1655: Jane Hopkins, Bermuda’s last known witch execution

The last known witchcraft execution in Bermuda history occurred on this date in 1655.

The isolated English colony was at this period laboring under social crisis, or a set of crises. It had been declared in rebellion by Cromwell‘s parliament for taking too-vigorous umbrage at King Charles‘s execution. Its official C of E ministers were being challenged by breakaway independents of various stripes of Puritanism. The tobacco crop blew away one year. And it may have had a perilous gender imbalance (too many women, too few men: Bermuda definitely did have this problem in the 18th century). (Source for this whole paragraph) Perhaps it’s no surprise that its Puritan governor* would oversee a spasm of witch persecutions from 1651 to 1655.

Jane Hopkins and another woman named Elizabeth Page were both stuck in the dock on this occasion. They’d recently arrived on the Mayflower** and the captain “did vehemently suspect them to be witches,” seemingly on account of their traveling sans male.

Page bewitched the ship’s helm according to a witness who beheld her run “her finger over the compas, And yt ran round from North to South, And turned backe againe.” That’s pretty impressively infernal, but here in the 17th century they knew to look for some hard forensic evidence … so a group of matrons in Bermuda was empaneled to feel Elizabeth Page up in search of a witch’s teat. Much to the woman’s good fortune, she possessed “not any marke or spotts or signes … only something more than ordinary (in a certain place).” She was accordingly acquitted.

Jane Hopkins’ body was not so ordinary.

The eyewitness testimony against her was a fellow-passenger to whom Hopkins sighed that she wished God would send some sign clearing up all these suspicions of devilry. A rat — ubiquitous in seafaring life, mind you — promptly appeared. To add to this damning divine indictment, a peeping tom on the ship watching her dress had noticed some sort of mark on her shoulder.

Sure enough, Hopkins’s gropers discerned “in her mouth a suspicitious marke and under her arme she hath a dugge or Teat, And upon her shoulder a wart, and upon her necke another wart … all these were insensible when they were prickt.” With this sort of slam-dunk evidence, the jurymen could hardly do otherwise than agree that Hopkins “hath felonously and wickedly consulted and covenanted with the Devil & him hath suckled and fedd contrary to nature & the law of God and man, as doth appeare by markes & signes upon her body.” (The full trial records can be perused here)

It’s not absolutely certain that Jane Hopkins was the last person executed in Bermuda for witchcraft. There were several additional witch prosecutions to follow in the 17th century: some ended in acquittal, others in conviction. There was even at least one more death sentence, but that hanging was stayed and the final disposition of the case is unknown.

* Governor Josiah Forster’s legacy for the isles — other than hanging witches — was the “Forster Chair” made in his honor.

** Not the same ship as the Mayflower of Plymouth Colony fame.

On this day..

3 thoughts on “1655: Jane Hopkins, Bermuda’s last known witch execution

  1. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    Sarah Bassett or more commonly Sally Bassett (died 21 June 1730) was a mulatto slave in the British colony Bermuda in the North Atlantic. She was judged guilty to the attempted murder of several persons by poisoning and executed by burning. The trial against her has some times been referred to as a witch trial. She is associated with a local flower, the Bermudiana.

    Sarah Bassett was a mulatto and had raised many grandchildren. In 1713 she had been judged guilty of killing livestock and had been whipped through the parish. Prior to 1727 she was owned by blacksmith Francis DIckinson of Pembroke Parish. In 1729, she had been valued as useless because of age. In 1730, Thomas Foster, his spouse Sarah Foster and a household slave, Nancey were taken ill. Nancey subsequently discovered some hidden poison; Bassett’s granddaughter Beck, also owned by the Fosters, testified that Sarah had made her give them the poison. Bassett denied the charges but was judged guilty of attempted murder 17 June 1730 and sentenced to be burned alive. The execution took place at Crow Lane by Hamilton Harbour. On her way there, she was to have said to the crowd: “No use you hurrying folks, there’ll be no ’til I get there!” When the remains of the stake was cleared, legend say that a purple flower (the “Bermudiana”, a New World iris of the genus Sisyrinchium) was found in her ashes; before her death Sarah had declared that there would be a sign that she was guiltless and today the flower blooms about Bermuda. The day of the execution was very hot, and since then, hot days are sometimes referred to in Bermuda as a “real Sally Bassett day”.[1] A historian at the University of the West Indies has suggested that news of poisoning inspired slave rebellions throughout the West Indies.[2]

  2. Who knows what they might have done to me! I’ve got a large-ish brown mole on my right knee, and also on my arm a weird red spot that, if you rub it, the color goes away, but then comes back after a few seconds. And I have a PET rat! If I were in Aruba in the 1650s I would be so doomed.

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