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


8 Surprising Uses for Peeps

You can eat marshmallow Peeps, and you can put them in someone's Easter basket. But that's just the beginning of what you can do with those small blobs of sugary goodness. Branch out and use your Peeps in new ways this year.


Peeps are marshmallows, and can be toasted over a campfire just like their plain, non-sugar-coated brothers—which means you can make classic S'mores out of them. Best of all: You don't even need a campfire to do it. Serious Eats has a recipe for them that they call S'meeps, which only requires that you pop them in the oven for a short time. If you're a Peeps purist, forget the graham crackers and chocolate and enjoy the unique taste of campfire-toasted Peeps all by themselves.


Vanessa Brady at Tried & True has made several Peeps wreaths that are sure to inspire you to do the same. (She even has a tutorial to get you started.)


If you want to trick a kid into eating a fruit salad, just serve it up on a stick—with a marshmallow Peep in the middle. Blogger Melodramatic Mom made these for an irresistible after-school snack for her kids.


With their consistent shape and size, and variety of bright colors, Peeps can be used as pixels for larger artworks. Ang Taylor made this Mario jumping a Piranha Plant out of marshmallow chicks and bunnies. To be honest, there are many ways Peeps can be used as an art medium, as we've seen many times before (like in this collection of Peeps dioramas).


Peeps chicks and bunnies are ready-made decorations that will easily stick to cake frosting and make for desserts that are both seasonal and colorful. If you need a recipe, check out this one for a Marbled Cake with Peeps and M&Ms. See some more cake decorating tips here.


There's no danger of misshapen cake pops or drippy lollipops when you start with a Peep on a stick. Michelle from Sugar Swings made these candy pops out of marshmallow Peeps, and using Peeps left her plenty of time to decorate them as Star Wars characters. Michelle has plenty of other Peeps pops ideas you can try out, too.


We've seen that Peeps can be substituted for marshmallows in recipes, but remember that Peeps come in a variety of colors and can be bought in small batches. That makes them really useful for coloring separate portions of your Rice Krispies treat recipe. Kristen at Yellowblissroad has a recipe for Layered Peeps Crispy Treats, and a video of the process at Facebook.


Using Peeps as characters in a diorama, where you can let your imagination run wild, has become somewhat of an Easter tradition. Kate Ramsayer, Helen Fields, and Joanna Church put their heads together to recreate the Broadway musical Hamilton in marshmallow with a diorama that featured the lyrics to the show's opening number.

While The Washington Post has suspended its annual Peeps Diorama Contest after 10 years, other newspapers—including the Twin Cities Pioneer Press and the Washington City Paper—plus local libraries across the country are carrying on the tradition and holding Peeps diorama contests. But you don't have to enter a contest to have fun making a scene with your family.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family

In 1870, a group of new families moved to the wind-ravaged plains near what would become Cherryvale, Kansas. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state, but locals tended to accept newcomers without asking too many questions. Two of the families moved away within a year, discouraged by the difficult conditions, and the others kept to themselves. But the Benders were different.

At first, they appeared be a normal family. John Bender, Sr., and his troupe settled near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in what is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa's land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included "Ma" and a daughter named Kate, who advertised herself as Spiritualist medium and healer. Ma and Pa reportedly mostly spoke German, although the younger Benders spoke fluent English.

The group soon built a one-room home equipped with a canvas curtain that divided the space into two areas. The front was a public inn and store, and the family quarters were in the back. Travelers on the trail were welcome to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, gunpowder, and food. Kate, who was reportedly attractive and outgoing, also drew customers to the inn with her supposed psychic and healing abilities. These men, who usually traveled alone, often spent the night.

The trail was a dangerous place, and there were many reasons for travelers to go missing on their way out West—bandits, accidents, conflicts with Native Americans, disease. But over the course of several years, more and more people went missing around the time they passed through Labette County. It usually took time for such disappearances to draw attention—mail and news traveled slowly—but that all changed in March 1873 after a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, named Dr. William York seemingly disappeared after getting off the train at Cherryvale. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened to him: Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York led an investigation in Labette County. When questioned, the Benders denied all knowledge of York's disappearance, although Ma Bender "flew into a violent passion," in the words of The Weekly Kansas Chief, when asked about a report of a woman who had been threatened with pistols and knives at their inn. Ma defended herself by claiming that the visitor had been a witch, a "bad and wicked woman, whom she would kill if ever she came near them again.”

Around the same time, the township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse; both male Benders were in attendance. The townsfolk decided to search every homestead for evidence of the missing—but the weather turned bad, and it was several days before a search could begin.

Eventually, a neighbor noticed starving farm animals wandering the Bender property. When he investigated the inn, he found it empty: The Benders had fled. The volunteers who later arrived for the search noted that the Benders' wagon was gone; little else had been taken from the home besides food and clothing.

Though the house was empty, all else seemed normal—until someone opened a trap door in the floor. What they found beneath it was chilling.

The trap door, located behind the curtain in the Benders' private quarters, led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was drenched with blood. Horrified, the group lifted up the cabin from its foundations and dug into the ground, yet found nothing. The investigation then turned to the garden, which was freshly plowed; neighbors recalled that the garden always seemed freshly plowed.

Working through the night, the volunteers first unearthed York's body. The back of his head had been smashed, and his throat slit. Soon, they found more bodies with similar injuries. Accounts differ about the number of bodies excavated from the site, but totals hover around a dozen. In all, the Benders may have committed as many as 21 murders. Their terrible work garnered the family only a few thousand dollars and some livestock.

Investigators later pieced together the group's modus operandi. It's believed that guests at the inn were urged to sit against the separating curtain, and while dining, would be hit on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. Their body was then dropped into the trap door to the cellar, where one of the Benders slit their unfortunate victim's throat before stripping the body of its valuables.

One man, a Mr. Wetzell, heard this theory and remembered a time when he had been at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot near the curtain. His decision had caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the cloth, he and his companion decided to leave. A traveler named William Pickering told an almost identical story.

The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, drawing journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over the country. "Altogether the murders are without a parallel," read an account reprinted in The Chicago Tribune. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported over 3000 people at the crime scene, with more trains arriving. A book published in Philadelphia soon after the murders were discovered, The Five Fiends, or, The Bender Hotel Horror in Kansas, described how "large numbers of people arrived upon the scene, who had heard of the ... diabolical acts of bloody murder and rapacious robbery. Hardened men were moved to tears." The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers.

1873 stereographic photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders
An 1873 photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders

Senator York offered a $1000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2000, but the reward was never claimed. In the years following the sensational crimes, several women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none were positively identified. A number of vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City, and the younger Benders were supposedly seen heading to an outlaw colony on the border of Texas and New Mexico, but no one knows what ultimately became of them.

Investigators were likely hampered by the group’s deceit: None of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only members who were likely related were Ma and her daughter Kate. "Pa" was reportedly born John Flickinger in the early 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. "Ma" is said to have been born Almira Meik, and her first husband named Griffith, with whom she had 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband before him reportedly died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhardt, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband, not her brother.

Today, nothing remains to indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although there is a historical marker at a nearby rest area. Though rumors still surround the case—some say Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled, others that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884—after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.


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