1566: Agnes Waterhouse, the first witchcraft execution in England

Add comment July 29th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1556, Agnes Waterhouse became the first known woman executed for witchcraft in England.

“Mother Waterhouse” came accused as the matriarch of a whole clan of hags in the Essex village of Hatfield Peverel. Our record for events, a pamphlet titled The Examination and confession of certaine wytches at Chensforde [Chelmsford] in the countie of Essex: before the Quenes Maiesties judges, the xxvi daye of July, anno 1566.,* gives us Mother Waterhouse accused a sorceress along with her daughter, Joan (eventually acquitted), as well as Agnes’s sister, Elizabeth Francis. By accounts they had come by their necromancies via the guidance of a “hyr grand­mother whose nam was mother Eue of Hatfyelde Peue­rell.”

Tudor England had thus far been spared the witch persecutions that were multiplying on the continent, and even here the accusations ultimately invoked the supernatural as the means for actual material injuries: to sicken and kill both livestock and people.

Both Agnes Waterhouse and Elizabeth Francis confessed to a wide array of crimes, facilitated by a feline familiar unsubtly christened “Sathan”; a neighboring child gave evidence against Agnes. Elizabeth Francis would not be executed as a result of this trial — she faced new charges that would hang her in 1579 — but she directly copped to doing murders via the cat. We excerpt below from the “Examination and confession” pamphlet but as rendered into easier-on-the-eyes modern spellings, found here:

she desired to have one Andrew Byles to her husband, which was a man of some wealth, and the cat did promise she should, but that he said she must first consent that this Andrew could abuse her, and so she did.

And after when this Andrew had thus abused her he would not marry her, wherefore she willed Satan to waste his goods, which he forthwith did, and yet not being contented with this, she willed him to touch his body, which he forthwith did wherefore he died.

Item that every time that he did anything for her, she said that he required a drop of blood, which she gave him by pricking herself, sometime in one place and then in another, and where she pricked herself there remained a red spot, which was still to be seen.

Item when this Andrew was dead, she doubting [fearing] herself with child with Satan to destroy it, and he had her take a certain herb and drink which she did, and destroyed the child forthwith.

Item when she desired another husband, he promised her another, naming this Francis whom she now hath, but said he is not so rich as the other, willing her to consent unto that Francis in fornication which she did, and thereof conceived a daughter that was born within a quarter of a year after they were married.

After they were married they lived not so quietly as she desired, being stirred (as she said) to much unquietness and moved to swearing and cursing, wherefore she willed Satan her Cat to kill the child, being about the age of half a year old and he did so, and when she yet found not the quietness that she desired, she willed it to lay a lameness in the leg of this Francis her husband, and it did in this manner. It came in a morning to this Francis’ shoe, lying in it like a toad, and when he perceived it putting on his shoe, and had touched it with his foot, he being suddenly amazed asked her of what it was, and she bade him kill it, and he was forthwith taken with a lameness whereof he cannot healed.

After “fifteen or sixteen years” she traded the little agent of chaos to her sister for some cakes, and afterwards the cat did Agnes’s will instead.

when she had received him she (to try him what he could do) willed him to kill a hog of her own which he did, and she gave him for his labor a chicken, which he first required of her and a drop of her blood. And this she gave him at all times when he did anything for her, by pricking her hand or face and putting the blood to his mouth which he sucked, and forthwith would lie down in his pot again, wherein she kept him, the spots of all the which pricks are yet to be seen in her skin.

Also she sayeth that another time being offended with one father Kersey she took her cat Satan in her lap and put him in the wood before her door, and willed him to kill three of this Father Kersey’s hogs, which he did, and returning again told her so, and she rewarded him as before with a chicken and a drop of her blood, which chicken he ate up clean as he did all the rest, and she could find remaining neither bones nor feathers.

Also she confessed that falling out with one Widow Gooday she willed Satan to drown her cow and he did so, and she rewarded him as before.

Also she falling out with another of her neighbors, she killed her three geese in the same manner.

Item, she confessed that because she could have no rest (which she required) she caused Satan to destroy the brewing at that time.

Also being denied butter of another, she caused her to lose the curds two or three days after.

Item falling out with another of her neighbors and his wife, she willed Satan to kill him with a bloody slice, whereof he died, and she rewarded him as before.

Likewise she confessed that because she lived somewhat unquietly with her husband she caused Satan to kill him, and he did so about nine years past, since which time she hath lived a widow.

Also she said that when she would will him to do anything for her, she would say her Pater noster in Latin.

Latin! And here perhaps we find a hint — for details on the background and specific context of this prosecution are not to be found — that the shocks of the Reformation were one root of events. As Kate Dumycz observes

Mother Eve perhaps started practising her “craft” in the second half of the fifteenth century … a time when, although the existence of witchcraft was acknowledged and people consulted cunning men and women, there was no witchcraft act on the Statute books … this family would have lived through great upheaval that affected all parts of England because of the Reformation. Christopher Marsh comments that many rituals of the Catholic Church (such as charms, sorcery, enchantments) were banned in 1559 and this ruling was a “broader campaign to destroy the credibility of traditional religion by exposing its alleged superstition”. Rosen remarks “Bitterness, resentment and pain that can no longer be discharged through familiar religious channels will almost inevitably be turned upon others; and in their delusions, such women were aided by the learned and by the religious terms in which they continued to think.”

Agnes Waterhouse leaves us a tantalising clue about contemporary attitudes towards religion and those who practised outside the State dictated religion “she was demanded what praier she saide, she aunswered the Lordes prayer, the Aue Maria, and the belefe, & then they demaunded whether in laten or in englyshe, and shee sayde in laten, and they demaunded why she saide it not in engly[sh]e but in laten”. [note: this interrogation occurred during Agnes Waterhouse’s repentant gallows speech, not during the trial -ed.] So, Agnes Waterhouse at least, practised some of the “old ways” and perhaps had not converted to Protestantism and therefore operated outside the beliefs and “norms” of her society. Rosen comments that between 1534 and the time of this trial “there had been eight major religious changes requiring oaths from teachers, ministers and public officials with four total reversals of religious practice enforced by law and death sentence”. … Agnes Waterhouse’s ability to say her prayers in Latin would have been compulsory during Mary’s reign and yet a few years later this factor was used against her as an indication that she was practising witchcraft and thus, as a witch, was unable to say her prayers correctly in English.

Whilst it has long been established by modern day historians such as Keith Thomas that “in England witchcraft was prosecuted primarily as an anti-social crime, rather than as a heresy” Agnes Waterhouse’s case shows that religion must have played a small but significant part in her neighbours’ belief that she was a witch although she was executed as a murderer rather than a heretic.

Agnes Waterhouse, Joan Waterhouse, and Elizabeth Francis were the first of nine women (plus one man) from Hatfield Peverel prosecuted as witches between 1566 and 1589.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Witchcraft,Women

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1648: Margaret Jones, the first witch executed in Boston

Add comment June 15th, 2011 Headsman

We expediently cadge today’s entry from the public-domain Memorial History of Boston, in a section penned by Chicago public librarian William F. Poole.

(The illustrations, their captions, and the footnotes are interpositions from ExecutedToday.com.)


In Boston, the earliest execution for witchcraft was that of Margaret Jones, of Charlestown, on June 15, 1648.* There seems to be no evidence that any earlier case of witchcraft was under investigation in the colony.

Her husband, Thomas Jones, was arrested at the same time on the same charge, but he was not convicted. The little we know of Margaret Jones we find in Governor Winthrop’s Journal. She was evidently a strong-minded woman, and a skilful practitioner of medicine … There was no charge that she had bewitched any one, and the usual phenomena of spectres, fits, spasms, etc. were wanting. The main evidence on which she was convicted was her imps, which were detected by “watching” her …

The Court Records and the Deputies’ Records … for May 18, give an order concerning Margaret Jones and her husband, without the mention of their names, as follows: —

This court, desirous that the same course which hath been taken in England for the discovery of witches, by watching [them a certain time] may also be taken here with the witch now in question: [It is ordered that the best and surest way may forthwith be put in practice, to begin tis night, if it may be, being the 18th of the 3d month] that a strict watch be set about her every night, and that her husband be confined to a private room and watched also” (Deputies’ Records, with the words in brackets inserted from the Court records).

The theory of the English law books was that every witch had familiars or imps, which were sent out by the witch to work deeds of darkness, and that they returned to the witch once a day, at least, for sustenance, and usually in the night. By watching the witch these imps might be detected, and thus furnish certain proof of guilt in the accused.


1647 frontispiece of English witch hunter Matthew Hopkins‘s tract The Discovery of Witches shows witches and their various named familiars.

Michael Dalton’s Country Justice, containing the Practice, Duty, and Power of Justices of the Peace, was a common book in the colonies, and was quoted in the witch trials at Salem. In the chapter on “Witchcraft” it has the following directions: —

Now against these witches, being the most cruel, revengeful, and bloody of all the rest, the justices of the Peace may not always expect direct evidence, seeing all their works are the works of darkness, and no witnesses present with them to accuse them; and, therefore, for the better discovery, I thought good here to insert certain observations, partly out of the ‘Book of Discovery of the Witches that were arraigned at Lancaster, Anno 1612, before Sir James Altham and Sir Edward Bromley, Judges of Assize there,’ and partly out of Mr. [Richard] Bernard’s ‘Guide to Grand Jurymen.’

These witches have ordinarily a familiar, or spirit, which appeareth to them, sometimes in one shape and sometimes in another; as in the shape of a man, woman, boy, dog, cat, foal, hare, rat, toad etc.


A 1579 English image of a witch feeding her familiars. (But not from secret teats.)

And to these their spirits they give names, and they meet together to christen them (as they speak). Their said familiar hath some big or little teat upon their body, and in some secret place, where he sucketh them. And besides their sucking the Devil leaveth other marks upon their body, sometimes like a blue or red spot, like a flea-biting, sometimes the flesh sunk in and hollow (all which for a time may be covered, yea, taken away, but will come out again in their old form). And these Devil’s marks be insensible, and being pricked will not bleed, and be often in their secretest parts, and therefore require diligent and careful search. These first two are main points to discover and convict those witches; for they fully prove that those witches have a familiar, and made a league with the Devil. So, likewise, if the suspected be proved to have been heard to call upon their spirits, or to talk to them, or of them, or have offered them to others. So if they have been seen with their spirit, or to feed something secretly; these are proofs that they have a familiar. They have often pictures [images] of clay or wax, like a man, etc., made of such as they would bewitch, found in their house, or which they may roast or bury in the earth, that as the picture consumes, so may the parties bewitched consume (Edition of 1727, p. 514.)

Mr. John Gaule, in his Select Cases of Conscience touching Witches and Witchcraft, 1646, p. 77, condemning the barbarous methods of discovering witches, thus describes the mode of “watching a witch” in use at the time: —

Having taken the suspected witch, she is placed in the middle of a room upon a stool or table, cross-legged, or in some uneasy posture, to which if she submits not, she is bound with cords. She is there watched, and kept without meat or sleep for the space of four-and-twenty hours. — for they say within that time they shall see her imp come and suck. A little hole is likewise made in the door for the imps to come in at.

Margaret Jones was “searched” and “watched;” the fatal witch-marks were discovered, and her imp was seen in “the clear day-light,” as appears in the record of the case which Governor Winthrop made in his Journal at the time: —

[June 15, 1648].** At this court, one Margaret Jones, of Chalrestown, was indicted and found guilty of witchcraft, and hanged for it. The evidence against her was —

  1. That she was found to have such a malignant touch, as many persons, men, women, and children,, whom she stroked or touched with any affection or displeasure, or etc. [sic], were taken with deafness, or vomiting, or other violent pains or sickness.
  2. She practising physic, and her medicines being such things as, by her own confession, were harmless, — as anise-seed, liquors, etc., — yet had extraordinary violent effects.
  3. She would use to tell such as would not make use of her physic, that they would never be healed; and accordingly their diseases and hurts continued, with relapse against the ordinary course, and beyond he apprehension of all physicians and surgeons.
  4. Some things which she foretold came to pass accordingly; other things she would tell of, as secret speeches, etc., which she had no ordinary means to come to the knowledge of.
  5. She had, upon search, an apparent teat … as fresh as if it had been newly sucked; and after it had been scanned, upon a forced search, that was withered, and another began on the opposite side.
  6. In the prison, in the clear day-light, there was seen in her arms, she sitting on the floor, and her clothes up, etc., a little child, which ran from her into another room, and the officer following it, it was vanished. the like child was seen in two other places to which she had relation; and one maid that saw it, fell sick upon it, and was cured by the said Margaret who used means to be employed to that end. Her behavior at her trial was very intemperate, lying notoriously, and railing upon the jury and witnesses, etc., and in the like distemper she died. The same day and hour she was executed, there was a very great tempest at Connecticut, which blew down many trees, etc. (ii. 397, ed. of 1853).

Mr. John Hale,† in his Modest Inquiry, p. 17, mentions the case, but none of the incidents recorded by Winthrop. He was born in Charlestown, was twelve years old at the time, and with some neighbors visited the condemned woman in prison the day she was executed. He says: —

… She was suspected, partly because that, after some angry words passing between her and her neighbors, some msichief befell such neighbors in their creatures [cattle] or the like; partly because some things supposed to be bewitched, or have a charm upon them, being burned, she came to the fire and seemed concerned.

The day of her execution I went, in company of some neighbors, who took great pains to bring her to confession and repentance; but she constantly professed herself innocent of that crime. Then one prayed her to consider if God did not bring this punishment upon her for some other crime; and asked if she had not been guilty of stealing many years ago. She answered, she had stolen something; but it was long since, and she had repented of it, and there was grace enough in Christ to pardno that long ago; but as for witchcraft she was wholly free from it, — and so she said unto her death.

There is no other contemporary mention of the case. It is a horrible record; and if downright, stolid superstition and inhumanity was not surpassed, if, indeed, it was equalled, at Salem forty-four years later. That it was an incident characteristic of the time, and that similar atrocities were being committed in every nation in Europe without shocking the sensibilities of the most refined and cultivated men of that day, are the only mitigating circumstances which can be suggested.

Thomas Jones, the husband of the woman executed, found, on his release from prison, that his troubles had only begun. He resolved to leave the country, and took passage in the Boston ship “Welcome,” riding at anchor before Charlestown … The weather was calm, yet the ship fell to rolling, and so deep it was feared she would founder … hearing that te husband of the executed witch was on board, between whom and the captain a dispute had arisen as to his passage-money, [the County Court of Boston] sent officers to arrest him, one of them saying “the ship would stand still as soon as he was in prison.” No sooner was the warrant shown, tan the rolling of the ship began to stop, and after the man was in prison it moved no more.‡

* Not to be confused with the first witchcraft execution in all of New England, witchwhich distinction belongs, so far as can be documented, to Alse Young in Connecticut the previous year.

** Winthrop does not date this entry himself. The author of this piece observes in a footnote here that “the date next preceding is June 4, 1648. The true date of the execution was doubtless June 15, as appears in Danforth‘s Almanac for that year.

† John Hale is of particular interest as one of the ministers later involved in the Salem witch trialsproceedings he initially supported, but turned against as they unfolded. He appears in that capacity as a character in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible; there’s a short YouTube video series exploring his character in that play: Part 1 | Part 2

The work cited here, A Modest Enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft, was Hale’s post-Salem critique of witchcraft theology and jurisprudence.

‡ Suggestive evidence indeed. Montague Summers might encourage us to consider the possibility that the Joneses really were witches.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Milestones,Notable Sleuthing,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,The Supernatural,USA,Witchcraft,Women,Wrongful Executions

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