Most witch hunters were sadistic torturers.
The stereotype of the witch hunter as a cruel inquisitor who deliberately frames innocent people is prevalent in literature, movies and artworks. One example is the character Lucas de Beaumanoir in Sir Walter Scott’s novel “Ivanhoe.” Another is the witchsmeller pursuivant in the British comedy show “Blackadder.” Today the president implicitly evokes this stereotype when he uses the term “witch hunt” to describe the work of Mueller and his team. And is it really wrong to suggest that someone who uses torture to investigate alleged multigenerational cannibalistic cults whose members can fly is either stupid or evil?
But the notion that witches could fly was uncontroversial among scholars at the time of the persecutions. Further, ignoring what appeared to be credible allegations of child abductions, Satanism and ceremonial cannibalism would have been a grave oversight by anyone in a position of authority.
That people tasked with the judicial handling of witch persecutions regularly approached their duties with a serious and critical attitude is illustrated by the fact that these very people were often the ones responsible for putting an end to these explosive events. As historian Bengt Ankarloo describes it, the Great Swedish Witch Panic of 1668-76 ended after members of a royal commission in Stockholm decided to critically reexamine all evidence (admittedly after a number of alleged witches had already been sentenced to death). The Basque outbreak of 1609, Gustav Henningsen writes, ended thanks to the actions of the inquisitor Alonso de Salazar Frías. He reinterviewed witnesses and subjects, ultimately concluding that no acts of witchcraft had occurred.