Monday, 17 October 2016

Arson and Arguments: Cicely Sellis and the St. Osyth Witch Trials.

The St. Osyth witch trials of 1582 saw thirteen women tried for a variety of witchcraft-related crimes at the Chelmsford Assizes. One of those was Cicely Sellis from Little Clacton where she lived with her husband and children. Cicely entered the long and engrossing narrative of the St. Osyth trials on 1st March, 1582, when Richard Ross, also of Little Clacton, Essex, informed Justice Brian Darcy of the following.

Six years ago, Cicely's husband, Henry Sellis, had worked for him in the fields many times without incident. On one occasion, however, two horses that had previously been well suddenly fell down and died while Henry was in charge of the plough. As if this were not strange enough, shortly before the incident, he had refused to sell Cicely the two bushes of malt that she required, due to the fact that she wanted to pay three shillings when Ross swore they were worth ten groats. Not to be deterred, Cicely had then gone to Ross' wife and asked to buy the malt from her in turn: again she had refused to pay the going price and the two women had fallen out.

Then there had been the incident with cattle belong to the Sellis family; Ross' wife had discovered the beasts on their land and had driven them off. Seeing this occur, Cicely had angrily remonstrated with Ross' wife, and, shortly after, some of the Ross cattle began to behave in a most strange fashion. Richard Ross was of the opinion that the cause of this was witchcraft, carried out by either Cicely or Henry Sellis.  

Finally, twelve months ago a barn full of corn belonging to Ross had mysteriously caught fire, but he couldn't, Ross said (it must be suspected with some regret) place the blame on the Sellis', other than to remark their youngest son had been heard to observe that it was a 'goodly store of corn' a while before the incident occurred.

On the same day as Ross was examined, the Sellis' nine year old son, Henry, was also questioned by the Justice. According to the boy, a spirit had come to his younger brother one night, taking hold of him by the left leg and toe and frightening him greatly, as indeed it might, being, according to the boy, the size of his sister and all in black. Their father had been most angry at their mother for this, demanding, 'Why, thou whore, cannot you keep your imps from my children?' Cicely had apparently duly called the creature away and it had left the terrified boy in peace. This was not the only time the 'imps' were present; Henry had seen his mother feeding them, and, the boy informed Darcy, they had names - one was called Hercules or John, and the other Mercury. Not only that, Henry had heard his mother tell his father that she had sent one of the spirits to Ross' maid, on the very day that she had been taken ill. 

Henry and Cicely themselves were also questioned that day. Henry denied everything said against both himself and his wife, apart from the death of Ross' horses when he had been working with them. Cicely likewise did not recall the chasing off of her cattle or arguing with Ross' wife over either cattle or malt. Both denied having anything to do with any spirits and vowed that the entire incident regarding their son and the spirit grabbing him in the night had not occured. 

On top of the questioning, Cicely was searched by three 'women of credit' chosen by Darcy for the purpose. On her body were found several 'suspicious' marks, very like those that had been 'sucked' by the supposed familiar spirits owned by Ursula Kemp who was the main suspect in the witch trials so far. 

Two days later on 3rd March, John Sellis, their younger son who had been so terrified by the spirit, spoke to Darcy. He repeated virtually everything that his older brother had said, but with the additional information that an unidentified man had come to take the spirits away, and that said man had given his mother a penny before doing so.  

Others also spoke out against the Sellis family. On 15th March Thomas Death related how two years previous his wife had fallen out with Cicely over the child of George Battell. The child had originally been given into Cicely's care to nurse, but – for reasons unstated in the evidence given – the child was then taken from Cicely and given instead to Thomas Death's wife. When Cicely next met Mrs Death she had given vent to her anger on the matter, declaring that she would 'lose more by the having of it than thou shalt have for the keeping of it.' Sure enough, within the month, his own child, aged four years old, suddenly fell down 'dead' in the yard, and, despite being revived for a short time, eventually died. Pigs of his had also behaved in a strange fashion, in a way that no one could satisfactorily explain.  

The Harvesters - Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Not only that, but his older daughter Marie had also suffered at the hands of Cicely Sellis. She was taken very ill, and her father was told that in two night's time those who had caused her bewitchment would appear and would make her well again. Upon returning home he was told by his wife that Marie had claimed Cicely Sellis and another woman had been in the room with her. Marie confirmed this to Darcy, along with giving more details of her strange illness.  

Joan Smith, the wife of Robert Smith told of how her young child, formerly healthy and in good spirits, had died shortly after Cicely had commented on it. Interestingly, she would not blame Cicely for what had occurred, only going as far as to say she prayed for God to forgive Cicely if she had been in any way involved.

There was less 'evidence' against Cicely than several of the others named and accused in the spiralling panic that had gripped St. Osyth, and the Sellis family had entered the narrative relatively late on in proceedings. That did not keep them from the courts however, and on 29th March 1582, Cicely was indicted for arson along with Alice Manfield, who was also charged with bewitching several people to death.

'On 1 Sept. 1581 at Little Clacton they feloniously burnt a granary (100 marks) belonging to Richard Ross. On 4th June at Great Clacton Sillis bewitched John son of Thomas Death so that he died the same day.'  

Although cleared of the arson charge, Cicely was found guilty on the charge of bewitchment remanded. Interestingly, at the Assizes of 2nd August 1582 Henry Sellis was also indicted for the same arson charge, and this time it was stated that the couple and their son Robert had set fire to the barn. All three were cleared of the charge but this was little comfort to them however, as it appears Henry and Cicely Sellis died in prison early in 1583 before they could be released.  

References/Further Reading:

Cockburn, Calendar of Assize Records: Essex Indictments Elizabeth I, London, 1978
Gibson, Marion, Early Modern Witches, Routledge, 2000
Rosen, Barbara, Witchcraft in England, 1558-1618, University Massachusetts Press, 1992
W.W, A True and Just Record, of the Information, Examination and Confession of all the Witches, taken at S. Osyth in the county of Essex, London, 1582

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Burning Cows: A Cure for Witchcraft

One thing that anyone with an interest in witchcraft cases of the 16th and 17th centuries will quickly notice is how often animals are involved in accusations and 'proof' of bewitchment. This is unsurprising; animals, especially horses, cows and pigs (the animals most commonly cited in such cases) were of great importance, the loss of one or several animals potentially the difference between survival or ruin for many.

© Wellcome Library, London

This selection of newspaper stories below show that not only did belief in witchcraft continue well after the passing of the 1736 Witchcraft Act which legally at least put an end to such 'superstitious nonsense', but also how much animals continued to feature in accusations and belief well into the 19th century and beyond.

The Ipswich Journal, 20th August, 1763

We learn from Duxford in this County, that a Horse was intended to be buried alive to prevent the further Progress of Witchcraft; but it unluckily happen'd, that whilst they were putting him in the Ground (the Grave being already dug) he died, being ill of the staggers, before he could be covered up; and we hear further, that several Horses, Cows etc are dead, which they likewise attribute to the Machinations of a poor decrepid old Woman.

Just shy of 50 years later, a series of correspondence was repeated in the Lancaster Gazette in 1810 regarding a farmer in the vicinity of Burton-in-Kendal, who was charged with:

...the crime of roasting a calf alive, for the purpose of soothing a witch, who persecuted his family.

The full story was that:

A farmer had lately several of his calves die of the distemper; some of his credulous neighbours persuaded him that they were bewitched; and a cunning woman told him that nothing would thrive about his house till the witch was burnt, and that the most effectual way of breaking the enchantment was to cause a calf to be burnt alive.

The scene related was a gruesome one indeed; the fire was set and two people held the calf down on it – the animal, understandably distressed, tried to escape and did so several times, on each occasion being brought back to the fire until the horrid deed was done.

Another half century later and fire – that much-favoured weapon against witches and witchcraft – was still being employed in Cornwall in the hope of breaking the power of a witch.

Cornubian and Redruth Times, 28th May, 1869.

A publican, the head of a respectable family, mysteriously lost a number of his pigs. Five were found dead, while three were in their last gasp. With one of the latter he was induced to try a prescription, having been led to believe that the work could be none other than that of the village witch.

The report goes on to tell how the farmer:

Extracted the heart, and having stuck it all over with pins, placed it in front of the fire until it was charred to a cinder.

Although English witches were hanged rather than burned, the association with witches and fire was one that was indisputably strong in the public imagination, and so it is not surprising to find fire playing a part in finding a cure for the tormented animals or, by extension, the family that owned them. Items belonging to the witch (such as hair or toe nail clippings) were frequently burned to break a spell, setting tongs in the fire could prevent a witch leaving a room, and burning a bottle containing a victim's urine could either reveal the identity of a witch or torment them into breaking their spell. As a precedent to the cases above, in the last decade of the 16th century, Master Robert Throckmoton was advised to bury his dead cow and burn it in the hope of breaking the power Alice Samuel of Warboys had over his cattle. 

Burning items and the use of fire was a useful and less direct aid to break a bewitchment as it meant that the 'witch' herself did not have to be present. Unlike the personal and violent act of 'scratching' a witch (which, despite the mild connotations of the word often left the victim bruised and bloody and was in many cases simply a glorified excuse for gross bodily assault) the 'bewitched' party did not need to come into contact with the person they accused, a situation that, even if they knew the identity of their tormentor was not always desirable. This was particularly relevant post 1736 when attacking someone believed to be a witch was a crime in itself and could see you before the courts if the 'witch' decided to press charges. Burying items could also be hoped to serve a similar purpose, as in the first account. 

© Wellcome Library, London

The general response by the newspapers of outrage and horror that such superstitious nonsense could continue in those 'enlightened' times is common in newspaper and other sources throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The obvious gap between the belief of the 'educated' and that of the simple common folk who knew no better is clear, as is the frustration that nothing could be done about it; the belief in witchcraft continued to be deep rooted in some areas at least, well into the 20th century.

All newspaper sources copyright of the British Newspaper Archive at

Monday, 30 May 2016

Murder and Lies: Mary Bateman, The Yorkshire Witch

Sometimes you live in an area for years without realising what fascinating events took place just down the road. It was over two years after leaving Leeds that I heard about Mary Bateman, the "Yorkshire Witch", whose terrible deeds led her to an equally terrible fate as the first decade of the 19th century came to a close. 

On Friday 17th March, 1809, Mary Bateman came to trial at York Castle. The charge against her was one that ensured a good crowd came to witness events: “The wilful murder of Rebecca Perigo, of Bramley, in the West-Riding.”  

The story started in 1806 when Rebecca Perigo, wife of William Perigo, became convinced that someone had laid an “evil wish” upon her. Her niece Sarah told her that she knew a woman who might be able to help, and accordingly visited Mary Bateman to ask for her assistance. Mary assured the young woman that she knew someone who could cure her aunt – although not naming her, she told the worried Sarah that she would write to ask for assistance and that she should hear back in a fortnight's time. Mary also instructed Sarah to get her aunt to send a flannel petticoat, or “any garment worn next the skin” to send to the un-named woman to aid in the process of breaking the ill wish. 

William Perigo accordingly took the requested petticoat to Mary Bateman, thus beginning an acquaintance that was to end so fatally.  Mary's intention was, she told the worried husband, to send the petticoat to a Miss Blythe in Scarborough, for she was the woman who would be able to help his wife.  

Reassured, Perigo went home, returning to Mary's house on the agreed date to hear what Miss Blythe had prescribed for his wife. It was a curious letter indeed: Mary was instructed to go to the Perigo house, taking with her four guinea notes that Miss Blythe had sent. They were to be put into the bed there, one for each corner. The notes must be left there for 18 months it was stressed, otherwise the “cure” would be ineffective. In return, William Perigo must give Mary Bateman four guinea notes in return, to be sent bacl to Miss Blythe. There also came a warning: the first charm, involving the requested petticoat, had not worked due to Rebecca Perigo discussing the matter with others. Miss Blythe would not consent to further helping the woman unless she promised solemnly not to talk about it with anyone from now on.  

Mary visited the house as arranged, and William Perigo was satisfied that the notes in question were genuine before giving her his own notes to send to the helpful woma in Scarborough. Mary sewed the original notes each into a silk bag, and, with the Perigo couple looking on, the bags were placed inside the bed without incident. William Perigo then walked Mary Bateman part of the way home, confident that his wife's torment would soon be at an end.

This was far from the end of the matter however, and over the next few months, a variety of requests came from Miss Blythe in Scarborough, the following items given to her via Mary Bateman by the too-trusting William Perigo:

  • One goose 
  • Two pairs of Men's shoes
  • A goose pie
  • A tea caddy
  • Several shirts
  • A counterpane
  • A piece of woollen cloth
  • A silk handkerchief
  • A silk shawl
  • A light coloured gown skirt
  • A light coloured cotton gown
  • Two pillow slips
  • A new waistcoat
  • Sixty pounds of butter
  • Seven strokes of meal
  • Six strokes of malt
  • A quantity of tea and sugar
  • Two of three hundred eggs
  • A pair of worsted stockings
  • A pair of new shoes
  • A pair of black silk stockings
  • Three yards of Knaresborough linen cloth
  • Ten stones of malt
  • A piece of beef
  • Three bottles of spirits
  • Two table clothes
  • Two barrels
  • Two napkins

One of the most curious items requested and given was a bedstead and mattress, the use they were to be put to never being fully explained. William Perigo also handed over money in various amounts, in all totalling about seventy pounds.  As the months went on, letters were exchanged with instructions given and promises made; all with the firm reminder that the correspondence should be destroyed after reading. 

Matters took a sinister turn in April 1807 when the Perigos received a letter with alarming news.

“My Dear Friends--- I am sorry to tell you, you will take an illness in the month of May next, either t'one or both, but I think both, but the works of God must have its course.”

All was not lost however; after this mysterious pronouncement came better news. Although it might seem that they were at death's door, the Perigos would pull through, if they were to follow the instructions included within the letter. Rebecca Perigo was to take half a pound of honey to Mary Bateman's home in Leeds, where Mary would put into the honey “such like stuff” as Miss Blythe would send to her. Another “such stuff” was also to be put into a pudding, which William Perigo and his wife were to eat for six days. If they felt ill during that time, they were simply to take a tea-spoon of the doctored honey. They were not to begin this course of treatment however until they received word to do so. 

A Yard in High Court Lane where Mary Bateman lived
Leeds Library and Information Services

Rebecca Perigo followed the instructions in the letter, and took the honey to Mary Bateman, returning with six powders. William Perigo himself visited the helpful woman not long after; It was strange, he opined, that Miss Blythe had foreknowledge that they would be unwell. It was not strange at all, Mary Bateman corrected; on the contrary, Miss Blythe knew everything to do with him, but all would be fine if they followed her directions.  

Word came to the Perigos that they were to start eating the pudding on 11th May. They were reminded that it must be taken every day and that if they became sick they were not, under any circumstances, to call for a doctor. They were only to make as much pudding as they themselves would need, and were not to share it with anyone else. The door to the house must also be kept closed and they were, by all accounts, not to see anyone unless strictly necessary. This rigorous regime would not have to be maintained for too long - by 25th May, Miss Blythe assured them, it would all be over, and Rebecca Perigo would have cause to take Mary Bateman by the hand to thank her for her help.

Accordingly, on 11th May, the couple started the course of treatment prescribed. For five days William and Rebecca Perigo followed the instructions they had been given, eating the powder-laced pudding with no apparent effect. The next day however the powders to be added were of a greater quantity than on previous days, and eating the pudding made William Perigo feel so sick that he only managed one mouthful. His wife however managed three or four before being overcome with vomiting. This was surely, his wife insisted, the illness Miss Blythe had said would strike them – they must now, without further ado, take the honey. William Perigo took two spoonfuls, while Rebecca Perigo swallowed down six or seven of the mixture. They were sick for the next twenty-four hours, and although they were in a very bad way, Rebecca insisted that they could not call for a doctor without the most direst of consequences.  

In the evidence he gave later, William Perigo stated that:

“A violent heat came out of his mouth, which was very sore, that his lips were black, and that he had a most violent pain in his head twenty times worse than a common head-ache, everything appeared green to him.”

On top of that, he also had a “violent complaint in his bowels,” and it was several days before he could eat anything and slowly started to recover.  

Rebecca Perigo's symptoms were of the same nature but much more extreme; her tongue grew so swollen she could not close her mouth, she complained of thirst constantly and after a steady decline, died on 24th May, the date before that which Miss Blythe had declared Rebecca would be thanking Mary Bateman for her intervention.

Shortly after the death of his wife, William Perigo paid a visit to Mary Bateman, the sorry state of the wretched man only to be imagined at. He did not mince words, telling her that he wished that they had had a doctor during their illness, but they had instead followed what Miss Blythe had instructed. When Mary Bateman suggested that the reason his wife had not recovered was that not every drop of the honey had been taken, William Perigo made it clear that he thought the honey to be at fault, if only because if not for that he would have sent for a doctor and his wife would still be with them.

After that, a series of increasingly bizarre letters arrived from Miss Blythe, speaking of Rebecca Perigo rising from the grave to bring her husband further harm, requesting one of his dead wife's gowns and paying a guinea and a half for some coals.

Illustration showing Mary Bateman and the ill-fated Perigo Couple

On 19th October 1808, William Perigo finally went to open the bags that were secreted in his bed all those months ago. There had been more money added over time, but,  much to his amazement, the money was all gone, and he wasted no time in heading to Leeds to take Mary Bateman to task.

Mary's explanation was that William Perigo had opened the bags too soon. Not satisfied, William told her he would return the next day with “two or three men and have things settled.” Mary Bateman pleaded with him not to, saying that if he would meet her, alone, at a specified time and place, she would satisfy him. It is not certain what William Perigo took that to mean, but it was agreed that they would meet the following day near the bridge over the Leeds and Liverpool canal.

William Perigo did go to meet her the next morning, though, as a precaution, he took two men with him who kept their distance to see how events unfolded. When he saw Mary he told her that he was not alone. No doubt realising that she was trapped, the woman did her very best to turn the tables, countering by exclaiming loudly for anyone nearby to hear:

“that bottle which you gave me yesterday night has almost poisoned me and my husband, who is ill in bed in consequence of taking it.”

She then appealed to a woman nearby, asking if she had seen the transaction that had supposedly taken place, alleging that William Perigo had tried to poison her and put her life in danger. It was a bold attempt, but her luck had finally run out, and Mary Bateman was arrested. 

A search of Mary Bateman's house turned up a good many of the articles the Perigos had sent for “Miss Blythe”, and others came forward with evidence that left Mary Bateman without a leg to stand on. At her trial she was condemned to death for the murder of Rebecca Perigo, scant comfort for the still grieving husband she had left behind. 

Sentenced to death, Mary wrote to her husband, expressing sorrow for the shame she had brought on her family through the various frauds she had committed throughout her life, those involving the Perigos being only the last of many. Until the end however she remained  adamant that she was not guilty of the crime for which she was to hang, a final attempt to save herself by pleading pregnancy failing after she was examined and found to be lying. 

It seems that she kept to her old tricks right to the end, and gave a spell to a young woman also in prison who wanted to see her sweetheart. Again like Perigo, the charm involved money, and when the young woman unbound it and found her money gone, she complained to the Governor of the Castle who saw that some of the money at least was refunded to the girl.

Mary went to the noose on 20th March, 1809. After being cut down, her body was sent to Leeds General Infirmary for dissection. In more recent times her skeleton was on display at the William Thackray Museum, Leeds, until 2015 when it returned to Leeds University. 

Images of Mary's skeleton, along with a partial facial reconstruction, can be found here.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Accused: Available for Pre-Order

It is with great excitement (and a certain amount of wonder that we have reached this stage!) that I can announce that Accused: British Witches Throughout History is now available for pre-order! 

The image of the witch - crook-nosed, unpleasant of disposition and with a penchant for harming her neighbours - is well established in the popular imagination. For hundreds of years the accusation of witchcraft has been levelled against women throughout the British Isles: such women were feared, persecuted, revered and reviled, with many ending their journeys at the stake or noose. Far from a mass of pitiable, faceless victims however, each case tells its own story, with a distinct woman at its heart, spanning the centuries down to the present.
What did it really mean to be accused as a witch? Why, and by whom, were such accusations made? Was it possible to survive, and what awaited those who did? Prepare to delve into the captivating history of witchcraft with an in-depth exploration of some of the most fascinating and notorious women accused of being witches from across the British Isles. On a journey from 14th century Ireland to 20th century Hampshire, Accused examines the why, the how, and, most importantly, the who of these tantalising and evocative cases.
Using trial documents, contemporary pamphlets, church and census records and a wealth of other sources, eleven accused women are brought to life in a biographical approach that will take the reader back in time. Meticulously researched and skilfully and painstakingly woven, this book will be indispensable to anyone with an interest in the popular topic of the history of witchcraft and a love of fascinating and diverse individuals. Setting each of the accused in their social and historical context, Willow Winsham delivers a fresh and revealing look at her subjects, bringing her unique style and passion for detail to this captivating read. 

 Accused can be ordered from the following:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Pen and Sword

A huge thank you to everyone for their support and interest on the journey so far, and roll on July! 

Monday, 21 March 2016

The Witch and Her Bucket: Mary Spencer and The Lancashire Witches

What immediately springs to mind at the words “Lancashire” and “Witches” are the infamous Pendle witch trials of 1612. There were, however, several later cases in the same area: one such occurred in 1634 when ten year old Edmund Robinson related a fantastical story regarding his experience with local witches.

He had, he insisted, witnessed dogs turning into people and all manner of strange goings on, and on 10th February young Edmund described before two magistrates in great detail the witches' sabbat he had seen, consisting of around 60 or so people, both men and women. He identified 19 of them, several of whom were already rumoured in the local area to be witches. The boy in fact became something of a celebrity: going from church to church he was pressed to identify those who were guilty of witchcraft, pointing the finger at many as he went. In total, around 30 people were arrested, with 17 to attend trial at the Lent Assizes in Lancaster. All apart from one were adamant that they had done nothing wrong, denying utterly that they were witches.  

Amongst the accused was 20 year old Mary Spencer from nearby Burnley; too young to remember the events of the Pendle trials, she could not have failed to have heard of Old Demdike and Old Chattox and the fate of their supposed confederates, and the fate that could likewise await her.

The daughter of John Spencer and Mary Mitchell, there is no record of Mary's birth; from her age given at her trial we can infer that Mary was born around 1614. There is a record of a female child baptised 16th December, 1610, daughter of John Spencer, who may or may not be Mary, depending if she was precise with her age.

St Peter's Church, Burnley
Copyright Alexander P Kapp

John and Mary Spencer had been accused and arrested for witchcraft along with their daughter: between them, they were charged with wasting and impairing the body of John Leigh, killing Henry Roberts of Clevinger, impairing the body of Sarah, wife of George Frost, and killing one horse and several other beasts and cattle belonging to Nicholas Cunliffe. Her mother also had a “pap” or suspicion mark on her hip, further evidence that she was guilty.

The accusations against Mary herself were spurious to say the least. She was accused of bewitching a collock (a one handled bucket or pail) and was charged with:

“...causing a pale or collock to come to her full of water 14 yards up a hill from a well.”

She also had two paps or marks in her “secrets.”

Although the accusations were initiated by Edmund Robinson, it seems that the Spencer involvement in the sorry tale was due to the malice of the previously mentioned Nicholas Cunliffe. According to Mary, Cunliffe had been against her parents for the last five years or so, and was instrumental in their having been arrested at the previous assizes. He had got his revenge; both her parents were dead by the time Mary was brought before the Bishop of Chester on 13th June to give her version of events.

Lancaster Castle, 1778

She was not a witch, Mary vowed, far from it. On the contrary, she regularly attended church, and not only that, she used to take home what she had heard there to pass on to her parents. In fact it was recorded that she “utterly denies that she knows any witchcraft, or ever did hurt to anybody thereby.” (The implication that John and Mary Spencer did not attend church themselves is an interesting one; perhaps illness or old age prevented them from doing so, or they might have been at odds over religious differences which might have in turn contributed to the accusations against them.) Furthermore, Mary proved that she could recite the Creed and the Lord's Prayer, demonstrating her religious inclinations. She defied the devil, refusing to throw in her lot with him, and hoped that Jesus would save her from the perilous situation in which she found herself.

But what of the bucket? She would, Mary insisted, have cleared up the whole matter at the hearing itself, only conditions had not been conducive to her doing so. The wind had been howling, and the noise of the crowds who had come to witness the spectacle was so loud she had not been able to hear when she was told of the accusations against her. The answer was simple:

When she was a young girl and went to the well for water, she used to tumble or trundle the collock or pea, down the hill, and she would run along after it to over take it, and did overhie it sometimes, and then might call it to come to her.”

There was nothing magical or bewitched in that, simply the usual behaviour of a bucket rolling down a hill. She could not, Mary was adamant, make it come to her in any other way. Her final affirmation was that she was not afraid of death: sure of her innocence, she would find heaven through it.

After the Bishop heard from the remaining surviving suspects, doubts still remained regarding Robinson's testimony. The case was passed to the Privy Council, a move which resulted in four of the accused, including Mary, being transferred to London in an attempt to clear up the matter. On arriving in London the suspected witches were taken to the prestigious Ship Tavern.

During their stay in the capital, the suspected witches were again physically examined. Contrary to the evidence against them from Lancaster, after examination by a team of seven surgeons and ten midwives under the direction of the renowned Dr Harvey on July 2nd at Surgeon's Hall, Mugwell Street, London, it was declared that there was found:

on the bodies of Janet Hargreaves, Frances Dicconson, and Mary Spencer nothing unnatural nor anything like a teat or mark.”

Slowly, the case was starting to unravel. Nothing could be found to support the accusations against the women, their initially impressive lodgings now exchanged for the less salubrious Fleet Prison where the curious could pay a fee to visit and gawk at the imprisoned witches. And then, 16th July, when examined again, Edmund Robinson finally came clean. He admitted that he had concocted his stories of the witches and their meeting from a combination of tales of the Pendle witches of 1612 and rumours about the local women he had accused. There was no other truth in what he had come up with, and no one had put him up to it.

The fact that Edmund and his father were also imprisoned during their stay in London no doubt played a large part in the boy deciding to fess up. His father had lodged a complaint a short while before regarding their treatment and his ignorance of the reason they were being locked up. Events after this become somewhat hazy, and although it was said that the suspected witches were seen by King Charles and his council and pardoned, there is no official record of this. What is known is that, after Robinson's confession, the surviving accused were taken back to Lancaster, Mary among them. Whether pardoned or not it made little difference, as they returned not as free women, but prisoners. Indeed, Mary was still imprisoned at Lancaster Castle on 22nd August, 1636, when she was listed in a Calendar of Prisoners there. Her ultimate fate is unknown.

Monday, 22 February 2016

The Man Behind the Medium: Helen Duncan and Albert Stewart

Spiritualist medium Helen Duncan is most frequently remembered for being the last person convicted and imprisoned under the 1736 Witchcraft Act in 1944. Revered by some as the most talented physical medium in history and reviled by others as a monumental fraud, Helen did not work alone. Like many mediums, she believed fully in the support of spirit guides - entities from the spirit world who acted as a bridge between the living and those who had passed over.

Helen Duncan

Helen had several guides after she started to develop her gift of mediumship, but one in particular stayed with her for the majority of her career and made the biggest impact on both Helen's work and the lives of those who knew her. 

Albert Stewart made his first appearance around 1927, when the dangerously erratic Matthew Douglas was deemed no longer suitable to be Helen's spirit "control" after he threatened to kill the medium. According to accounts of the meeting, Albert introduced himself as having been born in Scotland around 1883, where he had lived before emigrating to Australia with his parents. There he became an apprentice pattern maker, but died in 1913 at the young age of 33.

Unlike the reprehensible Douglas, Albert was, by all accounts, of a much calmer nature. According to Helen's daughter Gena's recollections, the newly arrived control reassured Helen and those gathered with her, declaring that “Together we will move forward to a better understanding and better phenomena.” Indeed Albert did not fail to deliver: under his guidance Helen's career as a physical medium took off in a way that no one had expected.

Far from just guiding Helen in seances, Albert became a full member of the Duncan family. The children referred to him as “Uncle Albert” and they prayed to him along with God to protect them and keep them safe. Helen herself kept a picture of a bust of Albert in her own bedroom, and one of the family homes was named Albertine partly in his honour. 

Albert's word was law in the Duncan household, with many of his words of encouragement and guidance staying with Helen and her children alike many years after they were uttered. It was a good thing that he was listened to, as there were several occasions on which it was believed Albert saved the lives of those he watched over. At the end of his very first appearance he warned Helen and Henry that they should tell the hospital where poorly Gena was being treated that she should be moved from the doorway: it was timely advice, as the ill child was later discovered to be suffering from pneumonia. Another time Albert expressed his concern about a mutual friend, contributing to a later diagnosis of skin cancer which was then kept at bay through the guide's advice. Albert was even believed to have saved Helen herself: in the operating room where the medium was undergoing a hysterectomy, a voice was heard declaring that the surgeon had cut far enough. This was discovered to be the case, but afterwards no one present would or could admit to having uttered the words. When the voice was described to Helen's husband, Henry Duncan, the mystery was deemed to be solved - Albert, Henry declared, had spoken again. 

The Two Worlds of Helen Duncan, containing
Helen's daughter Gena's recollections of her mother
and Albert.

There were times however when Albert was not heeded so closely, leading to disaster for the medium he attempted to protect. Albert had tried to warn Helen of impending danger before an ill-fated séance in 1933, telling her to take care, (though not specifying of what.) The seance turned out to be a trap, and Helen was arrested for suspected fraud. Albert spoke out again in 1944 when Helen was running a series of seances in Portsmouth for the Master Temple Psychic Centre: he stressed that a gentleman in naval uniform should not be admitted to one seance, and again a few days later advised that a group of three men should be turned away. The cost of not heeding Albert's words were far greater this time: Helen was arrested, charged, and found guilty at The Old Bailey, sentenced to serve nine months imprisonment in Holloway Prison. 

Many people spoke of their experience of Albert over the years he worked as Helen's guide. One thing on which almost everyone commented was his voice. The aforementioned surgeon described the mystery voice he heard as an “Oxford” accent. The President of the International Spiritualist Federation described Albert's voice as “One of the most musical voices” he had ever heard. Other attempts to describe the voice they heard were “A nice masculine voice,” and “cultured Australian," and the glowing report by one witness of Albert being “the nicest spoken man I have ever met.” One of the few people to deny Albert his Oxford accent was Hannen Swaffer, the renowned drama critic who was one of Helen's staunchest supporters – his objection was that the "Oxford Accent" was a fabrication and purely a “BBC idea”. When pressed for his views on the voice of Helen's guide he eventually said he had heard it described as Cockney and also Australian, but that he himself simply thought it “natural”.

Personality-wise, Albert was a convincingly human mix of contradictions. Whilst courteously referring to Helen as “Mrs Duncan" at all times, that did not prevent him from making jokes at the medium's expense. There are several recorded instances of him joking about her substantial weight, along with complaints about her smoking habit and the resultant coughing that was one of his pet peeves. Albert was also not without a sense of humour: on one occasion he invited a Dr. Rust to examine him during a séance at the London Psychic Research Centre, quipping afterwards that the Doctor would be able to tell the others that he was indeed “all man.”

When in a genial mood, Albert gave permission for photographs to be taken by those he considered sympathetic, and was happy for spirit forms to be looked at closely, even giving permission on occasion for samples of ectoplasm – the substance that came from the medium's body and of which the spirits were formed – to be taken and studied. He also - as befitted his role of Master of Ceremonies - was given to a certain amount of showmanship. Once when asked if phenomena could occur if Helen was bound he showed that indeed it could, tying and freeing the medium in the space of seconds to an amazed audience.

Seance sitters sometimes came in for Albert's acerbic wit, but there was one person in particular who provoked his ire more than any other: Helen's husband Henry. At various time he is reported as having called Henry an ass and a fat head, and even on one occasions threatened to strangle him in utter exasperation.

A photograph of a spirit form taken with
permission by Albert.

At Helen's trial in 1944, many came forward to give testimony that they had witnessed Albert and heard his voice. They had heard him speak, and some had even touched him, one speaking of an occasion where the obliging guide had put his very real bare foot into a sitter's hand. Others told of how they had felt Helen's hand and then Albert's - one rough and small, the other smooth and long fingered. There were times when the two had actually been seen standing next to each other - Helen at 5ft 4, with Albert towering over her at just over 6 feet tall. These were rational, sensible people, respected members of their communities with respectable jobs and lives, all willing to testify that Albert Stewart was very, very real. 

Not everyone was so convinced though. There were some who declared that “Albert's” voice was nothing more than the medium's, not even that cleverly disguised. Others insisted that there was little distinction between Helen and her guide, and that the additional height was created through tricks and poor lighting. Others complained that Albert was poorly formed, and looked like cloth with barely visible features.

Despite divided opinion as to his existence, it mattered little to Helen and her family, their belief in Albert continued right until the end. In 1956 as Helen lay dying,  Albert was there with her, telling visiting friends two days before her death that “We are talking Mrs Duncan home. She has well earned her rest." The bond remained: shortly after her passing, Helen sent a message via another medium that Albert had been there to meet her on the other side.

Bronze Bust of Helen Duncan
displayed in Stirling. 

Unlike some spirit guides, There is currently no evidence of Albert having being a true historical figure before he passed into spirit, with no record of birth or death discovered so far to corroborate his story of his origins.  Does anyone have any information on the historical Albert? If so it would be great to hear from you.

And for those curious to hear the voice of Albert for themselves, a rare recording from a Helen Duncan seance can be found here: Albert is the first voice to speak. 

Link to Albert's Voice.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

#FolkloreThursday: Plans Within Plans!

There are exciting times ahead for #FolkloreThursday! The response since starting the hashtag back in the summer has been overwhelmingly positive, and more than a few people have been in contact to ask whether there are any plans to take the project further. It is with great pleasure that we can officially reveal that yes there are – in the form of a FolkloreThursday website!

There's been a lot of work going on behind the scenes, but we can now announce that the site is due to go “live” on Thursday 3rd March, 2016.

In the meantime, sign up to the #FolkloreThursday Mailing List (click the link!) to be kept up to date on website developments and future #FolkloreThursday plans!