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.
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.
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.
On this date in 1635, the aged cunning-woman Hester Jonas was beheaded as a witch in the city of Neuss.
Torture chair-illustrated title page of Hetty Kemmerich’s study of German witchcraft prosecutions, including but not limited to Hester Jonas’s. Sagt, Was Ich Gestehen Soll! has not been translated from German, but is available from Amazon.de.
She was around 64 years of age when longstanding rumors of her witchiness triggered her arrest in the Hexenprozesse-crazed atmosphere of the Thirty Years War. The city’s mayor came right out and accused her of taking the devil into her bed, signaling that Jonas would have a difficult time escaping the scaffold.
Although the accused denied the charges at proceedings in November, ten hours naked in a spike-studded torture chair secured the customary confession — in this case, to fornicating in the turnip field with a black man named “Hans Beelzebub” who gave her magical powers. (Source, in German)
She managed to escape confinement the very night after she made these “admissions” but was re-taken, and her attempts to repudiate her previous self-incriminations flogged out of her.
After the executioner struck off her head, burned her body, and scattered her ashes to the four winds, her husband got the executioner’s bill for 65 Thalers.
20th century Dusseldorf poet Peter Maiwald wrote a “Ballade von der Hester Jonas” in honor of our date’s victim. The German band Cochise released an interpretation of this ballad on its 1979 album Smoke Signals.
Almost a full year had elapsed since Anna Fessler had received a few shrovetide cakes from the daughter of the neighboring millers.* Hours later, Fessler (who had delivered a child just a week before) took painfully ill and died in her bed.
The cakes led back to the miller’s wife Anna Schmieg, of course. But decades after the Thirty Years’ War, the whole witchcraft construct was on its way out. Robisheaux builds a powerful micro-history of the local magistrate’s painstaking effort to satisfy the era’s rigorous legal standards for witch-persecution.
These standards would soon break down entirely, but in the here and now (or there and then), the authorities had to establish Schmieg’s malevolent reputation, and figure out if there was sufficient evidence to license torture. There wasn’t, the legal doctors whom Hohenlohe consulted advised; Hohenlohe made up a justification to do it anyway.
Anyway, the torture did to a co-accused what torture usually does. That luckless itinerant local woman was named Barbara Schleicher: she’d been under a pall from the accusation of a previously-tortured “witch” in a nearby village a few years before, and under he requisite pressure she soon copped to everything. Schmieg denied and fought and repelled, but eventually she too broke down and made the fatal confession. So, on November 8, 1676, before a court constituted of local grandees,
Anna Elisabeth Schmieg and Barbara Schleicher had to confess one more time, openly and publicly.
This was the moment of danger. Were Anna now to curse the judges as she had cursed the executioner before she was tortured, “asking them to join her for God’s Judgment in the Valley of Jehosaphat,” the proceedings might break up. She could be tortured again, but the curse would have had a shocking effect and raised the question about whether an injustice was about to be committed.
Because of these dangers, instead of asking the women to speak for themselves, the county’s officer spoke for them, saying that the two poor sinners had freely confessed their crimes and were ready to be given over to justice. The scribe read of Anna’s use of witchcraft and murder, as well as her seduction by Satan. He pronounced that she had done so many evil things that she could not even remember them all. He then read out a list of Schleicher’s crimes, which included witchcraft, murdering two husbands, turning herself into a wolf, and attempting to commit suicide. Whoever these two poor sinners had been before that day, they were now publicly branded as witches, poisoners, and murderers.
Talk about speak now or forever hold your peace. For not raising a ruckus, the court threw a bone to the wicked and now-confessed hags and mitigated the sentence of tearing at their flesh with iron tongs followed by burning at the stake to tearing at their flesh with iron tongs followed by strangulation followed by burning at the stake.
Chief Justice Assum turned to the court assessors and asked them whether the sentence had been decided as the court scribe had read it. Together they replied yes. Assum then rose, broke the ceremonial staff in two, and threw the pieces to the floor. With this old legal gesture, the blood court was symbolically breaking its staff over the lives of the prisoners. Then he said, “God help their poor souls.” [Local Count] Heinrich Friedrich’s representative then asked that the executioner carry out the sentence. According to prescription, the command to the executioner was repeated three times. At the close the chief justice forbade everyone present, on penalty of bodily punishment, from seeking revenge for this act of justice. No one was to take up violence against the law or question what was being done. The court scribe repeated his admonition.
The executioner then led the women out of the court, across the drawbridge, and over into the market square, where they joined the procession that had assembled. Drummers beat out a cadence, schoolboys sang hymns, and the sober procession marched down Langenburg’s long main street and out the gate at the east end of the town.
Once past the town gate, Anna’s and Barbara’s expulsion from the community was complete. From many perspectives, as we have seen, Anna’s emotional world was not like our own. It would be wrong to assume that Anna and Barbara felt the same anxiety and fear that we would today as they climbed the “Path of Straw” to Gallows Hill. The belief that someone who received absolution before an execution, and who did not sin again by resisting, would go right to heaven may help explain why prisoners rarely resisted at this point. Most tried to meet their fate as best as they could. Considering the suffering of the last ten months, Anna may have welcomed her end. She and Schleicher may also have been fortified for the ordeal by wine. Prayer may have brought them solace. However she felt about her fate, no record mentions her resisting or cursing the executioner or members of the court.
The scene at the gallows must have been crowded. The execution was seen as an example, and it was considered essential that the Langenburg schoolchildren be let out of school to join the procession. There, with the rest of their neighbors, they would have watched Anna and Barbara torn with hot irons and then strangled with a rope. After the bodies were burned to ashes, the last ritual gesture was made. “Lord Chief Justice,” Master Endris asked, “Have I carried out the law?” To which Assum would have replied, “If you have executed what the law and the sentence require, then the law has been fulfilled.”
This verbal exchange was critical for the execution to have fulfilled its purpose. At this moment the law, formally in suspense since Anna’s arrest, had been restored. The breach in public order that had opened on Shrove Tuesday was now mended. Count Heinrich Friedrich had seen to it. The chief justice and the assessors filed back into town and into the courtroom. Once they took their seats, it was announced that justice had been done. A lavish feast awaited them.
Just stay away from the cakes.
* A delicious tradition. Here’s a recipe for vanilla-frosted custard-filled shrovetide buns, from Denmark. Deadly deadly Satanpoison is optional.
He was asked to concoct a spell that would cause the officer’s father to leave his second wife.
According to the officer’s account Abdul Hamid agreed to carry out the curse in exchange for 6,000 Saudi Arabian riyals (approximately £1,000).
He was beaten after his arrest and thought to have been forced to admit to acts of sorcery.
In a secret trial, where he was not allowed legal representation, he was sentenced to death by the General Court in Medina in March 2007.
Few details are available about his trial but he is reported to have been tried behind closed doors and without legal representation.
At the time of his arrest, English language Saudi daily The Saudi Gazette ran an article entitled Magic Maids which said that ‘we must face up to the threats from some maids and servants and their satanic games of witchcraft and sorcery, their robbery, murder, entrapment of husbands, corruption of children and other countless stories of crime that have been highlighted by both experts and victims of these crimes’.
You have heard of mother Nottingham, who for her time was pretty well skilled in casting of waters: and after her, Mother Bombye; and there is one Hatfield in Pepper-Alley, hee doth prettie well for a thing that’s lost. There’s another in Coleharbour, that’s skilled in the Planets. Mother Sturton in Goulden-lane, is Fore-speaking: Mother Phillips of the Banke-side is for the weaknesse of the backe: and then there’s a very reverent Matron on Clarkenwell-Green, good at many things: Mistris Mary on the Banke-side is for recting a Figure: and one (what doe you call her) in Westminster, that practiseth the Booke and the Key, and the Sive and the Shears: and all doe well, according to their talent. For myselfe, let he world speake.
This date marks the 400th anniversary of the Pendle witches‘ hanging — perhaps the most notorious witchcraft execution in English history.
Eight women and two men — Alizon Device, her brother James Device, and their mother Elizabeth Device of the Demdike family; Anne Whittle and her daughter Anne Redferne of the Chattox family; Jane Bulcock and her son John Bulcock; Alice Nutter; Katherine Hewitt; and Isabel Robey* — hanged together this date at Lancaster’s Gallows Hill after being tried over the preceding 48 hours; they, along with a woman named Jennet Preston hanged at York on July 29 comprise the Pendle Witches.
It’s an extraordinarily sad case.
The prosecution of the Pendle witches bubbled out of a witches’ brew of circumstances particular to early-17th century England. There was, to begin with, a new(ish) English king, James I and the guy had a major jones for hunting those early modern supernatural terrorists, witches.** The guy even wrote his own book, Daemonologie, to establish “that such divelish artes have bene and are … [and] what exact trial and severe punishment they merite.” A 1604 law had accordingly broadened the reach of the death penalty for supposed instances of sorcery.
Coming as this did in the aftermath of the Tudor Reformation, the nebulous concept of “witchcraft” was handy as well for clamping down on any excessively Catholic practices that might strike the right authorities as subversive, intransigent, or impious. Lancashire where we lay our scene was just such a Catholic-leaning zone.
Lancashire also had, as almost everywhere in the Isles, its share of “cunning folk” — workers of everyday folk magic whose widely tolerated practices could also be taken by a hostile viewer as Catholic superstition and/or hard-core infernal trafficking.
So, these are the brew’s ingredients. Add wool of bat and tongue of dog, stir vigorously … and serve with a length of hemp.
The Pendle witches brew started bubbling with a freak incident: a cunning woman named Alizon Device (you’ll recognize her name from the list of the hanged, above) tried to beg some needles from a passing peddler. The latter refusing her, Alizon cursed him, just like you do when you’re cut off in traffic.
Except in this case, the peddler promptly suffered a stroke.
Everyone was spooked at this apparent effusion of transmundane malevolence, nobody more so than Alizon herself. She became the first arrestee, and in the end would go the gallows convinced of her own sorcery.
She also started accusing others of occult involvement, either from a sense of panicked guilt or a blithe ignorance that the new legal regime would be interpreting folk spells as capital crimes. This led her bizarre instance of passing-peddler-popping to become a full-on witch hunt.
Alizon Device came from a whole family, the Demdykes or Demdikes, of cunning-women, and she implicated her own grandmother for having taught her the witchy ways. (Grandma would be spared the ignominy of hanging because she suffered the ignominy of dying in the filthy dungeon.) Alizon also accused a rival family, the Chattoxes, themselves well-known as “witches”, and she also implicated the matriarch of that family, Anne Whittle. The dreadful progress of the ensuing investigation, in which the feuding locals hanged each other with the aid of an ambitious local magistrate, is widely available — thanks to the record one lawyers witness to the proceedings set down in his credulous 1613 chapbook The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster.
Once these initial arrests were in the books, Alizon’s mother Elizabeth apparently convened a solidarity meeting at a hut with the diabolically menacing name of Malkin† Tower. Dining on stolen mutton, and on Good Friday no less, they may have worked out a plan to liberate the prisoners from Lancaster Castle (at least, the Demdike prisoners). But the magistrate got wind of this confabulation and burst in to arrest those participants, too. As these secondary circles were pulled into the investigation, so too were past years of community gossip about these “witches”, of various folk who had died unexplained and various mishaps that befell people whom the witches didn’t like.
These superstitions seem to have been shared by the witches themselves, at least many of them. The Demdikes and Chattoxes used clay figures, human remains, and little effigies of victims with the intent of hurling evil at their enemies. Causality aside, Alizon Demdike did curse the peddler. “Witches think sometimes that they kill, when they do not, and are therefore as culpable, as if they did,” said their contemporary, pastor John Donne.
To augment the assorted confessions and counter-accusations among the accused, Elizabeth Device’s nine-year-old daughter Jennet Device (little sister of the original peddler-curser Alizon) was summoned up to provide coached testimony against her siblings Alizon and James, against her mother, and against those at the Malkin Tower meeting. Several of these latter would be convicted of non-capital crimes or even acquitted outright, but little Jennet’s testimony doomed her own family.
Although not the first time a child had provided evidence, it was a landmark in normalizing minors’ accusations — jurisprudence advocated by James’s Daemonologie. “Children, women and liars,” the sovereign announced, “can be witnesses over high treason against God.”
In later life, Jennet appears to have been caught up in the same trap, when she was accused of witchcraft by a 10-year-old boy. A judiciary grown more cautious by then did not put her to death … but she (unless it was a different person also named Jennet Device) died in prison.
And the acceptability of this sort of children’s testimony, duly documented for country JP’s in Michael Dalton’s Country Justice, containing the Practice, Duty, and Power of Justices of the Peace, would be the lethal linchpin of the witch trials 80 years later across the Atlantic — in Salem, Massachusetts.
This miserable event has informed any number of artistic productions from the 17th century stage to the present day. Pendle and Lancashire, as bywords for witch superstitions, now trade handsomely on the unfortunate fame.
Many there have also pushed (thus far unsuccessfully) for an official posthumous pardon of the hanged witches.
And the nearby village of Roughlee even erected a statue in 2012 to the hanged Alice Nutter … a gentlewoman (i.e., of considerably higher class standing than her fellow condemned) whose reason for attending the Malkin Tower meeting remains mysterious.
* Isabel Robey is an outlier case; as of this writing, she’s not even named as one of the Pendle witches on the Wikipedia page as it seems she was not associated directly with the Malkin Tower crowd — merely a bystander who got caught up in the storm of denunciations. She was, however, hanged on Gallows Hill for witchcraft on August 20. There’s a lengthy attempt at reconstructing her story in the face of scant documentation here (pdf).
“Let the sceptical read the ‘Country Justice’ to see what subtle threads were strong enough for a witch-halter!” (Source)
On this date in 1652, Joan Peterson was hanged at Tyburn for witchcraft.
Joan is a long time in the ground, and her dying refusal to be cowed by the officious prelate ordained to badger her into self-incrimination would alone stand her in very worthy stead in these pages. Even the hangman got annoyed when Joan, at the gallows,
was by the Ordinary nine on ten times earnestly pressed to confesse something against the said Mrs. Levingstone: Whereupon the Executioner told the Ordinary, he might be ashamed to trouble a dying woman so much, to which he replyed, he was commanded so to doe, and durst doe no otherwise. And afterwards the said Ordinary still insisting in his discourse, and very often pressing the said Peterson to confesse and discharge her conscience before God and the world; she answered that she had already confessed before the Bench, all she had to confesse; that she had made her peace with God; and therefore desired to dye in quiet, for now she was to appeare before God who presently would Judge her, and that God was witnes, that she dyed Innocently, and was in no wise guilty of what was laid to her charge.
This account comes to us from one of the surviving pamphlets (pdf) about her case, a document that, were it produced today, would probably draw a severe sanction under Britain’s nasty libel laws for its scandalous indictment of Joan’s persecutors.
It lays out an unscrupulous conspiracy of local grandees scrabbling after inheritance money, in which the “Witch of Wapping” swung for being the only honest broker in the room. Sure, we can’t prove it. But the rival, anti-Joan pamphlet (also at that same pdf link) has a lot of rot about our woman damningly chattering with a diabolical familiar in the cunning guise of a squirrel.
According to the pro-Joan pamphleteer, the trouble started when an elderly woman named Lady Powell died, leaving her wealth to a particular relative — the “Mrs. [Anne] Levingstone” mentioned in the excerpt above — and stiffing several others.
These others contrived a scheme to charge Anne Livingston with witchery in order to separate her from her windfall and get their own hands on it. Though witch-hunting never really reached the epidemic dimensions in England that it often achieved on the continent — the English ban on torture helped prevent self-sustaining cycles of forced denunciations — it did have its moments, and the characters in question may have been encouraged by the recent exploits of notorious witch-diviner Matthew Hopkins in preposterous judicial homicide.
But they weren’t targeting Joan Peterson at all. They just wanted to use her to get at Livingston.
When Peterson, a local healer with a knack for fixing migraines, refused a bribe to accuse Livingston of sorcering, the plotters made it an offer she couldn’t refuse (and protected themselves from exposure) by accusing Joan herself.
Our pamphlet presents a riveting and revolting story of the conspirators essentially being one with the local judicial officials — in fact, when it comes to trial, they’re literally Joan Peterson’s judges — but even as they groped her for witches’ teats and the like, they endeavored “to perswade the said Peterson to confess [since] she needed not fear what she confessed, for it was not her life they aimed at, but to have matter whereby to accuse one Mrs. Levingston, who had gotten the said Lady Powels estate, and thereby had undone 36 Persons of the said Ladyes Kindred.”
Playboy parliamentarian (and, recently, regicide) John Danvers* made a rare appearance in the neighborhood to help orchestrate events. Danvers was a sound man to have for an expedient financial racket; he was famous for acquiring his fortune by marrying an older widow. She’d since died, and he’d since squandered it.
Even with the fix in, however, Joan’s ability to produce physician testimony and a written post-mortem ascribing Lady Powell’s death to natural causes — the doctors were impressed she’d managed to make it to age 80 what with the “the Dropsie, the Scurvey, and the yellow Jaundies” — ran that whole case aground.
Considering the incriminating threats and blandishments Joan had heard, however, they just got her on a second, simultaneous indictment — for bewitching one Christopher Wilson, on the grounds that he’d gone to her for a cure, gotten a little better, and then relapsed. If you think modern libel law is harsh, you should see Protectorate malpractice law.
Wilson, one should add, did not make this complaint himself: others were induced to level the charge on his behalf, while the court itself barred most defense testimony with threats to imprison the witnesses as probable witches themselves. (Nevertheless, some did appear for Joan.) Somehow, this was enough for conviction.
Even after her condemnation,
the said confederates and their agents went very often to her promising her a Repreive or Pardon if she would confesse that Mrs. Levingstone had Imployed her to make away the life of the Lady Powell, to which she replyed she could not, because it was altogether false. But one of the said confederates urging her againe to say something against Mrs. Levingstone, she told him he was a rogue, and gave him a blow on the face, which made his nose bleed: Where it is to be noted, that what for love of money they could not tempt her to, they resolved at last for love of her life to force her to, by necessitating her either unjustly to confesse a notorious falsehood against the said Mrs. Levingstone or else to dye without mercy or Repreive, which otherwise was proffered her by the said Confederates, to make her unjust in doing the same.
On this date in 1428, Matteuccia di Francesco was condemned and burned as a witch in the Perugian town of Todi. It’s one of the oldest witchcraft cases in Italy for which a complete trial record survives.
Matteuccia was a local wise woman or sorceress dispensing the herbal remedies, potions, and incantations that comprised the everyday magic as experienced by popular superstition — like a homemade contraceptive (ashes of a mule’s hoof mixed into wine: drink up!) for the mistress of the local prelate.
The woman seems to have practiced this openly and (for aught we know) happily in Todi … until Bernardino of Siena holy rolled into town.
Bernardino, now considered a Catholic saint, was a mendicant Franciscan who crisscrossed Italy inveighing against Jews, sodomites, and (you guessed it) witches. Think Savonarola: like that later austere and charismatic firebrand, Bernardino even had bonfires of vanities.
The turmoil was large and the people trembled. The Church and piazza Santa Croce was full of citizens and peasants, women and men, several thousands in number. The shouting of little children and young boys was loud when friar Bernardino stopped preaching and went to the piazza with many other friars and set on fire a pile of four tables of games, several baskets of dice, more than four thousands pairs of old and new card games of great numbers, and placed and attached and hung on every side were much hair and flounces of dresses of women and other things and with a lot of wood underneath. You have never seen a more beautiful fire, and the flames spread in the air and confused the demon enemy of God, bringing glory, honor and praises to the reverence of our master Jesus Christ the highest God.*
Detail view of Sano di Pietro’s 1445 St. Bernardino Preaching in the Campo, showing the saint (brandishing his trademark prop tablets) drawing a crowd in his native Siena’s central plaza. There are many paintings, stretching to centuries after his death, on the theme of Bernardino’s, er, spellbinding sermons.
As pertains specifically to witchcraft, one might say that the import of preachers like Bernardino thundering from the pulpits in the early 15th century was to delegitimate the many Matteuccias around.
Thanks to decades of evolving thought, this formerly accepted sphere of “white magic” was now going to be understood as outright devil-worship: your classic theological zero-tolerance policy.
O you who have used the charm for broken bones, to you, and to him or her who says that she is bewitched, and who makes you believe she is — to all these I say, take heed! For the first to feel the strokes from God’s scourges will be those who have trusted in these enchantments and followed them; and next vengeance will overtake those who have not brought them to justice … When such people say that they wish to cure anyone, do you know what you should do? There is nothing better to do than cry, “To the fire! To the fire! To the fire!”
Wherever one may be, and whoever may know him or her, in any place whatsoever inside or outside the city, straightaway accuse her before the Inquisitor … every witch, every wizard, every sorcerer or sorceress, or worker of charms and spells … such enchanters, every time they have worked any charms or spells have denied God by doing so.
Inspired by our itinerant zealot, Todi tightened up witchcraft laws in 1426, and prescribed the stake and the fagot for violations.
“The church now equated the performance of common sorcery, involving only a few words or simple gestures and aimed at curing or causing illness or affecting the weather, with … a preexisting pact between the sorcerer and demons that made such magic possible,” writes Michael Bailey.** “Indeed, such sorcerers, whom in an earlier era the church had seen more as victims and dupes of demonic illusions and had hardly taken seriously, now became all the more terrible in that they were capable of commanding demonic forces with only a few simple words or signs.”
Matteuccia didn’t have long to enjoy her newfound demonic-command powers before she ran afoul of Todi’s eager witch-hunters. Her words, as filtered through her interrogators, capture the evolving theology-cum-jurisprudence around magic.
After copping to countless trifling hocuses and pocuses — philters for lovers, poultices for injuries, aid and comfort for battered women (apparently, counseling these women was one of her specialties: “adding evil to evil,” according to her persecutors) — her narrative suddenly shifts to the phantasmagorial.
Presumably under torture or the promise thereof, the corner pharmacist is suddenly reporting that she drank children’s blood and transformed into an animal to fly off to Lucifer’s convocations at Benevento. (This is also one of Italy’s first documented invocations of flying to a witches’ sabbat.) Not surprisingly, these scenes are straight out of Bernardino’s own descriptions of what witches do.
The intellectual framework of the inquisitors who pursued Matteuccia now expected to find the latter variety of supernatural diabolism as a corollary and precondition for stocking an impotence enchantment. And like inquisitors are always prone to do, they made sure to find what they were looking for.
* 1424 account of a Bernardino spectacle in Florence, quoted and translated in Nirit Ben-Aryeh’s “Jews and Judaism in the Rhetoric of Popular Preachers: The Florentine Sermons of Giovanni Dominici (1356-1419) and Bernardino da Siena (1380-1444)”, Jewish History, Vol. 14, No. 2 (2000),
** Bailey, “From Sorcery to Witchcraft: Clerical Conceptions of Magic in the Later Middle Ages”, Speculum, Vol. 76, No. 4 (Oct., 2001).
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.
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. (FromE.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!
Not long before, a Mergentheim Teutonic knight had been petitioned for help extracting a schoolboy from Wurzburg, where the absentee father feared he was running with a devilish crowd. Once the authorities heard that witchy stuff, all the inhuman gears came to life.
Instead of returning the tyke to his concerned dad, Wurzburg arrested the boy, strongarmed him into admitting his Satanic ties, and burned him at the stake. Nine years old.
That was Wurzburg. But back where the allegation originated, writes H.C. Erik Midelfort, “the discovery in Mergentheim that children might be guilty of witchcraft was to have serious consequences.”
Like a fresh plague outbreak, a witch persecution broke out in Mergentheim and neighboring Markelsheim, with some schoolchildren hounded by inquisitors within a few weeks of their compatriot’s execution over in Wurzburg. From there, it became epidemic all over town. By October 1628, the first witches were shrouded in flames for their neighbors’ edification. Over the course of 1629, the peak year for the Mergentheimer Hexenprozess, 91 humans died on the areas scaffolds as Satanic wizards — not counting those who were tortured to death.
Our victim today was big game, a wealthy city elite, and she wasn’t the only such. These must have made some kind of hedgerow gossip, but the general hysteria of the place made it dangerous to sustain any public controversy even about the downfall of the recently well-connected.
Midelfort, again, on the very relatable circumstance of a prosperous innkeeper who was a little too incensed for his own good at seeing Anna Gurren die.
Thomas Schreiber had a strong sense of justice. When the trials in Mergentheim had run only two months, he had already lost faith in the judicial procedure. On December 1, 1628 when Martha, wife of Burgermeister Hans Georg Braun, was executed, Schreiber was heard by many persons exclaiming that she had been done a gross injusice. Schreiber even let slip that “King Nero” had also conducted such bloodbaths. Six weeks later Schreiber was again appalled when the extremely wealthy widow of Lorenz Gurren was convicted of witchcraft and executed on January 12, 1629. When attending the execution of the lady, he had the temerity to express amazement over her confesion. The Amtmann Max Waltzen turned to him and said pointedly, “Ha, ha, those who know the devil should not be so amazed.” That kind of talk perturbed Schreiber, and when magistrates began avoiding him, he prepared to flee. During this time he repeatedly denounced the court for its unjust trials and declared that “if anything happens to me, let every pious Christian fear for himself.” He also prayed that “God might preserve everyone from Neuenhaus [the jail and torture chamber], for even the most pious if put in there would be found to be a witch.” The trials, he insisted, were bloodbaths, and the magistrates were out to “wash their hands in my blood.”
Schreiber fled town on February 1, having heard that people had started denouncing him. But he didn’t make it long.
He, too, was dead by the end of May — as a confessed (just like he predicted) witch.