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. 

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

The Witches of Warboys and the Death of Lady Cromwell

The case of the Warboys Witches is perhaps one of England's most well known witch-trial cases. The details are related at length in the extensive albeit descriptively-titled 1593 pamphlet:

The most strange and admirable discovery of the three Witches of Warboys, arraigned, convicted and executed at the last Assizes at Huntingdon, for the bewitching of the five daughters of Robert Throckmorton Esquire and divers other persons, with sundry Devilish and grievous torments: And also for the bewitching to death of the Lady Cromwell, the like hath not been heard of in this age.

According to the account, when one of the daughters of Robert Throckmorton fell ill with strange fits, the family did not at first suspect witchcraft to be behind her illness. As his other daughters also started to share their sister's strange symptoms however, suspicion slowly but surely grew, and the finger was pointed at local woman Alice Samuel, fuelled by the girls themselves naming her as their tormentor, along with, eventually, her husband John and daughter Agnes.  

The Manor House at Warboys 
(With kind permission of Philip Almond)

It was mid-March 1590 when Lady Susan Cromwell nee Weeks, entered the story. Second wife to Sir Henry Cromwell, (who was not only an influential man in the area but also happened to be the landlord of the Samuel family) Lady Cromwell and her daughter-in-law visited the beleaguered Throckmorton household to offer their sympathies for the suffering of the children.

According to the pamphlet, Lady Cromwell:

'...had not long stayed in the house but the children which were there fell into their fits. And were so grievously tormented for the time that it pitied the good lady's hear to see them, insomuch that she could not abstain from tears.'

It was not long before she sent for Alice Samuel; being unable to refuse a summons from the wife of the family landlord, Alice had no choice but to attend, whatever her misgivings might have been. Much to her horror, upon Alice's arrival the condition of the ill children worsened, something that did not bode well for the Samuel family for:

'Then the Lady Cromwell took Mother Samuel aside, and charted her deeply with this work, using also some hard speeches to her.'

Being thus accused of causing the suffering of the children, Alice was understandably upset, denying the accusation and retorting that the Throckmorton's accused her unjustly. It wasn't Master and Mistress Throckmorton who accused her, Lady Cromwell reminded Alice firmly, but the girls themselves who pointed the finger, the spirit that spoke through the girls when they were in their fits vowing that Alice was to blame for their pitiful condition.  

Joan Throckmorton, hearing Alice's denial, insisted that Alice was indeed responsible despite her protestations to the contrary, and that there was a spirit with her who was saying as much at that precise moment. The girl professed extreme surprise to learn that no one else present could hear the 'spirit' speak, as she herself could hear it loud and clear. Throughout this, Alice Samuel continued to insist that she had nothing to do with the strange illness that had invaded the household, but Lady Cromwell, unconvinced, wished to question her further in the presence of a visiting divine, Master Doctor Hall.
Oliver Cromwell, Step-Grandson to Lady Susan 
(Wellcome Library, London)

Alice made excuse after excuse however, and it was clear that she intended to leave for her home without satisfying Lady Cromwell in her questions. Thus frustrated, Lady Cromwell pulled off the kerchief Alice wore over her head and cut off a lock of her hair. Not only that, but she took the old woman's hair lace and gave both to the mother of the children with the instruction to put both in the fire to burn them in order to break Alice's power over the girls. At this unexpected and unwarranted violation, Alice Samuel lost whatever composure she had remaining, uttering the fateful and – some later vowed, fatal – words:

'Madam, why do you use me thus? I never did you any harm as yet.'

What happened next goes unrecorded, but Lady Cromwell left the Throckmorton household that night to return home. She did not sleep well at all, and was 'very strangely tormented' by dreams of Alice Samuel. Her agitated state woke her daughter-in-law who was sleeping with her, and she woke Lady Cromwell in turn, at which the older woman described how a cat, sent to her by Alice Samuel had tormented her in her sleep, threatening to pick the skin and flesh from her arms and body.

Lady Cromwell was so disturbed by the dream that she did not sleep again that night our of sheer terror. Not only that, we are told that 'not long after' she fell ill with a strange sickness. It might have been brushed off as coincidence, but the fits suffered by the lady were said to be similar in nature to those experienced by the Throckmorton girls. The only difference was that she was perfectly aware of the fact the whole time, unlike the girls who were periodically unaware of others in the room with them. Throughout, Lady Cromwell never forgot the words uttered to her by Alice Samuel, that she had not caused her any harm – as yet. Lady Cromwell passed away on 11th July, 1592, a year and a quarter after her ill-fated visit to Warboys.  

It was downhill for the Samuel family from then on. In preparation, Agnes Samuel and Joan Throckmorton were lodged together in the Crown Inn in Huntingdon. Upwards of 500 people were estimated to have visited the pair, attempting and failing to bring Joan out of her fits. On the day of the assizes themselves in April 1593, John Samuel was finally compelled to utter words he had previously refused, admitting that he was a witch and had been party to the death of the Lady Cromwell and commanding Joan Throckmorton to come out of her fit. He was right to have been apprehensive about repeating the words, as the girl appeared as if cured the moment he uttered them. Alice Samuel had also been made to repeat the same words before this point and the same cure was witnessed.  

That evening the judge himself along with several gentlemen and fellow justices attended the pair and it was proved beyond doubt that the only thing that ended Joan's fits was a charge recited by Agnes. 

'As I am a witch and a worse witch than my mother, and did consent to the death of the Lady Cromwell, so I charge the Devil to let Mistress Joan Throckmorton come out of her fit at this present.'

Tragically for Agnes, the girl recovered in full view of those in attendance.  

The following day three indictments were made against the Samuels: the first and most damning was that they were to blame for the death of Lady Cromwell through bewitchment, while the other two dealt with the bewitching of the Throckmorton girls and others in the Throckmorton household. All three were criminal offences under the 1563 Witchcraft Act, but bewitching to death carried with it the death penalty, a crime of which, after the matter was debated for five hours, the Samuel family were found guilty.  

On the day of their execution, Alice Samuel was asked as she stood on the ladder in her final moments to confess again to the murder of Lady Cromwell through witchcraft. She was guilty, she told the assembled crowd, and, when asked why she had borne the lady so much animosity Alice admitted it was because Lady Cromwell had cut some of her hair and burned it along with her hair lace, and that her actions had been carried out in the spirit of revenge. She also implicated her husband in the murder, although right to the end she refused to involve her daughter, trying to protect Agnes to the end. (John Samuel himself never admitted to anything aside from the charge he was forced to recite and neither did Agnes, both going to the noose maintaining their innocence.)

Lady Cromwell's widower, Sir Henry Cromwell, received the goods belonging to the Samuel family, as his right as their landlord. There cannot have been much due to their status, but there was enough money at least to commission an annual sermon to be preached at Huntingdon against the detestable sin of witchcraft. This was carried out until 1812; by that point however the focus had shifted to become instead an indictment and warning against the believing in, rather than the carrying out, of witchcraft.  

Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Witch To Live: A Tour of England's Witchcraft Legislation

From the middle of the 16th century, to be found guilty of witchcraft was officially a felony in England. Accordingly, if you were unlucky enough to be found guilty of carrying out a range of related practices, you could expect to find yourself facing punishment, from a relatively lenient stint in the pillory to facing the gallows.

What could lead to conviction? And what punishment could you expect at any given point throughout the two centuries that followed? Here is a handy run-down of witchcraft legislation in England.  

1542 Witchcraft Act: An Act against Conjurations, Witchcrafts, Sorcery, and Enchantments.

This short-lived piece of legislation appeared on the statute books in the closing years of the reign of Henry VIII, stipulating that to be found guilty of killing someone by witchcraft was punishable by death. The guilty party would also forfeit their lands and goods, and the option of benefit of clergy (the sparing of life if the condemned could read a passage from the bible) and sanctuary were also revoked.

Death was likewise the punishment for the crimes of causing wasting or illness by witchcraft (or even the intent to do so), wasting or destroying another's goods (and again the mere intent to do so was considered as bad as actually carrying out the act itself) attempting to locate treasure, money or stolen goods, and also inciting someone to love another against their will through magical means.

Image magic, i.e. creating an image of a person and causing harm to them through the pricking or otherwise tormenting of the image, was also included in the list of actions leglislated against in the act. 

The digging up of wayside crosses to find treasure that was suspected to be buried underneath was clearly a problem in Tudor England, and accusations and arrests for this offence were still taking place well into the first quarter of the 17th century

Interestingly, the actions mentioned in the Act were those more often associated with men than women, with the exception of love magic, suggesting that the stereotypical woman witch was not the true target of this piece of legislation. 

The act was repealed by Henry's son, Edward VI upon his accession to the throne in 1547.


The remains of Woodhey Cross, Cheshire
(Image by Espresso Addict)

1563 Witchcraft Act: An Act against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts

Witchcraft didn't return to the English statute books until 1563, during the reign of Elizabeth I, and this Act marked the first concerted move against witchcraft and related actions. 

Causing death by witchcraft was still punishable by death and the removal of benefit of clergy and sanctuary still applied. (Where loss of goods and lands were concerned however, dower portions and inheritance were  now exempt from the general rule.) 

A sliding scale of offences came into force with this act, as the wasting of another or causing lameness or likewise destruction of goods was punishable on a first offence not by death, but by imprisonment for twelve months. The guilty party would also have to suffer a stint in the pillory four times during that year, along with publically confessing to their crime, but it was still, arguably, better than the previous blanket alternative. (Given the state of the prisons and the frequency of outbreaks of illness however, many unfortunately did not survive their incarceration.)

 A second offence was treated less leniently however, and to be found guilty a second time for the offence of causing wasting or destruction of person or goods resulted in death. A second offence of intending to cause wasting and lameness or destroying goods was punished by imprisonment for life, as was attempted treasure hunting and provoking others to unlawful love.  

Victims of this Act include:
Agnes Waterhouse, the first to be executed for witchcraft in England, executed 1566
Alice, Agnes and John Samuel, The Warboys Witches, executed 1593 

(Image: Wellcome Collection)

1604 Witchcraft Act: An Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft and dealing with evil and wicked spirits.

This Act was one of the earliest pieces of legislation to be passed in the reign of James I – hardly surprising from a monarch with such a personal interest in witches. (James published his anti-witchcraft Daemonologie in 1597, and he was believed to hold a personal vendetta against witches due to his belief that the Berwick Witches had tried to kill him and his Queen.)

As with previous legislation, death was the punishment for bewitching someone to death. Causing illness or destroying goods was again punishable by death for a first offence rather than the two-tiered approach of the 1563 Act. For intending to cause illness or harm to goods, treasure hunting or love magic, a first offence brought imprisonment for a year and four stints in the pillory (for 6 hours at a time) and a repeat offence of any of these acts however brought the death sentence.

A noteworthy departure made the calling up of or communicating with spirits or familiars punishable by death for the first time, rather than just causing death by such means. An additional crime listed in this Act was the exhumation of corpses for use in witchcraft.  

Victims of this Act include:
Anne Whittle and Elizabeth, Alizon and James Device, among the infamous Pendle Witches - executed 1612
Mary Lakeland, one of England's very few verifiable witch burnings, executed 1645

1736 Witchcraft Act:

Under this act in the reign of George II witchcraft ceased to be a felony; instead the belief in witchcraft became the crime and those who accused others of being a witch could and did find themselves – often bewildered to be doing so – before the courts at the instigation of those they had accused.  

Despite the passing of the Act, belief in witchcraft and related superstitions was slow to decline, and particularly in areas such as Devon and Dorset, suspected witches continued to be attacked and accused outside of the court room well into the 19th century and beyond.

The Act itself was used well into the 20th century, most famously in the case of the prosecution and imprisonment of spiritualist medium Helen Duncan in 1944. The Act was not repealed until 1951, when it was replaced by The Fraudulent Mediums Act.  

People convicted under this Act include:
Helen Duncan, the last person to be imprisoned under the Act, imprisoned January 1944
Jane Rebecca Yorke, for pretending in the existence of spirits of the dead, (last person convicted under the Act) bound over and fined £5, July 1944

Helen Duncan displaying the 'ectoplasm' for which she was 
so famously known.
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)


Thursday, 19 July 2018

The Heart of the Matter: Two Cases of Devonshire Witchcraft

Belief in witches and their ability to cause harm to others was prevelant throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. One popular way to counter the bewitchment and to break the bold of the witch over an individual or his family and livestock was to remove the heart of a dead and bewitched animal.  This would then be stuck with pins and/or then burned. The continuation of such beliefs after official persecutions and prosecutions for the crime of witchcraft is particularly evident in the South West of England,  as these two newspaper reports from Devon testify. 

The first took place in Drewsteignton, Devon,  and was reported in January, 1861. According to the Devices and Wiltshire Gazette,  two horses belonging to "a certain farmer" residing on the western side of the parish had died.  Although the writer attributes this to old age,  the farmer,  his workman,  William,  and their neighbours,  believed the deaths to have been caused by witchcraft.  

After consultation with a "White Witch", the bodies of the dead animals were dug up and the heart of each removed. The hearts were then "stuck all over with pins and blackthorn and wrapped in brown paper." At nightfall,  the organs were burned in a huge fire built nearby,  with a quart of coal used to ensure maximum heat. 

The second incident took place a few years later in 1869, this time in Dittisham.  When a publican lost several pigs in quick succession with no obvious cause,  he was persuaded that witchcraft was behind the death of his animals.  Following the advice of a friend,  he had the heart of one of the dead pigs removed,  and stuck pins all over it.  The Heart was then placed in front of the fire until it "charred to a cinder."

Image from 'The Evil Eye' by Frederick Thomas Elworthy (1895)

Newspaper credits:

Sunday, 27 May 2018

A-Z of the Accused: Isobel Roby

Name: Isobel Roby
Location: Lancashire
Date: 1612

Accusations: One of the less well-known  of the "Pendle Witches", Isobel Roby was unusual in that she was not actually indicted for a specific act of witchcraft against a named victim.  Several people however spoke against her, including Peter Chaddock of Windle, Jane Wilkinson,  Margaret Lyon,  and Margaret Parre, who between them stated that a man had fallen ill after falling out with Isobel,  and that a woman who had refused her milk had experienced an unexplained pinch to her thigh. 

Outcome: Despite the scarcity of evidence or word against her and a plea of 'not guilty',  Isobel was found guilty of witchcraft and sentenced to death with the rest of the Pendle victims. She was hanged on 20th August,  1612.