27 January 1736—London.
Matthew Hopkins, III sat stoically with his glass of port at The Prospect of Whitby, a public house on the banks of the River Thames, four short miles from Parliament Square. The pub’s heavy oak paneling was a comfort against the cold, the glass window panes delicately frosted in lacy patterns of ice.
Waiting, Hopkins was on edge, eyes unblinking as he looked out on the muddy brown river, its color owing to the riverbed’s silt as well as the filth tossed into it each day. It would be another hundred years and several cholera outbreaks later before London dealt with its “Big Stink.”
The Prospect of Whitby’s reputation had improved of late, no doubt since well known Londoners like Dr. Samuel Johnson or Samuel Pepys dropped by for supper or libations, bringing with them a cadre of writers and socialites and sycophants. The pub was respectable now, a far cry from its inception two centuries earlier, when smugglers, prostitutes, footpads and thieves drank their throat-searing gin.
“Care for another, sir?” the serving girl asked.
“I’ll wait for my colleagues,” Hopkins answered, afraid to look at his pocket watch to see the time. Surely, the presentation to the House of Commons had been concluded.
“They say this pub is haunted,” the serving girl added, collecting stemmed glassware and tankards on a large wooden tray, balanced on one of her ample hips. “Sometimes at eventide, I’ve seen a ghost girl, dressed in a doublet and in breeches—just like a man. She usually smokes a pipe and sits right where you are.”
Hopkins paled, feeling a wave of nausea wash over him. He elegantly moved to another seat as the serving girl continued her rounds.
“They say the ghost had been a moll cutpurse. One of her marks got wise and beat her to death in the back alley.”
“Dreadful,” Hopkins winced.
“I don’t think I’d come back here if someone beat me to death, but maybe she deserved it. Maybe she was a witch,” the girl suggested, laughing as lightly as a spring day.
Hopkins put his head in his hands, almost in despair. She did not notice.
“How does one know someone is a witch unless they kill your livestock or poison your children? It’s not likely one would confess to having a third nipple—”
“Young lady,” Hopkins said curtly. “Please bring me another glass of port and some bread, mutton, and cheese.”
“Yes, sir.” She had overstepped her place, speaking to him in such a familiar way. She curtsied and promptly left him to his brooding.
So much ignorance, still in the 18th century! Even as the Age of Reason showered down light and knowledge on Londoners from the pens of Newton, Locke, and Hobbes . . . tales of witches still abounded. It was past time for reason and science to overcome superstition and blind faith. It was past time to let go of ghosts.
“Don’t mind the girl, sir,” the pub’s proprietor nervously appeared, hoisting a trencher, overladen with food. He placed it before Hopkins.
Hopkins tucked in quickly as he hadn’t eaten anything all day.
“It’s of no consequence.” Hopkins waved him off. “I have some guests arriving shortly.”
“Yes, sir,” the man replied cheerfully. “We’ll take care to see they are welcomed right and proper.”
Hopkins nodded, distracted, thinking of Arthur Onslow, the Speaker of the House of Commons. Onslow was a good chap, held in the highest regard. It was he who would moderate the debate and make rulings on today’s proceedings. Perhaps he was announcing the results of the vote now?
The serving girl returned, her cheek red and swollen.
“Oh my dear,” he sighed. She scuttled away from him, embarrassed, sweeping up some detritus on the floorboards. “Come sit with me, please.”
“I’m not that type of girl—”
“Then I will stand with you,” Hopkins smiled, good naturedly. “I am Matthew Hopkins, III.”
“Please to make your acquaintance.” She curtsied again.
“As we speak, three of my dear friends—John Conduitt, Sir John Crosse, and George Heathcote—are imploring the House of Commons to pass the Witchcraft Act.”
“Will it help rid London of witches?” she wondered aloud.
“My young lady, there are no such things as witches.” He gently patted her shoulder. “My grandfather declared himself London’s ‘Witchfinder General’ and made a great deal of money murdering women for his own profit and fame.”
“How many witches did he kill?” she asked, eyes agog.
“He had over three hundred women killed and exactly zero witches,” he remarked quietly. “It has been a great shame to me personally.”
“They hung Mary Hicks and her nine-year-old daughter the year I was born in Huntingdon. They were witches,” she said emphatically.
“They were accused of taking off their stockings to make it rain,” Hopkins replied. “They were simply a mother and daughter.”
“The Scots killed Janet Horne nine years ago for practicing witchcraft,” she protested.
“The Scots have been killing women by the scores ever since King James took the English throne and wrote his Daemonologie. A hundred years, a civil war and a Puritan interregnum has continued what ‘the Wisest Fool in Christendom’ started—the wholesale torture and murder of good Christian women, falsely accused by neighborhood scolds.”
“But Janet Horne’s daughter had deformed hands and feet! Janet Horne used her daughter as a pony to ride to the devil!”
“None of that happened,” Hopkins flatly stated. “What did happen was that another old woman and her daughter were imprisoned after neighbors bore false witness against them. A local sheriff immediately condemned them to death. Although her daughter escaped, the old mother was stripped naked and smeared with boiling tar. Then Janet was paraded through the town in a barrel before being burned alive.”
Hopkins paused to drink, overcome with emotion. He swallowed hard.
“That’s hard to imagine,” the service girl agreed.
“Then imagine how confused and terrified the poor woman must have been at the end, seeing her townsfolk abuse her so egregiously. Imagine the pain of the tar being overshadowed by the excruciating pain of the flames. Imagine her greatest pain before she died from the smoke, never knowing if her daughter was truly safe or the next one on the pyre.”
The young girl freely wept as the proprietor showed three men to Hopkin’s table. She disappeared into the side kitchen.
“We did it, Matthew!” George Heathcote shouted, seeing Hopkin’s expectant face. The men cheered, shaking hands all around.
“Thank god in his merciful heaven,” Hopkins audibly sighed. He called out to the proprietor. “Bring us claret. A large decanter of claret, my good man.”
“Why not two?” Sir John Crosse amended.
“Tell me—tell me everything! I’ve been waiting all day. Were there any oppositions to the proposal?” Hopkins asked.
“Oh good lord,” John Conduitt sighed, rolling his eyes dramatically. “Very little. Only Lord Erskine embarrassed himself, explaining how witchcraft was against his Scottish religion. He essentially ruined his political career today. Walpole even commented on his idiocy, calling him ‘an eccentric verging on the insane.’ Can you imagine?”
They broke out laughing.
Stemmed glasses quickly came and were filled with a lovely red Bordeaux.
“I propose a toast.” Matthew Hopkins, III solemnly faced his friends, the three members of parliament who proposed the vote. “To the Age of Reason. To the Witchcraft Act of 1735. To making it a crime to claim any human being has magical powers. To making it a crime to hunt or execute citizens of Great Britain for so-called witchcraft. To outlawing cowards like my grandfather who profited off superstition and the misogyny of this great nation. Long live King George II!”
“Long live the king,” the other men raised their glasses, drinking long and deep.
“Long live the king,” whispered the serving girl, listening to the men from the kitchen’s doorway, a tiny smile lighting up her tear-stained face.