine goddess of nature, who tends the forest most of the year and deals with humans only during Christmas. In modern celebrations, Perchta or a close relation may show up in processions during Fastnacht, the Alpine festival just before Lent. There may be some connection between Frau Perchta and the Italian witch La Befana, but La Befana isn't really a monster: she's an ugly but good witch who leaves presents.


A drawing of Belsnickel.
Lucas, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Belsnickel is a male character from southwestern German lore who traveled to the United States and survives in Pennsylvania Dutch customs. He comes to children sometime before Christmas, wearing tattered old clothing and raggedy fur. Belsnickel carries a switch to frighten children and candy to reward them for good behavior. In modern visits, the switch is only used for noise, and to warn children they still have time to be good before Christmas. Then all the children get candy, if they are polite about it. The name Belsnickel is a portmanteau of the German belzen (meaning to wallop) and nickel for St. Nicholas. See a video of a Belsnickel visit here.

Knecht Ruprecht and Ru Klaas are similar characters from German folklore who dole out beatings to bad children, leaving St. Nicholas to reward good children with gifts.


Hans Trapp is another "anti-Santa" who hands out punishment to bad children in the Alsace and Lorraine regions of France. The legend says that Trapp was a real man, a rich, greedy, and evil man, who worshiped Satan and was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. He was exiled into the forest where he preyed upon children, disguised as a scarecrow with straw jutting out from his clothing. He was about to eat one boy he captured when he was struck by lightning and killed—a punishment of his own from God. Still, he visits young children before Christmas, dressed as a scarecrow, to scare them into good behavior.


The French legend of Père Fouettard, whose name translates to "Father Whipper," begins with an evil butcher who craved children to eat. He (or his wife) lured three boys into his butcher shop, where he killed, chopped, and salted them. St. Nicholas came to the rescue, resurrected the boys, and took custody of the butcher. The captive butcher became Père Fouettard, St. Nicholas' servant whose job it is to dispense punishment to bad children on St. Nicholas Day.


The Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads, are 13 Icelandic trolls, who each have a name and distinct personality. In ancient times, they stole things and caused trouble around Christmastime, so they were used to scare children into behaving, like the Yule Cat. However, the 20th century brought tales of the benevolent Norwegian figure Julenisse (Santa Claus), who brought gifts to good children. The traditions became mingled, until the formerly devilish Jólasveinar became kind enough to leave gifts in shoes that children leave out ... if they are good boys and girls. 


All the Yule Lads answer to Grýla, their mother. She predates the Yule Lads in Icelandic legend as the ogress who kidnaps, cooks, and eats children who don't obey their parents. She only became associated with Christmas in the 17th century, when she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. According to legend, Grýla had three different husbands and 72 children, all who caused trouble ranging from harmless mischief to murder. As if the household wasn't crowded enough, the Yule Cat also lives with Grýla. This ogress is so much of a troublemaker that The Onion blamed her for the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

A version of this post originally ran in 2013. See also: more Legendary Monsters

Keystone/Getty Images
84 Years Ago Today: Goodbye Prohibition!
A huge queue outside the Board of Health offices in Centre Street, New York, for licenses to sell alcohol shortly after the repeal of prohibition. The repeal of prohibition was a key policy of Franklin Roosevelt's government as it allowed the government an opportunity to raise tax revenues at a time of economic hardship.
A huge queue outside the Board of Health offices in Centre Street, New York, for licenses to sell alcohol shortly after the repeal of prohibition. The repeal of prohibition was a key policy of Franklin Roosevelt's government as it allowed the government an opportunity to raise tax revenues at a time of economic hardship.
Keystone/Getty Images

It was 84 years ago today that the Twenty-First Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, repealing the earlier Amendment that declared the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol illegal in the United States. Prohibition was over! Booze that had been illegal for 13 years was suddenly legal again, and our long national nightmare was finally over.

A giant barrel of beer, part of a demonstration against prohibition in America.
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Prohibition of alcohol was not a popular doctrine. It turned formerly law-abiding citizens into criminals. It overwhelmed police with enforcement duties and gave rise to organized crime. In cities like Milwaukee and St. Louis, the dismantling of breweries left thousands of people unemployed.

Photograph courtesy of the Boston Public Library

Homemade alcohol was often dangerous and some people died from drinking it. Some turned to Sterno or industrial alcohol, which was dangerous and sometimes poisoned by the government to discourage drinking. State and federal governments were spending a lot of money on enforcement, while missing out on taxes from alcohol.

New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach (right) watches agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid during the height of Prohibition.

The midterm elections of 1930 saw the majority in Congress switch from Republican to Democratic, signaling a shift in public opinion about Prohibition as well as concerns about the depressed economy. Franklin Roosevelt, who urged repeal, was elected president in 1932. The Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution was proposed by Congress in February of 1933, the sole purpose of which was to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment establishing Prohibition.

American men guarding their private beer brewing hide-out, during Prohibition.
Keystone/Getty Images

With passage of the Constitutional Amendment to repeal Prohibition a foregone conclusion, a huge number of businessmen lined up at the Board of Health offices in New York in April of 1933 to apply for liquor licenses to be issued as soon as the repeal was ratified.

The Amendment was ratified by the states by the mechanism of special state ratifying conventions instead of state legislatures. Many states ratified the repeal as soon as conventions could be organized. The ratifications by the required two-thirds of the states was achieved on December 5, 1933, when conventions in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Utah agreed to repeal Prohibition through the Amendment.

Workmen unloading crates of beer stacked at a New York brewery shortly after the repeal of Prohibition.
Keystone/Getty Images

A brewery warehouse in New York stacked crates past the ceiling to satisfy a thirsty nation after the repeal of Prohibition.

Keystone/Getty Images

Liquor wouldn't officially be legal until December 15th, but Americans celebrated openly anyway, and in most places, law enforcement officials let them.


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