Anna Cora Mowatt and Matthew Hopkins, the Witch-Finder

Anna Cora Mowatt and Images of Matthew Hopkins, the Witch-Finder

After reading up on the historical Matthew Hopkins, I think we’re remiss not to number “witch-finder” among the roster of monsters who appear at Halloween. I believe I may have mistakenly referred to Hopkins as a “witch-hunter” previously. This is misleading. He did not merely hunt for witches, he found them. As the Henry Spicer’s play says,

Sir G: He’ll find you out,
If there’s a witch among ye.
Needham: And if not,
He’ll make one. No man builds his giants better.1

During his relatively short career which began in 1644 and ended in 1647, Hopkins is believed to have been personally responsible for the execution of over 100 individuals. For his efforts, he claimed to have been appointed to the office of Witchfinder General, although there are no official records of such a title ever being bestowed upon him.

Matthew Hopkins
Matthew Hopkins

The secret to his success was that Hopkins was a master of the art that in a shameful period of U.S. history, this government began to refer to as “enhanced interrogation techniques.” In his book “The Discovery of Witches,” he describes methods of coercing confessions from individuals that he devised such as the infamous “swim test” better known as “ducking.” Based on the proposition that witches had denied their baptism and therefore would be rejected by water, the subject of the investigation would be secured to a chair and immersed. If the person floated or swam, they were determined to be witch. The subject was therefore faced with the no-win scenario of drowning or hanging.

Hopkin's "Discovery of Witches"
Hopkin’s “Discovery of Witches”

Hopkins deployed less exotic interrogation methods that are still in use today, such a sleep deprivation, to coerce confessions. He and his associates also cut suspected witches with knives and punctured their victims with special needles supposedly in order to find the “Devil’s Marks” which could be moles or unusual birth marks.

"Witch pricking" needles
“Witch pricking” needles

Not only did Matthew Hopkins distill witch-hunting down to a science, he found a way to make it pay. His career coincided with the English Civil War. He and his associates took advantage of the breakdown in traditional infrastructure and reigning paranoia of the day resulting from the high degree of political unrest to terrorize small municipalities. They would descend upon isolated towns and villages, target victims, stage elaborate show trials and executions, all while demanding that the local authorities levy special taxes to cover their expenses. Those who failed to comply were in great danger of being discovered to be witches themselves.

Hopkins’ career was cut short when he died, rather anticlimactically, of tuberculous. His malignant influence lived on, however, through his book, “The Discovery of Witches,” which made its way to the New World and influenced the instigators of the Salem Witch trials and other persecutions. Hopkins was an innovator in cruelty and cynicism.

When looking at Henry Spicer’s drama, I don’t think he was any more interested in creating a historically accurate portrait of Matthew Hopkins than the average screenwriter of a Dracula movie might be concerned with reproducing an exact picture of Vlad the Impaler. After all, “The Witch-Wife” is, at heart, a romantic melodrama. Richard Stearn, who was also based on a real person who persecuted and executed scores of innocent people, is played almost entirely for laughs in this play. In the same way that writers look at the Dracula mythos and find something appealing in an antagonist who must live parasitically off its victims and is simultaneously incredibly powerful and yet exceedingly vulnerable to something as pervasive and seemingly healthful as sunlight, I think that Spicer looked at con man/torturer/extortionist Matthew Hopkins and saw a type of villain he thought might speak to his audience in a particularly cogent manner.

Illustration from Ainsworth's "The Lancashire Witches"
Illustration from Ainsworth’s “The Lancashire Witches”

In her excellent book on U.S. culture during this period, “Confidence Men and Painted Women,” Karen Halttunen called the Nineteenth century the “Age of the Con Man.” She posits;

The proliferation of moveable wealth, especially negotiable paper, in the early nineteenth century, and the growing confusion and anonymity of urban living, had made possible for the first time a wide variety of swindles, frauds, forgeries, and other counterfeiting games.2

I would argue the same trends could be observed in early 19th century England as well. Although the context was entirely different than Matthew Hopkins’ rapid rise to power during the English Civil War, the Industrial Revolution allowed for a bracing new social mobility. Enterprising individuals in this new, dynamic, economic environment could rise to positions of power and influence without having gone through the traditional vetting structures of wealthy families or prestigious schools. Individuals could, like Hopkins, arise seemingly from nowhere, living entirely by their wits. In other words, these “new men” of the Industrial Age were people like Walter Watts, with no impressive family background or university degree to vouch for them. He was armed only with his industry, intelligence, charm, and mysteriously endless supply of cash to make his way in the world.

In the play, “Witch Wife,” Spicer’s Matthew Hopkins is a nightmare of a “new man” gone wrong. He is by far the most dynamic character in the play, capable of instantly changing course and revising his tactics in response to whatever new circumstance confronts him. This quality alone makes him the center of attention in every scene he enters and puts him in sharp contrast with the rest of the cast, many of whom are staid Victorian stereotypes.

Not only is he not attached to a “good” family or education, he openly mocks these institutions. When Cecil Howard proudly informs him that she is the niece of the local squire, Hopkins, snidely replies;

Humph! Are you
Niece to that old curmudgeon – I – I mean
That learned and wealthy squire?3

Neither is he awed by the well-educated lawyer, Marchmont Needham, commenting,

I never knew a fellow could discourse
In words of twenty syllables, like him, —
Worth a cock’s feather.4

Hopkins simultaneously flaunts his usurpation of traditional jurisprudence and displays his unique rhetorical skills in the following confrontation with Sir Gerald Mole, the county magistrate, and Cecil Howard’s uncle. In the following exchange, Hopkins goes as far as menacingly contradicting Sir Gerald’s faith in the squire’s hero, Euclid, a paragon of logical thinking;

Hop: Sir, I’ve given
My brightest years to mathematical lore,
And found all’s nothing. Algebra’s a hoax –
Euclid a humbug – a pedantic ass –
I saw it – and exposed him.

Sir G. Did you so ? –
Oblige me with a trifling illustration
Of his absurdities. Just cause to meet
Two parallel lines. Or will you square the circle?

Hop: Square what?

Sir G: The circle.

Hop: (boldly.) Yes.

Sir G: The deuce you will!
Science has offered some ten thousand crowns
To him shall do it.

Hop: She has? The liberal soul! –
I’m half ashamed to take it. Ne’ertheless,
Just to oblige… Now sir, attend me –
[takes the chalk and approaches board.]
A is a country justice, kind, but weak.
B is a zealous witch-destroyer, thwarted.
And crossed by A; — C is the public, looking
To both for comfort and protection. – Well?

Sir G: (reluctantly). The point is clear —

Hop: Most lucid. Or again,
Let A, B, C, be certain witches, D,
The – hem – the devil – and E, a ducking- pond –
Now, then ‘tis plain that lines from A, B, C,
Produced to E, and, there united, passing
Downward to D, get their dessert, and there
We’ll, with permission, leave them, and proceed
To business.5

Through force of intimidation and implicit threat of violence in this quick piece of dialogue, Hopkins rudely and effectively pushes aside the validity of Sir Gerald’s status as a top authority in his community established via the exercise of ethos (character) and logos (logic.) Hopkins is then able to bully the old man into signing warrants that put the entire municipality in jeopardy of being prosecuted as witches.

One of the play’s shortcomings is that Spicer over-matches his heroes against this very nimble and dangerous antagonist. In his last act, in order to bring events to a satisfactory resolution, Marchmont Needham must confusingly transform from law student to district court judge in order to have sufficient authority to defeat Hopkins’ machinations. The reviewer of the play from The Era (probably E.L. Blanchard, who was himself a very experienced playwright) complained,

In all Mr. Spicer’s plays passages of great poetic beauty are to be found, and in most of them the denouements are extremely original, and in some instances highly improbable. The Witch Wife is no exception to his general rule. The denouement, and sudden debut of the New Judge, completely took the audience by surprise. The effect was as startling as it bordered on the ludicrous and improbable. But there seemed no other method of extricating Cecil from the scrape in which her act of folly had placed her. 6

Throughout the play, an aspect of Hopkins’ character that enables his plotline to move so quickly is that the powers of ethos and logos mean nothing to him. He is willing and able to move quickly and decisively to subvert traditional authority figures, moral codes, and even conventional logic to achieve his goals. Only pathos (emotion), as embodied by Cecil Howard, has the ability to impress or sway him.

When Hopkins first encounters her by chance, he is not impressed by her wealth or connections. He does find her to be physically attractive; however, the aspect that draws him strongly and irresistibly is her emotional strength which he describes as follows:

I have a name
For fearless courage –zeal – and sanctity –
And truth. I feel, within this ragged rind
Lies a concealed spirit, like a spell,
Awaiting but the charmer’s voice to wake
Its fine and terrible action. Girl, that voice,
That power are thine! I saw you, and my soul,
Never yet moved, shrank helpless, stricken, dumb,
At once your slave – and destiny.7

I have previously talked about the characters of Hopkins and Howard as being representative of norm-breaking, Industrial age Victorians, but in this quality of emotionality I think they hearken back to a previous age. Both of them are displaying a predilection for what in the Romantic age would have been called “sensibility.” Today we think of sensibility as being synonymous with practicality. Then, the word connoted extreme responsiveness to all the five senses as well as to emotional stimulus. Women, in particular, were considered delicate because they were more responsive to stimuli. Conversely, because of their superior sensibility, Romantics thought women could serve barometers for truthfulness in what they found to be a confusing and frequently unclean world.

The Era’s review seems to indicate that this “sensible” or finely emotional quality was typical of Mowatt’s acting.

The character of Cecil is nicely drawn; the light and shade of joy and grief, are vividly portrayed; whilst the gentler feelings of the woman’s nature are artistically infused throughout the character, which is admirably suited to Mrs. Mowatt’s powers.8

I believe that this ability to clearly convey many subtle, quickly shifting emotional colorings of a character was probably a performance characteristic Spicer had in mind when he wrote the role of Cecil Howard for Mowatt.

Hopkins, in the play and in reality, uses arguments based in emotion – not logic or character – to whip crowds into violence and frenzy or to bully and intimidate. A young, zealous partner like Cecil Howard who converted to his cause, believed in his message out of motivation other than just self-enrichment could have brought a tone of truthfulness to his message and would have exponentially increased his power.

Anna Cora Mowatt as Cecil Howard
Anna Cora Mowatt as Cecil Howard

However, because she is not only responsive to emotional stimuli, but is able to accurately decode all the colorings of the messages with which he is rapidly bombarding her without becoming confused, overwhelmed, or losing touch with her own personal sense of truth, Cecil unequivocally rejects Hopkins. He turns on her venomously. Within half a page of declaring that he loves her, that he is her slave, and their being together was destiny, he vows;

So shall you find the hate you calmly dare,
As strong as love, but deadlier. Our short strife,
Passed in the dull depths of the silent wood,
Revenge shall visit you within the gaze
Of gaping thousands, and before this sun…9

Here is the deadly flipside of the “new” men and women of the Victorian age. Despite our view of the Victorians as being very stiff and formal, the financial dynamics of the times allowed for a new social mobility that permitted the rapid advancement of individuals not bound by convention and tradition the same way their ancestors had been. This allowed individuals like Benjamin Disraeli, Henry Ford, and Thomas Alva Edison to defy norms and become quickly and fabulously successful during this time despite lacking impressive family backgrounds or some other conventional credentials that might have disqualified them in an earlier epoch.

This freedom from conventionality is what allows the plot of Spicer’s drama to move along so rapidly. Hopkins and Howard serve as the driving forces of the plotline. Each uses emotional appeals to pressure the other characters to change their actions to dramatically align with the goals and wishes of Cecil or the Witch-Finder. As the struggle between the opposing desires of these characters intensifies, ethos and logos are increasingly abandoned as organizing principles for the community, and chaos increases.

The rapidity with which bystanders in the fictional Pendell Forrest become caught up in emotion and passion, throwing aside the steadying forces of character and logic, and are then bullied into terror and confusion can stand as a cautionary tale not just for Henry Spicer’s 19th century audience, but for today’s audiences as well.

1. Spicer, Henry. “The Witch Wife; A Tale of Malkin Tower. A Drama in Five Acts.” (Thomas Bosworth, London: 1849) Page 3.
2. Halttunen, Karen. Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Culture in America 1830-1870. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1982. Page 7.
3. Spicer, Henry. “The Witch Wife; A Tale of Malkin Tower. A Drama in Five Acts.” (Thomas Bosworth, London: 1849) Page 12.
4. Ibid. p. 11
5. Ibid. p. 19-20.
6. “Marylebone.” The Era: London. June 24, 1849. Page 11, col. 2.
7. Spicer, Henry. “The Witch Wife; A Tale of Malkin Tower. A Drama in Five Acts.” (Thomas Bosworth, London: 1849) Page 13.
8. “Marylebone.” The Era: London. June 24, 1849. Page 11, col. 2.
9. Spicer, Henry. “The Witch Wife; A Tale of Malkin Tower. A Drama in Five Acts.” (Thomas Bosworth, London: 1849) Page 13.