1652: Joan Peterson, the Witch of Wapping

1 comment April 12th, 2012 Headsman

“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.

Go, Joan.

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.


Satan’s minion. (cc) image from alphakilo2bravo.

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.

Go, Joan.

* There’s a street named for him in Chelsea. His family name (though not selected specifically for John Danvers) also adorns the town of Danvers, Massachusetts … which was renamed in the 18th century to help bury its notoriety as Salem Village, an epicenter of the Salem witch trials.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Pelf,Public Executions,Witchcraft,Women,Wrongful Executions

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