Is this categorisation fair?

+10 votes
Matthew Hopkins has been categorised on Wikitree as a serial killer. Far as I know he was never accused or convicted of killing anyone. People were executed for the state by the due process of what passed for the law in those times. The hangman was more of a killer than Hopkins and thousands of other people as well.
WikiTree profile: Matthew Hopkins
in The Tree House by C. Mackinnon G2G6 Pilot (294k points)
I truly do not understand the purpose of profiles like this.  He's not listed with any family, so it's not for genealogy purposes.  It seems to me like this belongs on a site like Wikipedia, if it belongs anywhere.
I've only just seen it. ODNB names his father, I'll try and remember to do it tomorrow, it's nearly midnight.
I don't see how this fits as a "serial killer," which is a contemporary term.
The profile itself is a great resource. You can link to it, when he is mentioned on a project page (like the witch trials) or when he is mentioned on the profile of any of the women whose execution he ordered.
Don't think he ordered any executions either.
I agree.

And if Hopkins was a serial killer, then so was Henry VIII, Mary I, Queen Elizabeth I and most other Monarchs who had numbers put to death.
Agreed. There should be a more specific category for participating in political violence, or religious violence.

Agreed also that it doesn't (necessarily) serve a strict genealogical purpose. But I love looking at Free Space pages like:
The purpose of categorization is to group profiles together for some useful purpose;  most conservatively, to group profiles together for some useful genealogical purpose.  If there were a gene for "serial killers", then I could see the benefit of grouping such people together -- we might discover that they are related in some fashion.  But I am not aware any such gene exists.

The discussion as to whether this particular man should be called a "serial killer" is on point;  I think it's an inappropriate label.  

But I'm looking at this from the other perspective -- whether he is or is not, why do we have a category for such a thing?  What's the benefit of grouping such profiles together?

Jack, I see your point. But then, we have categories for "Baseball Players" and "Actors" and to follow your reasoning, these would not be appropriate either. Where is the line drawn and who makes the decision? 

We're not Wikipedia, but sometimes I think we're becoming Wikipedia With Relatives Added. laugh

People like to highlight certain features of people who are profiled, and often categories have been inappropriately used for this purpose, rather than to group profiles.  We now have stickers and various other ways to highlight features about a profile, so that may reduce the demand to have categories do it!

12 Answers

+14 votes
Best answer

Gotta agree with Doug here. He was certainly responsible for all those deaths, because he knew what the results of his actions would be. However, a serial killer he was not. His actions do not fit the definition: "serial killer is typically a person who murders three or more people,usually in service of abnormal psychological gratification, with the murders taking place over more than a month and including a significant period of time between them."

As reprehensible as his actions were, he was not a serial kiiller.

by Jim Parish G2G6 Pilot (160k points)
selected by Jill Claus
+5 votes
I can see why this is open to question, but I would have to say 'yes'. It's clear that he was responsible for the death of hundreds of women, and although he was in some ways operating within the law of the time, it appears that he was also extorting money from the towns that he visited. Was he viewed as a serial killer at the time? Unfortunately, no. Viewed from today, yes.
by Ken McEvoy G2G6 (9.5k points)
Must add that ODNB says some 250 people were tried or investigated, at least 100 executed which cannot be interpreted as hundreds of women. Surely we should view him as he was viewed then. Lots of people did believe in and were afraid of witches.
Serial Killer, no.  Though I have not read everything on him, I believe as a Witch Finder, his "evidence" would be used in a trial held by the local legal judge or Justice of the Peace and they would find the guilt or innocence of the accused and would have them hanged as proscribed by law.  Remember, practicing Withcraft at the time was a crime under the law of the land and the punishment was death. Since it seems he did not have a hand in the actual physical deaths of the accused, he cannot be deemed himself a serial killer.  And unfortunately, WT would probably not permit this: Category: Right Awful Rat Bastard.

Actually, he would be said to have been involved in the act genocide, the killing of a large group of people of a specific group.  Probably started out as a true believer in that witches exist and all of his activities seem to have occurred in the Puritan stronghold centered around Essex during the Civil War. Then he probably discovered the value of a good Witch Finder in the local towns were willing to pay, and apparently pay well, for such services.

And yes, his Profile belongs on WT.  Though not from the good branch of the tree, he was a human being and he did live....sadly.
+17 votes

Of course the profile belongs on WT. He was a person and, as such, should be a member of the one tree. Whether he should be classified as a serial killer, that is for others to debate but we do suffer greatly from presentism.

by Doug McCallum G2G6 Pilot (462k points)
Indeed, David!
Now, there's a new word - presentism. This is why I am very wary of categorisation especially in the Black Sheep area. We need to be wary of looking at people through a 21st century lens and our own prejudices. In his own time, there may have been some dissent, but his own community would have been unlikely to have called him a serial killer.
+8 votes
Biographical sources mention the father's name, which could be added to his profile to try to link him up.  I don't have the experience with early English records to do it myself.
by Michelle Enke G2G6 Pilot (337k points)
edited by Michelle Enke
+7 votes
He's got a bit of a family now, but no primary sources sadly. I'm going to remove that category as I find it too judgemental. It can always be added back if that's improper.
by C. Mackinnon G2G6 Pilot (294k points)
Thank you for adding the father and brothers.
+3 votes
He cannot be a serial killer for the reasons given. Was he a murderer? That comes down to his official (or lack thereof) status. He may not have been appointed officially, but he was recognised as such by large numbers of people. He amounted to self-appointed judge. How do we define the inquisition?

But as for WT - yes, of course. He existed.
by anonymous G2G6 Pilot (258k points)
+3 votes
I created and manage this profile.  I did not add the categorization to it which it has at the moment; this was done by someone else, perhaps someone with a Wicca connection.   

      The better categorization would be as a prominent person.  I created the profile because he was prominent, and was a real person.

      Serial killer?  Questionable: we can scoff from our viewpoint of 350 years of progress in science later, but the real question would be; "Did he believe in what he was doing as the Truth?  You have to remember that King James (yes, the same one that had the Bible translated into English) was a big fan of witch hunting and wrote his own manual  about 40 years previous to Matthew Hopkins' hunt.  Society in general in that period generally agreed with him, but he was controversial even then.
by Dan Sparkman G2G6 Mach 2 (22.4k points)
edited by Dan Sparkman
+3 votes

In the section on witch trials under the Religious History categories, there are categories for both the accused witches and the accusers of witches in New England.  See 

Category: Witchcraft Accusers of New England

It would seem appropriate to me to create a similar category for those in England, and he would fit well there.
by Mary Jensen G2G6 Pilot (110k points)
+1 vote
Actually, he belongs in Black sheep project rather than notables project.  Here is the link to the witch trials section of that project:
by Danielle Liard G2G6 Pilot (493k points)
Notable. If you know anything about the period you've heard of Matthew Hopkins and he has a page in ODNB.
My acquaintance with the witch trials is skimpy, didn't happen here, and in France they were more into chasing Huguenots and other ''miscreants''.  Is he an English equivalent of Torquemada then?
He was a witch finder. Communities paid him to rout out their witches, presumably he only got paid if he found any. He then presented evidence before the courts. He didn't try people, or execute them. People were afraid of witches in those troubled times and were often grateful.
+4 votes
If the category doesn't serve a genealogical purpose, why have it?  Information can and should be included in the biography (with source citation of course!)   The purpose of a category is to group profiles.  Even if "serial killer" is true, what purpose is served by grouping him with other serial killers?

Most of my ancestors in England the century after William the Conqueror were thugs who took other peoples' land and sometimes their wives.  I've never been tempted to create a category for "Medieval Thugs."
by Jack Day G2G6 Pilot (389k points)
+7 votes
Actually, we're rather oversubscribed with categories, IMO.  They trend into bias.  Perhaps it's time to rethink, and make categories only for geography, organizational affiliation, things which can be documented rather than opinions about actions or results.  Just the same as profiles.  Only those things which can be sourced.
by Robin Anderson G2G6 Mach 4 (40.7k points)
I think this is a good idea, categories should be supported by sources. I think that will help prevent many potential future disagreements about the appropriateness of categories. Not all disagreements, of course, but a good many.
+1 vote

In his time I am sure he was considered a hero of sorts - It is "presentism" that we now are horrified by him -

Columbus - think of the change to his status within our lifetime here in the US - he was a great explorer who had the luck of finding what he found - and it is admirable to think of going out into the great unknown - but now he carries the blame of genocide and is it really fair that all the blame goes to him?

I am quite happy that we now realize that what was done to the indigenous people of North America was wrong, but I think people have forgotten that if it had not been Columbus it would have been Hudson or another sailor - context is everything it would seem

by Navarro Mariott G2G6 Pilot (151k points)
Sad to hear that about Columbus. Just lets hold him to blame for the things that he did.

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