On this date in 1677, Janet Mathie, Bessie Weir, Margaret Jackson, John Stewart, and Marjory Craig were hanged for having bewitched a Sir George Maxwell of Pollok.
These unfortunates were “sacrificed on the altar of popular superstition”, in the words of a later broadside — one element of that superstition being the belief in the superordinary insight of the deaf-dumb.
God hath taken away the tongue and ear of the dumb, and hath given them a rich gift of knowledge in the room of it; and by this would teach all of us his goodness to his creatures, and that we should study humility and sobriety of mind.
This is a culture working with some embarrassingly primitive forensics to begin with.
So, when the Pollok lord started ailing, the indications by “a young deaf and dumb girl, of unknown origin,” to the effect that a local family was doing him mischief by stabbing a wax effigy, well, that was enough to open a case. When they found a wax effigy right where the girl pointed, “The prosecution wanted no stronger proof.”
So they got the 14-year-old daughter (she was spared execution this date) to confess, and tortured her brother into agreeing that the devil appeared as a cloven-hooved Negro, and our unnamed detective-girl miraculously found not one, not two, but three different effigies all attributed to the diabolical voodoo parties to cinch the condemnation.
It’s rather embarrassing what tripe did then and can still now pass for persuasive indicia of guilt among parties already committed to convicting someone. Like show trial victims, even the condemned were swept into the act of auto-denunciation — one final tenuous strand to link an outcast to her community, even from the stake. At least, some of them were.
John and Annabel exhorted their mother to confess, reminding her of all the meetings which she had had with the devil in her own house, and that “a summer’s day would not be sufficient to relate what passages had been between the devil and her.” But Jennet Mathie was a stern, brave, high-hearted Scotch woman, and would not seal her sorrow with a lie. “Nothing could prevail with her obdured and hardened heart,” so she and all, save young Annabel, were burnt; and when she was bound to the stake, the spectators saw after a while a black, pitchy ball foam out of her mouth, which, after the fire was kindled, grew to the size of a walnut, and flew out into sparks like squibs. This was the devil leaving her. As for Bessie Weir … the devil left her when she was executed, in the form of a raven; for so he owned and dishonoured his chosen ones.
“The dumbe girl, Jennet Douglas, now speaks well, and knows Latine, which she never learned, and discovers things past!” says Sinclair. But she still followed her old trade. She had mesmeric visions, and was evidently a “sensitive;” and some of the people believed in her, as inspired and divine, and some came, perhaps mockingly, to test her. (From E.L. Linton)
Sometimes, at least, these malevolent professional accusers get their comeuppance.
The dumb girl herself was afterwards carried before the great council at Edinburgh, imprisoned, scourged through the town, and then banished to “some forraigne Plantation,” whence she reappears no more to vex her generation. God forgive her! She has passed long years ago to her account, and may her guilty soul be saved, and all its burning blood-stains cleansed and assoilzed!