“Wicked women” and communal violence: Witchcraft in historical perspective

Sheilagh Ilona O’Brien reflects upon contemporary witchcraft persecution by examining the communal violence historically enacted against women thought to be witches in the seventh post in our 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence series.

Warning: this post includes the explicit discussion of violence, torture, and rape.

When we talk about gendered violence we often think first of intimate partner violence or sexual assault. But women can also be the focus of communal violence, especially if they are perceived to have transgressed social or moral boundaries. My doctoral thesis examines witchcraft trials in early modern England, a topic which may seem only of historical interest. But violence against women in many places around the world continues to include the brutal assault, torture and murder of women who are accused of witchcraft or sorcery. This post explores some of the stories of women who faced interrogation, torture and murder at the hands of their own communities, from early modern England to contemporary Papua New Guinea.

An illustration of ducking a witch, in Chap-books of the eighteenth century, by John Ashton (1834). Image via Wikimedia Commons.
An illustration of the ducking of a witch, in Chap-books of the eighteenth century, by John Ashton (1834). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

I would like to begin by sharing a story from the eighteenth century that resonates with modern narratives of violence against women accused of witchcraft. This case occurred nearly forty years after the last successful prosecution of a witch under the early modern witchcraft acts, and twenty years after those acts were repealed in 1735.  On Saturday August 24, 1751, at Marlston Green in Hertfordshire, England a young man called Thomas Colley was hung before his community as a warning to others. His crime was the brutal beating and murder of an elderly woman named Ruth Osborne and the assault of her husband, John Osborne. Colley was not alone in attacking the elderly couple; in fact, thousands had responded to an announcement from the town crier that Ruth and John would be ducked for their “wicked crimes.”

Local officials, including the Overseer of the Poor, Matthew Barton, had tried to protect the elderly couple, but their attempts were in vain. The couple were dragged from the church by a mob reported to be 5,000 strong and taken to a local pond where Ruth was thrown into the water suspended by a rope under her armpits, apparently clothed only in a sheet. Thomas Colley, according to a witness at his trial, “pull’d her up and down the pond” until the sheet came off, and then proceeded to push the elderly woman “on the breast with a stick, which she endeavoured with her left hand to catch hold of.” That was the last attempt Ruth Osborne made to save herself; she drowned soon after. Colley proceeded to ask for, and receive, money from Ruth Osborne’s neighbours and other townsfolk for the work he had done ‘showing them sport in ducking the old witch’.

Johann Jakob Wick, "Burning of three witches in Baden, Switzerland" (1585). Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Johann Jakob Wick, “Burning of three witches in Baden, Switzerland” (1585). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Thomas Colley was not the only man hung for the extra-judicial killing of a witch in early modern England. Nearly a century earlier, in 1667, the Rev. Oliver Heywood recorded that three men were hung in York for the murder of a woman suspected of witchcraft in Wakefield. Many women accused of witchcraft were subjected to a range of acts of communal violence, including blooding, ducking and being forced to endure interrogation by their neighbours.

It became clear during Colley’s trial that Ruth and her husband had endured years of accusation and abuse from their community, and this resulted in her husband not being able to find work. Poverty and hardship have always played an important role in violence against witches. They were often the poorest members of the community, often female, and often elderly. In the 1970s, witchcraft historian Alan Macfarlane put forward a model for witchcraft accusations now known as “the denial of charity.” This theory argued that disputes leading to witchcraft accusations often arose out of wealthier households denying poor women small amounts of food or other goods.

There is also some evidence that both early modern witch trials and modern witch-related violence are connected to overall economic trends. A graph that demonstrated a correlation between economic stress and numbers of witch trials in early modern England was circulated online by the ABC’s Alan Kohler in 2012. Indeed, all forms of violence rise and fall with economic trends, but in the case of witchcraft there is a link between growing hardship, neighbourhood disputes and scapegoating of the poor – particularly poor women – in times of social and economic crisis.

Mora witch trial, Sweden, 1670. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Mora witch trial, Sweden, 1670. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

It might seem that such incidents are part of a forgotten past, that women no longer live in fear of mob violence following accusations of witchcraft. But for thousands of women across the world, many in developing countries from South America to Africa and in our own Asia-Pacific region, the threat is all too real. Between 2013 and 2015, a series of reports of mob violence or threats against women accused of witchcraft arose from Papua New Guinea as the country struggled with a terrible drought and food shortages. These events echoed the circumstances of several witchcraft-related acts of violence during a previous ecological crisis in 1997.

Very similar stories to the death of Ruth Osborne have unfolded in Papua New Guinea in recent years, and have sparked a wider debate and response to the pattern of violence against women accused of witchcraft in Papua New Guinea. In 2012, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women found that sorcery was often used as a pretext to mask the abuse of women in Papua New Guinea. In 2013, a 20-year-old woman called Kepari Leniata was stripped, beaten and burned alive in Mt Hagen (where another very similar murder took place in 2009). Over a year later, Amnesty International pointed out that those who had committed the crime had yet to be brought to justice.

In 2015, in the Enga province in the northern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, a woman called Mifila barely escaped death in her home village in January. But her reprieve was all too short lived, and she was hacked to death by machetes in her new home in May. Mifila and three other women had been accused of causing a measles outbreak, and had only been saved by the intervention of police and missionaries in January. In October 2015, in the same province, the apparent bewitching of a local man caused the torture of four local women. Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat spoke with Lutheran missionary Anton Lutz, who claimed that the women were identified by witch-hunters from another village in the area. One news source even reported that the women and their children remained in danger even after their supposed victim Max recovered fully. That particular incident received attention in the media due to the sharing of a video of the incident on social media.

Similar stories of violence against women accused of witchcraft can be found all across the world. In the Puerto Bermúdez district of Peru, a 73-year-old woman was burned alive in 2016 in a remote rainforest village. According to a local prosecutor Hugo Mauricio, accusations of witchcraft occur frequently, with women beaten or killed as a result. In 2015, a pregnant woman in a different community in the same region was beaten so badly by her neighbours that she miscarried. During the Central African Republic’s Civil War (2012-present), Christian militias have burned both male and female witches alive, according to a United Nations report. Father Aurelio Gazzera, a missionary working with Carritas in the Central African Republic, told Reuters that witchcraft related violence was “aggravated during moments of crisis.” According to Lutz, more than twenty-five women that he knows of have been killed since 2005 for witchcraft in Papua New Guinea, while others have fled their homes in fear.

In early modern England, economic and national crises impacted upon the number of witch trials. Today, the effects of industrialisation, social crises, civil wars, famines and droughts continue to impact the lives of women across the world. Such social upheaval leads to violence and trauma, including the murder of women for witchcraft.

When we talk about gendered violence we must include narratives of every variety, including those that speak to experiences which are vastly different from our own. And while the brutal beating, torture, and murder of women for witchcraft does not affect the same number of women worldwide as intimate partner violence or rape, it is a form of gendered violence which still effects thousands of people around the world.

The killing of women for witchcraft often results in a form of horrified bemusement in places like Australia. There is a sense that these crimes are a result of ignorance and superstition, rather than a complicated part of other societies. To a certain extent this explains away deeply misogynistic violence as just what happens in “backwards” or supposedly “less-developed” places. Rather than clearly seeing a moral panic which targets those least able to defend themselves including poor women and children, and often women who are widowed or single mothers, we instead emphasise how different these places are from our own countries. But moral panics that target certain social groups to make the majority feel better is far from “only” a third-world problem. We need only listen to the rhetoric of all too many of our politicians to hear the echoes of such “othering” much closer to home. We need to see communal violence (whether physical or rhetorical) as part of a mechanism for releasing social stress during times of crisis.

There is no simple solution to offer, no single answer to the question “how can we stop this from happening?” But knowing and sharing the stories of women like Kepari and Mifila is the very least we should do.


Safe Child Africa is an organisation which seeks to protect and educate the children of Nigeria. Of its many aims, one is to provide support for children accused of witchcraft. Please donate here.


sheilagh-photoshoo-13Sheilagh Ilona O’Brien is a doctoral candidate at The University of Queensland. Her Ph.D. thesis investigates witchcraft and diabolism in early modern England. Prior to her doctoral studies she completed a Masters in International Studies (Peace & Conflict Resolution), with a thesis on the failure of international responses to the Rwandan genocide. Sheilagh holds a Bachelor of Arts (History, Hons I) with an honours thesis on the religious and cultural underpinnings of Afrikaner nationalism in the early twentieth century.

Follow Sheilagh on Twitter @SheilaghIlona.

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