Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, by Walter Scott

Letter viii.

The Effects of the Witch Superstition are to be traced in the Laws of a Kingdom — Usually punished in England as a Crime connected with Politics — Attempt at Murder for Witchcraft not in itself Capital — Trials of Persons of Rank for Witchcraft, connected with State Crimes — Statutes of Henry viii — How Witchcraft was regarded by the three Leading Sects of Religion in the Sixteenth Century; first, by the Catholics; second, by the Calvinists; third, by the Church of England and Lutherans — Impostures unwarily countenanced by individual Catholic Priests, and also by some Puritanic Clergymen — Statute of 1562, and some cases upon it — Case of Dugdale — Case of the Witches of Warbois, and the execution of the Family of Samuel — That of Jane Wenham, in which some Church of England Clergymen insisted on the Prosecution — Hutchison’s Rebuke to them — James the First’s Opinion of Witchcraft — His celebrated Statute, 1 Jac. I. — Canon passed by the Convocation against Possession — Case of Mr. Fairfax’s Children — Lancashire Witches in 1613 — Another Discovery in 1634 — Webster’s Account of the manner in which the Imposture was managed — Superiority of the Calvinists is followed by a severe Prosecution of Witches — Executions in Suffolk, &c. to a dreadful extent — Hopkins, the pretended Witchfinder, the cause of these Cruelties — His Brutal Practices — His Letter — Execution of Mr. Lowis — Hopkins Punished — Restoration of Charles — Trial of Coxe — Of Dunny and Callendar before Lord Hales — Royal Society and Progress of Knowledge — Somersetshire Witches — Opinions of the Populace — A Woman Swum for Witchcraft at Oakly —— Murder at Tring — Act against Witchcraft abolished, and the belief in the Crime becomes forgotten — Witch Trials in New England — Dame Glover’s Trial — Affliction of the Parvises, and frightful Increase of the Prosecutions — Suddenly put a stop to — The Penitence of those concerned in them.

Our account of Demonology in England must naturally, as in every other country, depend chiefly on the instances which history contains of the laws and prosecutions against witchcraft. Other superstitions arose and decayed, were dreaded or despised, without greater embarrassment, in the provinces in which they have a temporary currency, than that cowards and children go out more seldom at night, while the reports of ghosts and fairies are peculiarly current. But when the alarm of witchcraft arises, Superstition dips her hand in the blood of the persons accused, and records in the annals of jurisprudence their trials and the causes alleged in vindication of their execution. Respecting other fantastic allegations, the proof is necessarily transient and doubtful, depending upon the inaccurate testimony of vague report and of doting tradition. But in cases of witchcraft we have before us the recorded evidence upon which judge and jury acted, and can form an opinion with some degree of certainty of the grounds, real or fanciful, on which they acquitted or condemned. It is, therefore, in tracing, this part of Demonology, with its accompanying circumstances, that we have the best chance of obtaining an accurate view of our subject.

The existence of witchcraft was, no doubt, received and credited in England, as in the countries on the Continent, and originally punished accordingly. But after the fourteenth century the practices which fell under such a description were thought unworthy of any peculiar animadversion, unless they were connected with something which would have been of itself a capital crime, by whatever means it had been either essayed or accomplished. Thus the supposed paction between a witch and the demon was perhaps deemed in itself to have terrors enough to prevent its becoming an ordinary crime, and was not, therefore, visited with any statutory penalty. But to attempt or execute bodily harm to others through means of evil spirits, or, in a word, by the black art, was actionable at common law as much as if the party accused had done the same harm with an arrow or pistol-shot. The destruction or abstraction of goods by the like instruments, supposing the charge proved, would, in like manner, be punishable. A fortiori, the consulting soothsayers, familiar spirits, or the like, and the obtaining and circulating pretended prophecies to the unsettlement of the State and the endangering of the King’s title, is yet a higher degree of guilt. And it may be remarked that the inquiry into the date of the King’s life bears a close affinity with the desiring or compassing the death of the Sovereign, which is the essence of high treason. Upon such charges repeated trials took place in the courts of the English, and condemnations were pronounced, with sufficient justice, no doubt, where the connexion between the resort to sorcerers and the design to perpetrate a felony could be clearly proved. We would not, indeed, be disposed to go the length of so high an authority as Selden, who pronounces (in his “Table–Talk”) that if a man heartily believed that he could take the life of another by waving his hat three times and crying Buzz! and should, under this fixed opinion, wave his hat and cry Buzz! accordingly, he ought to be executed as a murderer. But a false prophecy of the King’s death is not to be dealt with exactly on the usual principle; because, however idle in itself, the promulgation of such a prediction has, in times such as we are speaking of, a strong tendency to work its completion.

Many persons, and some of great celebrity, suffered for the charge of trafficking with witches, to the prejudice of those in authority. We have already mentioned the instance of the Duchess of Gloucester, in Henry the Sixth’s reign, and that of the Queen Dowager’s kinsmen, in the Protectorate of Richard, afterwards the Third. In 1521, the Duke of Buckingham was beheaded, owing much to his having listened to the predictions of one Friar Hopkins. In the same reign, the Maid of Kent, who had been esteemed a prophetess, was put to death as a cheat. She suffered with seven persons who had managed her fits for the support of the Catholic religion, and confessed her fraud upon the scaffold. About seven years after this, Lord Hungerford was beheaded for consulting certain soothsayers concerning the length of Henry the Eighth’s life. But these cases rather relate to the purpose for which the sorcery was employed, than to the fact of using it.

Two remarkable statutes were passed in the year 1541; one against false prophecies, the other against the act of conjuration, witchcraft, and sorcery, and at the same time against breaking and destroying crosses. The former enactment was certainly made to ease the suspicious and wayward fears of the tetchy King Henry. The prohibition against witchcraft might be also dictated by the king’s jealous doubts of hazard to the succession. The enactment against breaking crosses was obviously designed to check the ravages of the Reformers, who in England as well as elsewhere desired to sweep away Popery with the besom of destruction. This latter statute was abrogated in the first year of Edward VI., perhaps as placing an undue restraint on the zeal of good Protestants against idolatry.

At length, in 1562, a formal statute against sorcery, as penal in itself, was actually passed; but as the penalty was limited to the pillory for the first transgression, the legislature probably regarded those who might be brought to trial as impostors rather than wizards. There are instances of individuals tried and convicted as impostors and cheats, and who acknowledged themselves such before the court and people; but in their articles of visitation the prelates directed enquiry to be made after those who should use enchantments, witchcraft, sorcery, or any like craft, invented by the devil.

But it is here proper to make a pause for the purpose of enquiring in what manner the religious disputes which occupied all Europe about this time influenced the proceedings of the rival sects in relation to Demonology.

The Papal Church had long reigned by the proud and absolute humour which she had assumed, of maintaining every doctrine which her rulers had adopted in dark ages; but this pertinacity at length made her citadel too large to be defended at every point by a garrison whom prudence would have required to abandon positions which had been taken in times of darkness, and were unsuited to the warfare of a more enlightened age. The sacred motto of the Vatican was, “Vestigia nulla retrorsum;” and this rendered it impossible to comply with the more wise and moderate of her own party, who would otherwise have desired to make liberal concessions to the Protestants, and thus prevent, in its commencement, a formidable schism in the Christian world.

To the system of Rome the Calvinists offered the most determined opposition, affecting upon every occasion and on all points to observe an order of church-government, as well as of worship, expressly in the teeth of its enactments — in a word, to be a good Protestant, they held it almost essential to be in all things diametrically opposite to the Catholic form and faith. As the foundation of this sect was laid in republican states, as its clerical discipline was settled on a democratic basis, and as the countries which adopted that form of government were chiefly poor, the preachers having lost the rank and opulence enjoyed by the Roman Church, were gradually thrown on the support of the people. Insensibly they became occupied with the ideas and tenets natural to the common people, which, if they have usually the merit of being honestly conceived and boldly expressed, are not the less often adopted with credulity and precipitation, and carried into effect with unhesitating harshness and severity.

Betwixt these extremes the Churchmen of England endeavoured to steer a middle course, retaining a portion of the ritual and forms of Rome, as in themselves admirable, and at any rate too greatly venerated by the people to be changed merely for opposition’s sake. Their comparatively undilapidated revenue, the connexion of their system with the state, with views of ambition as ample as the station of a churchman ought to command, rendered them independent of the necessity of courting their flocks by any means save regular discharge of their duty; and the excellent provisions made for their education afforded them learning to confute ignorance and enlighten prejudice.

Such being the general character of the three Churches, their belief in and persecution of such crimes as witchcraft and sorcery were necessarily modelled upon the peculiar tenets which each system professed, and gave rise to various results in the countries where they were severally received.

The Church of Rome, as we have seen, was unwilling, in her period of undisputed power, to call in the secular arm to punish men for witchcraft — a crime which fell especially under ecclesiastical cognizance, and could, according to her belief, be subdued by the spiritual arm alone. The learned men at the head of the establishment might safely despise the attempt at those hidden arts as impossible; or, even if they were of a more credulous disposition, they might be unwilling to make laws by which their own enquiries in the mathematics, algebra, chemistry, and other pursuits vulgarly supposed to approach the confines of magic art, might be inconveniently restricted. The more selfish part of the priesthood might think that a general belief in the existence of witches should be permitted to remain, as a source both of power and of revenue — that if there were no possessions, there could be no exorcism-fees — and, in short, that a wholesome faith in all the absurdities of the vulgar creed as to supernatural influences was necessary to maintain the influence of Diana of Ephesus. They suffered spells to be manufactured, since every friar had the power of reversing them; they permitted poison to be distilled, because every convent had the antidote, which was disposed of to all who chose to demand it. It was not till the universal progress of heresy, in the end of the fifteenth century, that the bull of Pope Innocent VIII., already quoted, called to convict, imprison, and condemn the sorcerers, chiefly because it was the object to transfer the odium of these crimes to the Waldenses, and excite and direct the public hatred against the new sect by confounding their doctrines with the influences of the devil and his fiends. The bull of Pope Innocent was afterwards, in the year 1523, enforced by Adrian VI. with a new one, in which excommunication was directed against sorcerers and heretics.

While Rome thus positively declared herself against witches and sorcerers, the Calvinists, in whose numbers must be included the greater part of the English Puritans, who, though they had not finally severed from the communion of the Anglican Church, yet disapproved of her ritual and ceremonies as retaining too much of the Papal stamp, ranked themselves, in accordance with their usual policy, in diametrical opposition to the doctrine of the Mother Church. They assumed in the opposite sense whatever Rome pretended to as a proof of her omnipotent authority. The exorcisms, forms, and rites, by which good Catholics believed that incarnate fiends could be expelled and evil spirits of every kind rebuked — these, like the holy water, the robes of the priest, and the sign of the cross, the Calvinists considered either with scorn and contempt as the tools of deliberate quackery and imposture, or with horror and loathing, as the fit emblems and instruments of an idolatrous system.

Such of them as did not absolutely deny the supernatural powers of which the Romanists made boast, regarded the success of the exorcising priest, to whatever extent they admitted it, as at best a casting out of devils by the power of Beelzebub, the King of the Devils. They saw also, and resented bitterly, the attempt to confound any dissent from the doctrines of Rome with the proneness to an encouragement of rites of sorcery. On the whole, the Calvinists, generally speaking, were of all the contending sects the most suspicious of sorcery, the most undoubting believers in its existence, and the most eager to follow it up with what they conceived to be the due punishment of the most fearful of crimes.

The leading divines of the Church of England were, without doubt, fundamentally as much opposed to the doctrines of Rome as those who altogether disclaimed opinions and ceremonies merely because she had entertained them. But their position in society tended strongly to keep them from adopting, on such subjects as we are now discussing, either the eager credulity of the vulgar mind or the fanatic ferocity of their Calvinistic rivals. We have no purpose to discuss the matter in detail — enough has probably been said to show generally why the Romanist should have cried out a miracle respecting an incident which the Anglican would have contemptuously termed an imposture; while the Calvinist, inspired with a darker zeal, and, above all, with the unceasing desire of open controversy with the Catholics, would have styled the same event an operation of the devil.

It followed that, while the divines of the Church of England possessed the upper hand in the kingdom, witchcraft, though trials and even condemnations for that offence occasionally occurred, did not create that epidemic terror which the very suspicion of the offence carried with it elsewhere; so that Reginald Scot and others alleged it was the vain pretences and empty forms of the Church of Rome, by the faith reposed in them, which had led to the belief of witchcraft or sorcery in general. Nor did prosecutions on account of such charges frequently involve a capital punishment, while learned judges were jealous of the imperfection of the evidence to support the charge, and entertained a strong and growing suspicion that legitimate grounds for such trials seldom actually existed. On the other hand, it usually happened that wherever the Calvinist interest became predominant in Britain, a general persecution of sorcerers and witches seemed to take place of consequence. Fearing and hating sorcery more than other Protestants, connecting its ceremonies and usages with those of the detested Catholic Church, the Calvinists were more eager than other sects in searching after the traces of this crime, and, of course, unusually successful, as they might suppose, in making discoveries of guilt, and pursuing it to the expiation of the fagot. In a word, a principle already referred to by Dr. Francis Hutchison will be found to rule the tide and the reflux of such cases in the different churches. The numbers of witches, and their supposed dealings with Satan, will increase or decrease according as such doings are accounted probable or impossible. Under the former supposition, charges and convictions will be found augmented in a terrific degree. When the accusations are disbelieved and dismissed as not worthy of attention, the crime becomes unfrequent, ceases to occupy the public mind, and affords little trouble to the judges.

The passing of Elizabeth’s statute against witchcraft in 1562 does not seem to have been intended to increase the number of trials, or cases of conviction at least; and the fact is, it did neither the one nor the other. Two children were tried in 1574 for counterfeiting possession, and stood in the pillory for impostors. Mildred Norrington, called the Maid of Westwell, furnished another instance of possession; but she also confessed her imposture, and publicly showed her fits and tricks of mimicry. The strong influence already possessed by the Puritans may probably be sufficient to account for the darker issue of certain cases, in which both juries and judges in Elizabeth’s time must be admitted to have shown fearful severity.

These cases of possession were in some respects sore snares to the priests of the Church of Rome, who, while they were too sagacious not to be aware that the pretended fits, contortions, strange sounds, and other extravagances, produced as evidence of the demon’s influence on the possessed person, were nothing else than marks of imposture by some idle vagabond, were nevertheless often tempted to admit them as real, and take the credit of curing them. The period was one when the Catholic Church had much occasion to rally around her all the respect that remained to her in a schismatic and heretical kingdom; and when her fathers and doctors announced the existence of such a dreadful disease, and of the power of the church’s prayers, relics, and ceremonies, to cure it, it was difficult for a priest, supposing him more tender of the interest of his order than that of truth, to avoid such a tempting opportunity as a supposed case of possession offered for displaying the high privilege in which his profession made him a partaker, or to abstain from conniving at the imposture, in order to obtain for his church the credit of expelling the demon. It was hardly to be wondered at, if the ecclesiastic was sometimes induced to aid the fraud of which such motives forbade him to be the detector. At this he might hesitate the less, as he was not obliged to adopt the suspected and degrading course of holding an immediate communication in limine with the impostor, since a hint or two, dropped in the supposed sufferer’s presence, might give him the necessary information what was the most exact mode of performing his part, and if the patient was possessed by a devil of any acuteness or dexterity, he wanted no further instruction how to play it. Such combinations were sometimes detected, and brought more discredit on the Church of Rome than was counterbalanced by any which might be more cunningly managed. On this subject the reader may turn to Dr. Harsnett’s celebrated book on Popish Impostures, wherein he gives the history of several notorious cases of detected fraud, in which Roman ecclesiastics had not hesitated to mingle themselves. That of Grace Sowerbutts, instructed by a Catholic priest to impeach her grandmother of witchcraft, was a very gross fraud.

Such cases were not, however, limited to the ecclesiastics of Rome. We have already stated that, as extremes usually approach each other, the Dissenters, in their violent opposition to the Papists, adopted some of their ideas respecting demoniacs; and we have now to add that they also claimed, by the vehemence of prayer and the authority of their own sacred commission, that power of expelling devils which the Church of Rome pretended to exercise by rites, ceremonies, and relics. The memorable case of Richard Dugdale, called the Surrey Impostor, was one of the most remarkable which the Dissenters brought forward. This youth was supposed to have sold his soul to the devil, on condition of being made the best dancer in Lancashire, and during his possession played a number of fantastic tricks, not much different from those exhibited by expert posture-masters of the present day. This person threw himself into the hands of the Dissenters, who, in their eagerness, caught at an opportunity to relieve an afflicted person, whose case the regular clergy appeared to have neglected. They fixed a committee of their number, who weekly attended the supposed sufferer, and exercised themselves in appointed days of humiliation and fasting during the course of a whole year. All respect for the demon seems to have abandoned the reverend gentlemen, after they had relieved guard in this manner for some little time, and they got so regardless of Satan as to taunt him with the mode in which he executed his promise to teach his vassal dancing. The following specimen of raillery is worth commemoration:—“What, Satan! is this the dancing that Richard gave himself to thee for? &c. Canst thou dance no better? &c. Ransack the old records of all past times and places in thy memory; canst thou not there find out some better way of trampling? Pump thine invention dry; cannot the universal seed-plot of subtile wiles and stratagems spring up one new method of cutting capers? Is this the top of skill and pride, to shuffle feet and brandish knees thus, and to trip like a doe and skip like a squirrel? And wherein differ thy leapings from the hoppings of a frog, or the bouncings of a goat, or friskings of a dog, or gesticulations of a monkey? And cannot a palsy shake such a loose leg as that? Dost thou not twirl like a calf that hath the turn, and twitch up thy houghs just like a springhault tit?”54 One might almost conceive the demon replying to this raillery in the words of Dr. Johnson, “This merriment of parsons is extremely offensive.”

54 Hutchison on Witchcraft, p. 162.

The dissenters were probably too honest, however simple, to achieve a complete cure on Dugdale by an amicable understanding; so, after their year of vigil, they relinquished their task by degrees. Dugdale, weary of his illness, which now attracted little notice, attended a regular physician, and was cured of that part of his disease which was not affected in a regular way par ordonnance du médecin. But the reverend gentlemen who had taken his case in hand still assumed the credit of curing him, and if anything could have induced them to sing Te Deum, it would have been this occasion. They said that the effect of their public prayers had been for a time suspended, until seconded by the continued earnestness of their private devotions!

The ministers of the Church of England, though, from education, intercourse with the world, and other advantages, they were less prone to prejudice than those of other sects, are yet far from being entirely free of the charge of encouraging in particular instances the witch superstition. Even while Dr. Hutchison pleads that the Church of England has the least to answer for in that matter, he is under the necessity of acknowledging that some regular country clergymen so far shared the rooted prejudices of congregations, and of the government which established laws against it, as to be active in the persecution of the suspected, and even in countenancing the superstitious signs by which in that period the vulgar thought it possible to ascertain the existence of the afflictions by witchcraft, and obtain the knowledge of the perpetrator. A singular case is mentioned of three women, called the Witches of Warbois. Indeed, their story is a matter of solemn enough record; for Sir Samuel Cromwell, having received the sum of forty pounds as lord of the manor, out of the estate of the poor persons who suffered, turned it into a rent-charge of forty shillings yearly, for the endowment of an annual lecture on the subject of witchcraft, to be preached by a doctor or bachelor of divinity of Queen’s College, Cambridge. The accused, one Samuel and his wife, were old and very poor persons, and their daughter a young woman. The daughter of a Mr. Throgmorton, seeing the poor old woman in a black knitted cap, at a time when she was not very well, took a whim that she had bewitched her, and was ever after exclaiming against her. The other children of this fanciful family caught up the same cry, and the eldest of them at last got up a vastly pretty drama, in which she herself furnished all the scenes and played all the parts.

Such imaginary scenes, or make-believe stories, are the common amusement of lively children; and most readers may remember having had some Utopia of their own. But the nursery drama of Miss Throgmorton had a horrible conclusion. This young lady and her sisters were supposed to be haunted by nine spirits, dispatched by the wicked Mother Samuel for that purpose. The sapient parents heard one part of the dialogue, when the children in their fits returned answers, as was supposed, to the spirits who afflicted them; and when the patients from time to time recovered, they furnished the counterpart by telling what the spirits had said to them. The names of the spirits were Pluck, Hardname, Catch, Blue, and three Smacks, who were cousins. Mrs. Joan Throgmorton, the eldest (who, like other young women of her age, about fifteen, had some disease on her nerves, and whose fancy ran apparently on love and gallantry), supposed that one of the Smacks was her lover, did battle for her with the less friendly spirits, and promised to protect her against Mother Samuel herself; and the following curious extract will show on what a footing of familiarity the damsel stood with her spiritual gallant: “From whence come you, Mr. Smack?” says the afflicted young lady; “and what news do you bring?” Smack, nothing abashed, informed her he came from fighting with Pluck: the weapons, great cowl-staves; the scene, a ruinous bakehouse in Dame Samuel’s yard. “And who got the mastery, I pray you?” said the damsel. Smack answered, he had broken Pluck’s head. “I would,” said the damsel, “he had broken your neck also.” “Is that the thanks I am to have for my labour?” said the disappointed Smack. “Look you for thanks at my hand?” said the distressed maiden. “I would you were all hanged up against each other, with your dame for company, for you are all naught.” On this repulse, exit Smack, and enter Pluck, Blue, and Catch, the first with his head broken, the other limping, and the third with his arm in a sling, all trophies of Smack’s victory. They disappeared after having threatened vengeance upon the conquering Smack. However, he soon afterwards appeared with his laurels. He told her of his various conflicts. “I wonder,” said Mrs. Joan, or Jane, “that you are able to beat them; you are little, and they very big.” “He cared not for that,” he replied; “he would beat the best two of them, and his cousins Smacks would beat the other two.” This most pitiful mirth, for such it certainly is, was mixed with tragedy enough. Miss Throgmorton and her sisters railed against Darne Samuel; and when Mr. Throgmorton brought her to his house by force, the little fiends longed to draw blood of her, scratch her, and torture her, as the witch-creed of that period recommended; yet the poor woman incurred deeper suspicion when she expressed a wish to leave a house where she was so coarsely treated and lay under such odious suspicions.

It was in vain that this unhappy creature endeavoured to avert their resentment by submitting to all the ill-usage they chose to put upon her; in vain that she underwent unresistingly the worst usage at the hand of Lady Cromwell, her landlady, who, abusing her with the worst epithets, tore her cap from her head, clipped out some of her hair, and gave it to Mrs. Throgmorton to burn it for a counter-charm. Nay, Mother Samuel’s complaisance in the latter case only led to a new charge. It happened that the Lady Cromwell, on her return home, dreamed of her day’s work, and especially of the old dame and her cat; and, as her ladyship died in a year and quarter from that very day, it was sagaciously concluded that she must have fallen a victim to the witcheries of the terrible Dame Samuel. Mr. Throgmorton also compelled the old woman and her daughter to use expressions which put their lives in the power of these malignant children, who had carried on the farce so long that they could not well escape from their own web of deceit but by the death of these helpless creatures. For example, the prisoner, Dame Samuel, was induced to say to the supposed spirit, “As I am a witch, and a causer of Lady Cromwell’s death, I charge thee to come out of the maiden.” The girl lay still; and this was accounted a proof that the poor woman, who, only subdued and crushed by terror and tyranny, did as she was bidden, was a witch. One is ashamed of an English judge and jury when it must be repeated that the evidence of these enthusiastic and giddy-pated girls was deemed sufficient to the condemnation of three innocent persons. Goody Samuel, indeed, was at length worried into a confession of her guilt by the various vexations which were practised on her. But her husband and daughter continued to maintain their innocence. The last showed a high spirit and proud value for her character. She was advised by some, who pitied her youth, to gain at least a respite by pleading pregnancy; to which she answered disdainfully, “No, I will not be both held witch and strumpet!” The mother, to show her sanity of mind and the real value of her confession, caught at the advice recommended to her daughter. As her years put such a plea out of the question, there was a laugh among the unfeeling audience, in which the poor old victim joined loudly and heartily. Some there were who thought it no joking matter, and were inclined to think they had a Joanna Southcote before them, and that the devil must be the father. These unfortunate Samuels were condemned at Huntingdon, before Mr. Justice Fenner, 4th April, 1593. It was a singular case to be commemorated by an annual lecture, as provided by Sir Samuel Cromwell, for the purposes of justice were never so perverted, nor her sword turned to a more flagrant murder.

We may here mention, though mainly for the sake of contrast, the much-disputed case of Jane Wenham, the Witch of Walkerne, as she was termed, which was of a much later date. Some of the country clergy were carried away by the land-flood of superstition in this instance also and not only encouraged the charge, but gave their countenance to some of the ridiculous and indecent tricks resorted to as proofs of witchcraft by the lowest vulgar. But the good sense of the judge, seconded by that of other reflecting and sensible persons, saved the country from the ultimate disgrace attendant on too many of these unhallowed trials. The usual sort of evidence was brought against this poor woman, by pretences of bewitched persons vomiting fire — a trick very easy to those who chose to exhibit such a piece of jugglery amongst such as rather desire to be taken in by it than to detect the imposture. The witchfinder practised upon her the most vulgar and ridiculous tricks or charms; and out of a perverted examination they drew what they called a confession, though of a forced and mutilated character. Under such proof the jury brought her in guilty, and she was necessarily condemned to die. More fortunate, however, than many persons placed in the like circumstances, Jane Wenham was tried before a sensible and philosophic judge, who could not understand that the life of an Englishwoman, however mean, should be taken away by a set of barbarous tricks and experiments, the efficacy of which depended on popular credulity. He reprieved the witch before he left the assize-town. The rest of the history is equally a contrast to some we have told and others we shall have to recount. A humane and high-spirited gentleman, Colonel Plummer of Gilston, putting at defiance popular calumny, placed the poor old woman in a small house near his own and under his immediate protection. Here she lived and died, in honest and fair reputation, edifying her visitors by her accuracy and attention in repeating her devotions; and, removed from her brutal and malignant neighbours, never afterwards gave the slightest cause of suspicion or offence till her dying day. As this was one of the last cases of conviction in England, Dr Hutchison has been led to dilate upon it with some strength of eloquence as well as argument.

He thus expostulates with some of the better class who were eager for the prosecution:—"(1) What single fact of sorcery did this Jane Wenham do? What charm did she use, or what act of witchcraft could you prove upon her? Laws are against evil actions that can be proved to be of the person’s doing. What single fact that was against the statute could you fix upon her? I ask (2) Did she so much as speak an imprudent word, or do an immoral action, that you could put into the narrative of her case? When she was denied a few turnips, she laid them down very submissively; when she was called witch and bitch, she only took the proper means for the vindication of her good name; when she saw this storm coming upon her she locked herself in her own house and tried to keep herself out of your cruel hands; when her door was broken open, and you gave way to that barbarous usage that she met with, she protested her innocence, fell upon her knees, and begged she might not go to gaol, and, in her innocent simplicity, would have let you swim her; and at her trial she declared herself a clear woman. This was her behaviour. And what could any of us have done better, excepting in that case where she complied with you too much, and offered to let you swim her?

“(3) When you used the meanest of paganish and popish superstitions — when you scratched and mangled and ran pins into her flesh, and used that ridiculous trial of the bottle, &c. — whom did you consult, and from whom did you expect your answers? Who was your father? and into whose hands did you put yourselves? and (if the true sense of the statute had been turned upon you) which way would you have defended yourselves? (4) Durst you have used her in this manner if she had been rich? and doth not her poverty increase rather than lessen your guilt in what you did?

“And therefore, instead of closing your book with a liberavimus animas nostras, and reflecting upon the court, I ask you (5) Whether you have not more reason to give God thanks that you met with a wise judge, and a sensible gentleman, who kept you from shedding innocent blood, and reviving the meanest and cruelest of all superstitions amongst us?”55

55 Hutchison’s “Essay on Witchcraft,” p. 166.

But although individuals of the English Church might on some occasions be justly accused of falling into lamentable errors on a subject where error was so general, it was not an usual point of their professional character; and it must be admitted that the most severe of the laws against witchcraft originated with a Scottish King of England, and that the only extensive persecution following that statute occurred during the time of the Civil Wars, when the Calvinists obtained for a short period a predominating influence in the councils of Parliament.

James succeeded to Elizabeth amidst the highest expectations on the part of his new people, who, besides their general satisfaction at coming once more under the rule of a king, were also proud of his supposed abilities and real knowledge of books and languages, and were naturally, though imprudently, disposed to gratify him by deferring to his judgment in matters wherein his studies were supposed to have rendered him a special proficient. Unfortunately, besides the more harmless freak of becoming a prentice in the art of poetry, by which words and numbers were the only sufferers, the monarch had composed a deep work upon Demonology, embracing in their fullest extent the most absurd and gross of the popular errors on this subject. He considered his crown and life as habitually aimed at by the sworn slaves of Satan. Several had been executed for an attempt to poison him by magical arts; and the turbulent Francis Stewart, Earl of Bothwell, whose repeated attempts on his person had long been James’s terror, had begun his course of rebellion by a consultation with the weird sisters and soothsayers. Thus the king, who had proved with his pen the supposed sorcerers to be the direct enemies of the Deity, and who conceived he knew them from experience to be his own — who, moreover, had upon much lighter occasions (as in the case of Vorstius) showed no hesitation at throwing his royal authority into the scale to aid his arguments — very naturally used his influence, when it was at the highest, to extend and enforce the laws against a crime which he both hated and feared.

The English statute against witchcraft, passed in the very first year of that reign, is therefore of a most special nature, describing witchcraft by all the various modes and ceremonies in which, according to King James’s fancy, that crime could be perpetrated; each of which was declared felony, without benefit of clergy.

This gave much wider scope to prosecution on the statute than had existed under the milder acts of Elizabeth. Men might now be punished for the practice of witchcraft, as itself a crime, without necessary reference to the ulterior objects of the perpetrator. It is remarkable that in the same year, when the legislature rather adopted the passions and fears of the king than expressed their own by this fatal enactment, the Convocation of the Church evinced a very different spirit; for, seeing the ridicule brought on their sacred profession by forward and presumptuous men, in the attempt to relieve demoniacs from a disease which was commonly occasioned by natural causes, if not the mere creature of imposture, they passed a canon, establishing that no minister or ministers should in future attempt to expel any devil or devils, without the license of his bishop; thereby virtually putting a stop to a fertile source of knavery among the people, and disgraceful folly among the inferior churchmen.

The new statute of James does not, however, appear to have led at first to many prosecutions. One of the most remarkable was (proh pudor!) instigated by a gentleman, a scholar of classical taste, and a beautiful poet, being no other than Edward Fairfax of Fayston, in Knaresborough Forest, the translator of Tasso’s “Jerusalem Delivered.” In allusion to his credulity on such subjects, Collins has introduced the following elegant lines:—

“How have I sate while piped the pensive wind,

To hear thy harp, by British Fairfax strung;

Prevailing poet, whose undoubting mind

Believed the magic wonders which he sung!”

Like Mr. Throgmorton in the Warbois case, Mr. Fairfax accused six of his neighbours of tormenting his children by fits of an extraordinary kind, by imps, and by appearing before the afflicted in their own shape during the crisis of these operations. The admitting this last circumstance to be a legitimate mode of proof, gave a most cruel advantage against the accused, for it could not, according to the ideas of the demonologists, be confuted even by the most distinct alibi. To a defence of that sort it was replied that the afflicted person did not see the actual witch, whose corporeal presence must indeed have been obvious to every one in the room as well as to the afflicted, but that the evidence of the sufferers related to the appearance of their spectre, or apparition; and this was accounted a sure sign of guilt in those whose forms were so manifested during the fits of the afflicted, and who were complained of and cried out upon by the victim. The obvious tendency of this doctrine, as to visionary or spectral evidence, as it was called, was to place the life and fame of the accused in the power of any hypochondriac patient or malignant impostor, who might either seem to see, or aver she saw, the spectrum of the accused old man or old woman, as if enjoying and urging on the afflictions which she complained of; and, strange to tell, the fatal sentence was to rest, not upon the truth of the witnesses’ eyes, but that of their imagination. It happened fortunately for Fairfax’s memory, that the objects of his prosecution were persons of good character, and that the judge was a man of sense, and made so wise and skilful a charge to the jury, that they brought in a verdict of not guilty.

The celebrated case of “the Lancashire witches” (whose name was and will be long remembered, partly from Shadwell’s play, but more from the ingenious and well-merited compliment to the beauty of the females of that province which it was held to contain), followed soon after. Whether the first notice of this sorcery sprung from the idle head of a mischievous boy, is uncertain; but there is no doubt that it was speedily caught up and fostered for the purpose of gain. The original story ran thus:—

These Lancaster trials were at two periods, the one in 1613, before Sir James Altham and Sir Edward Bromley, Barons of Exchequer, when nineteen witches were tried at once at Lancaster, and another of the name of Preston at York. The report against these people is drawn up by Thomas Potts. An obliging correspondent sent me a sight of a copy of this curious and rare book. The chief personage in the drama is Elizabeth Southam, a witch redoubted under the name of Dembdike, an account of whom may be seen in Mr. Roby’s “Antiquities of Lancaster,” as well as a description of Maulkins’ Tower, the witches’ place of meeting. It appears that this remote county was full of Popish recusants, travelling priests, and so forth; and some of their spells are given in which the holy names and things alluded to form a strange contrast with the purpose to which they were applied, as to secure a good brewing of ale or the like. The public imputed to the accused parties a long train of murders, conspiracies, charms, mischances, hellish and damnable practices, “apparent,” says the editor, “on their own examinations and confessions,” and, to speak the truth, visible nowhere else. Mother Dembdike had the good luck to die before conviction. Among other tales, we have one of two female devils, called Fancy and Tib. It is remarkable that some of the unfortunate women endeavoured to transfer the guilt from themselves to others with whom they had old quarrels, which confessions were held good evidence against those who made them, and against the alleged accomplice also. Several of the unhappy women were found not guilty, to the great displeasure of the ignorant people of the county. Such was the first edition of the Lancashire witches. In that which follows the accusation can be more clearly traced to the most villanous conspiracy.

About 1634 a boy called Edmund Robinson, whose father, a very poor man, dwelt in Pendle Forest, the scene of the alleged witching, declared that while gathering bullees (wild plums, perhaps) in one of the glades of the forest, he saw two greyhounds, which he imagined to belong to gentlemen in that neighbourhood. The boy reported that, seeing nobody following them, he proposed to have a course; but though a hare was started, the dogs refused to run. On this, young Robinson was about to punish them with a switch, when one Dame Dickenson, a neighbour’s wife, started up instead of the one greyhound; a little boy instead of the other. The witness averred that Mother Dickenson offered him money to conceal what he had seen, which he refused, saying “Nay, thou art a witch.” Apparently she was determined he should have full evidence of the truth of what he said, for, like the Magician Queen in the Arabian Tales, she pulled out of her pocket a bridle and shook it over the head of the boy who had so lately represented the other greyhound. He was directly changed into a horse; Mother Dickenson mounted, and took Robinson before her. They then rode to a large house or barn called Hourstoun, into which Edmund Robinson entered with others. He there saw six or seven persons pulling at halters, from which, as they pulled them, meat ready dressed came flying in quantities, together with lumps of butter, porringers of milk, and whatever else might, in the boy’s fancy, complete a rustic feast. He declared that while engaged in the charm they made such ugly faces and looked so fiendish that he was frightened. There was more to the same purpose — as the boy’s having seen one of these hags sitting half-way up his father’s chimney, and some such goodly matter. But it ended in near a score of persons being committed to prison; and the consequence was that young Robinson was carried from church to church in the neighbourhood, that he might recognise the faces of any persons he had seen at the rendezvous of witches. Old Robinson, who had been an evidence against the former witches in 1613, went along with his son, and knew, doubtless, how to make his journey profitable; and his son probably took care to recognise none who might make a handsome consideration. “This boy,” says Webster, “was brought into the church at Kildwick, a parish church, where I, being then curate there, was preaching at the time, to look about him, which made some little disturbance for the time.” After prayers Mr. Webster sought and found the boy, and two very unlikely persons, who, says he, “did conduct him and manage the business: I did desire some discourse with the boy in private, but that they utterly denied. In the presence of a great many many people I took the boy near me and said, ‘Good boy, tell me truly and in earnest, didst thou hear and see such strange things of the motions of the witches as many do report that thou didst relate, or did not some person teach thee to say such things of thyself?’ But the two men did pluck the boy from me, and said he had been examined by two able justices of peace, and they never asked him such a question. To whom I replied, ‘The persons accused had the more wrong.’” The boy afterwards acknowledged, in his more advanced years, that he was instructed and suborned to swear these things against the accused persons by his father and others, and was heard often to confess that on the day which he pretended to see the said witches at the house or barn, he was gathering plums in a neighbour’s orchard.56

56 Webster on Witchcraft, edition 1677, p. 278.

There was now approaching a time when the law against witchcraft, sufficiently bloody in itself, was to be pushed to more violent extremities than the quiet scepticism of the Church of England clergy gave way to. The great Civil War had been preceded and anticipated by the fierce disputes of the ecclesiastical parties. The rash and ill-judged attempt to enforce upon the Scottish a compliance with the government and ceremonies of the High Church divines, and the severe prosecutions in the Star Chamber and Prerogative Courts, had given the Presbyterian system for a season a great degree of popularity in England; and as the King’s party declined during the Civil War, and the state of church-government was altered, the influence of the Calvinistic divines increased. With much strict morality and pure practice of religion, it is to be regretted these were still marked by unhesitating belief in the existence of sorcery, and a keen desire to extend and enforce the legal penalties against it. Wier has considered the clergy of every sect as being too eager in this species of persecution: Ad gravem hanc impietatem, connivent theologi plerique omnes. But it is not to be denied that the Presbyterian ecclesiastics who, in Scotland, were often appointed by the Privy Council Commissioners for the trial of witchcraft, evinced a very extraordinary degree of credulity in such cases, and that the temporary superiority of the same sect in England was marked by enormous cruelties of this kind. To this general error we must impute the misfortune that good men, such as Calamy and Baxter, should have countenanced or defended such proceedings as those of the impudent and cruel wretch called Matthew Hopkins, who, in those unsettled times, when men did what seemed good in their own eyes, assumed the title of Witchfinder General, and, travelling through the counties of Essex, Sussex, Norfolk, and Huntingdon, pretended to discover witches, superintending their examination by the most unheard-of tortures, and compelling forlorn and miserable wretches to admit and confess matters equally absurd and impossible; the issue of which was the forfeiture of their lives. Before examining these cases more minutely, I will quote Baxter’s own words; for no one can have less desire to wrong a devout and conscientious man, such as that divine most unquestionably was, though borne aside on this occasion by prejudice and credulity.

“The hanging of a great number of witches in 1645 and 1646 is famously known. Mr. Calamy went along with the judges on the circuit to hear their confessions, and see there was no fraud or wrong done them. I spoke with many understanding, pious, learned, and credible persons that lived in the counties, and some that went to them in the prisons, and heard their sad confessions. Among the rest an old reading parson, named Lowis, not far from Framlingham, was one that was hanged, who confessed that he had two imps, and that one of them was always putting him upon doing mischief; and he, being near the sea, as he saw a ship under sail, it moved him to send it to sink the ship; and he consented, and saw the ship sink before them.” Mr. Baxter passes on to another story of a mother who gave her child an imp like a mole, and told her to keep it in a can near the fire, and she would never want; and more such stuff as nursery-maids tell froward children to keep them quiet.

It is remarkable that in this passage Baxter names the Witchfinder General rather slightly as “one Hopkins,” and without doing him the justice due to one who had discovered more than one hundred witches, and brought them to confessions, which that good man received as indubitable. Perhaps the learned divine was one of those who believed that the Witchfinder General had cheated the devil out of a certain memorandum-book, in which Satan, for the benefit of his memory certainly, had entered all the witches’ names in England, and that Hopkins availed himself of this record.57

57 This reproach is noticed in a very rare tract, which was bought at Mr. Lort’s sale, by the celebrated collector Mr. Bindley, and is now in the author’s possession. Its full title is, “The Discovery of Witches, in Answer to several Queries lately delivered to the Judge of Assize for the County of Norfolk; and now published by Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder, for the Benefit of the whole Kingdom. Printed for R. Royston, at the Angel, in Inn Lane. 1647.”

It may be noticed that times of misrule and violence seem to create individuals fitted to take advantage from them, and having a character suited to the seasons which raise them into notice and action; just as a blight on any tree or vegetable calls to life a peculiar insect to feed upon and enjoy the decay which it has produced. A monster like Hopkins could only have existed during the confusion of civil dissension. He was perhaps a native of Manningtree, in Essex; at any rate, he resided there in the year 1644, when an epidemic outcry of witchcraft arose in that town. Upon this occasion he had made himself busy, and, affecting more zeal and knowledge than other men, learned his trade of a witchfinder, as he pretends, from experiment. He was afterwards permitted to perform it as a legal profession, and moved from one place to another, with an assistant named Sterne, and a female. In his defence against an accusation of fleecing the country, he declares his regular charge was twenty shillings a town, including charges of living and journeying thither and back again with his assistants. He also affirms that he went nowhere unless called and invited. His principal mode of discovery was to strip the accused persons naked, and thrust pins into various parts of their body, to discover the witch’s mark, which was supposed to be inflicted by the devil as a sign of his sovereignty, and at which she was also said to suckle her imps. He also practised and stoutly defended the trial by swimming, when the suspected person was wrapped in a sheet, having the great toes and thumbs tied together, and so dragged through a pond or river. If she sank, it was received in favour of the accused; but if the body floated (which must have occurred ten times for once, if it was placed with care on the surface of the water), the accused was condemned, on the principle of King James, who, in treating of this mode of trial, lays down that, as witches have renounced their baptism, so it is just that the element through which the holy rite is enforced should reject them, which is a figure of speech, and no argument. It was Hopkins’s custom to keep the poor wretches waking, in order to prevent them from having encouragement from the devil, and, doubiless, to put infirm, terrified, overwatched persons in the next state to absolute madness; and for the same purpose they were dragged about by their keepers till extreme weariness and the pain of blistered feet might form additional inducements to confession. Hopkins confesses these last practices of keeping the accused persons waking, and forcing them to walk for the same purpose, had been originally used by him. But as his tract is a professed answer to charges of cruelty and oppression, he affirms that both practices were then disused, and that they had not of late been resorted to.

The boast of the English nation is a manly independence and common-sense, which will not long permit the license of tyranny or oppression on the meanest and most obscure sufferers. Many clergymen and gentlemen made head against the practices of this cruel oppressor of the defenceless, and it required courage to do so when such an unscrupulous villain had so much interest.

Mr. Gaul, a clergyman, of Houghton, in Huntingdonshire, had the courage to appear in print on the weaker side; and Hopkins, in consequence, assumed the assurance to write to some functionaries of the place the following letter, which is an admirable medley of impudence, bullying, and cowardice:—

“My service to your worship presented. — I have this day received a letter to come to a town called Great Houghton to search for evil-disposed persons called witches (though I hear your minister is far against us, through ignorance). I intend to come, God willing, the sooner to hear his singular judgment in the behalf of such parties. I have known a minister in Suffolk as much against this discovery in a pulpit, and forced to recant it by the Committee58 in the same place. I much marvel such evil men should have any (much more any of the clergy, who should daily speak terror to convince such offenders) stand up to take their parts against such as are complainants for the king, and sufferers themselves, with their families and estates. I intend to give your town a visit suddenly. I will come to Kimbolton this week, and it will be ten to one but I will come to your town first; but I would certainly know before whether your town affords many sticklers for such cattle, or is willing to give and allow us good welcome and entertainment, as others where I have been, else I shall waive your shire (not as yet beginning in any part of it myself), and betake me to such places where I do and may punish (not only) without control, but with thanks and recompense. So I humbly take my leave, and rest your servant to be commanded,


58 Of Parliament.

The sensible and courageous Mr. Gaul describes the tortures employed by this fellow as equal to any practised in the Inquisition. “Having taken the suspected witch, she is placed in the middle of a room, upon a stool or table, cross-legged, or in some other uneasy posture, to which, if she submits not, she is then bound with cords; there she is watched and kept without meat or sleep for four-and-twenty hours, for, they say, they shall within that time see her imp come and suck. A little hole is likewise made in the door for the imps to come in at; and lest they should come in some less discernible shape, they that watch are taught to be ever and anon sweeping the room, and if they see any spiders or flies, to kill them; and if they cannot kill them, they may be sure they are their imps.”

If torture of this kind was applied to the Reverend Mr. Lewis, whose death is too slightly announced by Mr. Baxter, we can conceive him, or any man, to have indeed become so weary of his life as to acknowledge that, by means of his imps, he sunk a vessel, without any purpose of gratification to be procured to himself by such iniquity. But in another cause a judge would have demanded some proof of the corpus delecti, some evidence of a vessel being lost at the period, whence coming and whither bound; in short, something to establish that the whole story was not the idle imagination of a man who might have been entirely deranged, and certainly was so at the time he made the admission. John Lewis was presented to the vicarage of Brandiston, near Framlington, in Suffolk, 6th May, 1596, where he lived about fifty years, till executed as a wizard on such evidence as we have seen. Notwithstanding the story of his alleged confession, he defended himself courageously at his trial, and was probably condemned rather as a royalist and malignant than for any other cause. He showed at the execution considerable energy, and to secure that the funeral service of the church should be said over his body, he read it aloud for himself while on the road to the gibbet.

We have seen that in 1647 Hopkins’s tone became lowered, and he began to disavow some of the cruelties he had formerly practised. About the same time a miserable old woman had fallen into the cruel hands of this miscreant near Hoxne, a village in Suffolk, and had confessed all the usual enormities, after being without food or rest a sufficient time. “Her imp,” she said, “was called Nan.” A gentleman in the neighbourhood, whose widow survived to authenticate the story, was so indignant that he went to the house, took the woman out of such inhuman hands, dismissed the witchfinders, and after due food and rest the poor old woman could recollect nothing of the confession, but that she gave a favourite pullet the name of Nan. For this Dr. Hutchison may be referred to, who quotes a letter from the relict of the humane gentleman.

In the year 1645 a Commission of Parliament was sent down, comprehending two clergymen in esteem with the leading party, one of whom, Mr. Fairclough of Kellar, preached before the rest on the subject of witchcraft; and after this appearance of enquiry the inquisitions and executions went on as before. But the popular indignation was so strongly excited against Hopkins, that some gentlemen seized on him, and put him to his own favourite experiment of swimming, on which, as he happened to float, he stood convicted of witchcraft, and so the country was rid of him. Whether he was drowned outright or not does not exactly appear, but he has had the honour to be commemorated by the author of Hudibras:—

“Hath not this present Parliament

A leiger to the devil sent,

Fully empower’d to treat about

Finding revolted witches out?

And has he not within a year

Hang’d threescore of them in one shire?

Some only for not being drown’d,

And some for sitting above ground

Whole days and nights upon their breeches,

And feeling pain, were hang’d for witches.

And some for putting knavish tricks

Upon green geese or turkey chicks;

Or pigs that suddenly deceased

Of griefs unnatural, as he guess’d,

Who proved himself at length a witch,

And made a rod for his own breech.” 59

59 “Hudibras,” part ii. canto 3.

The understanding reader will easily conceive that this alteration of the current in favour of those who disapproved of witch-prosecutions, must have received encouragement from some quarter of weight and influence; yet it may sound strangely enough that this spirit of lenity should have been the result of the peculiar principles of those sectarians of all denominations, classed in general as Independents, who, though they had originally courted the Presbyterians as the more numerous and prevailing party, had at length shaken themselves loose of that connexion, and finally combated with and overcome them. The Independents were distinguished by the wildest license in their religious tenets, mixed with much that was nonsensical and mystical. They disowned even the title of a regular clergy, and allowed the preaching of any one who could draw together a congregation that would support him, or who was willing, without recompense, to minister to the spiritual necessities of his hearers. Although such laxity of discipline afforded scope to the wildest enthusiasm, and room for all possible varieties of doctrine, it had, on the other hand, this inestimable recommendation, that it contributed to a degree of general toleration which was at that time unknown to any other Christian establishment. The very genius of a religion which admitted of the subdivision of sects ad infinitum, excluded a legal prosecution of any one of these for heresy or apostasy. If there had even existed a sect of Manichæans, who made it their practice to adore the Evil Principle, it may be doubted whether the other sectaries would have accounted them absolute outcasts from the pale of the church; and, fortunately, the same sentiment induced them to regard with horror the prosecutions against witchcraft. Thus the Independents, when, under Cromwell, they attained a supremacy over the Presbyterians, who to a certain point had been their allies, were disposed to counteract the violence of such proceedings under pretence of witchcraft, as had been driven forward by the wretched Hopkins, in Essex, Norfolk, and Suffolk, for three or four years previous to 1647.

The return of Charles II. to his crown and kingdom, served in some measure to restrain the general and wholesale manner in which the laws against witchcraft had been administered during the warmth of the Civil War. The statute of the 1st of King James, nevertheless, yet subsisted; nor is it in the least likely, considering the character of the prince, that he, to save the lives of a few old men or women, would have run the risk of incurring the odium of encouraging or sparing a crime still held in horror by a great part of his subjects. The statute, however, was generally administered by wise and skilful judges, and the accused had such a chance of escape as the rigour of the absurd law permitted.

Nonsense, it is too obvious, remained in some cases predominant. In the year 1663 an old dame, named Julian Coxe, was convicted chiefly on the evidence of a huntsman, who declared on his oath, that he laid his greyhounds on a hare, and coming up to the spot where he saw them mouth her, there he found, on the other side of a bush, Julian Coxe lying panting and breathless, in such a manner as to convince him that she had been the creature which afforded him the course. The unhappy woman was executed on this evidence.

Two years afterwards (1664), it is with regret we must quote the venerable and devout Sir Matthew Hales, as presiding at a trial, in consequence of which Amy Dunny and Rose Callender were hanged at Saint Edmondsbury. But no man, unless very peculiarly circumstanced, can extricate himself from the prejudices of his nation and age. The evidence against the accused was laid, 1st, on the effect of spells used by ignorant persons to counteract the supposed witchcraft; the use of which was, under the statute of James I., as criminal as the act of sorcery which such counter-charms were meant to neutralize, 2ndly, The two old women, refused even the privilege of purchasing some herrings, having expressed themselves with angry impatience, a child of the herring-merchant fell ill in conseqence. 3rdly, A cart was driven against the miserable cottage of Amy Dunny. She scolded, of course; and shortly after the cart —(what a good driver will scarce comprehend)— stuck fast in a gate, where its wheels touched neither of the posts, and yet was moved easily forward on one of the posts (by which it was not impeded) being cut down. 4thly, One of the afflicted girls being closely muffled, went suddenly into a fit upon being touched by one of the supposed witches. But upon another trial it was found that the person so blindfolded fell into the same rage at the touch of an unsuspected person. What perhaps sealed the fate of the accused was the evidence of the celebrated Sir Thomas Browne, “that the fits were natural, but heightened by the power of the devil co-operating with the malice of witches;"— a strange opinion, certainly, from the author of a treatise on “Vulgar Errors!”60

60 See the account of Sir T. Browne in No. XIV. of the “Family Library” (“Lives of British Physicians”), p. 60.

But the torch of science was now fairly lighted, and gleamed in more than one kingdom of the world, shooting its rays on every side, and catching at all means which were calculated to increase the illumination. The Royal Society, which had taken its rise at Oxford from a private association who met in Dr. Wilkin’s chambers about the year 1652, was, the year after the Restoration, incorporated by royal charter, and began to publish their Transactions, and give a new and more rational character to the pursuits of philosophy.

In France, where the mere will of the government could accomplish greater changes, the consequence of an enlarged spirit of scientific discovery was, that a decisive stop was put to the witch-prosecutions which had heretofore been as common in that kingdom as in England. About the year 1672 there was a general arrest of very many shepherds and others in Normandy, and the Parliament of Rouen prepared to proceed in the investigation with the usual severity. But an order, or arret, from the king (Louis XIV.), with advice of his council, commanding all these unfortunate persons to be set at liberty and protected, had the most salutary effects all over the kingdom. The French Academy of Sciences was also founded; and, in imitation, a society of learned Germans established a similar institution at Leipsic. Prejudices, however old, were overawed and controlled — much was accounted for on natural principles that had hitherto been imputed to spiritual agency — everything seemed to promise that farther access to the secrets of nature might be opened to those who should prosecute their studies experimentally and by analysis — and the mass of ancient opinions which overwhelmed the dark subject of which we treat began to be derided and rejected by men of sense and education.

In many cases the prey was now snatched from the spoiler. A pragmatical justice of peace in Somersetshire commenced a course of enquiry after offenders against the statute of James I., and had he been allowed to proceed, Mr. Hunt might have gained a name as renowned for witch-finding as that of Mr. Hopkins; but his researches were stopped from higher authority — the lives of the poor people arrested (twelve in number) were saved, and the country remained at quiet, though the supposed witches were suffered to live. The examinations attest some curious particulars, which may be found in Sadducismus Triumphatus: for among the usual string of froward, fanciful, or, as they were called, afflicted children, brought forward to club their startings, starings, and screamings, there appeared also certain remarkable confessions of the accused, from which we learn that the Somerset Satan enlisted his witches, like a wily recruiting sergeant, with one shilling in hand and twelve in promises; that when the party of weird-sisters passed to the witch-meeting they used the magic words, Thout, tout, throughout, and about; and that when they departed they exclaimed, Rentum, Tormentum! We are further informed that his Infernal Highness, on his departure, leaves a smell, and that (in nursery-maid’s phrase) not a pretty one, behind him. Concerning this fact we have a curious exposition by Mr. Glanville. “This,”— according to that respectable authority, “seems to imply the reality of the business, those ascititious particles which he held together in his sensible shape being loosened at the vanishing, and so offending the nostrils by their floating and diffusing themselves in the open air.”61 How much are we bound to regret that Mr. Justice Hunt’s discovery “of this hellish kind of witches,” in itself so clear and plain, and containing such valuable information, should have been smothered by meeting with opposition and discouragement from some then in authority!

61 Glanville’s “Collection of Relations.”

Lord Keeper Guildford was also a stifler of the proceedings against witches. Indeed, we may generally remark, during the latter part of the seventeenth century, that where the judges were men of education and courage, sharing in the information of the times, they were careful to check the precipitate ignorance and prejudice of the juries, by giving them a more precise idea of the indifferent value of confessions by the accused themselves, and of testimony derived from the pretended visions of those supposed to be bewitched. Where, on the contrary, judges shared with the vulgar in their ideas of such fascination, or were contented to leave the evidence with the jury, fearful to withstand the general cry too common on such occasions, a verdict of guilty often followed.

We are informed by Roger North that a case of this kind happened at the assizes in Exeter, where his brother, the Lord Chief Justice, did not interfere with the crown trials, and the other judge left for execution a poor old woman, condemned, as usual, on her own confession, and on the testimony of a neighbour, who deponed that he saw a cat jump into the accused person’s cottage window at twilight, one evening, and that he verily believed the said cat to be the devil; on which precious testimony the poor wretch was accordingly hanged. On another occasion, about the same time, the passions of the great and little vulgar were so much excited by the aquittal of an aged village dame, whom the judge had taken some pains to rescue, that Sir John Long, a man of rank and fortune, came to the judge in the greatest perplexity, requesting that the hag might not be permitted to return to her miserable cottage on his estates, since all his tenants had in that case threatened to leave him. In compassion to a gentleman who apprehended ruin from a cause so whimsical, the dangerous old woman was appointed to be kept by the town where she was acquitted, at the rate of half-a-crown a week, paid by the parish to which she belonged. But behold! in the period betwixt the two assizes Sir John Long and his farmers had mustered courage enough to petition that this witch should be sent back to them in all her terrors, because they could support her among them at a shilling a week cheaper than they were obliged to pay to the town for her maintenance. In a subsequent trial before Lord Chief Justice North himself, that judge detected one of those practices which, it is to be feared, were too common at the time, when witnesses found their advantage in feigning themselves bewitched. A woman, supposed to be the victim of the male sorcerer at the bar, vomited pins in quantities, and those straight, differing from the crooked pins usually produced at such times, and less easily concealed in the mouth. The judge, however, discovered, by cross-examining a candid witness, that in counterfeiting her fits of convulsion the woman sunk her head on her breast, so as to take up with her lips the pins which she had placed ready in her stomacher. The man was acquitted, of course. A frightful old hag, who was present, distinguished herself so much by her benedictions on the judge, that he asked the cause of the peculiar interest which she took in the acquittal. “Twenty years ago,” said the poor woman, “they would have hanged me for a witch, but could not; and now, but for your lordship, they would have murdered my innocent son.”62

62 Roger North’s “Life of Lord–Keeper Guilford.”

Such scenes happened frequently on the assizes, while country gentlemen, like the excellent Sir Roger de Coverley, retained a private share in the terror with which their tenants, servants, and retainers regarded some old Moll White, who put the hounds at fault and ravaged the fields with hail and hurricanes. Sir John Reresby, after an account of a poor woman tried for a witch at York in 1686 and acquitted, as he thought, very properly, proceeds to tell us that, notwithstanding, the sentinel upon the jail where she was confined avowed “that he saw a scroll of paper creep from under the prison-door, and then change itself first into a monkey and then into a turkey, which the under-keeper confirmed. This,” says Sir John, “I have heard from the mouth of both, and now leave it to be believed or disbelieved as the reader may be inclined.”63 We may see that Reresby, a statesman and a soldier, had not as yet “plucked the old woman out of his heart.” Even Addison himself ventured no farther in his incredulity respecting this crime than to contend that although witchcraft might and did exist, there was no such thing as a modern instance competently proved.

63 “Memoirs of Sir John Reresby,” p. 237.

As late as 1682 three unhappy women named Susan Edwards, Mary Trembles, and Temperance Lloyd were hanged at Exeter for witchcraft, and, as usual, on their own confession. This is believed to be the last execution of the kind in England under form of judicial sentence. But the ancient superstition, so interesting to vulgar credulity, like sediment clearing itself from water, sunk down in a deeper shade upon the ignorant and lowest classes of society in proportion as the higher regions were purified from its influence. The populace, including the ignorant of every class, were more enraged against witches when their passions were once excited in proportion to the lenity exercised towards the objects of their indignation by those who administered the laws. Several cases occurred in which the mob, impressed with a conviction of the guilt of some destitute old creatures, took the law into their own hands, and proceeding upon such evidence as Hopkins would have had recourse to, at once, in their own apprehension, ascertained their criminality and administered the deserved punishment.

The following instance of such illegal and inhuman proceedings occurred at Oakly, near Bedford, on 12th July, 1707. There was one woman, upwards of sixty years of age, who, being under an imputation of witchcraft, was desirous to escape from so foul a suspicion, and to conciliate the good-will of her neighbours, by allowing them to duck her. The parish officers so far consented to their humane experiment as to promise the poor woman a guinea if she should clear herself by sinking. The unfortunate object was tied up in a wet sheet, her thumbs and great toes were bound together, her cap torn off, and all her apparel searched for pins; for there is an idea that a single pin spoils the operation of the charm. She was then dragged through the river Ouse by a rope tied round her middle. Unhappily for the poor woman, her body floated, though her head remained under water. The experiment was made three times with the same effect. The cry to hang or drown the witch then became general, and as she lay half-dead on the bank they loaded the wretch with reproaches, and hardly forbore blows. A single humane bystander took her part, and exposed himself to rough usage for doing so. Luckily one of the mob themselves at length suggested the additional experiment of weighing the witch against the church Bible. The friend of humanity caught at this means of escape, supporting the proposal by the staggering argument that the Scripture, being the work of God himself, must outweigh necessarily all the operations or vassals of the devil. The reasoning was received as conclusive, the more readily as it promised a new species of amusement. The woman was then weighed against a church Bible of twelve pounds jockey weight, and as she was considerably preponderant, was dismissed with honour. But many of the mob counted her acquittal irregular, and would have had the poor dame drowned or hanged on the result of her ducking, as the more authentic species of trial.

At length a similar piece of inhumanity, which had a very different conclusion, led to the final abolition of the statute of James I. as affording countenance for such brutal proceedings. An aged pauper, named Osborne, and his wife, who resided near Tring, in Staffordshire, fell under the suspicion of the mob on account of supposed witchcraft. The overseers of the poor, understanding that the rabble entertained a purpose of swimming these infirm creatures, which indeed they had expressed in a sort of proclamation, endeavoured to oppose their purpose by securing the unhappy couple in the vestry-room, which they barricaded. They were unable, however, to protect them in the manner they intended. The mob forced the door, seized the accused, and, with ineffable brutality, continued dragging the wretches through a pool of water till the woman lost her life. A brute in human form, who had superintended the murder, went among the spectators, and requested money for the sport he had shown them! The life of the other victim was with great difficulty saved. Three men were tried for their share in this inhuman action. Only one of them, named Colley, was condemned and hanged. When he came to execution, the rabble, instead of crowding round the gallows as usual, stood at a distance, and abused those who were putting to death, they said, an honest fellow for ridding the parish of an accursed witch. This abominable murder was committed July 30, 1751.

The repetitition of such horrors, the proneness of the people to so cruel and heart-searing a superstition, was traced by the legislature to its source, namely, the yet unabolished statute of James I. Accordingly, by the 9th George II. cap. 5, that odious law, so long the object of horror to all ancient and poverty-stricken females in the kingdom, was abrogated, and all criminal procedure on the subject of sorcery or witchcraft discharged in future throughout Great Britain; reserving for such as should pretend to the skill of fortune-tellers, discoverers of stolen goods, or the like, the punishment of the correction-house, as due to rogues and vagabonds. Since that period witchcraft has been little heard of in England, and although the belief in its existence has in remote places survived the law that recognised the evidence of the crime, and assigned its punishment — yet such faith is gradually becoming forgotten since the rabble have been deprived of all pretext to awaken it by their own riotous proceedings. Some rare instances have occurred of attempts similar to that for which Colley suffered; and I observe one is preserved in that curious register of knowledge, Mr. Hone’s “Popular Amusements,” from which it appears that as late as the end of last century this brutality was practised, though happily without loss of life.

The Irish statute against witchcraft still exists, as it would seem. Nothing occurred in that kingdom which recommended its being formally annulled; but it is considered as obsolete, and should so wild a thing be attempted in the present day, no procedure, it is certain, would now be permitted to lie upon it.

If anything were wanted to confirm the general proposition that the epidemic terror of witchcraft increases and becomes general in proportion to the increase of prosecutions against witches, it would be sufficient to quote certain extraordinary occurrences in New England. Only a brief account can be here given of the dreadful hallucination under which the colonists of that province were for a time deluded and oppressed by a strange contagious terror, and how suddenly and singularly it was cured, even by its own excess; but it is too strong evidence of the imaginary character of this hideous disorder to be altogether suppressed.

New England, as is well known, was peopled mainly by emigrants who had been disgusted with the government of Charles I. in church and state, previous to the great Civil War. Many of the more wealthy settlers were Presbyterians and Calvinists; others, fewer in number and less influential from their fortune, were Quakers, Anabaptists, or members of the other sects who were included under the general name of Independents. The Calvinists brought with them the same zeal for religion and strict morality which everywhere distinguished them. Unfortunately, they were not wise according to their zeal, but entertained a proneness to believe in supernatural and direct personal intercourse between the devil and his vassals, an error to which, as we have endeavoured to show, their brethren in Europe had from the beginning been peculiarly subject. In a country imperfectly cultivated, and where the partially improved spots were embosomed in inaccessible forests, inhabited by numerous tribes of savages, it was natural that a disposition to superstition should rather gain than lose ground, and that to other dangers and horrors with which they were surrounded, the colonists should have added fears of the devil, not merely as the Evil Principle tempting human nature to sin, and thus endangering our salvation, but as combined with sorcerers and witches to inflict death and torture upon children and others.

The first case which I observe was that of four children of a person called John Goodwin, a mason. The eldest, a girl, had quarrelled with the laundress of the family about some linen which was amissing. The mother of the laundress, an ignorant, testy, and choleric old Irishwoman, scolded the accuser; and shortly after, the elder Goodwin, her sister and two brothers, were seized with such strange diseases that all their neighbours concluded they were bewitched. They conducted themselves as those supposed to suffer under maladies created by such influence were accustomed to do. They stiffened their necks so hard at one time that the joints could not be moved; at another time their necks were so flexible and supple that it seemed the bone was dissolved. They had violent convulsions, in which their jaws snapped with the force of a spring-trap set for vermin. Their limbs were curiously contorted, and to those who had a taste for the marvellous, seemed entirely dislocated and displaced. Amid these distortions, they cried out against the poor old woman, whose name was Glover, alleging that she was in presence with them adding to their torments. The miserable Irishwoman, who hardly could speak the English language, repeated her Pater Noster and Ave Maria like a good Catholic; but there were some words which she had forgotten. She was therefore supposed to be unable to pronounce the whole consistently and correctly, and condemned and executed accordingly.

But the children of Goodwin found the trade they were engaged in to be too profitable to be laid aside, and the eldest in particular continued all the external signs of witchcraft and possession. Some of these were excellently calculated to flatter the self-opinion and prejudices of the Calvinist ministers by whom she was attended, and accordingly bear in their very front the character of studied and voluntary imposture. The young woman, acting, as was supposed, under the influence of the devil, read a Quaker treatise with ease and apparent satisfaction; but a book written against the poor inoffensive Friends the devil would not allow his victim to touch, She could look on a Church of England Prayer-book, and read the portions of Scripture which it contains without difficulty or impediment; but the spirit which possessed her threw her into fits if she attempted to read the same Scriptures from the Bible, as if the awe which it is supposed the fiends entertain for Holy Writ depended, not on the meaning of the words, but the arrangement of the page, and the type in which they were printed. This singular species of flattery was designed to captivate the clergyman through his professional opinions; others were more strictly personal. The afflicted damsel seems to have been somewhat of the humour of the Inamorata of Messrs. Smack, Pluck, Catch, and Company, and had, like her, merry as well as melancholy fits. She often imagined that her attendant spirits brought her a handsome pony to ride off with them to their rendezvous. On such occasions she made a spring upwards, as if to mount her horse, and then, still seated on her chair, mimicked with dexterity and agility the motions of the animal pacing, trotting, and galloping, like a child on the nurse’s knee; but when she cantered in this manner upstairs, she affected inability to enter the clergyman’s study, and when she was pulled into it by force, used to become quite well, and stand up as a rational being. “Reasons were given for this,” says the simple minister, “that seem more kind than true.” Shortly after this, she appears to have treated the poor divine with a species of sweetness and attention, which gave him greater embarrassment than her former violence. She used to break in upon him at his studies to importune him to come downstairs, and thus advantaged doubtless the kingdom of Satan by the interruption of his pursuits. At length the Goodwins were, or appeared to be, cured. But the example had been given and caught, and the blood of poor Dame Glover, which had been the introduction to this tale of a hobby-horse, was to be the forerunner of new atrocities and fearfully more general follies.

This scene opened by the illness of two girls, a daughter and niece of Mr. Parvis, the minister of Salem, who fell under an affliction similar to that of the Goodwins. Their mouths were stopped, their throats choked, their limbs racked, thorns were stuck into their flesh, and pins were ejected from their stomachs. An Indian and his wife, servants of the family, endeavouring, by some spell of their own, to discover by whom the fatal charm had been imposed on their master’s children, drew themselves under suspicion, and were hanged. The judges and juries persevered, encouraged by the discovery of these poor Indians’ guilt, and hoping they might thus expel from the colony the authors of such practices. They acted, says Mather, the historian, under a conscientious wish to do justly; but the cases of witchcraft and possession increased as if they were transmitted by contagion, and the same sort of spectral evidence being received which had occasioned the condemnation of the Indian woman Titu, became generally fatal. The afflicted persons failed not to see the spectres, as they were termed, of the persons by whom they were tormented. Against this species of evidence no alibi could be offered, because it was admitted, as we have said elsewhere, that the real persons of the accused were not there present; and everything rested upon the assumption that the afflicted persons were telling the truth, since their evidence could not be redargued. These spectres were generally represented as offering their victims a book, on signing which they would be freed from their torments. Sometimes the devil appeared in person, and added his own eloquence to move the afflicted persons to consent.

At first, as seems natural enough, the poor and miserable alone were involved; but presently, when such evidence was admitted as incontrovertible, the afflicted began to see the spectral appearances of persons of higher condition and of irreproachable lives, some of whom were arrested, some made their escape, while several were executed. The more that suffered the greater became the number of afflicted persons, and the wider and the more numerous were the denunciations against supposed witches. The accused were of all ages. A child of five years old was indicted by some of the afflicted, who imagined they saw this juvenile wizard active in tormenting them, and appealed to the mark of little teeth on their bodies, where they stated it had bitten them. A poor dog was also hanged as having been alleged to be busy in this infernal persecution. These gross insults on common reason occasioned a revulsion in public feeling, but not till many lives had been sacrificed. By this means nineteen men and women were executed, besides a stouthearted man named Cory, who refused to plead, and was accordingly pressed to death according to the old law. On this horrible occasion a circumstance took place disgusting to humanity, which must yet be told, to show how superstition can steel the heart of a man against the misery of his fellow-creature. The dying man, in the mortal agony, thrust out his tongue, which the sheriff crammed with his cane back again into his mouth. Eight persons were condemned besides those who had actually suffered, and no less than two hundred were in prison and under examination.

Men began then to ask whether the devil might not artfully deceive the afflicted into the accusation of good and innocent persons by presenting witches and fiends in the resemblance of blameless persons, as engaged in the tormenting of their diseased country-folk. This argument was by no means inconsistent with the belief in witchcraft, and was the more readily listened to on that account. Besides, men found that no rank or condition could save them from the danger of this horrible accusation if they continued to encourage the witnesses in such an unlimited course as had hitherto been granted to them. Influenced by these reflections, the settlers awoke as from a dream, and the voice of the public, which had so lately demanded vengeance on all who were suspected of sorcery, began now, on the other hand, to lament the effusion of blood, under the strong suspicion that part of it at least had been innocently and unjustly sacrificed. In Mather’s own language, which we use as that of a man deeply convinced of the reality of the crime, “experience showed that the more were apprehended the more were still afflicted by Satan, and the number of confessions increasing did but increase the number of the accused, and the execution of some made way to the apprehension of others. For still the afflicted complained of being tormented by new objects as the former were removed, so that some of those that were concerned grew amazed at the number and condition of those that were accused, and feared that Satan, by his wiles, had enwrapped innocent persons under the imputation of that crime; and at last, as was evidently seen, there must be a stop put, or the generation of the kingdom of God would fall under condemnation.”64

64 Mather’s “Magnalia,” book vi. chap. lxxxii. The zealous author, however, regrets the general gaol delivery on the score of sorcery and thinks, had the times been calm, the case might have required a farther investigation, and that, on the whole, the matter was ended too abruptly But, the temper of the times considered, he admits candidly that it is better to act moderately in matters capital, and to let the guilty escape, than run the risk of destroying the innocent.

The prosecutions were therefore suddenly stopped, the prisoners dismissed, the condemned pardoned, and even those who had confessed, the number of whom was very extraordinary, were pardoned amongst others; and the author we have just quoted thus records the result:—“When this prosecution ceased, the Lord so chained up Satan that the afflicted grew presently well. The accused were generally quiet, and for five years there was no such molestation among us.”

To this it must be added that the congregation of Salem compelled Mr. Parvis, in whose family the disturbance had begun, and who, they alleged, was the person by whom it was most fiercely driven on in the commencement, to leave his settlement amongst them. Such of the accused as had confessed the acts of witchcraft imputed to them generally denied and retracted their confessions, asserting them to have been made under fear of torture, influence of persuasion, or other circumstances exclusive of their free will. Several of the judges and jurors concerned in the sentence of those who were executed published their penitence for their rashness in convicting these unfortunate persons; and one of the judges, a man of the most importance in the colony, observed, during the rest of his life, the anniversary of the first execution as a day of solemn fast and humiliation for his own share in the transaction. Even the barbarous Indians were struck with wonder at the infatuation of the English colonists on this occasion, and drew disadvantageous comparisons between them and the French, among whom, as they remarked, “the Great Spirit sends no witches.”

The system of witchcraft, as believed in Scotland, must next claim our attention, as it is different in some respects from that of England, and subsisted to a later period, and was prosecuted with much more severity.


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