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Thursday, October 27, 2011

How Many Witches Were Executed?!?

Posted by Darin Hayton on 10/27 at 03:50 PM

In reporting the number of people executed for witchcraft in early-modern Europe, Jess Blumberg makes a grievous mistake in a recently reposted article over at Smithsonian.com, “A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trails.” Blumberg claims that between the 1300s and the end of the 1600s “Hundreds of thousands of supposed witches—mostly women—were executed.” Blumberg’s numbers are wrong. They are too high.*

Screen shot of the Smithsonian article on the witch trials. Blumberg’s exaggeration is highlighted. (Source: “A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trails”)

There is no excuse for fabricating such numbers, although there is a history pulling numbers like this out of thin air.

Detail showing Blumberg’s claim about the number of witches executed. (Source: “A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trails”)

While Blumberg’s exaggeration is better than the hyperbolic number sometimes bantered about, it remains deeply problematic and propagates misconceptions and falsehoods.1 Such numbers serve no good purpose.2 We will never know the actual numbers. Nonetheless, we have an obligation to try to understand how many people (women, men, boys, and girls) were executed if we hope to understand the role witchcraft played in early-modern Europe.

Whatever the numbers might be, it is appalling that so many people were executed for practicing witchcraft. That those executions often came at the end of a rational process that included being suspected of, tried for, and finally convicted of practicing witchcraft should not mitigate our repulsion.

Scholars continue to count and calculate. They range from 40,000 to 100,000 between the 14th and 17th centuries. Here is a table that tries to represent both the magnitude and the geographic distribution of witchcraft prosecutions and executions. Obviously, these numbers are estimates:

Table of executions for witchcraft across Europe, ca. 1400-1700 (Source: Culled from recent scholarship. A PDF version is here)

It is a shame that Smithsonian.com publishes such falsehoods and misconceptions. It takes only a simple wikipedia search for “Witch-hunt” to find more reasonable numbers and references to recent scholarship to back up those numbers — scholars have been trying to dispel this myth for at least twenty years now. It is unclear why Blumberg cited this number at all. Blumberg’s assertion itself serves no purpose in the article, which discusses the more modest Salem trials.

What makes Blumberg’s error all the more problematic is the attention this article has received. It has already received 561 comments, which probably reflects only a fraction of the people who have read the story. Three of the people who commented drew attention to Blumberg’s error (while one person corroborated Blumberg’s numbers), but their comments are lost in page after page of comments. Numerous other websites have linked to Blumberg’s article, spreading his error across the internet where it will become accepted and repeated as fact, having been given the imprimatur of Smithsonian.com. Alas, once again a journalist makes unsubstantiated claims that seem to be chosen for effect rather than for accuracy.

UPDATE: Shortly after this essay was posted an editor at Smithsonian.com contacted me and asked how best to adjust the original article to reflect current scholarship. The editor then promptly changed the offending sentence in order to correct the original error. This seems to be one of those examples of what David Carr calls the self-cleaning nature of the internet: “The web is kind of a self-cleaning oven and what you have up there can grow more accurate as time goes by. …” (see his recent interview with Terry Gross WHYY’s Fresh Air on NPR).

While the precise motivation for this essay has been removed, the content remains worthwhile—too many people still make wild claims about the number of people executed during the witch trials.  For that reason, I have left this post up.

NOTES—
*Note, the current editor at Smithsonian.com has corrected Blumberg’s numbers to bring them in agreement with recent scholarship.
1Too frequently the number of witches executed is in the millions. In the U.S., a number in the millions gained considerable currency in Gyn/Ecology in the late 1970s. A quasi-documentary from 1990, “The Burning Times,” produced by the National Film Board of Canada, claimed that a high estimate put the numbers at 9 million. This number of 9 million seems to have its source in 19th-century Protestant anti-Catholic polemics.
2Anecdotally, a student once argued that 9 million, even if proven false, was necessary to get people to recognize the atrocities committed against women.

Tags: executions, jess blumberg, journalism, persecutions, salem, smithsonian, witch trials, witchcraft, witches

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