Posts filed under 'Witchcraft'

1690: Andrei Ilyich Bezobrazov, stolnik

Add comment January 8th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1690, the Russian stolnik (an administrative office in the Russian court) Andrei Ilyich Bezobrazov was put to death with the magicians he allegedly contracted to bewitch Tsar Peter the Great.

Whatever its other sins, Russia enjoys a reputation for having largely steered clear of the frightful witch-hunts that broke out elsewhere in Europe. Certainly tsars issued many decrees against witchcraft and even prescribed the death penalty in law. But unlike courts in western Europe, Russia does not seem ever to have folded the entire swath of extra-Christian folk beliefs and everyday peasant “magic” together into a juridical theory of omnipresent diabolical terrorism stretching from the neighborhood midwife to the Prince of Darkness himself. Perhaps for that reason, its historical record of witch persecutions presents fewer and more scattered data points.

Elites, write Valerie Kivelson and Jonathan Shaheen,* “demonstrated no interest in formulating a systematized or theorized framework for explaining the uncanny power of magic [and] they also made no effort in their courtrooms to unearth evidence of such a framework … Instead of pursuing connections to the devil, Muscovite judges exerted themselves to track the lineages and results of magic: Who taught you? Whom have you taught? Whom have you bewitched? The judges’ concerns were concrete and this-worldly: who were the victims and who were the victimizers?”

Unfortunately for Bezobrazov, his victim was the tsar himself.

Bezobrazov allegedly obtained the service of “sorcerers and witches” who worked magic “on bones, on money and on water” to enspell the new 17-year-old sovereign during the uncertain period after Peter threw off the regency of his older sister Sophia. Despite Peter’s ultimate reputation as Russia’s great westernizer, the immediate effect of this transition was an oppressive interregnum wherein conservative religious interests took advantage of the new sovereign’s distraction from internal Russian politics to reassert themselves violently.

For Bezobrazov, political turnover augured personal uncertainty. The innocent explanation for his “witchcraft” was invoking a little ritual in hopes of catching a favorable assignment in Peter the Great’s new Russia. It didn’t work.

Bezobrazov was beheaded on Red Square on this date at the same time two folk healers went to the stake with their magic talismans and healing herbs at a swamp across the Moskva from the Kremlin. An essay in this Festschrift describes what it’s like to be a peasant folk healer suddenly under investigation for regicide.

Dorofei Prokofiev … had treated animals belonging to the Bezobrazov household. But when arrested and interrogated, Dorofei did not identify himself as a “sorcerer,” but rather as a posadskii chelovek (artisan), specifically a horse-trainer (konoval) and a blood-letter (rudomet’). He admitted to practicing bean divination and palm reading in addition to treating the illnesses of children and adults with herbs and incantations. His bag contained beans, incense (for protecting brides and grooms from sorcerers, Dorofei said), and a variety of herbs. The herb bogoroditskaia (= royal fern) he gathered himself on St. John’s Day, while reciting the charm “whatever you, herb, are good for, be good for that.” But he denied ever casting a spell to harm the sovereign, and he claimed not to be acquainted with Andrei Bezobrazov — a lie that was quickly uncovered when Dorofei was subjected to torture. At that point Dorofei changed his story: Bezobrazov had asked him to cast a spell on the tsar, but only to make him feel favorably towards Bezobrazov, not to damage the sovereign’s health. Dorofei gave his interrogators examples of the incantations that he used in fortune-telling, all intertwined invocations of Christian figures with sympathetic magic. In short, Dorofei tried to rescue himself by claiming that his healing and fortune-telling activities were all well-intentioned. But the investigators, and Peter himself, were convinced of Bezobrazov’s guilt, which meant Dorofei was guilty as well. Bezobrazov was beheaded, and Dorofei was burned at the stake as a witch.

For everyday folks like Dorofei Prokovie, the author notes, “well-positioned patrons could be either a source of protection or of danger.”

According to Crime and Punishment in Early Modern Russia, which is also the source of the January 8 date, Bezobrazov’s wife was punitively tonsured for not reporting the “plot” and several other of Bezobrazov’s peasants were knouted and sent to Siberia.

* “Prosaic Witchcraft and Semiotic Totalitarianism: Muscovite Magic Reconsidered” in Slavic Review, vol. 70, no. 1 (Spring 2011)

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1663: Tempel Anneke, witch

Add comment December 30th, 2013 Headsman

Three hundred fifty years ago today Anna Roleffes — nicknamed “Tempel Anneke” — became one of the last* witches executed in Braunschweig, Germany.

Roleffes (English Wikipedia page | German) is particularly interesting due to the lengthy and detailed records of her case that remain preserved. Consequently she’s become the subject of one of the most compelling microhistories of the witch-hunt era, The Trial of Tempel Anneke: Records of a Witchcraft Trial in Brunswick, Germany, 1663.

The accused was a widow about 63 years of age, putting her right in the demographic sweet spot for a witchcraft accusation. She lived with her son, and kept up a side business in folk medicine and fortune telling, putting her right in the professional sweet spot for a witchcraft accusation.

But again, this was the decline phase of the burning time. The Thirty Years’ War was over,** and with it the time of panicky bloodbaths was receding (ever so gradually) relative to more measured legal procedures. In this meticulously documented instance, procedural rules are rigorously followed by rational, educated investigators looking to convict a duly accused citizen of being the bogeyman.† Some records of the investigation stretch from a full year before her June 1663 arrest.

It’s not completely clear exactly how she first entered the judicial process,‡ but her reputed felicity in the augury business stacked up the evidence against her. (Even though some of the witnesses providing it were themselves fined by the court for engaging it in the first place.) One of the first witnesses in the record was a fellow who came to Tempel Anneke for some palmistry. She told him that he’d soon retrieve some pewter silverware that had been stolen from him, and indeed he did. After such an event, you and I might be tempted to leave Tempel Anneke a favorable review on Yelp; Hans Tiehmann, by contrast, reported her for maleficium.

A person in such proximity to the many private woes of her neighbors could find such accusations quickly became self-confirming in the juridical eye. One shepherd came to her after losing several sheep. She prescribed a burnt curative and this proved effective in protecting the remainder of his flock. Then he returned complaining of an illness of his own, and this she could not cure. Both transactions inculpate her in the record. Just another satisfied customer!

The demonology theory of the day held that any magic at all flowed by definition from Hell. In the hands of judges steeped in such ideas, everyday hexes and cantrips — which, again, many of the witnesses themselves voluntarily sought out — could become, officially, infernal manifestations. From turning up lost cutlery, the proceeding segued all the way demonic contracts.

Tempel Anneke was literate and sharp, cannily refusing to confess anything voluntarily. But the terms of the Carolina — the 16th century Germanic criminal code governing proceedings — authorized torture to obtain such a confession upon a “credibly established legally sufficient and consequently suitable indication” of criminal behavior. (Source) The judges submitted their investigation records to legal experts at the University of Jena, who ruled that they had indeed met the legal threshold to enhance interrogation. This she could not withstand, and so eventually confessed that she had made a pact with Satan sealed with fornication

on her son’s farm in the granary … by the light of the moon, she had to step into a circle on the ground which was black, and on [the Devil's] urging, she let three small drops of blood into a small piece of linen, from her smallest finger on her right hand, which she had pricked with a needle, and she had to give it to him. Thereupon he had started and said, “I now have your blood, now you are mine, with body and blood, now you shall do what I want from you.”

* She was for a time thought to be the last witch executed in Braunschweig. That distinction appears to belong instead to Katharina Sommermeyer (1698).

** Gone, but certainly not forgotten. Tempel Anneke was a widow because her husband died in the Thirty Years’ War.

† Modernity can’t cast too many stones here.

‡ The Carolina licensed investigation of someone who was simply “suspected of a crime through common repute.” Many accused witches of course were prior to their formal accusations suspected or reputed witches.

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1688: Goodwife Ann Glover, Salem trial run

Add comment November 16th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1688, colonial Boston hanged its last witch … or, its first Catholic martyr.

Goodwife Ann Glover was an Irishwoman who had been among some 50,000 Catholics deported to Barbados* by Oliver Cromwell during the 1650s.0

1688 finds her with a daughter, desperately poor, as housekeepers in Boston to one John Goodwin and his family.

After one of Goodwin’s daughters accused the Glovers of stealing some linen, the daughter got cussed out and — per Cotton Mather’s credulous account of the washerwoman’s devilry — “visited with strange Fits, beyond those that attend an Epilepsy or a Catalepsy, or those that they call The Diseases of Astonishment.” In fact, four Goodwin children began suffering these symptoms, and would do so for weeks on end, only abating enough for meals and a good night’s sleep. (They would finally be cured, weeks after their supernatural tormenter’s hanging, by having to fast for a couple of days.)

The family doctor diagnosed “an hellish Witchcraft.” Mather has an extensive description of their thrashings, but his contemporary, Boston merchant Robert Calef, charged in his anti-Mather tract More Wonders of the Invisible World that Mather himself did not shy from “taking home one of the children, and managing such intrigues with that child, and printing such an account of the whole … as conduced much to the kindling of those flames, that in sir William‘s time threatened the destruction of this country.”

This Glover case is Cotton Mather’s underreported debut on the witchcraft scene. With the moderating hand of his father away, the ambitious 25-year-old divine took on a starring role in the drama. He would boast of it in published material in the years following, and as Thomas Hutchinson later observed,

The printed account was published with a preface by Mr. Baxter, who says, ‘the evidence is so convincing, that he must be a very obdurate Sadducee who will not believe.’ It obtained credit sufficient, together with other preparatives, to dispose the whole country to be easily imposed upon by the more extensive and more tragical scene, which was presently after acted at Salem … these books were in New-England, and the conformity between the behavior of Goodwin’s children and most of the supposed bewitched at Salem, and the behavior of those in England, is so exact, as to leave no room to doubt the stories had been read by the New England persons themselves, or had been told to them by others who had read them. Indeed, this conformity, instead of giving suspicion, was urged in confirmation of the truth of both.

Years later, when the public turned against Mather’s appalling leading role in the Salem Witch Trials, one of the Goodwin children was among the parishioners whom Mather detailed to come to his defense. “[Mather] never gave me the least advice, neither face to face nor by way of epistles, neither directly nor indirectly,” insisted Nathaniel Goodwin, later to become the executor of his estate. “[H]e never advised me to anything concerning the law, or trial of the accused person.”**

Eventually persuaded by the children’s mysterious or staged illnesses, the town magistrates hauled Goody Glover in for questioning and set upon her poor command of the King’s English. Glover was a native speaker of Gaelic; she had lived in Boston for only a few years, and it’s likely that whatever degree of English she picked up in her indenture in Barbados was heavily creolized by that island’s enormous mid-17th century influx of African slaves for the sugar plantations.

Whatever she said sounded like it came straight from perdition to the ears of Cotton Mather.

she being sent for by the Justices, gave such a wretched Account of her self, that they saw cause to commit her unto the Gaolers Custody. Goodwin had no proof that could have done her any Hurt; but the Hag had not power to deny her interest in the Enchantment of the Children; and I when she was asked, Whether she believed there was a God? her Answer was too blasphemous and horrible for any Pen of mine to mention. An Experiment was made, Whether she could recite the Lords Prayer; and it was found, that tho clause after clause was most carefully repeated unto her, yet when she said it after them that prompted her, she could not Possibly avoid making Nonsense of it, with some ridiculous Depravations. …

It was not long before the Witch thus in the Trap, was brought upon her Tryal; at which, thro’ the Efficacy of a Charm, I suppose, used upon her, by one or some of her Cruel the Court could receive Answers from her in one but the Irish, which was her Native Language; altho she under-stood the English very well, and had accustomed her whole Family to none but that Language in her former Conversation; and therefore the Communication between the Bench and the Bar,’ was now cheefly convey’d by two honest and faithful men that were interpreters.

Just imagine how apoplectic this guy would be if he ever heard “para Espanol o prima dos.”

One can readily picture confusion and malice multiplying one upon the other as it passes not only between two different tongues but also between two different cosmologies. We don’t know very much about Ann Glover; even her name is a slave name. But she was Catholic, and so had a religious world of saints and symbols that her persecutors could readily equate with demons. (Querying her in the condemned cell at one point, Mather is told that “saints” forbid her cooperating with his Protestant exhortations, but he understands it as “spirits” — apparently the Gaelic word is one and the same — and he presses her for the identities of these infernal agents.) She probably did not remotely share her prim persecutors’ regard for temperance and submission. She was of course poor and uneducated, ready prey for the entrapment of a well-schooled prig who could scarcely conceive the lives she had already led in Ireland and Barbados. If one likes, one might take her as the luckless victim of a conservative clergy’s backlash against the slow fade of its authority.

Glover’s broken speech and wrong religion surely made it easy to “other” her. Even so, at least in Mather’s construction, Goodwife Glover’s condemnation reads as if it proceeded with at least the partial participation of the accused.

Several rag dolls were recovered from Glover’s home, and Mather says that Glover agreed that these were “her way to torment the Objects of her malice … by wetting of her Finger with her Spittle, and streaking of those little Images.” Even if this matter is just as her foe depicts it, Glover wouldn’t exactly by the only person in history to be irritated by her employer, nor to satisfy her vengeance on some fetish of an untouchable enemy.

Glover might herself have believed in the folk magic whose practice was only slowly ebbing away at this time; Mather even says that Glover obligingly healed a boy whom she had bewitched when his mother testified at her trial.

Or she might have defiantly embraced the sorcery accusations against her as a last rebuke to the Puritans who had torn her from hearth and home all those years before and now despised her as an idolatrous papist. Her contemporary defender Robert Calef just thought she was a bit out of her gourd; “the generality of her answers were nonsense, and her behaviour like that of one distracted,” giving “crazy answers to some ensaring questions.” The court actually explored this possibility as well by empaneling a group of medical men to explore Glover’s competency. They found her compos mentis.

It’s too bad that we don’t have Goodwife Glover’s own account of herself. Instead we read her through axe-grinding interlocutors.

Mather wearied his victim with demands to convert, along with an interpreter since “she entertained me [in her cell] with nothing but Irish.” (He didn’t mean whiskey.) It was only “against her will” that Mather prayed with her — or maybe more like “at her” — although he also claimed to have extracted an admission that other witches were operating who would continue to afflict the Goodwin children.

She was drawn on this date to the gallows at Boston Neck — coincidentally almost the very spot where Boston’s Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Cross stands today.

There’s a precious alleged† first-person account of her execution:

There was a great concourse of people to see if the Papist would relent … Her one cat was there, fearsome to see. They would to destroy the cat, but Mr. Calef would not [permit the cat to be killed]. Before her execution she was bold and impudent, making to forgive her accusers and those who put her off … She predicted that her death would not relieve the children, saying it was not she afflicted them.

November 16 is now, by a 1988 tricentennial resolution of Boston’s considerably more Catholic-friendly city council, Goody Glover Day in that city. What better spot to celebrate than at Goody Glover’s Irish pub?

* Such deportees were said to be “Barbadosed”.

** This is not the only link between those Massachusetts witch-hunts; Rebecca Nurse, one of the women hanged at Salem, might have visited Ann Glover in jail.

† So far as I have been able to determine this widely-reproduced quote sources entirely to a 1905 Journal of the American Irish Historical Society piece. This was itself reproduced from a strongly partisan article titled “A Forgotten Heroine” and published in a devotional Catholic magazine, The Ave Maria. It was written by Harold Dijon, an instructor at a Baltimore Catholic school, without primary footnotes — only a general citation that it has “been gleaned from Cotton Mather, Upham, Drake, Moore, Owens, Calef, Cartrie, and papers of the Massachusetts Historical Society.” I have not been able to locate the document Dijon quotes here.

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1435: Agnes Bernauer

1 comment October 12th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1435, the Duke of Bavaria-Munich had his son’s commoner mistress drowned.

Agnes Bernauer (English Wikipedia link | German) was supposed to have been the daughter of an Augsburg barber, though hard details about her life are hard to come by owing to her social class.

By 1432, she’s demonstrably a part of the Munich court; it’s thought that the prince Albert (the future Duke Albert III) must have met her at an Augsburg tournament in 1428.

The nature of her relationship to the Bavarian heir, too, must largely be guessed at. It’s been widely hypothesized that they might have married secretly.

Such a marriage might explain the shocking end to the Agnes-Albert relationship by situating it as a threat to dynastic succession: Albert was Ernst’s only legitimate son, and the Bavarian patrimony had been subdivided and fought over among Wittelsbach kin over the preceding decades.

Whatever the reason, Ernst took the disapproving (maybe) in-law act quite a lot farther than most. While Albert was out on a hunt, Ernst had Agnes seized, condemned for witchcraft, and executed by drowning in the Danube River on Oct. 12, 1435.

Upon hearing of the death of his beloved, Albert bitterly deserted his father for Ernst’s cousin and rival Louis VII, Duke of Bavaria-Ingolstadt. The prospect of capping domestic homicide with civil war loomed for several months until father and son were reconciled — and one must guess, once again, at how that conversation went. Albert endowed a perpetual mass for Agnes which is still said annually. A Bernauer chapel containing a tomb relief of Agnes, erected as an apology by Duke Ernst, remains a tourist draw in Straubing.

The star-crossed love of Agnes and Albert has proven irresistible to the arts over the centuries, with a special boom in the Romantic era.

King Ludwig I of Bavaria composed a poem in her honor; several 19th century stage tragedies (most notably that of Friedrich Hebbel) explore the story; and Carl Orff made it into an opera, Die Bernauerin.

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1583: Elisabeth Plainacher, Vienna’s only witchcraft execution

Add comment September 27th, 2013 Headsman

The city of Vienna only has one documented execution for witchcraft to its illustrious history. It occurred on this date in 1583.

Elisabeth Plainacher (English Wikipedia entry | German) was a miller’s daughter from Mank who had lived most of her 70 or so years during the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, that social conflict so productive of witchcraft accusations.

It would factor very specifically in Elsa’s case, since she herself was a Protestant in a very Catholic place.

Elsa’s daughter Margaret died in childbirth, and Elsa took all four of the surviving children into her own care while Margaret’s widower went his own way. Three of these children would die in her care; the fourth became an epileptic in her teens, finally leading Margaret’s (Catholic) former husband to accuse his mother-in-law of bewitching everybody.

The accusation was ill-timed for the “witch”: Jesuit zealot Georg Scherer got hold of the case and put the epileptic teenager through a gantlet of exorcisms that he claimed expunged 12,652 infernal spirits. Scherer’s accounting must have been as rigorous as his faith.

“Scholars and men of understanding know that devils have neither flesh nor limbs, but are spirits, and therefore need no place or space as do our bodies,” Scherer later wrote by way of explaining the crowded tenancy. “A hundred thousand legions of spirits could all be collected together on the point of a needle.” Scherer preached, and later published, a sermon this holy combat, titled “A Christian remembrance of the most recent deliverance of a young woman who was possessed by 12,652 devils.”

This was a relentlessness which Elsa Plainacher was not formed to resist. She was a humble miller with some family drama, and then suddenly she was under torture (German link) in the imperial capital with the day’s headline pulpit-basher at her throat. She soon admitted whatever devilries her torturers demanded of her: giving the epileptic over to the devil, desecrating the Host, all that sort of thing.

On September 27, 1583, she was drug by a horse to an open field where she was burned at the stake. Her ashes were consigned to the Danube. Plainacherin even persisted (more German) in the local vernacular for a time as a dirty word.

Posterity’s apology for this horrible fate comes in the form of a small Vienna street, Elsa-Plainacher-Gasse, named after her. (There’s also a Plainachergasse in her native Mank.)

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1631: Anna Katharina Spee

Add comment September 20th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1631, Bruchhausen vintner Anna Katharina Spee as burned at the stake for witchcraft.

She’s notable for being the remarried widow (German link) of Robert Spee, who was kin to* Friedrich Spee.

Spee is an honorable figure in the sad history of 17th century witch-hunting. This very year of 1631, he published — anonymously at first — his Caution Criminalis (Precautions for Prosecutors). This seminal volume took a heretical-for-the-time stance against the widespread contemporary practice of judicial torture. Spee argued, heatedly, that it was great at extracting confessions but not so reliable when it came to extracting accurate confessions.

Torture chair-illustrated title page of Hetty Kemmerich’s study of German witchcraft prosecutions, with Anna Spee’s plaintive titular cry. Sagt, Was Ich Gestehen Soll! has not been translated from German, but is available from Amazon.de.

“Why do we search high and low for wizards?” Spee jeered his contemporaries. “I will show them to you no matter where. Torture the Capuchins and Jesuits; they will confess … Torture the prelates and canons of the Church; they will confess … If you want still more, then torture you yourselves, and then torture me.”

There’s no known connection between Spee’s work and the fate of poor Anna Katharina, but she could certainly serve as a case in point.

In vain did she deny intercourse with the devil in September 1631 until she could withstand her interrogators no longer and gave them what they demanded of her. A German book about the witch hunts takes its title from Anna Spee’s plea to her tormenters: Sagt, was ich gestehen soll! Tell me what I should say next!

* Robert Spee was either a brother or a cousin of Friedrich Spee. According to the Spee family’s German Wikipedia page, she’s also a distant ancestor of singer Wolfgang Niedecken.

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1655: Grete Adrian, Ruethen witch

Add comment July 5th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1655, Grete Adrian heard her final condemnation as a witch, then was ushered to the marketplace of Ruethen where she was beheaded and burned.

A remarried widow, Grete was the daughter of a woman who in her own day had been suspected of witchcraft; Grete had lost siblings to witch-hunts during the recent Thirty Years War.

The family history with devilry would help to implicate her when allegations arose that she had produced milk by conjuration and turned into a wolf to kill a neighbor’s horse. Grete didn’t stand up to the torture very long; within a couple of days she agreed that she had taken the devil as a lover, cast malevolent spells, attended witches’ covens, and all the usual Hexenprozesse stuff. All she asked was for quick execution.

In 2011, schoolchildren from Ruethen’s Friedrich-Spee-School — its namesake was a noted critic of torture and witch trials in the 17th century — successfully petitioned local authorities to issue a blanket posthumous pardon for 169 men, women and children executed for witchcraft between 1573 and 1660 … Grete Adrian included.

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1810: Leatherlips, tomahawked

1 comment June 2nd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1810, Ohio’s Wyandot (aka Huron) tribe executed Leatherlips by tomahawk.

This evocative name,* and his proper Wyandot name of Chief Shateyaronyah, appears among the signatories of the Treaty of Greenville — a pact secured after military action ceding Ohio to white settlers. It’s just an early installment of the rolling continental conquest with its familiar Hobson’s choice for natives: resist or accommodate?

Leatherlips was a leader of the accommodationist strand, advocating peacable relations with neighboring whites.

And in a few years, this would become a very big problem for the leader of the resistance camp — Tecumseh. This soon-to-be-renowned Shawnee would shortly raise a broad confederation up in arms against whites.

To do this, Tecumseh felt it necessary to eliminate the go-along, get-along types.

On June 1, 1810, six Wyandot warriors showed up at the historic Black Horse Tavern, a regular Leatherlips haunt at the Sells Settlement. This germ of present-day Dublin, Ohio, was the Scioto River property of the settler John Sells, a friend of Leatherlips.

Sells heard about this unsettling visit the next morning, and immediately set out on horseback to find the party. He came upon them in a lodge, with Leatherlips bound, being tried for witchcraft — a charge that was all the vogue after the recent death of a Lenape chief who was thought to have been enspelled. Leatherlips was pushing 80 years of age.

Sells’s attempts to save the elderly Wyandot’s life were in vain. That afternoon, Leatherlips painted his face, sang a war chant, and knelt by his own grave, where one of the braves slew him by tomahawking his head. The Wyandot warriors allegedly drew the Sells party’s attention to Leatherlips’s sweating face as he died, viewing this phenomenon as an indicium of guilt.


Monument to Leatherlips in Dublin, Ohio. (cc) image from future15pic. The monument marks the spot of Leatherlips’s execution, but its plaque attributing the execution date of June 1 appears to me to be mistaken.

* As much as it sounds like the poor guy needed some lip balm, “Leatherlips” was actually a nickname conferred (by whites) for his trustworthiness … as in, any promise that passes his lips is strong as leather, just like RUN-DMC.

** Today, there’s a John Sells Middle School in Dublin in this pioneer’s honor. Leatherlips, for his part, has his name on a street.

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1662: Rose Cullender and Amy Denny, Bury St. Edmunds witches

Add comment March 17th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1662, two elderly women were hung at Bury St. Edmunds for bewitching various neighborhood children.

This trial, the second notable witch trial at Bury St. Edmunds in the mid-17th century, got going when a well-off merchant, Samuel Pacy repeatedly declined to buy herring from Amy Denny (also spelled Deny or Duny in various accounts). Denny was heard muttering something indistinct as she left the house, and soon Pacy’s daughter Deborah was seized by the “most violent fits, feeling most extream pain in her Stomach, like the pricking of Pins, and Shreeking out in a most dreadful manner like unto a Whelp, and not like unto a sensible Creature.”

Actually, Deborah had already been hit with “”was suddenly taken with a Lameness in her Leggs, so that she could not stand” even before Amy Denny’s visit. Nonetheless, she apparently called out Amy Denny’s name during her throes of this most recent affliction. When an area doctor couldn’t diagnose the situation, Pacy finally filed a witchcraft complaint.

That was Oct. 28, 1661, when Amy Denny was clapped in irons. Two days later, the heretofore unperturbed eldest daughter (age: 11) came down with the same stuff. Anyone with a bit of experience in multiple-child is probably conjuring up an alternative hypothesis right this moment.

Both girls now commenced a litany of woes, coughing up pins, and reporting visions of evil little witches’ familiars like mice and flies, and having dreams “that Amy Duny and Rose Cullender would appear before them holding their Fists at them, threatning, That if they related either what they saw or heard, that they would Torment them Ten times more than eve they did before.”

Rose Cullender was another local widow of advanced age. Like Denny, Cullender had a pre-existing reputation as a witch.

By the time these two crones went on trial on March 10 — a week before their hangings — three other teenage girls were rocking the same symptoms. They even showed up to court, where they “fell into strange and violent fits, screeking out in a most sad manner, so that they could not in any wise give any Instructions in the Court who were the Cause of their Distemper.” Yet another woman deposed that Amy Denny had, several years before, bewitched both of her children, killing one of them: she said she caught a toad lurking around her ailing child, threw it in the fire, and the next day Denny was covered with burns. She didn’t say why she hadn’t mentioned any of this before.

The scientist Thomas Browne turned up to provide expert testimony that witchcraft did exist and that “the Devil” could exacerbate otherwise natural illnesses arising from an imbalance of the four humours.

stir up and excite such humors, super-abounding in [human] Bodies to a great excess, whereby he did in an extraordinary manner afflict them with such distempers as their bodies were most subject to, as particularly appeared in these children; for he conceived, that these swooning fits were natural, and nothing else but that they call the Mother, but only heightened to a great excess by the subtlety of the devil, cooperating with the malice of these which we term witches, at whose instance he doth these villanies.

Despite the court’s confidence as to the existence of witchcraft (The judge — more on him in a bit — instructed the jury that there could be no question on this point, only as to whether the children at hand were indeed bewitched at the defendants’ hands), it did its best impression of skepticism, trying to verify the sorcery by means of whatever tests it could. Unfortunately, the era’s forensics left something to be desired.

Samuel Pacy’s daughters’ reactions to Amy Denny were tested in a few different ways. For instance, as they sat near-comatose with fists clenched, nobody in the court could pry open their stubborn hands … but they popped right open when Amy Denny touched them. Elizabeth once broke out of her torpor to scratch and claw wildly at Amy Denny.

This little girl failed a more plausible test, however. When she was blindfolded and touched by two different women, she had the same reaction to both Amy Denny and the control contact. This embarrassing result was waved off by the widespread conviction in the courtroom that nobody “should counterfeit such Distempers, being accompanied with such various Circumstances, much less Children; and for so long time.” By the time of the trial, it was fully five months since Amy Denny had tried to get the Pacys to buy her darn herring.

In the end, none of the six still-living children supposedly affected by the witches testified directly. Their creepy presence in court did the talking for them. Within the hour after jurors handed down convictions for both women, all the children were freed of their symptoms. Both women, however, refused the many imprecations to confess and set their souls right before execution on March 17.

Noted jurist Matthew Hale heard the case (he was fresh off an assignment trying Charles I‘s regicides). Hale later became Chief Justice of the King’s Bench.

And his authority in this case survived his death in 1676. In the 1680s there was a (slightly misdated) pamphlet published, “A Tryal of Witches at the Assizes Held at Bury St. Edmonds for the County of Suffolk; on the Tenth day of March, 1664″.

Hale’s reputation gave the weight of juridical precedent to his witchcraft superstition.

Across the pond in New England, the Salem witch trials judges would refer to this very case when determining to admit so-called “spectral evidence” from the shitty little fabulistspossessed children who accused various townsfolk of enspelling them.

Witch trials apologist Cotton Mather dedicated a whole chapter (under the title “A Modern Instance of Witches, Discovered and Condemned in a Tryal, before that Celebrated Judg, Sir Matthew Hale”) to the authority established by the Cullender-Denny trial.

It may cast some Light upon the Dark things now in America, if we just give a glance upon the like things lately happening in Europe. We may see the Witchcrafts here most exactly resemble the Witchcrafts there; and we may learn what sort of Devils do trouble the World.

The Venerable Baxter very truly says, ["]Judge Hale was a Person, than whom no man was more Backward to condemn a Witch, without full Evidence.["]

Now, one of his latest Printed Accounts about a Tryal of Witches, is of what was before him … it was a Tryal, much considered by the Judges of New-England.

… [Mather spends several pages outlining the investigation and trial] …

The next Morning, the Children with their Parents, came to the Lodgings of the Lord Chief Justice [i.e., Hale, although he was not Chief Justice in 1662], and were in as good health as ever in their Lives; being restored within half an Hour after the Witches were Convicted.

The Witches were Executed, and Confessed nothing; which indeed will not be wondered by them, who Consider and Entertain the Judgment of a Judicious Writer, That the Unpardonable Sin, is most usually Committed by Professors of the Christian Religion, falling into Witchcraft.

We will now proceed unto several of the like Trials among our selves.

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1655: Jane Hopkins, Bermuda’s last known witch execution

1 comment January 5th, 2013 Headsman

The last known witchcraft execution in Bermuda history occurred on this date in 1655.

The isolated English colony was at this period laboring under social crisis, or a set of crises. It had been declared in rebellion by Cromwell‘s parliament for taking too-vigorous umbrage at King Charles‘s execution. Its official C of E ministers were being challenged by breakaway independents of various stripes of Puritanism. The tobacco crop blew away one year. And it may have had a perilous gender imbalance (too many women, too few men: Bermuda definitely did have this problem in the 18th century). (Source for this whole paragraph) Perhaps it’s no surprise that its Puritan governor* would oversee a spasm of witch persecutions from 1651 to 1655.

Jane Hopkins and another woman named Elizabeth Page were both stuck in the dock on this occasion. They’d recently arrived on the Mayflower** and the captain “did vehemently suspect them to be witches,” seemingly on account of their traveling sans male.

Page bewitched the ship’s helm according to a witness who beheld her run “her finger over the compas, And yt ran round from North to South, And turned backe againe.” That’s pretty impressively infernal, but here in the 17th century they knew to look for some hard forensic evidence … so a group of matrons in Bermuda was empaneled to feel Elizabeth Page up in search of a witch’s teat. Much to the woman’s good fortune, she possessed “not any marke or spotts or signes … only something more than ordinary (in a certain place).” She was accordingly acquitted.

Jane Hopkins’ body was not so ordinary.

The eyewitness testimony against her was a fellow-passenger to whom Hopkins sighed that she wished God would send some sign clearing up all these suspicions of devilry. A rat — ubiquitous in seafaring life, mind you — promptly appeared. To add to this damning divine indictment, a peeping tom on the ship watching her dress had noticed some sort of mark on her shoulder.

Sure enough, Hopkins’s gropers discerned “in her mouth a suspicitious marke and under her arme she hath a dugge or Teat, And upon her shoulder a wart, and upon her necke another wart … all these were insensible when they were prickt.” With this sort of slam-dunk evidence, the jurymen could hardly do otherwise than agree that Hopkins “hath felonously and wickedly consulted and covenanted with the Devil & him hath suckled and fedd contrary to nature & the law of God and man, as doth appeare by markes & signes upon her body.” (The full trial records can be perused here)

It’s not absolutely certain that Jane Hopkins was the last person executed in Bermuda for witchcraft. There were several additional witch prosecutions to follow in the 17th century: some ended in acquittal, others in conviction. There was even at least one more death sentence, but that hanging was stayed and the final disposition of the case is unknown.

* Governor Josiah Forster’s legacy for the isles — other than hanging witches — was the “Forster Chair” made in his honor.

** Not the same ship as the Mayflower of Plymouth Colony fame.

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