Campaigners said today they were seeking a posthumous pardon for the men and women who were executed as British witches centuries ago.
They have collected a set of eight grave “miscarriages of justice” with which they hope to persuade British Justice Secretary Jack Straw on the issue.
More than 400 people were put to death in England for alleged witchcraft, and more than 2,000 were executed in Scotland, before the 1735 Witchcraft Act put an end to the trials, they said.
Their bid to obtain justice for the victims follows an official pardon granted earlier this year by the Swiss government to Anna Goeldi, beheaded in 1782 and regarded as the last person executed as a witch in Europe.
The family behind Angels, the Hallowe’en costume supplier, came up with the idea for the petition and turned to historian Dr John Callow to collect some of the victims’ stories.
Dr Callow, editor of 'Witchcraft and Magic in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Europe', said it was now time to recognise the witch trials as “most dangerous and tragic” fabrications.
“Today we are well aware that these individuals were neither capable of harmful magic nor in league with the devil,” he said.
“At the time, poverty was endemic – charity was breaking down and aggressive begging, accompanied by threats or curses, was common.
“Crops failed, butter failed to churn or cattle sickened and the blame was often settled on witches. Against such a background, judiciaries across the British Isles were compelled to act.
“The results were perjury and delusion on a grand scale, resulting in nothing less than legalised murder.”
Notorious cases mentioned in the petition include that of Agnes Sampson, executed in East Lothian, Scotland, in 1591.
Considered a healer, she acted as midwife to the community of Nether Keith but, following a near shipwreck involving King James VI of Scotland, became one of many Scottish women accused of witchcraft.
Although she initially resisted torture, even before James VI at Holyrood House, she finally confessed and was burned at the stake.
In another case, 80-year-old clergyman John Lowes was forced to conduct his own funeral service before he was hanged in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, in 1645.
The octogenarian was seen as too attached to the Catholic religion in a strongly Reformed area and was forced to walk for days and nights by the witch hunter Matthew Hopkins until confessing.
Emma Angel, head of Angels Fancy Dress, said: “We decided to launch this initiative because we feel that it is time that sinister associations held by a minority of people about witches and Hallowe’en were tackled head-on.
“We were gobsmacked to discover that though the law was changed hundreds of years ago and society had moved on, the victims were never officially pardoned.
“The Swiss have led the way on this one, and I really hope that we can encourage our government to follow suit.”
The campaign aims to make people realise that witches never really existed, and the fears of the past – such as criticism of Hallowe’en as a sinister celebration of the occult – deserve no place in the present.
The petition, officially launched tomorrow, will be presented to the Ministry of Justice and its Scottish counterpart on Hallowe’en.
It can be seen at www.pardonthewitches.com/content/witches