The belief in witchcraft died very hard. Indeed, it is not dead yet; but we call the thing and our belief in it by other names. It is not difficult, if you are so disposed, to consult both men and women who have a familiar spirit, in the year 1926.
Richard Hathaway was the defendant in an odd trial in this matter of witchcraft in the first year of Queen Anne. He said he had been bewitched by Sarah Morduck, and twenty years or so earlier, Sarah Morduck would, no doubt, have been hanged for the fact. But it was getting a little late, and so Richard was convicted of being a cheat and impostor, and pilloried in Southwark and Cornhill and at Temple Bar, and imprisoned for six months, and handsomely flogged — for being too late. Indeed Sarah Morduck had a narrow escape. Richard had vomited nails and pins, he could not speak nor open his eyes, great noises were heard in his house; all these troubles being due, as he said, to the spells of Sarah. Accordingly he went to the woman’s house and scratched her savagely, and immediately experienced great relief. But there was a clever clergyman then at Southwark, where the persons of the story lived. It seemed that Hathaway, after the relief brought about by his scratchings, had relapsed, and Dr. Martin, rector of St. George’s, calling on the man, found that he could neither speak nor see. So Dr. Martin told Hathaway that he had heard of his troubles, and had brought Sarah Morduck with him that she might be scratched again, and another cure effected. But in the background Dr. Martin had another woman, not visible to Hathaway, and when a hand was held out to be scratched, the Doctor had seen to it that it was the other woman’s hand. Hathaway’s eyes opened, and he began to talk, but, of course, the believers in witchcraft said that proved nothing. It has been laid down by high spiritualist authority that if a ghost is seized at a séance, and is found to be the medium swathed in white muslin, that proves nothing. Consequently, Sarah Morduck was haled from Southwark to the City, and set upon by the rabble, and scratched again in full court, but as luck and the turn of the tide of opinion would have it, acquitted in the end. Hathaway should have taken the hint. But he still persisted that he was bewitched, and now a spell had been laid upon him which prevented him from eating. He was consigned to the care and observation of a surgeon and in public kept up a tremendous fast. But crafty holes had been bored in the walls of his room, and through these holes he was observed to eat and drink most heartily. And so he was put upon his trial as a cheat and an impostor; whereupon the “prayers of the congregation” were asked for him in many churches, and good people collected money to support him in his trials. And poor Sarah, as counsel observed, was in grave danger of being torn in pieces by the mob. Dr. Martin, the Rector of Southwark, told the Court how he managed his ingenious device. There had been some difficulty, he said, in getting a woman who was willing to be scratched.
“I had before met with a poor woman, whom I ordered to follow me, who received alms of the parish, designing she should be the person the experiment should be tried on. . . . I told her I would give her a shilling if she would let this man scratch her. She flew off, and said she would not suffer it for all the world. At last somebody said, ‘Here is a woman who will suffer herself to be scratched’; and this was one Johnson.”
The Doctor goes on with his story; tells how his plain demonstration that Hathaway was a humbug, a cheat, and a liar did not demonstrate anything to the people who had made up their minds. Nay; the man himself had the impudence to speak to his parish priest in this style:
“Do you not believe,” he said to Dr. Martin, “that I am bewitched?”
“No, I do not.”
“Then,” says he, “I may as well not believe what you say in the pulpit; I may say to you as our Saviour said to the Jews: ‘Though you see miracles you will not believe.’”
The logic is almost modern.
The good Rector went down to Guildford Assizes, where Sarah Morduck was charged with the capital offence of witchcraft. He gave his evidence, and Sarah was acquitted. And the result to the Doctor?
“When I came to town, I was abused by many people, both openly and privately: ‘You have the blood of that innocent man to be at your door; the woman had been hanged if you had not saved her; the judgments of God will fall on you.’”
And the general opinion was, added Dr. Martin, that he had been bribed, and the judge had been bribed, and the jury had been bribed, and that on the whole, mercy, and truth, and justice were fled out of the land since Sarah Morduck was not hanged, and oh! what must the feelings of poor Mr Hathaway be in this dreadful trial?
Mr. Bateman, of Pembrokeshire, gave an entertaining account of Hathaway’s great performance of vomiting pins.
“I said to him, ‘I hear you vomit pins!’ ‘Yes,’ says he. Says I, ‘Prithee let me see thee.’ So he sat on a low seat, and they gave him something in a cup, and by drinking this I was to see him vomit pins; and he took some drink; but, as far as I could perceive, he did not swallow any. He pretended then to be in an agony and vomited several times, and there were pins on the ground. I had the room swept very clean, and gave him the same again. He vomited again, and there were abundance of pins on the ground again. I believe he vomited fourteen or fifteen times, and I believe there were some hundreds of pins on the ground; but I thought the pins were dropt from one or other; and I took up some of them, and they were dry.”
Mr. Bateman searched Hathaway, and found pins by the parcel in his pockets. The man from Pembrokeshire concludes, sanely enough, that rascal Hathaway had some trick of dropping the pins on the ground, but he confesses that he could not catch him in the act, though he observed him keenly and closely. Then one Hearne, brother of the supposed witch, told how his sister was set upon and grievously used by the mob. Hearne applied for protection to Sir Thomas Lane, a magistrate, and that wise Solomon of a judge said there had been grievous provocation; and all the satisfaction Morduck and her brother received from the Court was that Sir Thomas ordered the witch to be scratched again. This done, Hathaway, supposed to be fasting under an evil spell, fell on some bread and cheese with enormous appetite, and “brustled about like a cock sparrow.” Nobody could resist this, so poor Sarah Morduck was committed by Sir Thomas Lane to take her trial for witchcraft. Mr. Kensy, the surgeon to whose care Hathaway was entrusted, then told, with much liveliness, how he had laid traps for the impostor, how he had feigned a furious quarrel with his servant in Hathaway’s presence; and how this servant, instructed by him, arranged to bring the man food and drink in secret; and how the doctor viewed, through a secret hole in the wall, Mr. Hathaway consuming fish, oysters, strong beer and brandy with immense relish, with so much relish, indeed, that he became extremely unwell. The maid-servant who was in the plot gave an example of the abusive language used by her master in the course of the sham quarrel: he called her “presbyterian jade”; a phrase that shows that people had not yet forgotten Oliver’s days in the first year of the reign of Queen Anne. And the maid relates how she gave Hathaway a bottle of stout — I did not know that strong porter was called so as far back as this — and this drink was so stout that the cheat became very merry, and danced about, and took the tongs and played upon them. But after that he was mighty sick — details omitted. Strange noises were heard every night in the house where Hathaway slept. A psychical researcher, named Hunt, told how he had observed this side of the mystery. Hathaway was put to bed, “three little things in black bags” called “the charms” were sewed on his shirt, and Mr. Hunt presently observed the man moving his hands about. Hunt struck the fellow’s hands and told him to keep them still or put them out of the bed.
“Then I and the company sitting still about the bed, Welling (Hathaway’s master) said, ‘Hearken, you will not believe; hear what a noise there is; the like is heard here almost every night.’ Whereupon all were silent. At last I heard a small scratching or rubbing at the bed’s feet; and putting my head close to the bed’s feet, listening, I heard something shriek; and perceiving the bed-clothes stir, I took hold of the fellow’s foot, and said, ‘I have caught the witch that made the noise.’ I thought it had been mice at first, but seeing the clothes move, I catched his foot.”
And so on, and so on. The defence called their witnesses who were sure, or almost sure, that Hathaway was bewitched. One of these, Mrs. Willoughby, gives curious evidence.
L. C. J. “Do you think he was bewitched?”
Willoughby. “I believe he was, my lord.”
L. C. J. “I suppose you have some skill in witchcraft. Did you ever see anybody that was bewitched before?”
Willoughby. “My lord, I have been under the same circumstances myself, when I was a girl . . . I flew over them all . . . one held me by one arm, another by the other, and another behind, and I flew sheer over their heads.”
L. C. J. “Woman, can you produce any of these women that saw you fly?”
But they were dead. After the Lord Chief Justice had summed up, the jury found Hathaway guilty with all convenient speed, and he received the sentence that his crimes deserved.
And the odd thing is that when I began to unbury this old tale, I thought it might interest because it was so hopelessly obsolete. But it seems to me now that there are modern applications in it; enough and to spare.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58