Trials by Ordeal

trials by ordeal methods used in trials, including witchcraft trials, to determine guilt or innocence. Trials by ordeal involve a physical test. In England, such trials were introduced by the Saxons. English law gave the accused the right to choose trial by ordeal or trial by jury.

Ordeal by touch.

The custom of touching the corpse of a murder victim was used throughout Europe and Britain and was imported to the American colonies. If a murder suspect touched the corpse and caused it to bleed, he was guilty.

According to lore, the custom originated in Denmark when a man was stabbed to death in a brawl. The king made all the participants touch the chest of the corpse and swear they were innocent. When the guilty man did so, the corpse gushed blood from the stab wound and through the nostrils. The guilty man broke down and confessed. He was beheaded.

A variation of the ordeal by touch holds that when touched by the guilty, the murdered corpse does not bleed but opens it eyes.

In Herefordshire, England, under the reign of king Charles I (r. 1625–49), Johan Norkett, wife of Arthur Norkett, was found dead of apparent suicide. A month after her burial, suspicions abounded that she was in fact murdered. Her body was dug up, and four suspects were made to touch it. When they did so, according to the story, the body regained its lifelike color, sweated, opened its eyes, and dripped blood from the marriage-ring finger. Three of the four were found guilty and executed. The fourth, a woman, was imprisoned.

Also in the 17th century, in Scotland, Christina Wilson was accused of murdering her brother by sorcery. The corpse bled when she touched it, and she was convicted. Ordeal by touch was used in the 17th century to convict Rebecca Ames of Massachusetts of witchcraft. Seventy-seven years later, an attempt was made in court in Salem, Massachusetts, to force an ordeal by touch in the murder case against John Ames of Boxford. Ames was accused of murdering his wife, ruth, by poisoning. Ames was defended by John Adams, who would become the second president of the United States. Adams refused to let the test be done, claiming that it was “nothing but black arts and witchcraft.” The magistrates backed down, and Ames was declared innocent and went free.

Ordeal by food.

The accused were made to swallow large pieces of bread over which mass had been said. If they could do so without choking, they were innocent. The slightest cough meant they were guilty. Sometimes cheese was added to the bread.

Ordeal by water.

Similar to the ordeal by food, the accused were forced to swallow huge quantities of water quickly. No ill effects meant innocence. However, the ordeal sometimes killed the accused, by causing veins to burst and hemorrhage.

The ordeal of hot water involved sticking a hand into a pot of boiling water. If there were no burns, the accused was innocent. Sometimes oil was used instead of water.

Another type of ordeal by cold water was known as swImmIng, in which the accused, bound hand and foot, was tossed into deep water. Sinking (and usually drowning) meant innocence. Floating (and thus rejection by the pure water) meant guilt.

Ordeal by hot iron.

The accused were forced to walk or sit on red-hot irons. If they were able to do so, they were guilty.



The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca – written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – Copyright © 1989, 1999, 2008 by Visionary Living, Inc.


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