31 Days: Witches (A Tale of a Northen Witch Finder)
Greetings and welcome to the month of October!
This month we hope to present articles on all the little things that make Halloween so great with our “31 Days of Halloween”!
We were fortunate enough to have some help in that regard, so we start out with a article by Doctor Jo Bath about one of the most iconic Halloween symbols…witches!
In the 1640s, as the Civil War continued to splutter, the future was looking uncertain. Newcastle in 1649 was a scarred town, which had lost almost half its population to plague thirteen years before, and then in 1644 struggled through a months-long siege and subsequent two year occupation by the Scots army. Now, a Puritan town council found themselves with a new-found power of life and death over criminals, since judges were no longer travelling the country to hear the most serious cases. And what they were interested in was rooting out witchcraft – especially after they heard that a Scottish witchfinder (whose name we never learn) was operating in Berwick. The result was one of the biggest witch trials seen anywhere in England.
According to the Berwick MP Sir Thomas Widdrington, the man – “who professeth himself an artist in that way” – had ‘found’ thirty witches. A few had confessed to witchcraft “but with no harm to anybody” – these were probably women who used simple charms combining prayers, traditional rhymes, and herbal remedies. Confessing or not, all went to gaol pending trial, but records were lost during the Civil War, so no more is known. Newcastle Corporation must have seen a perfect opportunity to send for an expert. They sent a letter inviting the witchfinder to town, and in December, he arrived.
Next, the magistrate’s bell-man went through town announcing that anyone with a complaint against a witch should bring her to be looked over by the expert. Thirty accused women were assembled, and the witchfinder stuck pins in them to see if they bled. Witches were thought to have a “mark”, an unusual bloodless spot where their familiar – an imp in the form of an animal – suckled, so a lack of feeling was taken as proof of guilt. Perhaps inspired by the 20 shillings promised for each witch found, the witchfinder identified twenty-seven witches. Two women were considered innocent, and the last became something of a problem (while also, as it happens, showing us how the trick to finding so many witches might have been pulled). Colonel Hobson, who was overseeing the process, was both a strong Baptist, and an ex-military surgeon. According to the witness statements that Ralph Gardner, a Newcastle man with a grudge against the Corporation, published in his 1655 England’s Grievance Discovered, Hobson happened to notice a “personable and good-like woman”, and protested that surely she was not a witch. The witchfinder said “she was, for the town said she was, and therefore he would try her”. What he seems to have done is exposed her top half, misdirecting attention, before stabbing a pin into her thigh – or so he said – before dropping her skirts over her legs and demanding whether she felt anything. The confused woman did not – so he reached under her skirts and ‘produced’ the pin. This could quite clearly be achieved by the simplest of sleight of hand, no retractable pin needed! Hobson didn’t see the trick, but thought that the lack of blood and sensitivity was because “by fright and shame, her blood contracted into one part of her body”! He insisted that the test be done again, with the skirt lifted clearly, but only to the thigh. This time the woman bled, and was cleared.
The witchfinder also went into Durham, pricking another six witches. In total, thirty eight individuals were formally accused across the north east. Not much information has made it to us about what the women were specifically thought to have done. Most of the stories were probably founded in the same sort of domestic interpersonal disputes that characterise English witch accusations at this date. But there was also a hint of more exotic, Scottish-style, devilry at work in a case detailed in the pamphlet, “Wonderful News from the North”. This is a complicated story, told both by a victim’s mother and in an appended “confession” of witch Margaret White. White claimed that the Devil had made promises to her, shared her bed, and given her a familiar, a black greyhound. She, and others, then bewitched two children, Margaret and George Muschamp. Their symptoms included visions, paralysis, weight loss, and complex religious sermonising. Their mother consulted John Hutton, a man who, “it was suspected, could do more than God allowed of” who pointed the finger at other known witches – but the magistrate, on hearing the story, arrested Hutton, and he later died in prison. This didn’t help – Margaret began to vomit “”stones, coals, bricks, lead, straw, quills full of pins, tow and virginal wire, all full of pins.” Eventually the children recovered, but their mother still pursued the suspected witches through the courts as well as writing the pamphlet. One of the accused we know fled to Berwick, where the authorities refused to arrest her; one we can only trace as far as the gaol – but one, Jane Martin, we know ended her life on a Newcastle gallows.
She was not the only one. While some must have found an argument for their defence, or a good character witness, in August 1650 one man and seventeen women were hanged for witchcraft on a specially-made scaffold, watched by thousands. But the tide was turning. Even in Newcastle there were those opposed to the witchfinder’s actions, like Elinor Loumsdale, who was prosecuted for trying to dissuade a witness from giving evidence against a witch, and who later told her story to Gardner to help him write his book. And elsewhere, things would get tougher. The witchfinder went next to try women in rural Northumberland, but magistrate Henry Ogle tried to arrest him, and he escaped back to Scotland. Gardner said that here he was hanged, after confessing to causing the death of 220 English and Scots women – although here, at least, there is nothing to back him up.
J. Bath “Dancing with the Devil and other True Tales of Northern Witchcraft”, Tynebridge Publishing, 2000
Rushton, P., ‘Crazes and Quarrels: The Character of Witchcraft in the Northeast of England, 1649-80’, Bulletin of the Durham County Local History Society, vol. 31 (1983)
“The Newcastle Book of Days” by Jo Bath will be published by The History Press in June 2013?