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

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

9 thoughts on “1670: Major Thomas Weir, a Puritan with a double life”

  1. David says:

    I work & live in Edinburgh and Major Weir’s incarnate entity must get around ; I’ve treated 9 people over four years who, like Marc (above), claim to have been the reincarnation of the West Bow Wizard ! Thomas, late of 10 West Bow, certainly suffered from a multiple personality disorder brought on, possibly, by the adverse effect of pseudo-dominance from excessively exercising his overt authority within both church & city guard. Like many untreated sufferers, Thomas must have grown weary of the duplicity that was necessary to nourish both sides of the duality within him. His confession wasn’t an attempt to ‘purge’ himself of evil ; rather it was his compulsion to exorcise the good character within. Sadly, like many similarly obsessed-possessed sufferers, he paid the executioner’s fee and was condemned to notoriety and infamy rather than martyrdom to a delusional satanic cause.

  2. Noah says:

    This article should be edited to reflect the news story that just came out detailing the fact that the house was not torn down, but incorporated into a newer building, currently being used by the Quakers.

  3. Marc says:

    I was recently given a reading by a well established physic medium and as i am lucid and of good standing.major thomas weir is me.er seven lifetimes ago.i was apperently strangled and burned at the stake for witch craft among other things.
    Wether you believe this or not cant blame you all for not believing but,all the many beliefs ive ever had especialy the beliefs that you keep secret because you think you would be rediculed for em anyhow this reading as led me to research major thomas weir and for all the details that came of the reading and the precise dates the medium gave me 1599 to late 1600’s records only show thomas weir and who i am what i am the job i chose to do firefighter:a job that controls the element”fire”all points to corraborate exactly what the medium’s reading gave of me and who ive been seven lifetimes ago…
    Is this bull shit NO does it sound very very farfetched hell yeah but do i believe it ??? OH YEAH if anybody sees this and is researching thomas weir i would be glad to help otherwise dont even bother calling me a fruit cake and a schizo retard I DONT CARE i can be quite unimpressed with name calling.

  4. Gary Wiles says:

    Interesting, but even more so, for our family, which is his family. Still, he’s not the only ghost story in the family history.

  5. Rowan Hunter says:

    Great article, I find the last two paragraphs particularly interesting. That is the fascinating thing about Weir, that he doesn’t appear the hapless victim of a frame-up as do so many “withches” but that he actively believed he was a warlock and acted in spite of a society he evidently disdained. It makes you wonder why he confessed at all.

    I have to say though, that he did do several things that would most certainly be counted as crimes today, not least of which his long career of bestiality. he not only confessed to this but had been caught at it and had it hushed up on the strength of his reputation and the accuser punished in his stead. So, add perjury to the list as well. There is some case as well for saying that he was a war criminal, but you would be pointing at lot of fingers in covenanting Scotland if you started that!

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