Sunday, 1 September 2019

A Case of Cornish Witchcraft: The Sufferings of John Tonken


According to the pamphlet,  A True Account of a Strange and Wonderful Relation of One John Tonken, of Penzance in Cornwall, a youth of fifteen or sixteen years of age by the name of John Tonken or Tomkins found himself “strangely taken with sudden fits” in May, 1686. As he lay suffering in his bed, a woman appeared before him; this woman  was:

“in a blue jerkin and red petticoat, with yellow and green patches, and told him, that he would not be well before he had brought up nutshells, pins, and nails.”

John told several people of his vision, but no one but himself saw or heard the woman. It seemed however that the strange woman’s predictions were to be true, as the youth’s fits increased in intensity. Finally, to the amazement of those around him, John vomited up half a walnut shell and three pins. As if this were not enough, a few days after this strange occurrence, John again produced three walnut shells and several more pins in this fashion. 

According to John, he saw the woman several times in the days that followed. Sometimes she was in human form, but at others she took the form of a cat; her appearance caused the boy great torment, and he cried out and covered his eyes so he would not have to see her. She was, said John, trying to put things into his mouth, to choke him and poison him.

The things John brought forth became more and more amazing. Upon the woman telling him he had straws in his belly, sure enough, for the next two to three days he vomited straw at a variety of lengths, some as much as a yard long with knots tied into it. Further pins were also brought forth, to the total of sixteen or seventeen. When the woman said he would bring up nails, John complained that his heel was being pricked; when the bedding was examined, a nail was found in his heel and another in the bed.

There were those who suspected deceit on the part of young John, and his mouth was checked for objects hidden there. Nothing amiss was discovered however, and the strange vomiting continued.

Matters got worse, until, on 10 May when his most violent fit of all occurred, the woman informed John that she would kill him. John told those who were with him of her threat, but added that he hoped God would not allow her to do so. while the woman continued to torment him with her presence, John vomited a very rusty pin, which was kept by witnesses as evidence. The last, and perhaps most spectacular thing he brought forth was a  piece of needle, “half an inch broad, and an inch and a half long, with two sharp points like pins, one at each end.”

The woman proved elusive when it came to answering questions. John begged to know when he would be well, offering her five shillings or five pounds if she would answer, only for her to refuse. She likewise refused to give her name when he asked, or where she lived, or anything to identify her. The woman also evaded capture, escaping out of the window when John called for someone to help him. 

Despite her threats, the end was in sight. The last time John witnessed the woman, she was not alone: three women were there before him. When he cried out against her, she took her leave, saying she would not trouble him again. Sure enough, John was much improved and walking with crutches at the time the account was written.

Two women from Penzance, Joan Nowell or Nicholas, and Elizabeth, also known as Betty Seeze, were arrested and taken to Lanceston Gaol, accused of bewitching the boy.

The account was written by Mayor of Penzance, Peter Jenkins, and Justice John Geose. Jane was found not guilty of the charges of witchcraft against John, and it appears that Betty Seeze did not make it as far as trial, the charges against her dropped or dismissed beforehand.

The voiding of pins and other strange objects was a staple of many witchcraft accounts, and would have been recognised by those witnessing John's alleged fits as a sign of bewitchment. From the infamous 16th century case against the Witches of Warboys to Anne Thorn's supposed torments by Jane Wenham in the early 18th, this tangible evidence was used as part of a case against those accused as witches. The tormenting witch, invisible to any other than the victim, the fits that came and went in varying intensity, the increase in torments culminating with the threat to kill the victim, were all also well-known staples of the bewitched/possession narrative. 

Luckily for Joan and Elizabeth, the last executions for witchcraft had already taken place in England in 1682 with the hanging of the Bideford Witches, and the majority of trials in the latter half of the 17th century ended in acquittal. There is no further evidence to answer whether John, like some who went before him, later admitted to fraudulent claims.

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

A-Z of the Accused: Elizabeth Lightbone


Name: Elizabeth Lightbone or Lightbound

Location:  Christleton, Cheshire

Date: 1613

Accusations:  Elizabeth, wife of yeoman William Lightbone, was accused of several counts of witchcraft against her Christleton neighbours. On 30 May, 1613, she was believed to have bewitched Richard Rider so that he became lame until 20 September of that year. Prior to that, on 8 August, 1606, she had bewitched Richard Burrowes, causing him to languish until December. Finally, Elizabeth was accused of bewitching Mary Cotgreave on 20 May, 1611, causing her to become lame, a condition that continued until the time of the indictments made against Elizabeth at the Chester Quarter Sessions of 27 September, 1613.

Outcome: Elizabeth pleaded pregnancy, and although she was still in prison on 25 September, 1615, she was pardoned on 9 September of that year and is presumed to have been released. Due to this, it is assumed that Elizabeth was indeed with child, although evidence of the whereabouts of Elizabeth or her child after her pardon is frustratingly lacking.

Friday, 2 August 2019

Setting the Record Straight: The Ilkeston Witch

I've written many, many words on Anne Wagg, the Derbyshire woman accused of witchcraft by her fellow residents of Ilkeston in 1650. She is, after all, both my "local" witch, and responsible for the journey that led me to write my first book on the subject of accused British witches. 

My initial research suggested strongly that Anne Wagg had met the - practically unheard of for English witches - fate of burning for her crimes. This fact was readily attested to by several Victorian annalists, such as John Charles Cox who declared that:

"... there is little doubt that Anne Wagg was burnt to death on evidence that now-a-days would not even convict a poacher."

As I continued to look into events in 17th century Ilkeston, however, it became clear that there was much more to the story than Cox and local historian Edwin Trueman would have us believe.

In his History of Ilkeston, Edwin Trueman repeated the claim 
that Anne Wagg was burnt for bewitching the people of Ilkeston.

In late April/early May 1650, Bridget, the wife of Ilkeston vicar William Fox, was taken ill. Anne Wagg was summoned to the suffering woman's side so that Bridget could scratch her - hard enough to draw blood - in order to break the hold of the "witch" over her. This was common practice in earlier cases of witchcraft accusations, and a belief that continued well into the 19th century, despite attempts to root out such "superstition" by those higher up the social and economic scale. 

It was highly likely that this open display of support for the idea of Anne being a witch from one of Ilkeston's authority figures led to what happened next. On 1 June, 1650, baker Francis Torrat made accusations against Anne to Gervase Bennett, Justice of the Peace for Derby. According to Torrat, Anne was guilty of several counts of witchcraft, and was well known for tormenting those who displeased her. Three years previously, after exchanging "words" with Torrat and his wife, their maid servant Elizabeth had an encounter with Anne that led to her falling ill and being unable to move. That night, the maid had called out in great distress, but neither Torrat nor his wife were able to help her as they too were paralysed. It was only when a cat that had been sitting on the maid's bed leapt clear that they were free to help their distressed servant, the implication being that the cat was either the witch or a familiar doing her bidding. Local folklore belief was utilised to confirm the identity of the witch in question: when tongs were placed in the fire, it was believed that the witch would be unable to leave. This was performed and, as expected, Anne was held prisoner until the tongs were removed. 

it is unclear whether the cat that tormented the Torrat's maid was 
believed to be a familiar spirit for Anne or that it was Anne herself.
(Image: Wellcome Collection, London)

Other Ilkeston residents, following Torrat's example, spoke out against Anne on 26 June. Alice Day told how a few years ago Elizabeth Webster had accused Anne on her deathbed of bewitching her. Despite being urged to pardon Anne and thus pass with a clear conscience, Webster refused to do so. 

Elizabeth Goddard, proving that local memories could last a long time, related that fifteen years ago she and Anne had quarrelled over some whey. Anne had wanted to buy some from her, but Elizabeth Goddard refused, on the grounds that it was to be sold to her sister. When the Goddard's child fell ill that same night, it was clear that Anne was to blame - especially when, after seeming to recover, the child died a fortnight later after Anne was denied butter from the Goddards. 

Grieving Anne Ancoke blamed Anne for the death of her fifteen year old daughter only days before she gave her evidence. Taken suddenly ill, the girl said that she believed herself to be witch-ridden, and although Anne Wagg was summoned to her bedside so they could ask forgiveness of each other, it was too late to save her. 

Alice Carpenter told the justice that Anne was a woman of "ill repute" and that this was well known throughout Ilkeston. due to this reputation, when her own child sickened and died in 1649, Alice was certain that Anne was to blame. From an examination of local records, it becomes clear that Anne and her husband George were not popular figures in Ilkeston. Anne spoke her mind too often, and George was too free with his fists; both prone to losing their temper, both with others and each other, if they had friends it was likely they were few and far between. George Wagg died in 1646, leaving the way clear for those who disliked his wife to make a move when the time proved right. A further source of Anne's bad reputation is also revealed by the parish registers: an illegitimate son, Thomas Wagg,  "son and Anne, and Thomas Cant, the reputed father" was buried in 1657, while another potential child to Anne and Thomas was baptised in July of 1646, only five months after George Wagg's death. 

Although there is ample evidence for why Anne was a prime witch suspect, quite where the idea that she met a fiery end came from is unclear. What is revealed by the Ilkeston parish registers however is that Anne did not come to the end that the Victorian reporters would have us believe. Anne was buried in the local church yard in 1663, strongly suggesting that the accusations came to nothing and that the Ilkeston witch continued to live side by side with those who accused her for another thirteen years. Despite this, the assumption that she was executed continued well into the 20th century, perpetuated no doubt by the erroneous belief that witches were commonly burnt for their crimes. 


St. Mary's, Ilkeston, where Anne Wagg was buried in 1663
(Image: Russ Hamer, via Wikimedia Commons)




Read more about Anne Wagg and other women accused of witchcraft in Accused: British Witches Throughout History available from Amazon and Pen and Sword Books

A-Z of the Accused: Elizabeth Kennet


Name: Elizabeth Kennit/Kennet, alias Smith

Location: Stepney,  Middlesex

Date: 1659

Accusations: Elizabeth was accused of bewitching Sarah Rose on 1st April 1659. Sarah was “wasted,  consumed,  pained and lamed”, and was still in the same lamentable condition in June of that year when Elizabeth was before the courts. Interestingly,  it appears that the widowed Elizabeth married Lawrence Kennet less than a month after the death of his first wife,  Rhoda, which might have contributed towards the accusations against her. 

Outcome: Luckily for Elizabeth,  perhaps largely due to the wane in witchcraft prosecutions, on 29 June 1659 she was found not guilty of the charges against her and presumably set free.  A woman by that name was buried in Stepney 24th October,  1683.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

A-Z of the Accused: Rebecca Jones

Name: Rebecca Jones

Location: St.  Osyth, Essex

Date: 1645

Accusations: In the midst of the fresh surge of witchcraft accusations during the Civil War period,  Rebecca was accused of causing the deaths of Thomas Bumpstead and his wife Katherine through witchcraft.  After her apprehension she confessed that nearly a quarter of a century beforehand,  she had been in service to a man named John Bishop. A “handsome young man” knocked at the door, and,  after asking how she was,  he took a pin from her own sleeve pricked her left wrist twice.  After this startling behaviour,  the visitor wiped off the resultant drop of blood with his fingertip,  before leaving.  In hindsight,  Rebecca believed this man to have been the Devil. 

Three months later,  a man with “great eyes” and dressed in a ragged suit gave her “three things like moles,  having four feet apiece,  but without tails,  and of a black colour.” The man told her to nurse the creatures,  saying that in return they would give her vengeance against her enemies, and that if she murdered a few,  he would grant her forgiveness.

After naming her new familiars Susan,  Annie, and Margaret,  Rebecca sent an imp to kill Thomas Bumpstead as payback for beating her son for eating honey from the Bumpstead house. She also confessed to sending another to kill his wife.  The third imp was sent to  torment Mistress Darcy’s child, but not with the intent of killing it.

Outcome: Rebecca was found guilty of causing the death of Thomas Bumpstead and sentenced to death.