Archive for April 11th, 2008

1670: Major Thomas Weir, a Puritan with a double life

9 comments April 11th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1670, a 70-year-old upstanding Edinburgher went to the stake for confessing — unbidden — to witchcraft.

The “Wizard of West Bow” had had a distinguished military career and an exactingly pious public life among Edinburgh’s strictest Presbyterians. So it came as something of a surprise when, after being struck by an illness, he up and copped to a lifelong sexual relationship with his sister Jean … and a lifetime of hitherto unknown black arts, powered by a Satanic walking-staff. He was so far from being suspect that town elders at first thought him daft.

Only when Jean backed his story with the sort of details to give vapors to the “Bowhead Saints” neighborhood did things get serious. She especially warned about that staff.

So on this day, the dumbfounded city worthies had to tote one of their own to the area around Edinburgh’s modern Pilrig Street and have him strangled and burnt at the stake. Whatever moved Weir to issue his damning (literally!) admission, he was plainly quite in earnest: when asked to pray at the stake, he shot back, “Let me alone, I will not. I have lived as a beast, and I must die as a beast.” The staff was thrown onto the pyre with him; it was said to burn abnormally slowly.

His sister was hanged shortly thereafter for the same offenses, scandalizing her upstanding neighbors by tearing her clothes off on the way to the scaffold.

For a century, nobody dared live in Weir’s house, which the cremated major — and/or that staff, floating about looking for its owner — supposedly haunted. The house is long torn down, but the tale is natural fodder for any “haunted Edinburgh” tour.

One is struck in such a story by its modernity — perhaps the reason it could speak to a Victorian novelist like Robert Louis Stevenson.

The interpretive framework we begin with for witch hunts is — well, a “witch hunt.” Our own sense of what unjust social persecution is shapes the way we read these long-gone cases, the confessions forced from the victims’ lips. We identify with the “witches”; it is the alien world that ferrets them out and burns them that wants explaining.

Major Weir unnervingly turns the tables on such voyeurs as your correspondent. He steps without warning out of a forgotten mass of long-gone peoples, his confession not merely voluntary but insistent against skepticism — and suddenly we grapple for our bearings not in sociology but in abnormal psychology: here is a man very much of his society who has unexpectedly rejected it, boasts of rejecting it all along, and does so not craving after reconciliation to his people but in order to die (as does his sister) obstinate in that rejection. We can perhaps identify less readily with this individual than with his crestfallen friends.

Whether or not the Weirs really did anything that would count as a crime today — although one is practically forced to agree that at a minimum, the siblings violated a sexual taboo still enforced now — we have a template for this man not in the McCarthy hearings but straight from the evening news: the unassuming neighbor revealed to be a serial killer; the trusted rector who turns out to have been a pedophile.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,History,Infamous,Milestones,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Scandal,Scotland,Sex,Soldiers,The Supernatural,The Worm Turns,Witchcraft


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