A test of guilt or innocence for witches was trial by water, or swimming, a method that was used up until the 19th century. Accused witches were bound and thrown into water to see if they would float or sink. It was believed that the guilty floated and the innocent sank.
Trial by water was used by Hammurabi (1792–1750 b.C.e.), king of Babylonia, whose laws comprised one of the great ancient codes. Hammurabi declared that if a person was accused of black Magic but not proven guilty, he was to be plunged into a river. If he drowned, his accuser got his property. If he survived, his accuser would be executed, and he would take over the dead man’s property.
Swimming, or ducking, as trial by water came to be known in some witchcraft trials, appeared in Europe, the British Isles and America in the 16th through 18th centuries but never gained widespread acceptance among judges as irrevocable proof of guilt or innocence. Swimming was declared illegal in England in 1219 by Henry III, but that didn’t stop witch-hunters from doing it.
The accused witch was bound by either the right thumb to the right toe, or right thumb to left toe (“cross bound”) and plunged into a river or lake. Innocence seldom mattered, for the victim often sank and drowned before he or she could be pulled out. Sometimes the accused had no chance at all to survive, because he or she was sewn into a sack before being tossed into the water.
Swimming was endorsed by James I of England, who stated in Daemonologie (1597) “that God hath appointed (for a supernatural signe of the monstrous impietie of Witches) that the water shall refuse to receive them in her bosome, that have shaken off them the sacred Water of Baptisme, and wilfully refused the benefite thereof.” England’s leading witch-hunter, Matthew Hopkins, “swam” many of his accused victims, though he said he never used it as evidence in trials. In Europe, the chief champion of swimming was a Hessian schoolmaster named William Adolf Scribonius, who wrote a book in 1588 on how to identify and punish witches.
In the American colonies, two accused witches in Hartford, Connecticut, were “swum” in 1633 and were judged guilty because they floated; they were hanged. In 1706 a Virginia woman named Grace Sherwood agreed to be swum to prove her innocence. In chronicling the case in Annals of Witchcraft (1869), Samuel Drake stated that “few more disgraceful Scenes were ever enacted in the Prosecutions for Witchcraft” in the Colonies.
Sherwood was accused of witchcraft by a man and his wife; a warrant was issued for her to appear before court. Sherwood failed to show, was arraigned and was searched for Witch’s Marks. Two “things like Titts on her private Parts, of a black coller, being blacker than ye rest of her Body,” were found, along with several other “Spots.” However, the court had no specific crime with which to charge Sherwood, merely suspicion of witchcraft. reluctant to acquit her, the court decided to use the “old English Test” of water. Sherwood, who had little to say in her own defense, agreed. Ironically, the court ordered the sheriff to take care not to expose her to rainy weather before she was “swum,” as “she might take cold.” Sherwood floated in the test, was plucked out and examined again for marks. Surviving records do not tell what became of the unfortunate woman. The place where the water trial took place, an inlet of Lynnhaven Bay in Princess Anne County, became known as “Witch Duck.”
Swimming failed to become an ironclad means of unmasking witches because it could be manipulated by either accuser or accused. many witch-hunters found ways to make certain their victims floated; some victims succeeded in sinking themselves long enough to be declared innocent. The records of various witch trials show that some victims requested the swimming test in order to clear their names, and some of them, unfortunately, floated despite their most valiant efforts to sink.
Increase Mather strongly disapproved of swimming and railed against it in his book, An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences (1684). Mather tore apart king James’s argument that water, being an instrument of baptism and therefore holy, would reject witches, by saying that such a notion would apply only to those who were baptized. That meant anyone who was not baptized would float, regardless of whether or not he or she was a witch, Mather said.
Furthermore, Mather said, morality has nothing to do with body weight. He cited cases of the guilty going free and the innocent being condemned. Some people who were “swum” more than once both floated and sank.
Local jurisdictions throughout the Continent and the British Isles prohibited swimming. It was outlawed throughout all of England in 1712, and those who did it faced murder charges if their victim drowned. Nevertheless, it continued to be employed in lynch-mob situations. Swimming eventually died out in the 19th century.
In Russia, swimming was used in a different way. Persons suspected of witchcraft were taken to the deep side of a river, tied around the waist with rope and lowered in. If they sank, they were quickly pulled out. If they floated,
they were hauled out and branded with a red-hot iron in the shape of a cross to warn others that they were witches. It was believed that the branding nullified the witches’ power.
- Deacon, Richard. Matthew Hopkins: Witch Finder General. London: Frederick muller, 1976.
- Hole, Christina. Witchcraft in England. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1947.
- Macfarlane, A. D. J. Witchcraft in Tudor and Suart England. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Lt., 1970.
- Mather, Increase. An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences. 1684. reprint, Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars’ Facsimiles and reprints, 1977.