Witches’ marks were a mark on the skin of a suspected witch that was believed to be evidence that the person had made a pact with the Devil and was therefore a witch.
It was believed that when a pact was made, the Devil would mark the person with his claws or teeth to confirm the deal.
What Did Witches’ Marks Look Like?
Witches’ marks were often described as being either flat or raised, red, blue or brown lesions, sometimes like a flea bite, sometimes in the shape of an animal footprint, sometimes like a teat or sometimes found in addition to a teat.
These marks were often found on the hands, wrists, shoulders, breasts and genitals but also in other locations.
A book written in 1645 by an anonymous author, titled Lawes Against Witches and Conivration, stated that witches often had a teat, from which familiars suckled, in addition to a witch mark which is described as “a blue-spot, or red-spot, like a flea-biting.”
Martin Delrio, a Spanish Jesuit theologian in the 16th century, described witch marks as “sometimes like the impression of a hare’s foot, or the foot of a rat, or spider” while Professor William Forbes described it, in his 1730 book Institutes of the Law of Scotland, as “like a flea bite or blue spot, or sometimes resembles a little teat, and the part so stamped doth ever after remain insensible, and doth not bleed, tho’ never so much nipped or pricked by thrusting a pin, awl, or bodkin into it…”
In reality, these marks were probably either birthmarks, moles, warts, skin tags or supernumerary nipples or even possibly some primitive type of tattoo.
Witch Marks As Evidence in Witch Trials:
The belief in witch marks, sometimes known as Devil’s marks, came late in the development of witch hunting.
The idea of witch marks didn’t exist at all during the middle ages or even during the beginning of the European Witch Craze in the 15th century. It didn’t even emerge in witch hunting until the early 16th century (Burns 66.)
Once it did though, it became one of many types of supplementary evidence used to convict suspected witches in both Europe and North America, particularly in Protestant areas.
Other types of evidence included spectral evidence, confessions, possession of poppets and ointments or other occult items, proof of supernatural abilities, and testimony of eyewitnesses to acts of witchcraft.
To find witch marks, the accused were often stripped naked and their bodies were searched. It was believed that the Devil marked witches, especially women, on their breasts, anus or genitals so the searches tended to focus on those areas.
For example, on June 2, 1692, a committee of nine women physically examined five accused witches, Bridget Bishop, Elizabeth Proctor, Rebecca Nurse, Alice Parker, Susannah Martin and Sarah Good, for signs of a witch’s mark.
The committee reported that they found “a preternatural excrescence of flesh between the pudendum [genitals] and anus much like to teats & not usual in women” on the bodies of Bishop, Nurse and Proctor, according to the court records.
The three women were re-examined six hours later and Proctor and Bishop were found to be clear of any marks and Nurse’s mark appeared to only be dry skin.
On August 4, 1692, accused witches George Burroughs and George Jacobs Sr were searched and, although they found nothing suspicious on George Burroughs, they did find what looked like three teats on Jacobs, one in his mouth, one on his right shoulder blade and one on his right hip, and proceeded to stick pins in them which Jacobs seemed to have no physical reaction to.
It’s not clear if all of the accused Salem witches were searched for signs of these marks or just some of them. Court records indicate only a select few of them were searched but these records are incomplete so there could have possibly been more examinations.
In European witch trials, the presence of witch marks were also noted in many trials, as were the confessions of how they got those marks.
In addition, professional “witch prickers” who pricked these marks with pins or sharp instruments to test for sensitivity, were widely used.
In fact, the presence of witch marks were considered so incriminating that some accused witches cut off or gouged out any such marks to avoid the issue altogether, such as the case of John Clarke of Huntingdonshire, tried in 1646, who told a fellow accused witch that he was foolish to have let the authorities find his marks and that he had “cut off mine three days before I was searched.”
Another accused witch Alice Goodrich of Stapenhill, tried in 1597, was searched and found to have two small bloody holes on her stomach were it looked as though two warts had been cut off.
Other accused witches with marks sometimes confessed to being a witch and told mysterious stories about how they got the marks.
The Yarmouth witch, tried in England in 1644, had a mark on her hand that she explained was given to her by a tall black man knocked on her door one night, asked for her hand and pricked it with a pen-knife which left a permanent mark.
Rebecca Jones of Essex, England, tried in 1645, had two marks on her left wrist that she stated she got from a handsome young man who knocked on her door, asked to see her left wrist and then pricked it twice with a pin.
Jonet Howat, of Forfar, Scotland tried in 1661, had a mark on her shoulder that she said was from the Devil nipping her shoulder and it caused her great pain until he later returned and stroked her shoulder again, which caused the pain to stop.
Elspeth Alexander, also of Forfar and tried in 1661, stated that she was also nipped on the shoulder by the Devil and Marie Lamont, of Inverkip, Scotland, tried in 1662, confessed that the Devil nipped her on the right side and left his mark on her.
The Somerset witches, tried in England in 1664, had marks on their fingers that they confessed they received from the Devil.
Annabil Stuart, of Paisley, Scotland, tried in 1678, had a mark on her arm that she confessed she also received from the Devil while John Reid, one of the seven Paisley witches tried in 1697, confessed that he received a bite or nip from the Devil on his loin and then hanged himself in his cell shortly after making the confession, leading some to believe at the time that the Devil had entered his cell and killed him for confessing.
In one of the later witchcraft trials in Scotland, Isobel Adams of Pittenweem, in 1704, also confessed that the Devil had marked her flesh.
Eventually though, according to 17th century Scottish lawyer, Sir George Mackenzie, who participated in the Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1661-2, the mere existence of a witch mark wasn’t considered admissible evidence anymore unless that accused witch actually confessed that they got the mark as part of a pact with the Devil, which is why so many of the recorded cases from that time included stories about how they got the mark.
The continued decline in witch hunts in Western Europe in the late 17th century and early 18th century led to a further decline in the acceptance of witch marks as evidence and eventually witch trials died out altogether in both Europe and North America in the 18th century.
Anon. Lawes Against Witches and Conivration. London: Printed for R.W., 1645.
Burns, William E. Witch Hunts in Europe and America: An Encyclopedia.
Murray, M.A. The Witch-Cult in Western Europe: A Study in Anthropology. Good Press, 2019.
Murray, M. A. “81. The Devil’s Mark.” Man, vol. 18, 1918, pp. 148–153. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2788131
Flotte, Thomas J.M.D. and Debra Bell A.M.D. “Role of Skin Lesions in the Salem Witchcraft Trials.” APA , The American Journal of Dermatopathology: December 1989, p 582-587
Friedman, Susan Hatters and Andrew Howie. “Salem Witchcraft and Lessons for Contemporary Forensic Psychiatry.” Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online, June 2013, 41 (2) 294-299, jaapl.org/content/41/2/294