From a speech by Australian politician David Leyonhjelm, but I've heard it elsewhere many times:

The senator borrowed other stories from history in the speech, opening with details of the old practice of using ducking stools to detect witchcraft. Ducking involved tying a woman to a chair and dunking her in water. If she floated, she was a witch. If she sank, she wasn’t, but she was probably dead.

Wikipedia mentions this, but it cites a newspaper article for support, which isn't a reliable enough reference for this claim.

TV Tropes is skeptical of this belief, and related versions. It explicitly states that some people are of the belief that testing for witchcraft involved the suspect either drowning and being declared innocent posthumously, or floating and being executed for witchcraft, and describes that belief as erroneous. It also says ducking chairs aren't involved. Unfortunately, TV Tropes isn't a sufficiently reliable source.

The "swimming" of witches, one of the most famous methods of interrogating a suspected witch, had the virtue of being both pointless and redundant. Popular belief makes it out as a Morton's Fork, saying that if the 'witch' floated, they'd pull her out and kill her. If the "witch" drowned, on the other hand... well, they were still dead, they just weren't a witch. Actually she would be tied to a rope: if she did float, they would pull her out, and the fact would be regarded as incriminating (of course sometimes they wouldn't do quick enough, and she'd still drown-"floating" could also be achieved by trickery with the ropes). If she sank, they would pull her out all the same, but cleared of charges. The ducking stool is an unrelated, non-lethal device of punishment where a woman was ducked in cold water for being a public nuisance of some sort.

I'm not really worried about whether ropes were used, or whether the ducking stool was used.

Did testing for witchcraft involve a scenario which was guaranteed (say >90% probability) to be fatal to the suspect, either because they drowned, or because they would get executed?

  • I recently saw documentary about witchcraft processes that got out of hand, and it was described that there are strict rules like "torture three times" that were just not followed in certain areas/times; I think if someone digs up information on this it will make a decent answer: In general no, but there were areas/times where this could have been the case.
    – PlasmaHH
    Commented Mar 16, 2015 at 23:13
  • I vaguely remember reading a Poem like story or something about a woman who was Hanged for witchcraft, only she didnt suffocate. the next morning she was taken down alive and well, and because of double jeopardy, she went and did all the most witch like things she could do just to spite them and they couldn't legally do anything about it. That was the only tale i ever heard of an accused witch living through the test/execution though, real or not. Things don't look good for accused witches in any non-fiction based story of old times
    – Ryan
    Commented Sep 20, 2016 at 16:15
  • Old post to resurrect, but being killed for witchcraft depended a lot of geographical location. Witch hunts were typical of central and northern Europe, where traditional belief in witches was common. For all its dreadful reputation, the Spanish Inquisition acquited nearly all women who were accused of witchcraft - the only major witch hunt in Spain happening in the northern territories, where there was also a traditional (celtic) culture of believing in witches.
    – Rekesoft
    Commented Jun 21, 2022 at 13:24

2 Answers 2


Here is a quotation (spelling and punctuation modernized; emphasis mine) from a document of 1613 entitled "Witches Apprehended, Examined and Executed for notable villainies by them committed both by land and water. With a strange and most true trial how to know whether a woman be a witch or not." (It is cited by e.g. this book as indicative of 17th-century ideas about "witch-swimming".)

His friend understanding this advised him to take them, or any one of them to his mill dam, having first shut up the mill gates that the water might be highest, and them binding their arms cross, stripping them into their smocks, and leaving their legs at liberty, throw them into the water; yet lest they should not be witches, and that their lives might not be in danger of drowning, let there be a rope tied about their middles so long that it might reach from one side of your dam to the other, where on each side let one of your men stand, that if she chance to sink they may draw her up and preserve her. Then if she swim, take her up and cause some women to search her. Upon which if they find any extraordinary marks about her, let her the second time be bound, and have her right thumb bound to her left toe, and her left thumb bound to her right toe, and your men with the same rope (if need be) to preserve her and be thrown into the water, when if she swim, you may build upon it, that she is a witch. I have seen it often tried in the North country.

So, at least in principle, the intention was not for suspects to drown if they weren't witches. The book I cited earlier refers to "the rare instances when the suspected witch died of her ordeal" -- but doesn't make it clear whether they're rare only because almost everyone floats when tied up and put into water (an objection to the procedure that was raised at the time) or also because most people who sank were rescued. For what it's worth, the book mentions two cases of "swimming" in which the accused definitely sank. In one case, it continued until she died. In the other, she was hauled out of the water before she drowned but died an hour afterwards.

Some further examples are cited here, unfortunately with no reference to actual sources. In several of those the accused sank and was pulled out of the water rather than being left to drown.

All this is sufficient to persuade me that the strict answer to the question in the title ("... inevitably ...") is no. But it sounds as if it was pretty dangerous even for those who had the good fortune not to float.


See the 1866 Superstition and Force: Essays on the Wager of Law, the Wager of Battle, the Ordeal, and Torture starting at page 226 in the "Ordeal by Cold Water" section:

In 1583, a certain Scribonius, on a visit to Lemgow, saw three unfortunates burnt as witches, and three other women, the same day, exposed to the ordeal on the accusation of those executed. He describes them as stripped naked, hands and feet bound together, right to left, and then cast upon the river, where they floated like logs of wood. Profoundly impressed with the miracle, in a letter to the magistrates of Lemgow, he expresses his warm approbation of the proceeding and endeavors to explain its rationale, and to defend it against unbelievers. Sorcerers, from their intercourse with Satan, partake of his nature ; he resides within them, and their human attributes become altered to his ; he is an imponderable spirit of air, and therefore they likewise become lighter than water...In 1815, Belgium was disgraced by a trial of the kind performed on an unfortunate person suspected of witchcraft; and in 1836, the populace of Hela, near Dantzic, twice plunged into the sea an old woman reputed to be a sorceress, and as the miserable creature persisted in rising to the surface, she was pronounced guilty, and beaten to death

  • This has cases of people floating and being found guilty, but I couldn't see a case of someone drowning and posthumously being found innocent.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Oct 24, 2016 at 21:41
  • @AndrewGrimm people float. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/617991 "The specific gravity and buoyancy of 98 men were calculated at various lung volumes. The data indicated that all subjects would be capable of floating in either freshwater or seawater at total lung capacity." Women are even more buoyant than men.
    – DavePhD
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 17:25
  • 1
    @DavePhD: "at total lung capacity" yes, most (all?) people float. Exhale a bit, though, and those (like me) with low body fat will sink, at least in fresh water.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 18:17
  • 1
    @DavePhD there are those who will sink in fresh water even at full lung capacity. It's rare, but it happens. I've been one of them. Salt water gives a fair bit more bouyancy, though.
    – Ben Barden
    Commented Oct 3, 2017 at 15:31

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