Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Read it in the Papers: The Persecution of Susannah Sellick

Old newspapers are one of my favourite places to find stories, and a recent dip into the archives didn't fail to disappoint. Under the tantalising headline of Witchcraft, the following appeared in the Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser, 18th July, 1860.  

At the Woodbury Petty Sessions on Monday, the 9th int, Susanah Sellick, a respectable dressed woman, and healthy, complained that Virginia Ebdon, a lace-maker, had maliciously assaulted her at Colaton Raleigh on the 8th June.


Map showing location of Colaton Raleigh

Sellick complained that, whilst tending her cow one day, Virginia Ebdon accosted and threatened her, during which the following exchange took place:

Sellick: “How you frightened me!”

Ebdon: “You wanted to be frightened for what you ha' done to me.”

Sellick: “I have'nt a doo'd nothing to you.”

With that, Virginia Ebdon attacked Selleck, scratching her face and hands with a sharp object. Blood was drawn multiple times, and Sellick professed a fear that the younger woman intended to kill her. 

A Mr Toby, acting for the Ebdons, told a different story. Virginia Ebdon had been looking after her grandfather's donkey; Sellick called her names and chased her with a stick until they reached where her grandfather was waiting, a version of events supported by Ebdon and the grandfather himself. 

At this, Sellick denied holding a stick over the younger woman, although she admitted to having a small umbrella stick with her that she used to drive the cow with. Despite the protestations of Ebdon and her grandfather, the court declared in favour of Sellick, and Virginia Ebdon was fined fourteen shillings to cover costs. The newspaper account ends with a lamentation that witchcraft is very prevalent amongst the illiterate in the "neighborough" of Colyton, Satterton and Woodbury.


Church of St John the Baptist, Colaton Raleigh 
where Susannah Bolt married Henry Sellick in 1808

The original reporting of the case in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette on 14th July has the intriguing additional postscript, revealing that Sellick had been assaulted in a similar fashion a few years previous. Indeed in The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette for 24th April 1852, we learn that a Mary Pile and Walter Gooding were brought before the Magistrates for assaulting Susannah Sellick, a poor widow woman then aged seventy. Sellick stated that she was walking when she saw the defendants walking towards her, Mary Pile demanding:

Why have you hurted my daughter?”

With that, she attacked Sellick, scratching her face badly. Gooding, meanwhile, was kneeling on the ground, in, it transpired, an attempt to drive a nail into the ground on which Sellick stood in the belief that this would break her power.  

Sellick was rescued by the arrival of William Shute, upon which Pile and Gooding quickly left, leaving Shute to help the poor woman. Shute also gave evidence, describing Sellick's bloodied state and distress at the unprovoked attack. Sellick insisted to the courts that she did not know Pile's daughter, and had most certainly never done her any harm.

In her defence, Mary Pile, aged forty-five, insisted that she was fully justified in attacking Sellick and that it was necessary for her to draw blood from the older woman because she had bewitched her daughter. Gooding, the husband of Pile's twenty year old daughter Amy, was also convinced that he had only done what was needed to help his ailing wife.  

Iron nail such as that used by Walter Gooding

The young woman herself was present in the courtroom and had, by her own account, been very ill throughout the last two years, a time through which she insisted that Sellick was often in the house. A fortnight prior to the attack, Amy Gooding told the Magistrates, she had been wearing a string around her neck, only to find it vanished one night when she was in bed. As midnight approached, suddenly a loud knock sounded at the door, then at the foot of the bed and, finally, against the foot-board itself. The young woman however could not move, a heavy weight against her chest keeping her from doing so. What transpired next is unrecorded, but when she awoke in the morning, the string was once more around her neck. After this incident, Amy Gooding insisted that “Susan Sellick was continually with her” and from that point on they could not keep a candle lighted in the house, as they were constantly extinguished by the apparent presence of the witch.  

The Magistrates' attempts to make the defendants see reason went in vain, and they ended with suggesting that they should visit the local clergyman to ask his opinion on the matter, no doubt in the hope that he would be able to talk more sense into them. Mary Pile was fined one pound and thirteen shillings, whilst Walter Gooding was fined one pound and three shillings, both including costs. The fines were paid on the spot, proving that the families involved were not without money. The Magistrates informed Sellick herself that if she had further trouble she should not hesitate to return, adding that this was the third case within as many months regarding assault on old women suspected of witchcraft.  

That Susannah Sellick was considered a witch by at least some in her home village of Colaton Raleigh and beyond, is clear, though what started this reputation cannot be more than guessed at. The small village is eleven miles from Exeter and only a couple of miles from East Budleigh, where Mary Pile and the Goodings lived. Colaton Raleigh had a population of 841 in 1850, while East Budleigh was decidedly larger, the three-part village totalling around 2,000 inhabitants. It is possible that Susannah Sellick spoke the truth when she said she had no knowledge of Amy Gooding, although there is much evidence that the families of the local area were closely intertwined; Virginia Ebdon's daughter Elizabeth married a Frederick Pile, and intermarriage between Ebdons, Sellicks, Bolts and Goodings can be seen throughout the period in question and beyond. 
  

East Budleigh, Devon

Susannah Sellick nee Bolt was born in 1783, making her seventy-seven at the time of the second attack by those suspecting she was a witch. Henry Sellick was a farmer, with five acres to his name, a not insubstantial property for the couple. That she is mentioned as being well-dressed indicates that she was not in greatly reduced circumstaces, and there is no evidence that she was guilty of begging or otherwise bothering her neighbours, complaints that commonly accompany accusations of witchcraft.

As with many cases however the accused was a widow, Henry Sellick having died not long before the first incident. It is interesting to note that Mary Pile's husband had also died shortly prior to her attack on Sellick, the removal of the menfolk perhaps serving to reduce protection and also providing the freedom to act on long-held dislikes and suspicions. 

Whether Susannah Sellick had any further trouble from her neighbours is unknown, although one cannot help but hope that two court appearances and the injuries that led there saw an end to the persecution of the old woman.  She was buried at the age of ninety-six on 23rd March, 1879 at Colaton Raleigh. Her sister-in-law and house-mate during her later years, Caroline Bolt, was buried a week later at the age of ninety.