Isobel Gowdie, perhaps the most famous of accused Scottish witches, came to the attention of the authorites in 1662. It is uncertain just what led to her arrest, although it seems there were rumblings in the area of Auldearn, Nairnshire, for a while beforehand. What is known is that Isobel made a series of spectacular and detailed confessions, the fullest known set of confessions known to exist for the period.
On 13 April, Isobel, before the ministers of Auldearn and Nairn, and a panel of twelve others, confessed that 15 years ago she had met with the Devil in the Auldearn Church, where she renounced her baptism and, with one hand on her head and the other on her foot, offered the Devil everything that lay in between. She was baptised after the Devil scratched her, using the blood to perform the parody of the traditional ceremony. Her new name, according to Isobel, was Janet. This was far from the only time she saw her diabolical master: on their next meeting, they had known each other carnally.
Over the next six weeks, Isobel confessed further. She and the group of thirteen witches she worked with had done much to bring terror to those who displeased them. Ruining crops and stealing milk from their neighbours cows were high on their list of activities, with one particular incident involving spreading a mixture made from nail clippings from the exhumed corpse of a dead infant, kale and grains on a man's muckheap - the intention being that his corn and lambs would be taken and come to the coven instead. They were able to stop a cow from producing milk by passing a plaited rope between the animal's legs: it would give no milk until the rope was cut.
Isobel and her fellow witches had also made attempts on the lives of the children of the local Laird, and also on the life of the Laird of Park himself. A figure was made from clay, resembling one of the Laird's sons; it was laid before the fire, with the intention of causing the child greater and greater suffering each time it was roasted.
Flight was another power Isobel posessed. With elf arrowheads obtained from the fairies, the witches lay in wait to shoot their enemies; Isobel confessed that she was responsible for at least four deaths in this fashion.
Peter Nicolai Arbo: The Wild Hunt of Odin, via wikimedia commons
Like many witches, Isobel revealed that they were able to change their form with the following words:
I shall go into a hare, with sorrow and such great care; and I shall go in the Devil's name, ay while I come home again.
To change back into human form, they recited:
Hare, hare, God send thee care. I am in a hare's likeness now, but I shall be in a woman's likeness even now.
Finally, Isobel confessed that she had paid a visit to the Downie Hills, home to the fairies, where she had the honour of meeting the King and Queen themselves. Unlike many who visited fairies however, despite eating a great deal of meat while there, she left without difficulty after being entertained most generously by her fairy hosts.
Although Isobel is generally believed to have been executed after a trial for witchcraft, there is no actual record of Isobel's fate or the trial that is assumed to have taken place. Her confessions have often been said to have been the product of an unstable mind, but more nuanced modern interpretations suggest that, on the contrary, Isobel acted within the narrative and cultural framework in which she lived.
In a week where the phrase "you couldn't make it up" has been uttered more often than we could have ever imagined, it seems a fitting time to write up my recent reading on the improbable topic of "animated horse hairs."
Yes, you read that right: there once existed a belief that horsehairs were capable of coming to life and moving of their own volition. When the horse drank from a body of water, hair would fall from its mane or tail, and, after entering the water, would, by some undiscovered force, become animated.
I admit I assumed this was a randomly regional belief until a bit of further research revealed that the belief in animated horsehairs was another one of those bizarre ideas that was actually widespread across the British Isles and some areas of the United States.
It seems that the belief dates back quite some way: Shakespeare references the idea in Anthony and Cleopatra. Agrippa's Three Books of Occult Philosophy published in 1651 states that when a horsehair is placed in water, it becomes a "pernicious worm." Giambattista della Porta's Natural Magick published a few years later recounted that not only had he had first hand experience of this transformation, but friends of his had likewise witnessed hair gaining life.
It was also one that was slow to die out. The belief was present in 18th century Derbyshire, as Edwin Trueman mentions it is in his History of Ilkeston. According to Coleridge in the 18th century, boys in Cumberland and Westmoreland would also often experiment with this belief. They would place a horsehair in water, and, when it was removed some time later, they observed that it would twirl around their finger, compressing it.
According to Notes on the Folklore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders, by William Henderson, a horsehair that was kept in water would eventually turn into an eel.
The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore Volume VII: Popular Beliefs and Superstitions from North Carolina, published in 1913, records several variations. People believed that if you hang up a horsehair, when it rains it will turn into a snake. If a horsehair is put into water, after a period of time it will likewise turn into a snake. If stagnant water was used, after nine days the hair would turn into a black snake. A hair would also turn into a snake if put under running water and then held down with a stone. Putting a hair into a bottle of water and then burying it for six months would also have the same effect.
This belief was associated with "vulgar" and "superstitious" people. Dobson's Encyclopedia of 1798 states that "Animated Horsehair" was:
"A term used to express a sort of long and slender waterworm, of a blackish colour, and so much resembling a horse hair, that it is generally by the vulgar supposed to be the hair fallen from a horse's mane into the water as he drinks, and there animated by some strange power."
The belief was prevalent and long-standing enough even in the 17th century that Martin Lister, in his Philosophical Transactions, felt the need to soundly debunk the theory. The animated hairs were, in fact, a type of long, thin water worm, that eventually transformed into a form of beetle. Despite this fact, the idea that horse hairs could come to life clearly proved more interesting than the truth, and the belief continued for a good long time to come.
While flicking through my old favourite local history tome, The History of Ilkeston by Edwin Trueman, I came across yet another fascinating snippet that had me intrigued enough to go looking for more.
"A body was drowned in the canal near Ilkeston, the means taken to discover it was as follows: a loaf of bread, scooped out and filled with quicksilver, was put into the water and allowed to float down with the current. When it came to the place where the body was, it was expected to stop."
The source quoted was The Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England, by Robert Charles Hope, published in 1893. A quick examination of this text however provided no further information on the case, and so I went further afield. I didn't find out anything more about the Ilkeston case (though watch this space!) but I did discover several interesting things about the practice.
It turns out the floating loaf, or St. Nicholas as it was sometimes called, was actually a common belief and practice in England in the 18th and 19th centuries, and potentially before. One of the earliest written references to this method of discovering a drowned corpse comes in The Gentleman's Magazine of April 1767. It involved the tragic occasion of a one year old child who had fallen into the river Kennet in Newbury, Berkshire. A two-penny loaf was split apart and some quicksilver - otherwise known as mercury - was placed inside. According to the report, when the loaf was sent into the water at the location where the child had fallen in, it made its way down the river when, suddenly, it turned and crossed the river before sinking. The location it sank in proved to reveal the body of the poor child.
Image from wikimedia commons, user Rainer Zenz
Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club, under the heading Dorsetshire Birth, Death and Marriage Customs, refers to the pratice as a "charm or expedient", that was used in the area during the same century:
"To find the dead body of a person who has been drowned and which has not been recovered from the water the following "charm" or expedient is sometimes adopted. A loaf of bread is procured and a small piece is cut out of the side, forming a cavity, into which a little quicksilver is poured. The piece is then replaced and secured firmly in its original position. The loaf thus prepared is thrown into the river at the spot where the person has fallen in and is expected to float down the stream until it comes to the place where the body has lodged, when it will begin to eddy round and round, thus indicating the sought for spot."
Notes and Queries likewise mentions several cases across the 19th century, one from the Rev. C. H. Mayo of Long Burton. in 1872, A boy had fallen in the stream at Sherborne and drowned - this time however, the method of locating the body was not successful.
Notes on the folk-lore of the Northern Counties of England and the borders, mentions several cases in Durham. The author had personal experience when he was a boy of people trying to locate corpses in the River Wear in Durham. Friends of Christopher Lumley had tried to find his body with a floating loaf near Lanchester, Durham, and again in 1860 this method was used when a child fell into the Wear on 21st October of that year. The loaf was not successful however, though thankfully the child's body was later discovered.
Another intriguing method of locating a drowned body mentioned in this text was as follows:
"If a gun be fired over a dead body lying at the bittom of the sea or river, the concussion will break the gall bladder and cause the body to float."
An eye witness to this had informed the author that it had taken place twice that he had seen, but there had been no success.
American Notes and Queries, July 1890, mentions that in "the last century" in England quicksilver in bread was used to locate a drowned body, and cites a case "vouched by credible witnesses" that the body of a boy had been successfully found in the Thames at Eton. The same source also states that in Ireland a wisp of straw attached to a strip of parchment was used to achieve the same aim, the parchment inscribed with cabalistic symbols.
In the October 1898 volume of The Scottish Antiquary, it mentions how the practice was still in use in some areas of England, with the added details that the loaf used should be stale and that, when in the location of the body, it would stop and then spin round in place.
There are references to the practice too in literature, the most well-known being Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where it is used in Missouri, USA.
Locating a drowned corpse in such a fasion was therefore clearly popular in both belief and practice in England, America and Ireand throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. It seems that success was varied, but belief continued regardless to the end of the 19th century and perhaps beyond.
Have you come across a case of this being carried out, or a variation on the belief that a loaf of bread filled with quicksilver could find a drowned body? If you have, I would love to hear about it!
Accusations: When a servant of Thomas Spycer snatched and refused to return a glove from the pocket of Alice's twenty-eight year old daughter, Alice vowed revenge on the man. Although he insisted it was only a bit of fun, as she declared "I will bounce him well enough," the servant found himself suddenly unable to move his limbs, and, despite returning the glove, he was wheeled home in a wheelbarrow, remaining bedridden for just over a week.
Alice was also said to have accused her husband of sleeping with the wife of a man named Tailer or Taylor. Furthermore, she declared that the child of the woman would not live for long, a predicition that, unfortunately for Alice, came true.
When spoken to in church by a local man about her behaviour and disagreement with Tailer's wife, Alice declared that she "cared for none of them all as long as Tom held on her side." It was taken that Alice was referring to her familiar demon, whom helped her with her terrible deeds. When a horse at plough belonging to the same man fell down dead after Alice felt slighted by his servant, fingers again pointed at Alice, despite the initial suspicion that the servant had whipped the horse too hard.
Outcome: Alice was indicted for murder by witchcraft and found guilty of bewitching Elizabeth Barfott to death. She was sentenced to hang.
Accusations: According to her confession, around 1623, Anne had been initiated into witchcraft when she received four imps or familiars from her mother. Three of these were like mice, and called James, Prickeare and Robin. The fourth, in the form of a sparrow, was, fittingly, named Sparrow.
At this time, Anne agreed to deny God and Christ to seal the deal. She then set out to torment those she disliked. One mouse was sent to Robert Freeman of Little Clapton – it nipped his knee and drove him lame, the man dying before six months had passed.
Anne sent Prickeare to kill John Rowlinson’s daughter in Little Clapton, and John Tillet. Sparrow got revenge when the wife of George Parks refused Anne milk; their child was dead soon after. Samuel Ray’s wife and child also died at Sparrow’s hand over refusal to settle a debt of two pence.
Outcome: Anne was indicted for bewitching to death John Rowlinson’s daughter Susan, and Grace Ray at the Essex Summer Sessions held at Chelmsford on 17 July. Despite pleading not guilty, she was found guilty on the first count and hanged – sadly an unsurprising outcome during the period Matthew Hopkins and his associates were operating in the locality.