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.

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