The Effects of the Witch Superstition are to be traced in the Laws of a Kingdom—Usually punished in England as a Crime connected with Politics—Attempt at Murder for Witchcraft not in itself Capital—Trials of Persons of Rank for Witchcraft, connected with State Crimes—Statutes of Henry VIII—How Witchcraft was regarded by the three Leading Sects of Religion in the Sixteenth Century; first, by the Catholics; second, by the Calvinists; third, by the Church of England and Lutherans—Impostures unwarily countenanced by individual Catholic Priests, and also by some Puritanic Clergymen—Statute of 1562, and some cases upon it—Case of Dugdale—Case of the Witches of Warbois, and the execution of the Family of Samuel—That of Jane Wenham, in which some Church of England Clergymen insisted on the Prosecution—Hutchison’s Rebuke to them—James the First’s Opinion of Witchcraft—His celebrated Statute, 1 Jac. I.—Canon passed by the Convocation against Possession—Case of Mr. Fairfax’s Children—Lancashire Witches in 1613—Another Discovery in 1634—Webster’s Account of the manner in which the Imposture was managed—Superiority of the Calvinists is followed by a severe Prosecution of Witches—Executions in Suffolk, &c. to a dreadful extent—Hopkins, the pretended Witchfinder, the cause of these Cruelties—His Brutal Practices—His Letter—Execution of Mr. Lowis—Hopkins Punished—Restoration of Charles—Trial of Coxe—Of Dunny and Callendar before Lord Hales—Royal Society and Progress of Knowledge—Somersetshire Witches—Opinions of the Populace—A Woman Swum for Witchcraft at Oakly—- Murder at Tring—Act against Witchcraft abolished, and the belief in the Crime becomes forgotten—Witch Trials in New England—Dame Glover’s Trial—Affliction of the Parvises, and frightful Increase of the Prosecutions—Suddenly put a stop to—The Penitence of those concerned in them.
Our account of Demonology in England must naturally, as in every other country, depend chiefly on the instances which history contains of the laws and prosecutions against witchcraft. Other superstitions arose and decayed, were dreaded or despised, without greater embarrassment, in the provinces in which they have a temporary currency, than that cowards and children go out more seldom at night, while the reports of ghosts and fairies are peculiarly current. But when the alarm of witchcraft arises, Superstition dips her hand in the blood of the persons accused, and records in the annals of jurisprudence their trials and the causes alleged in vindication of their execution. Respecting other fantastic allegations, the proof is necessarily transient and doubtful, depending upon the inaccurate testimony of vague report and of doting tradition. But in cases of witchcraft we have before us the recorded evidence upon which judge and jury acted, and can form an opinion with some degree of certainty of the grounds, real or fanciful, on which they acquitted or condemned. It is, therefore, in tracing, this part of Demonology, with its accompanying circumstances, that we have the best chance of obtaining an accurate view of our subject.
The existence of witchcraft was, no doubt, received and credited in England, as in the countries on the Continent, and originally punished accordingly. But after the fourteenth century the practices which fell under such a description were thought unworthy of any peculiar animadversion, unless they were connected with something which would have been of itself a capital crime, by whatever means it had been either essayed or accomplished. Thus the supposed paction between a witch and the demon was perhaps deemed in itself to have terrors enough to prevent its becoming an ordinary crime, and was not, therefore, visited with any statutory penalty. But to attempt or execute bodily harm to others through means of evil spirits, or, in a word, by the black art, was actionable at common law as much as if the party accused had done the same harm with an arrow or pistol-shot. The destruction or abstraction of goods by the like instruments, supposing the charge proved, would, in like manner, be punishable. A fortiori, the consulting soothsayers, familiar spirits, or the like, and the obtaining and circulating pretended prophecies to the unsettlement of the State and the endangering of the King’s title, is yet a higher degree of guilt. And it may be remarked that the inquiry into the date of the King’s life bears a close affinity with the desiring or compassing the death of the Sovereign, which is the essence of high treason. Upon such charges repeated trials took place in the courts of the English, and condemnations were pronounced, with sufficient justice, no doubt, where the connexion between the resort to sorcerers and the design to perpetrate a felony could be clearly proved. We would not, indeed, be disposed to go the length of so high an authority as Selden, who pronounces (in his "Table-Talk") that if a man heartily believed that he could take the life of another by waving his hat three times and crying Buzz! and should, under this fixed opinion, wave his hat and cry Buzz! accordingly, he ought to be executed as a murderer. But a false prophecy of the King’s death is not to be dealt with exactly on the usual principle; because, however idle in itself, the promulgation of such a prediction has, in times such as we are speaking of, a strong tendency to work its completion.
Many persons, and some of great celebrity, suffered for the charge of trafficking with witches, to the prejudice of those in authority. We have already mentioned the instance of the Duchess of Gloucester, in Henry the Sixth’s reign, and that of the Queen Dowager’s kinsmen, in the Protectorate of Richard, afterwards the Third. In 1521, the Duke of Buckingham was beheaded, owing much to his having listened to the predictions of one Friar Hopkins. In the same reign, the Maid of Kent, who had been esteemed a prophetess, was put to death as a cheat. She suffered with seven persons who had managed her fits for the support of the Catholic religion, and confessed her fraud upon the scaffold. About seven years after this, Lord Hungerford was beheaded for consulting certain soothsayers concerning the length of Henry the Eighth’s life. But these cases rather relate to the purpose for which the sorcery was employed, than to the fact of using it.
Two remarkable statutes were passed in the year 1541; one against false prophecies, the other against the act of conjuration, witchcraft, and sorcery, and at the same time against breaking and destroying crosses. The former enactment was certainly made to ease the suspicious and wayward fears of the tetchy King Henry. The prohibition against witchcraft might be also dictated by the king’s jealous doubts of hazard to the succession. The enactment against breaking crosses was obviously designed to check the ravages of the Reformers, who in England as well as elsewhere desired to sweep away Popery with the besom of destruction. This latter statute was abrogated in the first year of Edward VI., perhaps as placing an undue restraint on the zeal of good Protestants against idolatry.
At length, in 1562, a formal statute against sorcery, as penal in itself, was actually passed; but as the penalty was limited to the pillory for the first transgression, the legislature probably regarded those who might be brought to trial as impostors rather than wizards. There are instances of individuals tried and convicted as impostors and cheats, and who acknowledged themselves such before the court and people; but in their articles of visitation the prelates directed enquiry to be made after those who should use enchantments, witchcraft, sorcery, or any like craft, invented by the devil.
But it is here proper to make a pause for the purpose of enquiring in what manner the religious disputes which occupied all Europe about this time influenced the proceedings of the rival sects in relation to Demonology.
The Papal Church had long reigned by the proud and absolute humour which she had assumed, of maintaining every doctrine which her rulers had adopted in dark ages; but this pertinacity at length made her citadel too large to be defended at every point by a garrison whom prudence would have required to abandon positions which had been taken in times of darkness, and were unsuited to the warfare of a more enlightened age. The sacred motto of the Vatican was, "Vestigia nulla retrorsum;" and this rendered it impossible to comply with the more wise and moderate of her own party, who would otherwise have desired to make liberal concessions to the Protestants, and thus prevent, in its commencement, a formidable schism in the Christian world.
To the system of Rome the Calvinists offered the most determined opposition, affecting upon every occasion and on all points to observe an order of church-government, as well as of worship, expressly in the teeth of its enactments;—in a word, to be a good Protestant, they held it almost essential to be in all things diametrically opposite to the Catholic form and faith. As the foundation of this sect was laid in republican states, as its clerical discipline was settled on a democratic basis, and as the countries which adopted that form of government were chiefly poor, the preachers having lost the rank and opulence enjoyed by the Roman Church, were gradually thrown on the support of the people. Insensibly they became occupied with the ideas and tenets natural to the common people, which, if they have usually the merit of being honestly conceived and boldly expressed, are not the less often adopted with credulity and precipitation, and carried into effect with unhesitating harshness and severity.
Betwixt these extremes the Churchmen of England endeavoured to steer a middle course, retaining a portion of the ritual and forms of Rome, as in themselves admirable, and at any rate too greatly venerated by the people to be changed merely for opposition’s sake. Their comparatively undilapidated revenue, the connexion of their system with the state, with views of ambition as ample as the station of a churchman ought to command, rendered them independent of the necessity of courting their flocks by any means save regular discharge of their duty; and the excellent provisions made for their education afforded them learning to confute ignorance and enlighten prejudice.
Such being the general character of the three Churches, their belief in and persecution of such crimes as witchcraft and sorcery were necessarily modelled upon the peculiar tenets which each system professed, and gave rise to various results in the countries where they were severally received.
The Church of Rome, as we have seen, was unwilling, in her period of undisputed power, to call in the secular arm to punish men for witchcraft—a crime which fell especially under ecclesiastical cognizance, and could, according to her belief, be subdued by the spiritual arm alone. The learned men at the head of the establishment might safely despise the attempt at those hidden arts as impossible; or, even if they were of a more credulous disposition, they might be unwilling to make laws by which their own enquiries in the mathematics, algebra, chemistry, and other pursuits vulgarly supposed to approach the confines of magic art, might be inconveniently restricted. The more selfish part of the priesthood might think that a general belief in the existence of witches should be permitted to remain, as a source both of power and of revenue—that if there were no possessions, there could be no exorcism-fees—and, in short, that a wholesome faith in all the absurdities of the vulgar creed as to supernatural influences was necessary to maintain the influence of Diana of Ephesus. They suffered spells to be manufactured, since every friar had the power of reversing them; they permitted poison to be distilled, because every convent had the antidote, which was disposed of to all who chose to demand it. It was not till the universal progress of heresy, in the end of the fifteenth century, that the bull of Pope Innocent VIII., already quoted, called to convict, imprison, and condemn the sorcerers, chiefly because it was the object to transfer the odium of these crimes to the Waldenses, and excite and direct the public hatred against the new sect by confounding their doctrines with the influences of the devil and his fiends. The bull of Pope Innocent was afterwards, in the year 1523, enforced by Adrian VI. with a new one, in which excommunication was directed against sorcerers and heretics.
While Rome thus positively declared herself against witches and sorcerers, the Calvinists, in whose numbers must be included the greater part of the English Puritans, who, though they had not finally severed from the communion of the Anglican Church, yet disapproved of her ritual and ceremonies as retaining too much of the Papal stamp, ranked themselves, in accordance with their usual policy, in diametrical opposition to the doctrine of the Mother Church. They assumed in the opposite sense whatever Rome pretended to as a proof of her omnipotent authority. The exorcisms, forms, and rites, by which good Catholics believed that incarnate fiends could be expelled and evil spirits of every kind rebuked—these, like the holy water, the robes of the priest, and the sign of the cross, the Calvinists considered either with scorn and contempt as the tools of deliberate quackery and imposture, or with horror and loathing, as the fit emblems and instruments of an idolatrous system.
Such of them as did not absolutely deny the supernatural powers of which the Romanists made boast, regarded the success of the exorcising priest, to whatever extent they admitted it, as at best a casting out of devils by the power of Beelzebub, the King of the Devils. They saw also, and resented bitterly, the attempt to confound any dissent from the doctrines of Rome with the proneness to an encouragement of rites of sorcery. On the whole, the Calvinists, generally speaking, were of all the contending sects the most suspicious of sorcery, the most undoubting believers in its existence, and the most eager to follow it up with what they conceived to be the due punishment of the most fearful of crimes.
The leading divines of the Church of England were, without doubt, fundamentally as much opposed to the doctrines of Rome as those who altogether disclaimed opinions and ceremonies merely because she had entertained them. But their position in society tended strongly to keep them from adopting, on such subjects as we are now discussing, either the eager credulity of the vulgar mind or the fanatic ferocity of their Calvinistic rivals. We have no purpose to discuss the matter in detail—enough has probably been said to show generally why the Romanist should have cried out a miracle respecting an incident which the Anglican would have contemptuously termed an imposture; while the Calvinist, inspired with a darker zeal, and, above all, with the unceasing desire of open controversy with the Catholics, would have styled the same event an operation of the devil.
It followed that, while the divines of the Church of England possessed the upper hand in the kingdom, witchcraft, though trials and even condemnations for that offence occasionally occurred, did not create that epidemic terror which the very suspicion of the offence carried with it elsewhere; so that Reginald Scot and others alleged it was the vain pretences and empty forms of the Church of Rome, by the faith reposed in them, which had led to the belief of witchcraft or sorcery in general. Nor did prosecutions on account of such charges frequently involve a capital punishment, while learned judges were jealous of the imperfection of the evidence to support the charge, and entertained a strong and growing suspicion that legitimate grounds for such trials seldom actually existed. On the other hand, it usually happened that wherever the Calvinist interest became predominant in Britain, a general persecution of sorcerers and witches seemed to take place of consequence. Fearing and hating sorcery more than other Protestants, connecting its ceremonies and usages with those of the detested Catholic Church, the Calvinists were more eager than other sects in searching after the traces of this crime, and, of course, unusually successful, as they might suppose, in making discoveries of guilt, and pursuing it to the expiation of the fagot. In a word, a principle already referred to by Dr. Francis Hutchison will be found to rule the tide and the reflux of such cases in the different churches. The numbers of witches, and their supposed dealings with Satan, will increase or decrease according as such doings are accounted probable or impossible. Under the former supposition, charges and convictions will be found augmented in a terrific degree. When the accusations are disbelieved and dismissed as not worthy of attention, the crime becomes unfrequent, ceases to occupy the public mind, and affords little trouble to the judges.
The passing of Elizabeth’s statute against witchcraft in 1562 does not seem to have been intended to increase the number of trials, or cases of conviction at least; and the fact is, it did neither the one nor the other. Two children were tried in 1574 for counterfeiting possession, and stood in the pillory for impostors. Mildred Norrington, called the Maid of Westwell, furnished another instance of possession; but she also confessed her imposture, and publicly showed her fits and tricks of mimicry. The strong influence already possessed by the Puritans may probably be sufficient to account for the darker issue of certain cases, in which both juries and judges in Elizabeth’s time must be admitted to have shown fearful severity.
These cases of possession were in some respects sore snares to the priests of the Church of Rome, who, while they were too sagacious not to be aware that the pretended fits, contortions, strange sounds, and other extravagances, produced as evidence of the demon’s influence on the possessed person, were nothing else than marks of imposture by some idle vagabond, were nevertheless often tempted to admit them as real, and take the credit of curing them. The period was one when the Catholic Church had much occasion to rally around her all the respect that remained to her in a schismatic and heretical kingdom; and when her fathers and doctors announced the existence of such a dreadful disease, and of the power of the church’s prayers, relics, and ceremonies, to cure it, it was difficult for a priest, supposing him more tender of the interest of his order than that of truth, to avoid such a tempting opportunity as a supposed case of possession offered for displaying the high privilege in which his profession made him a partaker, or to abstain from conniving at the imposture, in order to obtain for his church the credit of expelling the demon. It was hardly to be wondered at, if the ecclesiastic was sometimes induced to aid the fraud of which such motives forbade him to be the detector. At this he might hesitate the less, as he was not obliged to adopt the suspected and degrading course of holding an immediate communication in limine with the impostor, since a hint or two, dropped in the supposed sufferer’s presence, might give him the necessary information what was the most exact mode of performing his part, and if the patient was possessed by a devil of any acuteness or dexterity, he wanted no further instruction how to play it. Such combinations were sometimes detected, and brought more discredit on the Church of Rome than was counterbalanced by any which might be more cunningly managed. On this subject the reader may turn to Dr. Harsnett’s celebrated book on Popish Impostures, wherein he gives the history of several notorious cases of detected fraud, in which Roman ecclesiastics had not hesitated to mingle themselves. That of Grace Sowerbutts, instructed by a Catholic priest to impeach her grandmother of witchcraft, was a very gross fraud.
Such cases were not, however, limited to the ecclesiastics of Rome. We have already stated that, as extremes usually approach each other, the Dissenters, in their violent opposition to the Papists, adopted some of their ideas respecting demoniacs; and we have now to add that they also claimed, by the vehemence of prayer and the authority of their own sacred commission, that power of expelling devils which the Church of Rome pretended to exercise by rites, ceremonies, and relics. The memorable case of Richard Dugdale, called the Surrey Impostor, was one of the most remarkable which the Dissenters brought forward. This youth was supposed to have sold his soul to the devil, on condition of being made the best dancer in Lancashire, and during his possession played a number of fantastic tricks, not much different from those exhibited by expert posture-masters of the present day. This person threw himself into the hands of the Dissenters, who, in their eagerness, caught at an opportunity to relieve an afflicted person, whose case the regular clergy appeared to have neglected. They fixed a committee of their number, who weekly attended the supposed sufferer, and exercised themselves in appointed days of humiliation and fasting during the course of a whole year. All respect for the demon seems to have abandoned the reverend gentlemen, after they had relieved guard in this manner for some little time, and they got so regardless of Satan as to taunt him with the mode in which he executed his promise to teach his vassal dancing. The following specimen of raillery is worth commemoration:—"What, Satan! is this the dancing that Richard gave himself to thee for? &c. Canst thou dance no better? &c. Ransack the old records of all past times and places in thy memory; canst thou not there find out some better way of trampling? Pump thine invention dry; cannot the universal seed-plot of subtile wiles and stratagems spring up one new method of cutting capers? Is this the top of skill and pride, to shuffle feet and brandish knees thus, and to trip like a doe and skip like a squirrel? And wherein differ thy leapings from the hoppings of a frog, or the bouncings of a goat, or friskings of a dog, or gesticulations of a monkey? And cannot a palsy shake such a loose leg as that? Dost thou not twirl like a calf that hath the turn, and twitch up thy houghs just like a springhault tit?" One might almost conceive the demon replying to this raillery in the words of Dr. Johnson, "This merriment of parsons is extremely offensive."
[Footnote 54: Hutchison on Witchcraft, p. 162.]
The dissenters were probably too honest, however simple, to achieve a complete cure on Dugdale by an amicable understanding; so, after their year of vigil, they relinquished their task by degrees. Dugdale, weary of his illness, which now attracted little notice, attended a regular physician, and was cured of that part of his disease which was not affected in a regular way par ordonnance du médecin. But the reverend gentlemen who had taken his case in hand still assumed the credit of curing him, and if anything could have induced them to sing Te Deum, it would have been this occasion. They said that the effect of their public prayers had been for a time suspended, until seconded by the continued earnestness of their private devotions!
The ministers of the Church of England, though, from education, intercourse with the world, and other advantages, they were less prone to prejudice than those of other sects, are yet far from being entirely free of the charge of encouraging in particular instances the witch superstition. Even while Dr. Hutchison pleads that the Church of England has the least to answer for in that matter, he is under the necessity of acknowledging that some regular country clergymen so far shared the rooted prejudices of congregations, and of the government which established laws against it, as to be active in the persecution of the suspected, and even in countenancing the superstitious signs by which in that period the vulgar thought it possible to ascertain the existence of the afflictions by witchcraft, and obtain the knowledge of the perpetrator. A singular case is mentioned of three women, called the Witches of Warbois. Indeed, their story is a matter of solemn enough record; for Sir Samuel Cromwell, having received the sum of forty pounds as lord of the manor, out of the estate of the poor persons who suffered, turned it into a rent-charge of forty shillings yearly, for the endowment of an annual lecture on the subject of witchcraft, to be preached by a doctor or bachelor of divinity of Queen’s College, Cambridge. The accused, one Samuel and his wife, were old and very poor persons, and their daughter a young woman. The daughter of a Mr. Throgmorton, seeing the poor old woman in a black knitted cap, at a time when she was not very well, took a whim that she had bewitched her, and was ever after exclaiming against her. The other children of this fanciful family caught up the same cry, and the eldest of them at last got up a vastly pretty drama, in which she herself furnished all the scenes and played all the parts.
Such imaginary scenes, or make-believe stories, are the common amusement of lively children; and most readers may remember having had some Utopia of their own. But the nursery drama of Miss Throgmorton had a horrible conclusion. This young lady and her sisters were supposed to be haunted by nine spirits, dispatched by the wicked Mother Samuel for that purpose. The sapient parents heard one part of the dialogue, when the children in their fits returned answers, as was supposed, to the spirits who afflicted them; and when the patients from time to time recovered, they furnished the counterpart by telling what the spirits had said to them. The names of the spirits were Pluck, Hardname, Catch, Blue, and three Smacks, who were cousins. Mrs. Joan Throgmorton, the eldest (who, like other young women of her age, about fifteen, had some disease on her nerves, and whose fancy ran apparently on love and gallantry), supposed that one of the Smacks was her lover, did battle for her with the less friendly spirits, and promised to protect her against Mother Samuel herself; and the following curious extract will show on what a footing of familiarity the damsel stood with her spiritual gallant: "From whence come you, Mr. Smack?" says the afflicted young lady; "and what news do you bring?" Smack, nothing abashed, informed her he came from fighting with Pluck: the weapons, great cowl-staves; the scene, a ruinous bakehouse in Dame Samuel’s yard. "And who got the mastery, I pray you?" said the damsel. Smack answered, he had broken Pluck’s head. "I would," said the damsel, "he had broken your neck also." "Is that the thanks I am to have for my labour?" said the disappointed Smack. "Look you for thanks at my hand?" said the distressed maiden. "I would you were all hanged up against each other, with your dame for company, for you are all naught." On this repulse, exit Smack, and enter Pluck, Blue, and Catch, the first with his head broken, the other limping, and the third with his arm in a sling, all trophies of Smack’s victory. They disappeared after having threatened vengeance upon the conquering Smack. However, he soon afterwards appeared with his laurels. He told her of his various conflicts. "I wonder," said Mrs. Joan, or Jane, "that you are able to beat them; you are little, and they very big." "He cared not for that," he replied; "he would beat the best two of them, and his cousins Smacks would beat the other two." This most pitiful mirth, for such it certainly is, was mixed with tragedy enough. Miss Throgmorton and her sisters railed against Darne Samuel; and when Mr. Throgmorton brought her to his house by force, the little fiends longed to draw blood of her, scratch her, and torture her, as the witch-creed of that period recommended; yet the poor woman incurred deeper suspicion when she expressed a wish to leave a house where she was so coarsely treated and lay under such odious suspicions.
It was in vain that this unhappy creature endeavoured to avert their resentment by submitting to all the ill-usage they chose to put upon her; in vain that she underwent unresistingly the worst usage at the hand of Lady Cromwell, her landlady, who, abusing her with the worst epithets, tore her cap from her head, clipped out some of her hair, and gave it to Mrs. Throgmorton to burn it for a counter-charm. Nay, Mother Samuel’s complaisance in the latter case only led to a new charge. It happened that the Lady Cromwell, on her return home, dreamed of her day’s work, and especially of the old dame and her cat; and, as her ladyship died in a year and quarter from that very day, it was sagaciously concluded that she must have fallen a victim to the witcheries of the terrible Dame Samuel. Mr. Throgmorton also compelled the old woman and her daughter to use expressions which put their lives in the power of these malignant children, who had carried on the farce so long that they could not well escape from their own web of deceit but by the death of these helpless creatures. For example, the prisoner, Dame Samuel, was induced to say to the supposed spirit, "As I am a witch, and a causer of Lady Cromwell’s death, I charge thee to come out of the maiden." The girl lay still; and this was accounted a proof that the poor woman, who, only subdued and crushed by terror and tyranny, did as she was bidden, was a witch. One is ashamed of an English judge and jury when it must be repeated that the evidence of these enthusiastic and giddy-pated girls was deemed sufficient to the condemnation of three innocent persons. Goody Samuel, indeed, was at length worried into a confession of her guilt by the various vexations which were practised on her. But her husband and daughter continued to maintain their innocence. The last showed a high spirit and proud value for her character. She was advised by some, who pitied her youth, to gain at least a respite by pleading pregnancy; to which she answered disdainfully, "No, I will not be both held witch and strumpet!" The mother, to show her sanity of mind and the real value of her confession, caught at the advice recommended to her daughter. As her years put such a plea out of the question, there was a laugh among the unfeeling audience, in which the poor old victim joined loudly and heartily. Some there were who thought it no joking matter, and were inclined to think they had a Joanna Southcote before them, and that the devil must be the father. These unfortunate Samuels were condemned at Huntingdon, before Mr. Justice Fenner, 4th April, 1593. It was a singular case to be commemorated by an annual lecture, as provided by Sir Samuel Cromwell, for the purposes of justice were never so perverted, nor her sword turned to a more flagrant murder.
We may here mention, though mainly for the sake of contrast, the much-disputed case of Jane Wenham, the Witch of Walkerne, as she was termed, which was of a much later date. Some of the country clergy were carried away by the land-flood of superstition in this instance also and not only encouraged the charge, but gave their countenance to some of the ridiculous and indecent tricks resorted to as proofs of witchcraft by the lowest vulgar. But the good sense of the judge, seconded by that of other reflecting and sensible persons, saved the country from the ultimate disgrace attendant on too many of these unhallowed trials. The usual sort of evidence was brought against this poor woman, by pretences of bewitched persons vomiting fire—a trick very easy to those who chose to exhibit such a piece of jugglery amongst such as rather desire to be taken in by it than to detect the imposture. The witchfinder practised upon her the most vulgar and ridiculous tricks or charms; and out of a perverted examination they drew what they called a confession, though of a forced and mutilated character. Under such proof the jury brought her in guilty, and she was necessarily condemned to die. More fortunate, however, than many persons placed in the like circumstances, Jane Wenham was tried before a sensible and philosophic judge, who could not understand that the life of an Englishwoman, however mean, should be taken away by a set of barbarous tricks and experiments, the efficacy of which depended on popular credulity. He reprieved the witch before he left the assize-town. The rest of the history is equally a contrast to some we have told and others we shall have to recount. A humane and high-spirited gentleman, Colonel Plummer of Gilston, putting at defiance popular calumny, placed the poor old woman in a small house near his own and under his immediate protection. Here she lived and died, in honest and fair reputation, edifying her visitors by her accuracy and attention in repeating her devotions; and, removed from her brutal and malignant neighbours, never afterwards gave the slightest cause of suspicion or offence till her dying day. As this was one of the last cases of conviction in England, Dr Hutchison has been led to dilate upon it with some strength of eloquence as well as argument.
He thus expostulates with some of the better class who were eager for the prosecution:—"(1) What single fact of sorcery did this Jane Wenham do? What charm did she use, or what act of witchcraft could you prove upon her? Laws are against evil actions that can be proved to be of the person’s doing. What single fact that was against the statute could you fix upon her? I ask (2) Did she so much as speak an imprudent word, or do an immoral action, that you could put into the narrative of her case? When she was denied a few turnips, she laid them down very submissively; when she was called witch and bitch, she only took the proper means for the vindication of her good name; when she saw this storm coming upon her she locked herself in her own house and tried to keep herself out of your cruel hands; when her door was broken open, and you gave way to that barbarous usage that she met with, she protested her innocence, fell upon her knees, and begged she might not go to gaol, and, in her innocent simplicity, would have let you swim her; and at her trial she declared herself a clear woman. This was her behaviour. And what could any of us have done better, excepting in that case where she complied with you too much, and offered to let you swim her?
"(3) When you used the meanest of paganish and popish superstitions—when you scratched and mangled and ran pins into her flesh, and used that ridiculous trial of the bottle, &c.—whom did you consult, and from whom did you expect your answers? Who was your father? and into whose hands did you put yourselves? and (if the true sense of the statute had been turned upon you) which way would you have defended yourselves? (4) Durst you have used her in this manner if she had been rich? and doth not her poverty increase rather than lessen your guilt in what you did?
"And therefore, instead of closing your book with a liberavimus animas nostras, and reflecting upon the court, I ask you (5) Whether you have not more reason to give God thanks that you met with a wise judge, and a sensible gentleman, who kept you from shedding innocent blood, and reviving the meanest and cruelest of all superstitions amongst us?"
[Footnote 55: Hutchison’s "Essay on Witchcraft," p. 166.]
But although individuals of the English Church might on some occasions be justly accused of falling into lamentable errors on a subject where error was so general, it was not an usual point of their professional character; and it must be admitted that the most severe of the laws against witchcraft originated with a Scottish King of England, and that the only extensive persecution following that statute occurred during the time of the Civil Wars, when the Calvinists obtained for a short period a predominating influence in the councils of Parliament.
James succeeded to Elizabeth amidst the highest expectations on the part of his new people, who, besides their general satisfaction at coming once more under the rule of a king, were also proud of his supposed abilities and real knowledge of books and languages, and were naturally, though imprudently, disposed to gratify him by deferring to his judgment in matters wherein his studies were supposed to have rendered him a special proficient. Unfortunately, besides the more harmless freak of becoming a prentice in the art of poetry, by which words and numbers were the only sufferers, the monarch had composed a deep work upon Demonology, embracing in their fullest extent the most absurd and gross of the popular errors on this subject. He considered his crown and life as habitually aimed at by the sworn slaves of Satan. Several had been executed for an attempt to poison him by magical arts; and the turbulent Francis Stewart, Earl of Bothwell, whose repeated attempts on his person had long been James’s terror, had begun his course of rebellion by a consultation with the weird sisters and soothsayers. Thus the king, who had proved with his pen the supposed sorcerers to be the direct enemies of the Deity, and who conceived he knew them from experience to be his own—who, moreover, had upon much lighter occasions (as in the case of Vorstius) showed no hesitation at throwing his royal authority into the scale to aid his arguments—very naturally used his influence, when it was at the highest, to extend and enforce the laws against a crime which he both hated and feared.
The English statute against witchcraft, passed in the very first year of that reign, is therefore of a most special nature, describing witchcraft by all the various modes and ceremonies in which, according to King James’s fancy, that crime could be perpetrated; each of which was declared felony, without benefit of clergy.
This gave much wider scope to prosecution on the statute than had existed under the milder acts of Elizabeth. Men might now be punished for the practice of witchcraft, as itself a crime, without necessary reference to the ulterior objects of the perpetrator. It is remarkable that in the same year, when the legislature rather adopted the passions and fears of the king than expressed their own by this fatal enactment, the Convocation of the Church evinced a very different spirit; for, seeing the ridicule brought on their sacred profession by forward and presumptuous men, in the attempt to relieve demoniacs from a disease which was commonly occasioned by natural causes, if not the mere creature of imposture, they passed a canon, establishing that no minister or ministers should in future attempt to expel any devil or devils, without the license of his bishop; thereby virtually putting a stop to a fertile source of knavery among the people, and disgraceful folly among the inferior churchmen.
The new statute of James does not, however, appear to have led at first to many prosecutions. One of the most remarkable was (proh pudor!) instigated by a gentleman, a scholar of classical taste, and a beautiful poet, being no other than Edward Fairfax of Fayston, in Knaresborough Forest, the translator of Tasso’s "Jerusalem Delivered." In allusion to his credulity on such subjects, Collins has introduced the following elegant lines:—
"How have I sate while piped the pensive wind,
To hear thy harp, by British Fairfax strung;
Prevailing poet, whose undoubting mind
Believed the magic wonders which he sung!"
Like Mr. Throgmorton in the Warbois case, Mr. Fairfax accused six of his neighbours of tormenting his children by fits of an extraordinary kind, by imps, and by appearing before the afflicted in their own shape during the crisis of these operations. The admitting this last circumstance to be a legitimate mode of proof, gave a most cruel advantage against the accused, for it could not, according to the ideas of the demonologists, be confuted even by the most distinct alibi. To a defence of that sort it was replied that the afflicted person did not see the actual witch, whose corporeal presence must indeed have been obvious to every one in the room as well as to the afflicted, but that the evidence of the sufferers related to the appearance of their spectre, or apparition; and this was accounted a sure sign of guilt in those whose forms were so manifested during the fits of the afflicted, and who were complained of and cried out upon by the victim. The obvious tendency of this doctrine, as to visionary or spectral evidence, as it was called, was to place the life and fame of the accused in the power of any hypochondriac patient or malignant impostor, who might either seem to see, or aver she saw, the spectrum of the accused old man or old woman, as if enjoying and urging on the afflictions which she complained of; and, strange to tell, the fatal sentence was to rest, not upon the truth of the witnesses’ eyes, but that of their imagination. It happened fortunately for Fairfax’s memory, that the objects of his prosecution were persons of good character, and that the judge was a man of sense, and made so wise and skilful a charge to the jury, that they brought in a verdict of not guilty.
The celebrated case of "the Lancashire witches" (whose name was and will be long remembered, partly from Shadwell’s play, but more from the ingenious and well-merited compliment to the beauty of the females of that province which it was held to contain), followed soon after. Whether the first notice of this sorcery sprung from the idle head of a mischievous boy, is uncertain; but there is no doubt that it was speedily caught up and fostered for the purpose of gain. The original story ran thus:—
These Lancaster trials were at two periods, the one in 1613, before Sir James Altham and Sir Edward Bromley, Barons of Exchequer, when nineteen witches were tried at once at Lancaster, and another of the name of Preston at York. The report against these people is drawn up by Thomas Potts. An obliging correspondent sent me a sight of a copy of this curious and rare book. The chief personage in the drama is Elizabeth Southam, a witch redoubted under the name of Dembdike, an account of whom may be seen in Mr. Roby’s "Antiquities of Lancaster," as well as a description of Maulkins’ Tower, the witches’ place of meeting. It appears that this remote county was full of Popish recusants, travelling priests, and so forth; and some of their spells are given in which the holy names and things alluded to form a strange contrast with the purpose to which they were applied, as to secure a good brewing of ale or the like. The public imputed to the accused parties a long train of murders, conspiracies, charms, mischances, hellish and damnable practices, "apparent," says the editor, "on their own examinations and confessions," and, to speak the truth, visible nowhere else. Mother Dembdike had the good luck to die before conviction. Among other tales, we have one of two female devils, called Fancy and Tib. It is remarkable that some of the unfortunate women endeavoured to transfer the guilt from themselves to others with whom they had old quarrels, which confessions were held good evidence against those who made them, and against the alleged accomplice also. Several of the unhappy women were found not guilty, to the great displeasure of the ignorant people of the county. Such was the first edition of the Lancashire witches. In that which follows the accusation can be more clearly traced to the most villanous conspiracy.
About 1634 a boy called Edmund Robinson, whose father, a very poor man, dwelt in Pendle Forest, the scene of the alleged witching, declared that while gathering bullees (wild plums, perhaps) in one of the glades of the forest, he saw two greyhounds, which he imagined to belong to gentlemen in that neighbourhood. The boy reported that, seeing nobody following them, he proposed to have a course; but though a hare was started, the dogs refused to run. On this, young Robinson was about to punish them with a switch, when one Dame Dickenson, a neighbour’s wife, started up instead of the one greyhound; a little boy instead of the other. The witness averred that Mother Dickenson offered him money to conceal what he had seen, which he refused, saying "Nay, thou art a witch." Apparently she was determined he should have full evidence of the truth of what he said, for, like the Magician Queen in the Arabian Tales, she pulled out of her pocket a bridle and shook it over the head of the boy who had so lately represented the other greyhound. He was directly changed into a horse; Mother Dickenson mounted, and took Robinson before her. They then rode to a large house or barn called Hourstoun, into which Edmund Robinson entered with others. He there saw six or seven persons pulling at halters, from which, as they pulled them, meat ready dressed came flying in quantities, together with lumps of butter, porringers of milk, and whatever else might, in the boy’s fancy, complete a rustic feast. He declared that while engaged in the charm they made such ugly faces and looked so fiendish that he was frightened. There was more to the same purpose—as the boy’s having seen one of these hags sitting half-way up his father’s chimney, and some such goodly matter. But it ended in near a score of persons being committed to prison; and the consequence was that young Robinson was carried from church to church in the neighbourhood, that he might recognise the faces of any persons he had seen at the rendezvous of witches. Old Robinson, who had been an evidence against the former witches in 1613, went along with his son, and knew, doubtless, how to make his journey profitable; and his son probably took care to recognise none who might make a handsome consideration. "This boy," says Webster, "was brought into the church at Kildwick, a parish church, where I, being then curate there, was preaching at the time, to look about him, which made some little disturbance for the time." After prayers Mr. Webster sought and found the boy, and two very unlikely persons, who, says he, "did conduct him and manage the business: I did desire some discourse with the boy in private, but that they utterly denied. In the presence of a great many many people I took the boy near me and said, ‘Good boy, tell me truly and in earnest, didst thou hear and see such strange things of the motions of the witches as many do report that thou didst relate, or did not some person teach thee to say such things of thyself?’ But the two men did pluck the boy from me, and said he had been examined by two able justices of peace, and they never asked him such a question. To whom I replied, ‘The persons accused had the more wrong.’" The boy afterwards acknowledged, in his more advanced years, that he was instructed and suborned to swear these things against the accused persons by his father and others, and was heard often to confess that on the day which he pretended to see the said witches at the house or barn, he was gathering plums in a neighbour’s orchard.
[Footnote 56: Webster on Witchcraft, edition 1677, p. 278.]
There was now approaching a time when the law against witchcraft, sufficiently bloody in itself, was to be pushed to more violent extremities than the quiet scepticism of the Church of England clergy gave way to. The great Civil War had been preceded and anticipated by the fierce disputes of the ecclesiastical parties. The rash and ill-judged attempt to enforce upon the Scottish a compliance with the government and ceremonies of the High Church divines, and the severe prosecutions in the Star Chamber and Prerogative Courts, had given the Presbyterian system for a season a great degree of popularity in England; and as the King’s party declined during the Civil War, and the state of church-government was altered, the influence of the Calvinistic divines increased. With much strict morality and pure practice of religion, it is to be regretted these were still marked by unhesitating belief in the existence of sorcery, and a keen desire to extend and enforce the legal penalties against it. Wier has considered the clergy of every sect as being too eager in this species of persecution: Ad gravem hanc impietatem, connivent theologi plerique omnes. But it is not to be denied that the Presbyterian ecclesiastics who, in Scotland, were often appointed by the Privy Council Commissioners for the trial of witchcraft, evinced a very extraordinary degree of credulity in such cases, and that the temporary superiority of the same sect in England was marked by enormous cruelties of this kind. To this general error we must impute the misfortune that good men, such as Calamy and Baxter, should have countenanced or defended such proceedings as those of the impudent and cruel wretch called Matthew Hopkins, who, in those unsettled times, when men did what seemed good in their own eyes, assumed the title of Witchfinder General, and, travelling through the counties of Essex, Sussex, Norfolk, and Huntingdon, pretended to discover witches, superintending their examination by the most unheard-of tortures, and compelling forlorn and miserable wretches to admit and confess matters equally absurd and impossible; the issue of which was the forfeiture of their lives. Before examining these cases more minutely, I will quote Baxter’s own words; for no one can have less desire to wrong a devout and conscientious man, such as that divine most unquestionably was, though borne aside on this occasion by prejudice and credulity.
"The hanging of a great number of witches in 1645 and 1646 is famously known. Mr. Calamy went along with the judges on the circuit to hear their confessions, and see there was no fraud or wrong done them. I spoke with many understanding, pious, learned, and credible persons that lived in the counties, and some that went to them in the prisons, and heard their sad confessions. Among the rest an old reading parson, named Lowis, not far from Framlingham, was one that was hanged, who confessed that he had two imps, and that one of them was always putting him upon doing mischief; and he, being near the sea, as he saw a ship under sail, it moved him to send it to sink the ship; and he consented, and saw the ship sink before them." Mr. Baxter passes on to another story of a mother who gave her child an imp like a mole, and told her to keep it in a can near the fire, and she would never want; and more such stuff as nursery-maids tell froward children to keep them quiet.
It is remarkable that in this passage Baxter names the Witchfinder General rather slightly as "one Hopkins," and without doing him the justice due to one who had discovered more than one hundred witches, and brought them to confessions, which that good man received as indubitable. Perhaps the learned divine was one of those who believed that the Witchfinder General had cheated the devil out of a certain memorandum-book, in which Satan, for the benefit of his memory certainly, had entered all the witches’ names in England, and that Hopkins availed himself of this record.
[Footnote 57: This reproach is noticed in a very rare tract, which was bought at Mr. Lort’s sale, by the celebrated collector Mr. Bindley, and is now in the author’s possession. Its full title is, "The Discovery of Witches, in Answer to several Queries lately delivered to the Judge of Assize for the County of Norfolk; and now published by Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder, for the Benefit of the whole Kingdom. Printed for R. Royston, at the Angel, in Inn Lane. 1647."]
It may be noticed that times of misrule and violence seem to create individuals fitted to take advantage from them, and having a character suited to the seasons which raise them into notice and action; just as a blight on any tree or vegetable calls to life a peculiar insect to feed upon and enjoy the decay which it has produced. A monster like Hopkins could only have existed during the confusion of civil dissension. He was perhaps a native of Manningtree, in Essex; at any rate, he resided there in the year 1644, when an epidemic outcry of witchcraft arose in that town. Upon this occasion he had made himself busy, and, affecting more zeal and knowledge than other men, learned his trade of a witchfinder, as he pretends, from experiment. He was afterwards permitted to perform it as a legal profession, and moved from one place to another, with an assistant named Sterne, and a female. In his defence against an accusation of fleecing the country, he declares his regular charge was twenty shillings a town, including charges of living and journeying thither and back again with his assistants. He also affirms that he went nowhere unless called and invited. His principal mode of discovery was to strip the accused persons naked, and thrust pins into various parts of their body, to discover the witch’s mark, which was supposed to be inflicted by the devil as a sign of his sovereignty, and at which she was also said to suckle her imps. He also practised and stoutly defended the trial by swimming, when the suspected person was wrapped in a sheet, having the great toes and thumbs tied together, and so dragged through a pond or river. If she sank, it was received in favour of the accused; but if the body floated (which must have occurred ten times for once, if it was placed with care on the surface of the water), the accused was condemned, on the principle of King James, who, in treating of this mode of trial, lays down that, as witches have renounced their baptism, so it is just that the element through which the holy rite is enforced should reject them, which is a figure of speech, and no argument. It was Hopkins’s custom to keep the poor wretches waking, in order to prevent them from having encouragement from the devil, and, doubiless, to put infirm, terrified, overwatched persons in the next state to absolute madness; and for the same purpose they were dragged about by their keepers till extreme weariness and the pain of blistered feet might form additional inducements to confession. Hopkins confesses these last practices of keeping the accused persons waking, and forcing them to walk for the same purpose, had been originally used by him. But as his tract is a professed answer to charges of cruelty and oppression, he affirms that both practices were then disused, and that they had not of late been resorted to.
The boast of the English nation is a manly independence and common-sense, which will not long permit the license of tyranny or oppression on the meanest and most obscure sufferers. Many clergymen and gentlemen made head against the practices of this cruel oppressor of the defenceless, and it required courage to do so when such an unscrupulous villain had so much interest.
Mr. Gaul, a clergyman, of Houghton, in Huntingdonshire, had the courage to appear in print on the weaker side; and Hopkins, in consequence, assumed the assurance to write to some functionaries of the place the following letter, which is an admirable medley of impudence, bullying, and cowardice:—
"My service to your worship presented.—I have this day received a letter to come to a town called Great Houghton to search for evil-disposed persons called witches (though I hear your minister is far against us, through ignorance). I intend to come, God willing, the sooner to hear his singular judgment in the behalf of such parties. I have known a minister in Suffolk as much against this discovery in a pulpit, and forced to recant it by the Committee in the same place. I much marvel such evil men should have any (much more any of the clergy, who should daily speak terror to convince such offenders) stand up to take their parts against such as are complainants for the king, and sufferers themselves, with their families and estates. I intend to give your town a visit suddenly. I will come to Kimbolton this week, and it will be ten to one but I will come to your town first; but I would certainly know before whether your town affords many sticklers for such cattle, or is willing to give and allow us good welcome and entertainment, as others where I have been, else I shall waive your shire (not as yet beginning in any part of it myself), and betake me to such places where I do and may punish (not only) without control, but with thanks and recompense. So I humbly take my leave, and rest your servant to be commanded,
[Footnote 58: Of Parliament.]
The sensible and courageous Mr. Gaul describes the tortures employed by this fellow as equal to any practised in the Inquisition. "Having taken the suspected witch, she is placed in the middle of a room, upon a stool or table, cross-legged, or in some other uneasy posture, to which, if she submits not, she is then bound with cords; there she is watched and kept without meat or sleep for four-and-twenty hours, for, they say, they shall within that time see her imp come and suck. A little hole is likewise made in the door for the imps to come in at; and lest they should come in some less discernible shape, they that watch are taught to be ever and anon sweeping the room, and if they see any spiders or flies, to kill them; and if they cannot kill them, they may be sure they are their imps."
If torture of this kind was applied to the Reverend Mr. Lewis, whose death is too slightly announced by Mr. Baxter, we can conceive him, or any man, to have indeed become so weary of his life as to acknowledge that, by means of his imps, he sunk a vessel, without any purpose of gratification to be procured to himself by such iniquity. But in another cause a judge would have demanded some proof of the corpus delecti, some evidence of a vessel being lost at the period, whence coming and whither bound; in short, something to establish that the whole story was not the idle imagination of a man who might have been entirely deranged, and certainly was so at the time he made the admission. John Lewis was presented to the vicarage of Brandiston, near Framlington, in Suffolk, 6th May, 1596, where he lived about fifty years, till executed as a wizard on such evidence as we have seen. Notwithstanding the story of his alleged confession, he defended himself courageously at his trial, and was probably condemned rather as a royalist and malignant than for any other cause. He showed at the execution considerable energy, and to secure that the funeral service of the church should be said over his body, he read it aloud for himself while on the road to the gibbet.
We have seen that in 1647 Hopkins’s tone became lowered, and he began to disavow some of the cruelties he had formerly practised. About the same time a miserable old woman had fallen into the cruel hands of this miscreant near Hoxne, a village in Suffolk, and had confessed all the usual enormities, after being without food or rest a sufficient time. "Her imp," she said, "was called Nan." A gentleman in the neighbourhood, whose widow survived to authenticate the story, was so indignant that he went to the house, took the woman out of such inhuman hands, dismissed the witchfinders, and after due food and rest the poor old woman could recollect nothing of the confession, but that she gave a favourite pullet the name of Nan. For this Dr. Hutchison may be referred to, who quotes a letter from the relict of the humane gentleman.
In the year 1645 a Commission of Parliament was sent down, comprehending two clergymen in esteem with the leading party, one of whom, Mr. Fairclough of Kellar, preached before the rest on the subject of witchcraft; and after this appearance of enquiry the inquisitions and executions went on as before. But the popular indignation was so strongly excited against Hopkins, that some gentlemen seized on him, and put him to his own favourite experiment of swimming, on which, as he happened to float, he stood convicted of witchcraft, and so the country was rid of him. Whether he was drowned outright or not does not exactly appear, but he has had the honour to be commemorated by the author of Hudibras:—
"Hath not this present Parliament
A leiger to the devil sent,
Fully empower’d to treat about
Finding revolted witches out?
And has he not within a year
Hang’d threescore of them in one shire?
Some only for not being drown’d,
And some for sitting above ground
Whole days and nights upon their breeches,
And feeling pain, were hang’d for witches.
And some for putting knavish tricks
Upon green geese or turkey chicks;
Or pigs that suddenly deceased
Of griefs unnatural, as he guess’d,
Who proved himself at length a witch,
And made a rod for his own breech." 
[Footnote 59: "Hudibras," part ii. canto 3.]
The understanding reader will easily conceive that this alteration of the current in favour of those who disapproved of witch-prosecutions, must have received encouragement from some quarter of weight and influence; yet it may sound strangely enough that this spirit of lenity should have been the result of the peculiar principles of those sectarians of all denominations, classed in general as Independents, who, though they had originally courted the Presbyterians as the more numerous and prevailing party, had at length shaken themselves loose of that connexion, and finally combated with and overcome them. The Independents were distinguished by the wildest license in their religious tenets, mixed with much that was nonsensical and mystical. They disowned even the title of a regular clergy, and allowed the preaching of any one who could draw together a congregation that would support him, or who was willing, without recompense, to minister to the spiritual necessities of his hearers. Although such laxity of discipline afforded scope to the wildest enthusiasm, and room for all possible varieties of doctrine, it had, on the other hand, this inestimable recommendation, that it contributed to a degree of general toleration which was at that time unknown to any other Christian establishment. The very genius of a religion which admitted of the subdivision of sects ad infinitum, excluded a legal prosecution of any one of these for heresy or apostasy. If there had even existed a sect of Manichæans, who made it their practice to adore the Evil Principle, it may be doubted whether the other sectaries would have accounted them absolute outcasts from the pale of the church; and, fortunately, the same sentiment induced them to regard with horror the prosecutions against witchcraft. Thus the Independents, when, under Cromwell, they attained a supremacy over the Presbyterians, who to a certain point had been their allies, were disposed to counteract the violence of such proceedings under pretence of witchcraft, as had been driven forward by the wretched Hopkins, in Essex, Norfolk, and Suffolk, for three or four years previous to 1647.
The return of Charles II. to his crown and kingdom, served in some measure to restrain the general and wholesale manner in which the laws against witchcraft had been administered during the warmth of the Civil War. The statute of the 1st of King James, nevertheless, yet subsisted; nor is it in the least likely, considering the character of the prince, that he, to save the lives of a few old men or women, would have run the risk of incurring the odium of encouraging or sparing a crime still held in horror by a great part of his subjects. The statute, however, was generally administered by wise and skilful judges, and the accused had such a chance of escape as the rigour of the absurd law permitted.
Nonsense, it is too obvious, remained in some cases predominant. In the year 1663 an old dame, named Julian Coxe, was convicted chiefly on the evidence of a huntsman, who declared on his oath, that he laid his greyhounds on a hare, and coming up to the spot where he saw them mouth her, there he found, on the other side of a bush, Julian Coxe lying panting and breathless, in such a manner as to convince him that she had been the creature which afforded him the course. The unhappy woman was executed on this evidence.
Two years afterwards (1664), it is with regret we must quote the venerable and devout Sir Matthew Hales, as presiding at a trial, in consequence of which Amy Dunny and Rose Callender were hanged at Saint Edmondsbury. But no man, unless very peculiarly circumstanced, can extricate himself from the prejudices of his nation and age. The evidence against the accused was laid, 1st, on the effect of spells used by ignorant persons to counteract the supposed witchcraft; the use of which was, under the statute of James I., as criminal as the act of sorcery which such counter-charms were meant to neutralize, 2ndly, The two old women, refused even the privilege of purchasing some herrings, having expressed themselves with angry impatience, a child of the herring-merchant fell ill in conseqence. 3rdly, A cart was driven against the miserable cottage of Amy Dunny. She scolded, of course; and shortly after the cart—(what a good driver will scarce comprehend)—stuck fast in a gate, where its wheels touched neither of the posts, and yet was moved easily forward on one of the posts (by which it was not impeded) being cut down. 4thly, One of the afflicted girls being closely muffled, went suddenly into a fit upon being touched by one of the supposed witches. But upon another trial it was found that the person so blindfolded fell into the same rage at the touch of an unsuspected person. What perhaps sealed the fate of the accused was the evidence of the celebrated Sir Thomas Browne, "that the fits were natural, but heightened by the power of the devil co-operating with the malice of witches;"—a strange opinion, certainly, from the author of a treatise on "Vulgar Errors!"
[Footnote 60: See the account of Sir T. Browne in No. XIV. of the
"Family Library" ("Lives of British Physicians"), p. 60.]
But the torch of science was now fairly lighted, and gleamed in more than one kingdom of the world, shooting its rays on every side, and catching at all means which were calculated to increase the illumination. The Royal Society, which had taken its rise at Oxford from a private association who met in Dr. Wilkin’s chambers about the year 1652, was, the year after the Restoration, incorporated by royal charter, and began to publish their Transactions, and give a new and more rational character to the pursuits of philosophy.
In France, where the mere will of the government could accomplish greater changes, the consequence of an enlarged spirit of scientific discovery was, that a decisive stop was put to the witch-prosecutions which had heretofore been as common in that kingdom as in England. About the year 1672 there was a general arrest of very many shepherds and others in Normandy, and the Parliament of Rouen prepared to proceed in the investigation with the usual severity. But an order, or arret, from the king (Louis XIV.), with advice of his council, commanding all these unfortunate persons to be set at liberty and protected, had the most salutary effects all over the kingdom. The French Academy of Sciences was also founded; and, in imitation, a society of learned Germans established a similar institution at Leipsic. Prejudices, however old, were overawed and controlled—much was accounted for on natural principles that had hitherto been imputed to spiritual agency—everything seemed to promise that farther access to the secrets of nature might be opened to those who should prosecute their studies experimentally and by analysis—and the mass of ancient opinions which overwhelmed the dark subject of which we treat began to be derided and rejected by men of sense and education.
In many cases the prey was now snatched from the spoiler. A pragmatical justice of peace in Somersetshire commenced a course of enquiry after offenders against the statute of James I., and had he been allowed to proceed, Mr. Hunt might have gained a name as renowned for witch-finding as that of Mr. Hopkins; but his researches were stopped from higher authority—the lives of the poor people arrested (twelve in number) were saved, and the country remained at quiet, though the supposed witches were suffered to live. The examinations attest some curious particulars, which may be found in Sadducismus Triumphatus: for among the usual string of froward, fanciful, or, as they were called, afflicted children, brought forward to club their startings, starings, and screamings, there appeared also certain remarkable confessions of the accused, from which we learn that the Somerset Satan enlisted his witches, like a wily recruiting sergeant, with one shilling in hand and twelve in promises; that when the party of weird-sisters passed to the witch-meeting they used the magic words, Thout, tout, throughout, and about; and that when they departed they exclaimed, Rentum, Tormentum! We are further informed that his Infernal Highness, on his departure, leaves a smell, and that (in nursery-maid’s phrase) not a pretty one, behind him. Concerning this fact we have a curious exposition by Mr. Glanville. "This,"—according to that respectable authority, "seems to imply the reality of the business, those ascititious particles which he held together in his sensible shape being loosened at the vanishing, and so offending the nostrils by their floating and diffusing themselves in the open air." How much are we bound to regret that Mr. Justice Hunt’s discovery "of this hellish kind of witches," in itself so clear and plain, and containing such valuable information, should have been smothered by meeting with opposition and discouragement from some then in authority!
[Footnote 61: Glanville’s "Collection of Relations."]
Lord Keeper Guildford was also a stifler of the proceedings against witches. Indeed, we may generally remark, during the latter part of the seventeenth century, that where the judges were men of education and courage, sharing in the information of the times, they were careful to check the precipitate ignorance and prejudice of the juries, by giving them a more precise idea of the indifferent value of confessions by the accused themselves, and of testimony derived from the pretended visions of those supposed to be bewitched. Where, on the contrary, judges shared with the vulgar in their ideas of such fascination, or were contented to leave the evidence with the jury, fearful to withstand the general cry too common on such occasions, a verdict of guilty often followed.
We are informed by Roger North that a case of this kind happened at the assizes in Exeter, where his brother, the Lord Chief Justice, did not interfere with the crown trials, and the other judge left for execution a poor old woman, condemned, as usual, on her own confession, and on the testimony of a neighbour, who deponed that he saw a cat jump into the accused person’s cottage window at twilight, one evening, and that he verily believed the said cat to be the devil; on which precious testimony the poor wretch was accordingly hanged. On another occasion, about the same time, the passions of the great and little vulgar were so much excited by the aquittal of an aged village dame, whom the judge had taken some pains to rescue, that Sir John Long, a man of rank and fortune, came to the judge in the greatest perplexity, requesting that the hag might not be permitted to return to her miserable cottage on his estates, since all his tenants had in that case threatened to leave him. In compassion to a gentleman who apprehended ruin from a cause so whimsical, the dangerous old woman was appointed to be kept by the town where she was acquitted, at the rate of half-a-crown a week, paid by the parish to which she belonged. But behold! in the period betwixt the two assizes Sir John Long and his farmers had mustered courage enough to petition that this witch should be sent back to them in all her terrors, because they could support her among them at a shilling a week cheaper than they were obliged to pay to the town for her maintenance. In a subsequent trial before Lord Chief Justice North himself, that judge detected one of those practices which, it is to be feared, were too common at the time, when witnesses found their advantage in feigning themselves bewitched. A woman, supposed to be the victim of the male sorcerer at the bar, vomited pins in quantities, and those straight, differing from the crooked pins usually produced at such times, and less easily concealed in the mouth. The judge, however, discovered, by cross-examining a candid witness, that in counterfeiting her fits of convulsion the woman sunk her head on her breast, so as to take up with her lips the pins which she had placed ready in her stomacher. The man was acquitted, of course. A frightful old hag, who was present, distinguished herself so much by her benedictions on the judge, that he asked the cause of the peculiar interest which she took in the acquittal. "Twenty years ago," said the poor woman, "they would have hanged me for a witch, but could not; and now, but for your lordship, they would have murdered my innocent son."
[Footnote 62: Roger North’s "Life of Lord-Keeper Guilford."]
Such scenes happened frequently on the assizes, while country gentlemen, like the excellent Sir Roger de Coverley, retained a private share in the terror with which their tenants, servants, and retainers regarded some old Moll White, who put the hounds at fault and ravaged the fields with hail and hurricanes. Sir John Reresby, after an account of a poor woman tried for a witch at York in 1686 and acquitted, as he thought, very properly, proceeds to tell us that, notwithstanding, the sentinel upon the jail where she was confined avowed "that he saw a scroll of paper creep from under the prison-door, and then change itself first into a monkey and then into a turkey, which the under-keeper confirmed. This," says Sir John, "I have heard from the mouth of both, and now leave it to be believed or disbelieved as the reader may be inclined." We may see that Reresby, a statesman and a soldier, had not as yet "plucked the old woman out of his heart." Even Addison himself ventured no farther in his incredulity respecting this crime than to contend that although witchcraft might and did exist, there was no such thing as a modern instance competently proved.
[Footnote 63: "Memoirs of Sir John Reresby," p. 237.]
As late as 1682 three unhappy women named Susan Edwards, Mary Trembles, and Temperance Lloyd were hanged at Exeter for witchcraft, and, as usual, on their own confession. This is believed to be the last execution of the kind in England under form of judicial sentence. But the ancient superstition, so interesting to vulgar credulity, like sediment clearing itself from water, sunk down in a deeper shade upon the ignorant and lowest classes of society in proportion as the higher regions were purified from its influence. The populace, including the ignorant of every class, were more enraged against witches when their passions were once excited in proportion to the lenity exercised towards the objects of their indignation by those who administered the laws. Several cases occurred in which the mob, impressed with a conviction of the guilt of some destitute old creatures, took the law into their own hands, and proceeding upon such evidence as Hopkins would have had recourse to, at once, in their own apprehension, ascertained their criminality and administered the deserved punishment.
The following instance of such illegal and inhuman proceedings occurred at Oakly, near Bedford, on 12th July, 1707. There was one woman, upwards of sixty years of age, who, being under an imputation of witchcraft, was desirous to escape from so foul a suspicion, and to conciliate the good-will of her neighbours, by allowing them to duck her. The parish officers so far consented to their humane experiment as to promise the poor woman a guinea if she should clear herself by sinking. The unfortunate object was tied up in a wet sheet, her thumbs and great toes were bound together, her cap torn off, and all her apparel searched for pins; for there is an idea that a single pin spoils the operation of the charm. She was then dragged through the river Ouse by a rope tied round her middle. Unhappily for the poor woman, her body floated, though her head remained under water. The experiment was made three times with the same effect. The cry to hang or drown the witch then became general, and as she lay half-dead on the bank they loaded the wretch with reproaches, and hardly forbore blows. A single humane bystander took her part, and exposed himself to rough usage for doing so. Luckily one of the mob themselves at length suggested the additional experiment of weighing the witch against the church Bible. The friend of humanity caught at this means of escape, supporting the proposal by the staggering argument that the Scripture, being the work of God himself, must outweigh necessarily all the operations or vassals of the devil. The reasoning was received as conclusive, the more readily as it promised a new species of amusement. The woman was then weighed against a church Bible of twelve pounds jockey weight, and as she was considerably preponderant, was dismissed with honour. But many of the mob counted her acquittal irregular, and would have had the poor dame drowned or hanged on the result of her ducking, as the more authentic species of trial.
At length a similar piece of inhumanity, which had a very different conclusion, led to the final abolition of the statute of James I. as affording countenance for such brutal proceedings. An aged pauper, named Osborne, and his wife, who resided near Tring, in Staffordshire, fell under the suspicion of the mob on account of supposed witchcraft. The overseers of the poor, understanding that the rabble entertained a purpose of swimming these infirm creatures, which indeed they had expressed in a sort of proclamation, endeavoured to oppose their purpose by securing the unhappy couple in the vestry-room, which they barricaded. They were unable, however, to protect them in the manner they intended. The mob forced the door, seized the accused, and, with ineffable brutality, continued dragging the wretches through a pool of water till the woman lost her life. A brute in human form, who had superintended the murder, went among the spectators, and requested money for the sport he had shown them! The life of the other victim was with great difficulty saved. Three men were tried for their share in this inhuman action. Only one of them, named Colley, was condemned and hanged. When he came to execution, the rabble, instead of crowding round the gallows as usual, stood at a distance, and abused those who were putting to death, they said, an honest fellow for ridding the parish of an accursed witch. This abominable murder was committed July 30, 1751.
The repetitition of such horrors, the proneness of the people to so cruel and heart-searing a superstition, was traced by the legislature to its source, namely, the yet unabolished statute of James I. Accordingly, by the 9th George II. cap. 5, that odious law, so long the object of horror to all ancient and poverty-stricken females in the kingdom, was abrogated, and all criminal procedure on the subject of sorcery or witchcraft discharged in future throughout Great Britain; reserving for such as should pretend to the skill of fortune-tellers, discoverers of stolen goods, or the like, the punishment of the correction-house, as due to rogues and vagabonds. Since that period witchcraft has been little heard of in England, and although the belief in its existence has in remote places survived the law that recognised the evidence of the crime, and assigned its punishment—yet such faith is gradually becoming forgotten since the rabble have been deprived of all pretext to awaken it by their own riotous proceedings. Some rare instances have occurred of attempts similar to that for which Colley suffered; and I observe one is preserved in that curious register of knowledge, Mr. Hone’s "Popular Amusements," from which it appears that as late as the end of last century this brutality was practised, though happily without loss of life.
The Irish statute against witchcraft still exists, as it would seem. Nothing occurred in that kingdom which recommended its being formally annulled; but it is considered as obsolete, and should so wild a thing be attempted in the present day, no procedure, it is certain, would now be permitted to lie upon it.
If anything were wanted to confirm the general proposition that the epidemic terror of witchcraft increases and becomes general in proportion to the increase of prosecutions against witches, it would be sufficient to quote certain extraordinary occurrences in New England. Only a brief account can be here given of the dreadful hallucination under which the colonists of that province were for a time deluded and oppressed by a strange contagious terror, and how suddenly and singularly it was cured, even by its own excess; but it is too strong evidence of the imaginary character of this hideous disorder to be altogether suppressed.
New England, as is well known, was peopled mainly by emigrants who had been disgusted with the government of Charles I. in church and state, previous to the great Civil War. Many of the more wealthy settlers were Presbyterians and Calvinists; others, fewer in number and less influential from their fortune, were Quakers, Anabaptists, or members of the other sects who were included under the general name of Independents. The Calvinists brought with them the same zeal for religion and strict morality which everywhere distinguished them. Unfortunately, they were not wise according to their zeal, but entertained a proneness to believe in supernatural and direct personal intercourse between the devil and his vassals, an error to which, as we have endeavoured to show, their brethren in Europe had from the beginning been peculiarly subject. In a country imperfectly cultivated, and where the partially improved spots were embosomed in inaccessible forests, inhabited by numerous tribes of savages, it was natural that a disposition to superstition should rather gain than lose ground, and that to other dangers and horrors with which they were surrounded, the colonists should have added fears of the devil, not merely as the Evil Principle tempting human nature to sin, and thus endangering our salvation, but as combined with sorcerers and witches to inflict death and torture upon children and others.
The first case which I observe was that of four children of a person called John Goodwin, a mason. The eldest, a girl, had quarrelled with the laundress of the family about some linen which was amissing. The mother of the laundress, an ignorant, testy, and choleric old Irishwoman, scolded the accuser; and shortly after, the elder Goodwin, her sister and two brothers, were seized with such strange diseases that all their neighbours concluded they were bewitched. They conducted themselves as those supposed to suffer under maladies created by such influence were accustomed to do. They stiffened their necks so hard at one time that the joints could not be moved; at another time their necks were so flexible and supple that it seemed the bone was dissolved. They had violent convulsions, in which their jaws snapped with the force of a spring-trap set for vermin. Their limbs were curiously contorted, and to those who had a taste for the marvellous, seemed entirely dislocated and displaced. Amid these distortions, they cried out against the poor old woman, whose name was Glover, alleging that she was in presence with them adding to their torments. The miserable Irishwoman, who hardly could speak the English language, repeated her Pater Noster and Ave Maria like a good Catholic; but there were some words which she had forgotten. She was therefore supposed to be unable to pronounce the whole consistently and correctly, and condemned and executed accordingly.
But the children of Goodwin found the trade they were engaged in to be too profitable to be laid aside, and the eldest in particular continued all the external signs of witchcraft and possession. Some of these were excellently calculated to flatter the self-opinion and prejudices of the Calvinist ministers by whom she was attended, and accordingly bear in their very front the character of studied and voluntary imposture. The young woman, acting, as was supposed, under the influence of the devil, read a Quaker treatise with ease and apparent satisfaction; but a book written against the poor inoffensive Friends the devil would not allow his victim to touch, She could look on a Church of England Prayer-book, and read the portions of Scripture which it contains without difficulty or impediment; but the spirit which possessed her threw her into fits if she attempted to read the same Scriptures from the Bible, as if the awe which it is supposed the fiends entertain for Holy Writ depended, not on the meaning of the words, but the arrangement of the page, and the type in which they were printed. This singular species of flattery was designed to captivate the clergyman through his professional opinions; others were more strictly personal. The afflicted damsel seems to have been somewhat of the humour of the Inamorata of Messrs. Smack, Pluck, Catch, and Company, and had, like her, merry as well as melancholy fits. She often imagined that her attendant spirits brought her a handsome pony to ride off with them to their rendezvous. On such occasions she made a spring upwards, as if to mount her horse, and then, still seated on her chair, mimicked with dexterity and agility the motions of the animal pacing, trotting, and galloping, like a child on the nurse’s knee; but when she cantered in this manner upstairs, she affected inability to enter the clergyman’s study, and when she was pulled into it by force, used to become quite well, and stand up as a rational being. "Reasons were given for this," says the simple minister, "that seem more kind than true." Shortly after this, she appears to have treated the poor divine with a species of sweetness and attention, which gave him greater embarrassment than her former violence. She used to break in upon him at his studies to importune him to come downstairs, and thus advantaged doubtless the kingdom of Satan by the interruption of his pursuits. At length the Goodwins were, or appeared to be, cured. But the example had been given and caught, and the blood of poor Dame Glover, which had been the introduction to this tale of a hobby-horse, was to be the forerunner of new atrocities and fearfully more general follies.
This scene opened by the illness of two girls, a daughter and niece of Mr. Parvis, the minister of Salem, who fell under an affliction similar to that of the Goodwins. Their mouths were stopped, their throats choked, their limbs racked, thorns were stuck into their flesh, and pins were ejected from their stomachs. An Indian and his wife, servants of the family, endeavouring, by some spell of their own, to discover by whom the fatal charm had been imposed on their master’s children, drew themselves under suspicion, and were hanged. The judges and juries persevered, encouraged by the discovery of these poor Indians’ guilt, and hoping they might thus expel from the colony the authors of such practices. They acted, says Mather, the historian, under a conscientious wish to do justly; but the cases of witchcraft and possession increased as if they were transmitted by contagion, and the same sort of spectral evidence being received which had occasioned the condemnation of the Indian woman Titu, became generally fatal. The afflicted persons failed not to see the spectres, as they were termed, of the persons by whom they were tormented. Against this species of evidence no alibi could be offered, because it was admitted, as we have said elsewhere, that the real persons of the accused were not there present; and everything rested upon the assumption that the afflicted persons were telling the truth, since their evidence could not be redargued. These spectres were generally represented as offering their victims a book, on signing which they would be freed from their torments. Sometimes the devil appeared in person, and added his own eloquence to move the afflicted persons to consent.
At first, as seems natural enough, the poor and miserable alone were involved; but presently, when such evidence was admitted as incontrovertible, the afflicted began to see the spectral appearances of persons of higher condition and of irreproachable lives, some of whom were arrested, some made their escape, while several were executed. The more that suffered the greater became the number of afflicted persons, and the wider and the more numerous were the denunciations against supposed witches. The accused were of all ages. A child of five years old was indicted by some of the afflicted, who imagined they saw this juvenile wizard active in tormenting them, and appealed to the mark of little teeth on their bodies, where they stated it had bitten them. A poor dog was also hanged as having been alleged to be busy in this infernal persecution. These gross insults on common reason occasioned a revulsion in public feeling, but not till many lives had been sacrificed. By this means nineteen men and women were executed, besides a stouthearted man named Cory, who refused to plead, and was accordingly pressed to death according to the old law. On this horrible occasion a circumstance took place disgusting to humanity, which must yet be told, to show how superstition can steel the heart of a man against the misery of his fellow-creature. The dying man, in the mortal agony, thrust out his tongue, which the sheriff crammed with his cane back again into his mouth. Eight persons were condemned besides those who had actually suffered, and no less than two hundred were in prison and under examination.
Men began then to ask whether the devil might not artfully deceive the afflicted into the accusation of good and innocent persons by presenting witches and fiends in the resemblance of blameless persons, as engaged in the tormenting of their diseased country-folk. This argument was by no means inconsistent with the belief in witchcraft, and was the more readily listened to on that account. Besides, men found that no rank or condition could save them from the danger of this horrible accusation if they continued to encourage the witnesses in such an unlimited course as had hitherto been granted to them. Influenced by these reflections, the settlers awoke as from a dream, and the voice of the public, which had so lately demanded vengeance on all who were suspected of sorcery, began now, on the other hand, to lament the effusion of blood, under the strong suspicion that part of it at least had been innocently and unjustly sacrificed. In Mather’s own language, which we use as that of a man deeply convinced of the reality of the crime, "experience showed that the more were apprehended the more were still afflicted by Satan, and the number of confessions increasing did but increase the number of the accused, and the execution of some made way to the apprehension of others. For still the afflicted complained of being tormented by new objects as the former were removed, so that some of those that were concerned grew amazed at the number and condition of those that were accused, and feared that Satan, by his wiles, had enwrapped innocent persons under the imputation of that crime; and at last, as was evidently seen, there must be a stop put, or the generation of the kingdom of God would fall under condemnation."
[Footnote 64: Mather’s "Magnalia," book vi. chap. lxxxii. The zealous author, however, regrets the general gaol delivery on the score of sorcery and thinks, had the times been calm, the case might have required a farther investigation, and that, on the whole, the matter was ended too abruptly But, the temper of the times considered, he admits candidly that it is better to act moderately in matters capital, and to let the guilty escape, than run the risk of destroying the innocent.]
The prosecutions were therefore suddenly stopped, the prisoners dismissed, the condemned pardoned, and even those who had confessed, the number of whom was very extraordinary, were pardoned amongst others; and the author we have just quoted thus records the result:—"When this prosecution ceased, the Lord so chained up Satan that the afflicted grew presently well. The accused were generally quiet, and for five years there was no such molestation among us."
To this it must be added that the congregation of Salem compelled Mr. Parvis, in whose family the disturbance had begun, and who, they alleged, was the person by whom it was most fiercely driven on in the commencement, to leave his settlement amongst them. Such of the accused as had confessed the acts of witchcraft imputed to them generally denied and retracted their confessions, asserting them to have been made under fear of torture, influence of persuasion, or other circumstances exclusive of their free will. Several of the judges and jurors concerned in the sentence of those who were executed published their penitence for their rashness in convicting these unfortunate persons; and one of the judges, a man of the most importance in the colony, observed, during the rest of his life, the anniversary of the first execution as a day of solemn fast and humiliation for his own share in the transaction. Even the barbarous Indians were struck with wonder at the infatuation of the English colonists on this occasion, and drew disadvantageous comparisons between them and the French, among whom, as they remarked, "the Great Spirit sends no witches."
The system of witchcraft, as believed in Scotland, must next claim our attention, as it is different in some respects from that of England, and subsisted to a later period, and was prosecuted with much more severity.
Scottish Trials—Earl of Mar—Lady Glammis—William Barton—Witches of Auldearne—Their Rites and Charms—Their Transformation into Hares—Satan’s Severity towards them—Their Crimes—Sir George Mackenzie’s Opinion of Witchcraft—Instances of Confessions made by the Accused, in despair, and to avoid future annoyance and persecution—Examination by Pricking—The Mode of Judicial Procedure against Witches, and nature of the Evidence admissible, opened a door to Accusers, and left the Accused no chance of escape—The Superstition of the Scottish Clergy in King James VI.’s time led them, like their Sovereign, to encourage Witch-Prosecutions—Case of Bessie Graham—Supposed Conspiracy to Shipwreck James in his Voyage to Denmark—Meetings of the Witches, and Rites performed to accomplish their purpose—Trial of Margaret Barclay in 1618—Case of Major Weir—Sir John Clerk among the first who declined acting as Commissioner on the Trial of a Witch—Paisley and Pittenweem Witches—A Prosecution in Caithness prevented by the Interference of the King’s Advocate in 1718—The Last Sentence of Death for Witchcraft pronounced in Scotland in 1722—Remains of the Witch Superstition—Case of supposed Witchcraft, related from the Author’s own knowledge, which took place so late as 1800.
For many years the Scottish nation had been remarkable for a credulous belief in witchcraft, and repeated examples were supplied by the annals of sanguinary executions on this sad accusation. Our acquaintance with the slender foundation on which Boetius and Buchanan reared the early part of their histories may greatly incline us to doubt whether a king named Duffus ever reigned in Scotland, and, still more, whether he died by the agency of a gang of witches, who inflicted torments upon an image made in his name, for the sake of compassing his death. In the tale of Macbeth, which is another early instance of Demonology in Scottish history, the weird-sisters, who were the original prophetesses, appeared to the usurper in a dream, and are described as volæ, or sibyls, rather than as witches, though Shakspeare has stamped the latter character indelibly upon them.
One of the earliest real cases of importance founded upon witchcraft was, like those of the Duchess of Gloucester and others in the sister country, mingled with an accusation of a political nature, which, rather than the sorcery, brought the culprits to their fate. The Earl of Mar, brother of James III. of Scotland, fell under the king’s suspicion for consulting with witches and sorcerers how to shorten the king’s days. On such a charge, very inexplicitly stated, the unhappy Mar was bled to death in his own lodgings without either trial or conviction; immediately after which catastrophe twelve women of obscure rank and three or four wizards, or warlocks, as they were termed, were burnt at Edinburgh, to give a colour to the Earl’s guilt.
In the year 1537 a noble matron fell a victim to a similar charge. This was Janet Douglas, Lady Glammis, who, with her son, her second husband, and several others, stood accused of attempting James’s life by poison, with a view to the restoration of the Douglas family, of which Lady Glammis’s brother, the Earl of Angus, was the head. She died much pitied by the people, who seem to have thought the articles against her forged for the purpose of taking her life, her kindred and very name being so obnoxious to the King.
Previous to this lady’s execution there would appear to have been but few prosecuted to death on the score of witchcraft, although the want of the justiciary records of that period leaves us in uncertainty. But in the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth centuries, when such charges grew general over Europe, cases of the kind occurred very often in Scotland, and, as we have already noticed, were sometimes of a peculiar character. There is, indeed, a certain monotony in most tales of the kind. The vassals are usually induced to sell themselves at a small price to the Author of Ill, who, having commonly to do with women, drives a very hard bargain. On the contrary, when he was pleased to enact the female on a similar occasion, he brought his gallant, one William Barton, a fortune of no less than fifteen pounds, which, even supposing it to have been the Scottish denomination of coin, was a very liberal endowment compared with his niggardly conduct towards the fair sex on such an occasion. Neither did he pass false coin on this occasion, but, on the contrary, generously gave Burton a merk, to keep the fifteen pounds whole. In observing on Satan’s conduct in this matter, Master George Sinclair observes that it is fortunate the Enemy is but seldom permitted to bribe so high (as £15 Scots); for were this the case, he might find few men or women capable of resisting his munificence. I look upon this as one of the most severe reflections on our forefathers’ poverty which is extant.
In many of the Scottish witches’ trials, as to the description of Satan’s Domdaniel, and the Sabbath which he there celebrates, the northern superstition agrees with that of England. But some of the confessions depart from the monotony of repetition, and add some more fanciful circumstances than occur in the general case. Isobel Gowdie’s confession, already mentioned, is extremely minute, and some part of it at least may be quoted, as there are other passages not very edifying. The witches of Auldearne, according to this penitent, were so numerous, that they were told off into squads, or covines, as they were termed, to each of which were appointed two officers. One of these was called the Maiden of the Covine, and was usually, like Tam o’ Shanter’s Nannie, a girl of personal attractions, whom Satan placed beside himself, and treated with particular attention, which greatly provoked the spite of the old hags, who felt themselves insulted by the preference. When assembled, they dug up graves, and possessed themselves of the carcases (of unchristened infants in particular), whose joints and members they used in their magic unguents and salves. When they desired to secure for their own use the crop of some neighbour, they made a pretence of ploughing it with a yoke of paddocks. These foul creatures drew the plough, which was held by the devil himself. The plough-harness and soams were of quicken grass, the sock and coulter were made out of a riglen’s horn, and the covine attended on the operation, praying the devil to transfer to them the fruit of the ground so traversed, and leave the proprietors nothing but thistles and briars. The witches’ sports, with their elfin archery, I have already noticed (page 136). They entered the house of the Earl of Murray himself, and such other mansions as were not fenced against them by vigil and prayer, and feasted on the provisions they found there.
[Footnote 65: This word Covine seems to signify a subdivision or squad. The tree near the front of an ancient castle was called the Covine tree, probably because the lord received his company there.
"He is lord of the hunting horn,
And king of the Covine tree;
He’s well loo’d in the western waters,
But best of his ain minnie."]
As these witches were the countrywomen of the weird sisters in Macbeth, the reader may be desirous to hear some of their spells, and of the poetry by which they were accompanied and enforced. They used to hash the flesh of an unchristened child, mixed with that of dogs and sheep, and place it in the house of those whom they devoted to destruction in body or goods, saying or singing—
"We put this intill this hame,
In our lord the Devil’s name;
The first hands that handle thee,
Burn’d and scalded may they be!
We will destroy houses and hald,
With the sheep and nolt into the fauld;
And little sall come to the fore,
Of all the rest of the little store!"
Metamorphoses were, according to Isobel, very common among them, and the forms of crows, cats, hares, and other animals, were on such occasions assumed. In the hare shape Isobel herself had a bad adventure. She had been sent by the devil to Auldearne in that favourite disguise, with some message to her neighbours, but had the misfortune to meet Peter Papley of Killhill’s servants going to labour, having his hounds with them. The hounds sprung on the disguised witch, "and I," says Isobel, "run a very long time, but being hard pressed, was forced to take to my own house, the door being open, and there took refuge behind a chest." But the hounds came in and took the other side of the chest, so that Isobel only escaped by getting into another house, and gaining time to say the disenchanting rhyme:—
"Hare, hare, God send thee care!
I am in a hare’s likeness now;
But I shall be a woman even now—
Hare, hare, God send thee care!"
Such accidents, she said, were not uncommon, and the witches were sometimes bitten by the dogs, of which the marks remained after their restoration to human shape. But none had been killed on such occasions.
The ceremonial of the Sabbath meetings was very strict. The Foul Fiend was very rigid in exacting the most ceremonious attention from his votaries, and the title of Lord when addressed by them. Sometimes, however, the weird sisters, when whispering amongst themselves, irreverently spoke of their sovereign by the name of Black John; upon such occasions the Fiend rushed on them like a schoolmaster who surprises his pupils in delict, and beat and buffeted them without mercy or discretion, saying, "I ken weel eneugh what you are saying of me." Then might be seen the various tempers of those whom he commanded. Alexander Elder, in Earlseat, often fell under his lord’s displeasure for neglect of duty, and, being weak and simple, could never defend himself save with tears, cries, and entreaties for mercy; but some of the women, according to Isobel Gowdie’s confession, had more of the spirit which animated the old dame of Kellyburn Braes. Margaret Wilson, in Auldearne, would "defend herself finely," and make her hands save her head, after the old Scottish manner. Bessie Wilson could also speak very crustily with her tongue, and "belled the cat" with the devil stoutly. The others chiefly took refuge in crying "Pity! mercy!" and such like, while Satan kept beating them with wool cards and other sharp scourges, without attending to their entreaties or complaints. There were attendant devils and imps, who served the witches. They were usually distinguished by their liveries, which were sad-dun, grass-green, sea-green, and yellow. The witches were taught to call these imps by names, some of which might belong to humanity, while others had a diabolical sound. These were Robert the Jakis, Saunders the Red Reaver, Thomas the Feary, Swein, an old Scandinavian Duerg probably; the Roaring Lion, Thief of Hell, Wait-upon-Herself, MacKeeler, Robert the Rule, Hendrie Craig, and Rorie. These names, odd and uncouth enough, are better imagined at least than those which Hopkins contrived for the imps which he discovered—such as Pyewacket, Peck-in-the-Crown, Sack-and-Sugar, News, Vinegar-Tom, and Grizell Greedigut, the broad vulgarity of which epithets shows what a flat imagination he brought to support his impudent fictions.
The devil, who commanded the fair sisterhood, being fond of mimicking the forms of the Christian church, used to rebaptize the witches with their blood, and in his own great name. The proud-stomached Margaret Wilson, who scorned to take a blow unrepaid, even from Satan himself, was called Pickle-nearest-the-Wind; her compeer, Bessie Wilson, was Throw-the-Cornyard; Elspet Nishe’s was Bessie Bald; Bessie Hay’s nickname was Able-and-Stout; and Jane Mairten, the Maiden of the Covine, was called Ower-the-Dike-with-it.
Isobel took upon herself, and imputed to her sisters, as already mentioned, the death of sundry persons shot with elf-arrows, because they had omitted to bless themselves as the aerial flight of the hags swept past them. She had herself the temerity to shoot at the Laird of Park as he was riding through a ford, but missed him through the influence of the running stream, perhaps, for which she thanks God in her confession; and adds, that at the time she received a great cuff from Bessie Hay for her awkwardness. They devoted the male children of this gentleman (of the well-known family of Gordon of Park, I presume) to wasting illness, by the following lines, placing at the same time in the fire figures composed of clay mixed with paste, to represent the object:—
"We put this water amongst this meal,
For long dwining and ill heal;
We put it in into the fire,
To burn them up stook and stour.
That they be burned with our will,
Like any stikkle in a kiln."
[Footnote 66: See p. 136.]
[Footnote 67: Pining.]
[Footnote 68: We should read perhaps, "limb and lire."]
[Footnote 69: Stubble.]
Such was the singular confession of Isobel Gowdie, made voluntarily, it would seem, and without compulsion of any kind, judicially authenticated by the subscription of the notary, clergymen, and gentlemen present; adhered to after their separate diets, as they are called, of examination, and containing no variety or contradiction in its details. Whatever might be her state of mind in other respects, she seems to have been perfectly conscious of the perilous consequence of her disclosures to her own person. "I do not deserve," says she, "to be seated here at ease and unharmed, but rather to be stretched on an iron rack: nor can my crimes be atoned for, were I to be drawn asunder by wild horses."
It only remains to suppose that this wretched creature was under the dominion of some peculiar species of lunacy, to which a full perusal of her confession might perhaps guide a medical person of judgment and experience. Her case is interesting, as throwing upon the rites and ceremonies of the Scottish witches a light which we seek in vain elsewhere.
Other unfortunate persons were betrayed to their own reproof by other means than the derangement of mind which seems to have operated on Isobel Gowdie. Some, as we have seen, endeavoured to escape from the charge of witchcraft by admitting an intercourse with the fairy people; an excuse which was never admitted as relevant. Others were subjected to cruel tortures, by which our ancestors thought the guilty might be brought to confession, but which far more frequently compelled the innocent to bear evidence against themselves. On this subject the celebrated Sir George Mackenzie, "that noble wit of Scotland," as he is termed by Dryden, has some most judicious reflections, which we shall endeavour to abstract as the result of the experience of one who, in his capacity of Lord Advocate, had often occasion to conduct witch-trials, and who, not doubting the existence of the crime, was of opinion that, on account of its very horror, it required the clearest and most strict probation.
He first insists on the great improbability of the fiend, without riches to bestow, and avowedly subjected to a higher power, being able to enlist such numbers of recruits, and the little advantage which he himself would gain by doing so. But, 2dly, says Mackenzie, "the persons ordinarily accused of this crime are poor ignorant men, or else women, who understand not the nature of what they are accused of; and many mistake their own fears and apprehensions for witchcraft, of which I shall give two instances. One, of a poor weaver who, after he had confessed witchcraft, being asked how he saw the devil, made answer, ‘Like flies dancing about the candle.’ Another, of a woman, who asked seriously, when she was accused, if a woman might be a witch and not know it? And it is dangerous that persons, of all others the most simple, should be tried for a crime of all others the most mysterious. 3rdly, These poor creatures, when they are defamed, become so confounded with fear and the close prison in which they are kept, and so starved for want of meat and drink, either of which wants is enough to disarm the strongest reason, that hardly wiser and more serious people than they would escape distraction; and when men are confounded with fear and apprehension, they will imagine things the most ridiculous and absurd" of which instances are given. 4thly, "Most of these poor creatures are tortured by their keepers, who, being persuaded they do God good service, think it their duty to vex and torment poor prisoners delivered up to them as rebels to heaven and enemies to men; and I know" (continues Sir George), "ex certissima scientia, that most of all that ever were taken were tormented in this manner, and this usage was the ground of all their confession; and albeit the poor miscreants cannot prove this usage, the actors being the only witnesses, yet the judge should be jealous of it, as that which did at first elicit the confession, and for fear of which they dare not retract it." 5thly, This learned author gives us an instance how these unfortunate creatures might be reduced to confession by the very infamy which the accusation cast upon them, and which was sure to follow, condemning them for life to a state of necessity, misery, and suspicion, such as any person of reputation would willingly exchange for a short death, however painful.
"I went when I was a justice-deput to examine some women who had confessed judicially, and one of them, who was a silly creature, told me under secresie, that she had not confest because she was guilty, but being a poor creature who wrought for her meat, and being defamed for a witch, she knew she would starve, for no person thereafter would either give her meat or lodging, and that all men would beat her and hound dogs at her, and that therefore she desired to be out of the world; whereupon she wept most bitterly, and upon her knees called God to witness to what she said. Another told me that she was afraid the devil would challenge a right to her, after she was said to be his servant, and would haunt her, as the minister said, when he was desiring her to confess, and therefore she desired to die. And really ministers are oft times indiscreet in their zeal to have poor creatures to confess in this; and I recommend to judges that the wisest ministers should be sent to them, and those who are sent should be cautious in this particular."
[Footnote 70: Mackenzie’s "Criminal Law," p. 45.]
As a corollary to this affecting story, I may quote the case of a woman in Lauder jail, who lay there with other females on a charge of witchcraft. Her companions in prison were adjudged to die, and she too had, by a confession as full as theirs, given herself up as guilty. She therefore sent for the minister of the town, and entreated to be put to death with the others who had been appointed to suffer upon the next Monday. The clergyman, however, as well as others, had adopted a strong persuasion that this confession was made up in the pride of her heart, for the destruction of her own life, and had no foundation in truth. We give the result in the minister’s words:—
"Therefore much pains was taken on her by ministers and others on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday morning, that she might resile from that confession which was suspected to be but a temptation of the devil, to destroy both her soul and body; yea, it was charged home upon her by the ministers, that there was just ground of jealousy that her confession was not sincere, and she was charged before the Lord to declare the truth, and not to take her blood upon her own head. Yet she stiffly adhered to what she had said, and cried always to be put away with the rest. Whereupon, on Monday morning, being called before the judges, and confessing before them what she had said, she was found guilty and condemned to die with the rest that same day. Being carried forth to the place of execution, she remained silent during the first, second, and third prayer, and then perceiving that there remained no more but to rise and go to the stake, she lifted up her body, and with a loud voice cried out, ‘Now all you that see me this day, know that I am now to die as a witch by my own confession, and I free all men, especially the ministers and magistrates, of the guilt of my blood. I take it wholly upon myself—my blood be upon my own head; and as I must make answer to the God of Heaven presently, I declare I am as free of witchcraft as any child; but being delated by a malicious woman, and put in prison under the name of a witch, disowned by my husband and friends, and seeing no ground of hope of my coming out of prison, or ever coming in credit again, through the temptation of the devil I made up that confession on purpose to destroy my own life, being weary of it, and choosing rather to die than live;’—and so died. Which lamentable story, as it did then astonish all the spectators, none of which could restrain themselves from tears; so it may be to all a demonstration of Satan’s subtlety, whose design is still to destroy all, partly by tempting many to presumption, and some others to despair. These things to be of truth, are attested by an eye and ear witness who is yet alive, a faithful minister of the gospel." It is strange the inference does not seem to have been deduced, that as one woman out of very despair renounced her own life, the same might have been the case in many other instances, wherein the confessions of the accused constituted the principal if not sole evidence of the guilt.
[Footnote 71: Sinclair’s "Satan’s Invisible World Discovered," p. 43.]
One celebrated mode of detecting witches and torturing them at the same time, to draw forth confession, was by running pins into their body, on pretence of discovering the devil’s stigma, or mark, which was said to be inflicted by him upon all his vassals, and to be insensible to pain. This species of search, the practice of the infamous Hopkins, was in Scotland reduced to a trade; and the young witchfinder was allowed to torture the accused party, as if in exercise of a lawful calling, although Sir George Mackenzie stigmatises it as a horrid imposture. I observe in the Collections of Mr. Pitcairn, that at the trial of Janet Peaston of Dalkeith the magistrates and ministers of that market town caused John Kincaid of Tranent, the common pricker, to exercise his craft upon her, "who found two marks of what he called the devil’s making, and which appeared indeed to be so, for she could not feel the pin when it was put into either of the said marks, nor did they (the marks) bleed when they were taken out again; and when she was asked where she thought the pins were put in, she pointed to a part of her body distant from the real place. They were pins of three inches in length."
Besides the fact that the persons of old people especially sometimes contain spots void of sensibility, there is also room to believe that the professed prickers used a pin the point or lower part of which was, on being pressed down, sheathed in the upper, which was hollow for the purpose, and that which appeared to enter the body did not pierce it at all. But, were it worth while to dwell on a subject so ridiculous, we might recollect that in so terrible an agony of shame as is likely to convulse a human being under such a trial, and such personal insults, the blood is apt to return to the heart, and a slight wound, as with a pin, may be inflicted without being followed by blood. In the latter end of the seventeenth century this childish, indecent, and brutal practice began to be called by its right name. Fountainhall has recorded that in 1678 the Privy Council received the complaint of a poor woman who had been abused by a country magistrate and one of those impostors called prickers. They expressed high displeasure against the presumption of the parties complained against, and treated the pricker as a common cheat.
[Footnote 72: Fountainhall’s "Decisions," vol. i. p. 15.]
From this and other instances it appears that the predominance of the superstition of witchcraft, and the proneness to persecute those accused of such practices in Scotland, were increased by the too great readiness of subordinate judges to interfere in matters which were, in fact, beyond their jurisdiction. The Supreme Court of Justiciary was that in which the cause properly and exclusively ought to have been tried. But, in practice, each inferior judge in the country, the pettiest bailie in the most trifling burgh, the smallest and most ignorant baron of a rude territory, took it on him to arrest, imprison, and examine, in which examinations, as we have already seen, the accused suffered the grossest injustice. The copies of these examinations, made up of extorted confessions, or the evidence of inhabile witnesses, were all that were transmitted to the Privy Council, who were to direct the future mode of procedure. Thus no creature was secure against the malice or folly of some defamatory accusation, if there was a timid or superstitious judge, though of the meanest denomination, to be found within the district.
But, secondly, it was the course of the Privy Council to appoint commissions of the gentlemen of the country, and particularly of the clergymen, though not likely, from their education, to be freed from general prejudice, and peculiarly liable to be affected by the clamour of the neighbourhood againt the delinquent. Now, as it is well known that such a commission could not be granted in a case of murder in the county where the crime was charged, there seems no good reason why the trial of witches, so liable to excite the passions, should not have been uniformly tried by a court whose rank and condition secured them from the suspicion of partiality. But our ancestors arranged it otherwise, and it was the consequence that such commissioners very seldom, by acquitting the persons brought before them, lost an opportunity of destroying a witch.
Neither must it be forgotten that the proof led in support of the prosecution was of a kind very unusual in jurisprudence. The lawyers admitted as evidence what they called damnum minatum, et malum secutum—some mischief, that is to say, following close upon a threat, or wish of revenge, uttered by the supposed witch, which, though it might be attributed to the most natural course of events, was supposed necessarily to be in consequence of the menaces of the accused.
Sometimes this vague species of evidence was still more loosely adduced, and allegations of danger threatened and mischief ensuing were admitted, though the menaces had not come from the accused party herself. On 10th June, 1661, as John Stewart, one of a party of stout burghers of Dalkeith appointed to guard an old woman called Christian Wilson from that town to Niddrie, was cleaning his gun, he was slyly questioned by Janet Cocke, another confessing witch, who probably saw his courage was not entirely constant, "What would you think if the devil raise a whirlwind, and take her from you on the road to-morrow?" Sure enough, on their journey to Niddrie the party actually were assailed by a sudden gust of wind (not a very uncommon event in that climate), which scarce permitted the valiant guard to keep their feet, while the miserable prisoner was blown into a pool of water, and with difficulty raised again. There is some ground to hope that this extraordinary evidence was not admitted upon the trial.
There is a story told of an old wizard, whose real name was Alexander Hunter, though he was more generally known by the nickname of Hatteraick, which it had pleased the devil to confer upon him. The man had for some time adopted the credit of being a conjurer, and curing the diseases of man and beast by spells and charms. One summer’s day, on a green hill-side, the devil appeared to him in shape of a grave "Mediciner," addressing him thus roundly, "Sandie, you have too long followed my trade without acknowledging me for a master. You must now enlist with me and become my servant, and I will teach you your trade better." Hatteraick consented to the proposal, and we shall let the Rev. Mr. George Sinclair tell the rest of the tale.
"After this he grew very famous through the country for his charming and curing of diseases in men and beasts, and turned a vagrant fellow like a jockie, gaining meal, and flesh, and money by his charms, such was the ignorance of many at that time. Whatever house he came to none durst refuse Hatteraick an alms, rather for his ill than his good. One day he came to the yait (gate) of Samuelston, when some friends after dinner were going to horse. A young gentleman, brother to the lady, seeing him, switcht him about the ears, saying—’You warlock carle, what have you to do here?’ Whereupon the fellow goes away grumbling, and was overheard to say, ‘You shall dear buy this ere it be long.’ This was damnum minatum. The young gentleman conveyed his friends a far way off, and came home that way again, where he supped. After supper, taking his horse and crossing Tyne water to go home, he rides through a shady piece of a haugh, commonly called Allers, and the evening being somewhat dark, he met with some persons there that begat a dreadful consternation in him, which for the most part he would never reveal. This was malum secutum. When he came home the servants observed terror and fear in his countenance. The next day he became distracted, and was bound for several days. His sister, the Lady Samuelston, hearing of it, was heard say, ‘Surely that knave Hatteraick is the cause of his trouble; call for him in all haste.’ When he had come to her, ‘Sandie,’ says she, ‘what is this you have done to my brother William?’ ‘I told him,’ says he, ‘I should make him repent of his striking me at the yait lately.’ She, giving the rogue fair words, and promising him his pockful of meal, with beef and cheese, persuaded the fellow to cure him again. He undertook the business. ‘But I must first,’ says he, ‘have one of his sarks’ (shirts), which was soon gotten. What pranks he played with it cannot be known, but within a short while the gentleman recovered his health. When Hatteraick came to receive his wages he told the lady, ‘Your brother William shall quickly go off the country, but shall never return,’ She, knowing the fellow’s prophecies to hold true, caused the brother to make a disposition to her of all his patrimony, to the defrauding of his younger brother, George. After that this warlock had abused the country for a long time, he was at last apprehended at Dunbar, and brought into Edinburgh, and burnt upon the Castlehill."
[Footnote 73: Or Scottish wandering beggar.]
[Footnote 74: Sinclair’s "Satan’s Invisible World Discovered," p. 98.]
Now, if Hatteraick was really put to death on such evidence, it is worth while to consider what was its real amount. A hot-tempered swaggering young gentleman horsewhips a beggar of ill fame for loitering about the gate of his sister’s house. The beggar grumbles, as any man would. The young man, riding in the night, and probably in liquor, through a dark shady place, is frightened by, he would not, and probably could not, tell what, and has a fever fit. His sister employs the wizard to take off the spell according to his profession; and here is damnum minatum, et malum secutum, and all legal cause for burning a man to ashes! The vagrant Hatteraick probably knew something of the wild young man which might soon oblige him to leave the country; and the selfish Lady Samuelston, learning the probability of his departure, committed a fraud which ought to have rendered her evidence inadmissible.
Besides these particular disadvantages, to which the parties accused of this crime in Scotland were necessarily exposed, both in relation to the judicature by which they were tried and the evidence upon which they were convicted, their situation was rendered intolerable by the detestation in which they were held by all ranks. The gentry hated them because the diseases and death of their relations and children were often imputed to them; the grossly superstitious vulgar abhorred them with still more perfect dread and loathing. And amongst those natural feelings, others of a less pardonable description found means to shelter themselves. In one case, we are informed by Mackenzie, a poor girl was to die for witchcraft, of whom the real crime was that she had attracted too great a share, in the lady’s opinion, of the attention of the laird.
Having thus given some reasons why the prosecutions for witchcraft in Scotland were so numerous and fatal, we return to the general history of the trials recorded from the reign of James V. to the union of the kingdoms. Through the reign of Queen Mary these trials for sorcery became numerous, and the crime was subjected to heavier punishment by the 73rd Act of her 9th Parliament. But when James VI. approached to years of discretion, the extreme anxiety which he displayed to penetrate more deeply into mysteries which others had regarded as a very millstone of obscurity, drew still larger attention to the subject. The sovereign had exhausted his talents of investigation on the subject of witchcraft, and credit was given to all who acted in defence of the opinions of the reigning prince. This natural tendency to comply with the opinions of the sovereign was much augmented by the disposition of the Kirk to the same sentiments. We have already said that these venerable persons entertained, with good faith, the general erroneous belief respecting witchcraft—regarding it indeed as a crime which affected their own order more nearly than others in the state, since, especially called to the service of heaven, they were peculiarly bound to oppose the incursions of Satan. The works which remain behind them show, among better things, an unhesitating belief in what were called by them "special providences;" and this was equalled, at least, by their credulity as to the actual interference of evil spirits in the affairs of this world. They applied these principles of belief to the meanest causes. A horse falling lame was a snare of the devil to keep the good clergyman from preaching; the arrival of a skilful farrier was accounted a special providence to defeat the purpose of Satan. This was, doubtless, in a general sense true, since nothing can happen without the foreknowledge and will of Heaven; but we are authorized to believe that the period of supernatural interference has long passed away, and that the great Creator is content to execute his purposes by the operation of those laws which influence the general course of nature. Our ancient Scottish divines thought otherwise. Surrounded, as they conceived themselves, by the snares and temptations of hell, and relying on the aid of Heaven, they entered into war with the kingdom of Satan, as the crusaders of old invaded the land of Palestine, with the same confidence in the justice of their cause and similar indifference concerning the feelings of those whom they accounted the enemies of God and man. We have already seen that even the conviction that a woman was innocent of the crime of witchcraft did not induce a worthy clergyman to use any effort to withdraw her from the stake; and in the same collection there occur some observable passages of God’s providence to a godly minister in giving him "full clearness" concerning Bessie Grahame, suspected of witchcraft. The whole detail is a curious illustration of the spirit of credulity which well-disposed men brought with them to such investigations, and how easily the gravest doubts were removed rather than a witch should be left undetected.
[Footnote 75: "Satan’s Invisible World," by Mr. George Sinclair. The author was Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Glasgow, and afterwards minister of Eastwood, in Renfrewshire.]
Bessie Grahame had been committed, it would seem, under suspicions of no great weight, since the minister, after various conferences, found her defence so successful, that he actually pitied her hard usage, and wished for her delivery from prison, especially as he doubted whether a civil court would send her to an assize, or whether an assize would be disposed to convict her. While the minister was in this doubt, a fellow named Begg was employed as a skilful pricker; by whose authority it is not said, he thrust a great brass pin up to the head in a wart on the woman’s back, which he affirmed to be the devil’s mark. A commission was granted for trial; but still the chief gentlemen in the county refused to act, and the clergyman’s own doubts were far from being removed. This put the worthy man upon a solemn prayer to God, "that if he would find out a way for giving the minister full clearness of her guilt, he would acknowledge it as a singular favour and mercy." This, according to his idea, was accomplished in the following manner, which he regarded as an answer to his prayer. One evening the clergyman, with Alexander Simpson, the kirk-officer, and his own servant, had visited Bessie in her cell, to urge her to confession, but in vain. As they stood on the stair-head behind the door, they heard the prisoner, whom they had left alone in her place of confinement, discoursing with another person, who used a low and ghostly tone, which the minister instantly recognised as the Foul Fiend’s voice. But for this discovery we should have been of opinion that Bessie Grahame talked to herself, as melancholy and despairing wretches are in the habit of doing. But as Alexander Simpson pretended to understand the sense of what was said within the cell, and the minister himself was pretty sure he heard two voices at the same time, he regarded the overhearing this conversation as the answer of the Deity to his petition, and thenceforth was troubled with no doubts either as to the reasonableness and propriety of his prayer, or the guilt of Bessie Grahame, though she died obstinate, and would not confess; nay, made a most decent and Christian end, acquitting her judges and jury of her blood, in respect of the strong delusion under which they laboured.
Although the ministers, whose opinions were but two strongly on this head in correspondence with the prevailing superstitions of the people, nourished in the early system of church government a considerable desire to secure their own immunities and privileges as a national church, which failed not at last to be brought into contact with the king’s prerogative; yet in the earlier part of his reign, James, when freed from the influence of such a favourite as the profligate Stuart, Earl of Arran, was in his personal qualities rather acceptable to the clergy of his kingdom and period. At his departing from Scotland on his romantic expedition to bring home a consort from Denmark, he very politically recommended to the clergy to contribute all that lay in their power to assist the civil magistrates, and preserve the public peace of the kingdom. The king after his return acknowledged with many thanks the care which the clergy had bestowed in this particular. Nor were they slack in assuming the merit to themselves, for they often reminded him in their future discords that his kingdom had never been so quiet as during his voyage to Denmark, when the clergy were in a great measure intrusted with the charge of the public government.
During the halcyon period of union between kirk and king their hearty agreement on the subject of witchcraft failed not to heat the fires against the persons suspected of such iniquity. The clergy considered that the Roman Catholics, their principal enemies, were equally devoted to the devil, the mass, and the witches, which in their opinion were mutually associated together, and natural allies in the great cause of mischief. On the other hand, the pedantic sovereign having exercised his learning and ingenuity in the Demonologia, considered the execution of every witch who was burnt as a necessary conclusion of his own royal syllogisms. The juries were also afraid of the consequences of acquittal to themselves, being liable to suffer under an assize of error should they be thought to have been unjustly merciful; and as the witches tried were personally as insignificant as the charge itself was odious, there was no restraint whatever upon those in whose hands their fate lay, and there seldom wanted some such confession as we have often mentioned, or such evidence as that collected by the minister who overheard the dialogue between the witch and her master, to salve their consciences and reconcile them to bring in a verdict of guilty.
The execution of witches became for these reasons very common in Scotland, where the king seemed in some measure to have made himself a party in the cause, and the clergy esteemed themselves such from the very nature of their profession. But the general spite of Satan and his adherents was supposed to be especially directed against James, on account of his match with Anne of Denmark—the union of a Protestant princess with a Protestant prince, the King of Scotland and heir of England being, it could not be doubted, an event which struck the whole kingdom of darkness with alarm. James was self-gratified by the unusual spirit which he had displayed on his voyage in quest of his bride, and well disposed to fancy that he had performed it in positive opposition, not only to the indirect policy of Elizabeth, but to the malevolent purpose of hell itself. His fleet had been tempest-tost, and he very naturally believed that the prince of the power of the air had been personally active on the occasion.
The principal person implicated in these heretical and treasonable undertakings was one Agnes Simpson, or Samson, called the Wise Wife of Keith, and described by Archbishop Spottiswood, not as one of the base or ignorant class of ordinary witches, but a grave matron, composed and deliberate in her answers, which were all to some purpose. This grave dame, from the terms of her indictment, seems to have been a kind of white witch, affecting to cure diseases by words and charms, a dangerous profession considering the times in which she lived. Neither did she always keep the right and sheltered side of the law in such delicate operations. One article of her indictment proves this, and at the same time establishes that the Wise Woman of Keith knew how to turn her profession to account; for, being consulted in the illness of Isobel Hamilton, she gave her opinion that nothing could amend her unless the devil was raised; and the sick woman’s husband, startling at the proposal, and being indifferent perhaps about the issue, would not bestow the necessary expenses, whereupon the Wise Wife refused to raise the devil, and the patient died. This woman was principally engaged in an extensive conspiracy to destroy the fleet of the queen by raising a tempest; and to take the king’s life by anointing his linen with poisonous materials, and by constructing figures of clay, to be wasted and tormented after the usual fashion of necromancy.
Amongst her associates was an unhappy lady of much higher degree. This was Dame Euphane MacCalzean, the widow of a Senator of the College of Justice, and a person infinitely above the rank of the obscure witches with whom she was joined in her crime. Mr. Pitcairn supposes that this connexion may have arisen from her devotion to the Catholic faith and her friendship for the Earl of Bothwell.
The third person in this singular league of sorcerers was Doctor John Fian, otherwise Cunninghame, who was schoolmaster at Tranent, and enjoyed much hazardous reputation as a warlock. This man was made the hero of the whole tale of necromancy, in an account of it published at London, and entitled, "News from Scotland," which has been lately reprinted by the Roxburghe Club. It is remarkable that the Scottish witchcrafts were not thought sufficiently horrible by the editor of this tract, without adding to them the story of a philtre being applied to a cow’s hair instead of that of the young woman for whom it was designed, and telling how the animal came lowing after the sorcerer to his schoolroom door, like a second Pasiphaë, the original of which charm occurs in the story of Apuleius.
[Footnote 76: "Lucii Apuleii Metamorphoses," lib. iii.]
Besides these persons, there was one Barbara Napier, alias Douglas, a person of some rank; Geillis Duncan, a very active witch; and about thirty other poor creatures of the lowest condition—among the rest, and doorkeeper to the conclave, a silly old ploughman, called as his nickname Graymeal, who was cuffed by the devil for saying simply, "God bless the king!"
When the monarch of Scotland sprung this strong covey of his favourite game, they afforded the Privy Council and him sport for the greatest part of the remaining winter. He attended on the examinations himself, and by one means or or other, they were indifferently well dressed to his palate.
Agnes Sampson, the grave matron before mentioned, after being an hour tortured by the twisting of a cord around her head, according to the custom of the Buccaneers, confessed that she had consulted with one Richard Grahame concerning the probable length of the king’s life, and the means of shortening it. But Satan, to whom they at length resorted for advice, told them in French respecting King James, Il est un homme de Dieu. The poor woman also acknowledged that she had held a meeting with those of her sisterhood, who had charmed a cat by certain spells, having four joints of men knit to its feet, which they threw into the sea to excite a tempest. Another frolic they had when, like the weird sisters in Macbeth, they embarked in sieves with much mirth and jollity, the Fiend rolling himself before them upon the waves, dimly seen, and resembling a huge haystack in size and appearance. They went on board of a foreign ship richly laded with wines, where, invisible to the crew, they feasted till the sport grew tiresome, and then Satan sunk the vessel and all on board.
Fian, or Cunninghame, was also visited by the sharpest tortures, ordinary and extraordinary. The nails were torn from his fingers with smith’s pincers; pins were driven into the places which the nails usually defended; his knees were crushed in the boots, his finger bones were splintered in the pilniewinks. At length his constancy, hitherto sustained, as the bystanders supposed, by the help of the devil, was fairly overcome, and he gave an account of a great witch-meeting at North Berwick, where they paced round the church withershinns, that is, in reverse of the motion of the sun. Fian then blew into the lock of the church-door, whereupon the bolts gave way, the unhallowed crew entered, and their master the devil appeared to his servants in the shape of a black man occupying the pulpit. He was saluted with an "Hail, Master!" but the company were dissatisfied with his not having brought a picture of the king, repeatedly promised, which was to place his majesty at the mercy of this infernal crew. The devil was particularly upbraided on this subject by divers respectable-looking females—no question, Euphane MacCalzean, Barbara Napier, Agnes Sampson, and some other amateur witch above those of the ordinary profession. The devil on this memorable occasion forgot himself, and called Fian by his own name, instead of the demoniacal sobriquet of Rob the Rowar, which had been assigned to him as Master of the Rows or Rolls. This was considered as bad taste, and the rule is still observed at every rendezvous of forgers, smugglers, or the like, where it is accounted very indifferent manners to name an individual by his own name, in case of affording ground of evidence which may upon a day of trial be brought against him. Satan, something disconcerted, concluded the evening with a divertisement and a dance after his own manner. The former consisted in disinterring a new-buried corpse, and dividing it in fragments among the company, and the ball was maintained by well-nigh two hundred persons, who danced a ring dance, singing this chant—
"Cummer, gang ye before; Cummer gang ye.
Gif ye will not gang before, Cummers, let me."
After this choral exhibition, the music seems to have been rather imperfect, the number of dancers considered. Geillis Duncan was the only instrumental performer, and she played on a Jew’s harp, called in Scotland a trump. Dr. Fian, muffled, led the ring, and was highly honoured, generally acting as clerk or recorder, as above mentioned.
King James was deeply interested in those mysterious meetings, and took great delight to be present at the examinations of the accused. He sent for Geillis Duncan, and caused her to play before him the same tune to which Satan and his companions led the brawl in North Berwick churchyard. His ears were gratified in another way, for at this meeting it was said the witches demanded of the devil why he did bear such enmity against the king? who returned the flattering answer that the king was the greatest enemy whom he had in the world.
[Footnote 77: The music of this witch tune is unhappily lost. But that of another, believed to have been popular on such occasions, is preserved.
"The silly bit chicken, gar cast her a pickle,
And she will grow mickle,
And she will do good."]
Almost all these poor wretches were executed, nor did Euphane MacCalzean’s station in life save her from the common doom, which was strangling to death, and burning to ashes thereafter. The majority of the jury which tried Barbara Napier having acquitted her of attendance at the North Berwick meeting, were themselves threatened with a trial for wilful error upon an assize, and could only escape from severe censure and punishment by pleading guilty, and submitting themselves to the king’s pleasure. This rigorous and iniquitous conduct shows a sufficient reason why there should be so few acquittals from a charge of witchcraft where the juries were so much at the mercy of the crown.
It would be disgusting to follow the numerous cases in which the same uniform credulity, the same extorted confessions, the same prejudiced and exaggerated evidence, concluded in the same tragedy at the stake and the pile. The alterations and trenching which lately took place for the purpose of improving the Castlehill of Edinburgh displayed the ashes of the numbers who had perished in this manner, of whom a large proportion must have been executed between 1590, when the great discovery was made concerning Euphane MacCalzean and the Wise Wife of Keith and their accomplices, and the union of the crowns.
Nor did King James’s removal to England soften this horrible persecution. In Sir Thomas Hamilton’s Minutes of Proceedings in the Privy Council, there occurs a singular entry, evincing plainly that the Earl of Mar, and others of James’s Council, were becoming fully sensible of the desperate iniquity and inhumanity of these proceedings. I have modernized the spelling that this appalling record may be legible to all my readers.
"1608, December 1. The Earl of Mar declared to the Council that some women were taken in Broughton as witches, and being put to an assize and convicted, albeit they persevered constant in their denial to the end, yet they were burned quick [alive] after such a cruel manner that some of them died in despair, renouncing and blaspheming [God]; and others, half burned, brak out of the fire, and were cast quick in it again, till they were burned to the death."
[Footnote 78: I am obliged to the kindness of Mr. Pitcairn for this singular extract. The southern reader must be informed that the jurisdiction or regality of Broughton embraced Holyrood, Canongate, Leith, and other suburban parts of Edinburgh, and bore the same relation to that city as the borough of Southwark to London.]
This singular document shows that even in the reign of James, so soon as his own august person was removed from Edinburgh, his dutiful Privy Council began to think that they had supt full with horrors, and were satiated with the excess of cruelty which dashed half-consumed wretches back into the flames from which they were striving to escape.
But the picture, however much it may have been disgusting and terrifying to the Council at the time, and though the intention of the entry upon the records was obviously for the purpose of preventing such horrid cruelties in future, had no lasting effect on the course of justice, as the severities against witches were most unhappily still considered necessary. Through the whole of the sixteenth, and the greater part of the seventeenth century, little abatement in the persecution of this metaphysical crime of witchcraft can be traced in the kingdom. Even while the Independents held the reins of government, Cromwell himself, and his major-generals and substitutes, were obliged to please the common people of Scotland by abandoning the victims accused of witchcraft to the power of the law, though the journals of the time express the horror and disgust with which the English sectarians beheld a practice so inconsistent with their own humane principle of universal toleration.
Instead of plunging into a history of these events which, generally speaking, are in detail as monotonous as they are melancholy, it may amuse the reader to confine the narrative to a single trial, having in the course of it some peculiar and romantic events. It is the tale of a sailor’s wife, more tragic in its event than that of the chestnut-muncher in Macbeth.
[Footnote 79: A copy of the record of the trial, which took place in Ayrshire, was sent to me by a friend who withheld his name, so that I can only thank him in this general acknowledgment.]
Margaret Barclay, wife of Archibald Dein, burgess of Irvine, had been slandered by her sister-in-law, Janet Lyal, the spouse of John Dein, brother of Archibald, and by John Dein himself, as guilty of some act of theft. Upon this provocation Margaret Barclay raised an action of slander before the church court, which prosecution, after some procedure, the kirk-session discharged by directing a reconciliation between the parties. Nevertheless, although the two women shook hands before the court, yet the said Margaret Barclay declared that she gave her hand only in obedience to the kirk-session, but that she still retained her hatred and ill-will against John Dein and his wife, Janet Lyal. About this time the bark of John Dein was about to sail for France, and Andrew Train, or Tran, provost of the burgh of Irvine, who was an owner of the vessel, went with him to superintend the commercial part of the voyage. Two other merchants of some consequence went in the same vessel, with a sufficient number of mariners. Margaret Barclay, the revengeful person already mentioned, was heard to imprecate curses upon the provost’s argosy, praying to God that sea nor salt-water might never bear the ship, and that partans (crabs) might eat the crew at the bottom of the sea.
When, under these auspices, the ship was absent on her voyage, a vagabond fellow, named John Stewart, pretending to have knowledge of jugglery, and to possess the power of a spaeman, came to the residence of Tran, the provost, and dropped explicit hints that the ship was lost, and that the good woman of the house was a widow. The sad truth was afterwards learned on more certain information. Two of the seamen, after a space of doubt and anxiety, arrived, with the melancholy tidings that the bark, of which John Dein was skipper and Provost Tran part owner, had been wrecked on the coast of England, near Padstow, when all on board had been lost, except the two sailors who brought the notice. Suspicion of sorcery, in those days easily awakened, was fixed on Margaret Barclay, who had imprecated curses on the ship, and on John Stewart, the juggler, who had seemed to know of the evil fate of the voyage before he could have become acquainted with it by natural means.
Stewart, who was first apprehended, acknowledged that Margaret Barclay, the other suspected person, had applied to him to teach her some magic arts, "in order that she might get gear, kye’s milk, love of man, her heart’s desire on such persons as had done her wrong, and, finally, that she might obtain the fruit of sea and land." Stewart declared that he denied to Margaret that he possessed the said arts himself, or had the power of communicating them. So far was well; but, true or false, he added a string of circumstances, whether voluntarily declared or extracted by torture, which tended to fix the cause of the loss of the bark on Margaret Barclay. He had come, he said, to this woman’s house in Irvine, shortly after the ship set sail from harbour. He went to Margaret’s house by night, and found her engaged, with other two women, in making clay figures; one of the figures was made handsome, with fair hair, supposed to represent Provost Tran. They then proceeded to mould a figure of a ship in clay, and during this labour the devil appeared to the company in the shape of a handsome black lap-dog, such as ladies use to keep. He added that the whole party left the house together, and went into an empty waste-house nearer the seaport, which house he pointed out to the city magistrates. From this house they went to the sea-side, followed by the black lap-dog aforesaid, and cast in the figures of clay representing the ship and the men; after which the sea raged, roared, and became red like the juice of madder in a dyer’s cauldron.
[Footnote 80: This may remind the reader of Cazotte’s "Diable
This confession having been extorted from the unfortunate juggler, the female acquaintances of Margaret Barclay were next convened, that he might point out her associates in forming the charm, when he pitched upon a woman called Isobel Insh, or Taylor, who resolutely denied having ever seen him before. She was imprisoned, however, in the belfry of the church. An addition to the evidence against the poor old woman Insh was then procured from her own daughter, Margaret Tailzeour, a child of eight years old, who lived as servant with Margaret Barclay, the person principally accused. This child, who was keeper of a baby belonging to Margaret Barclay, either from terror or the innate love of falsehood which we have observed as proper to childhood, declared that she was present when the fatal models of clay were formed, and that, in plunging them in the sea, Margaret Barclay her mistress, and her mother Isobel Insh, were assisted by another woman, and a girl of fourteen years old, who dwelt at the town-head. Legally considered, the evidence of this child was contradictory and inconsistent with the confession of the juggler, for it assigned other particulars and dramatis personæ in many respects different. But all was accounted sufficiently regular, especially since the girl failed not to swear to the presence of the black dog, to whose appearance she also added the additional terrors of that of a black man. The dog also, according to her account, emitted flashes from its jaws and nostrils to illuminate the witches during the performance of the spell. The child maintained this story even to her mother’s face, only alleging that Isobel Insh remained behind in the waste-house, and was not present when the images were put into the sea. For her own countenance and presence on the occasion, and to ensure her secrecy, her mistress promised her a pair of new shoes.
John Stewart, being re-examined and confronted with the child, was easily compelled to allow that the "little smatchet" was there, and to give that marvellous account of his correspondence with Elfland which we have noticed elsewhere.
The conspiracy thus far, as they conceived, disclosed, the magistrates and ministers wrought hard with Isobel Insh to prevail upon her to tell the truth; and she at length acknowledged her presence at the time when the models of the ship and mariners were destroyed, but endeavoured so to modify her declaration as to deny all personal accession to the guilt. This poor creature almost admitted the supernatural powers imputed to her, promising Bailie Dunlop (also a mariner), by whom she was imprisoned, that, if he would dismiss her, he should never make a bad voyage, but have success in all his dealings by sea and land. She was finally brought to promise that she would fully confess the whole that she knew of the affair on the morrow.
But finding herself in so hard a strait, the unfortunate woman made use of the darkness to attempt an escape. With this view she got out by a back window of the belfry, although, says the report, there were "iron bolts, locks, and fetters on her," and attained the roof of the church, where, losing her footing, she sustained a severe fall and was greatly bruised. Being apprehended, Bailie Dunlop again urged her to confess; but the poor woman was determined to appeal to a more merciful tribunal, and maintained her innocence to the last minute of her life, denying all that she had formerly admitted, and dying five days after her fall from the roof of the church. The inhabitants of Irvine attributed her death to poison.
The scene began to thicken, for a commission was granted for the trial of the two remaining persons accused, namely, Stewart, the juggler, and Margaret Barclay. The day of trial being arrived, the following singular events took place, which we give as stated in the record:—
"My Lord and Earl of Eglintoune (who dwells within the space of one mile to the said burgh) having come to the said burgh at the earnest request of the said justices, for giving to them of his lordship’s countenance, concurrence and assistance, in trying of the foresaid devilish practices, conform to the tenor of the foresaid commission, the said John Stewart, for his better preserving to the day of the assize, was put in a sure lockfast booth, where no manner of person might have access to him till the downsitting of the Justice Court, and for avoiding of putting violent hands on himself, he was very strictly guarded and fettered by the arms, as use is. And upon that same day of the assize, about half an hour before the downsitting of the Justice Court, Mr. David Dickson, minister at Irvine, and Mr. George Dunbar, minister of Air, having gone to him to exhort him to call on his God for mercy for his bygone wicked and evil life, and that God would of his infinite mercy loose him out of the bonds of the devil, whom he had served these many years bygone, he acquiesced in their prayer and godly exhortation, and uttered these words:—"I am so straitly guarded that it lies not in my power to get my hand to take off my bonnet, nor to get bread to my mouth." And immediately after the departing of the two ministers from him, the juggler being sent for at the desire of my Lord of Eglintoune, to be confronted with a woman of the burgh of Air, called Janet Bous, who was apprehended by the magistrates of the burgh of Air for witchcraft, and sent to the burgh of Irvine purposely for that affair, he was found by the burgh officers who went about him, strangled and hanged by the cruik of the door, with a tait of hemp, or a string made of hemp, supposed to have been his garter, or string of his bonnet, not above the length of two span long, his knees not being from the ground half a span, and was brought out of the house, his life not being totally expelled. But notwithstanding of whatsoever means used in the contrary for remeid of his life, he revived not, but so ended his life miserably, by the help of the devil his master.
"And because there was then only in life the said Margaret Barclay, and that the persons summoned to pass upon her assize and upon the assize of the juggler who, by the help of the devil his master, had put violent hands on himself, were all present within the said burgh; therefore, and for eschewing of the like in the person of the said Margaret, our sovereign lord’s justices in that part particularly above-named, constituted by commission after solemn deliberation and advice of the said noble lord, whose concurrence and advice was chiefly required and taken in this matter, concluded with all possible diligence before the downsitting of the Justice Court to put the said Margaret in torture; in respect the devil, by God’s permission, had made her associates who were the lights of the cause, to be their own burrioes (slayers). They used the torture underwritten as being most safe and gentle (as the said noble lord assured the said justices), by putting of her two bare legs in a pair of stocks, and thereafter by onlaying of certain iron gauds (bars) severally one by one, and then eiking and augmenting the weight by laying on more gauds, and in easing of her by offtaking of the iron gauds one or more as occasion offered, which iron gauds were but little short gauds, and broke not the skin of her legs, &c.
"After using of the which kind of gentle torture, the said Margaret began, according to the increase of the pain, to cry and crave for God’s cause to take off her shins the foresaid irons, and she should declare truly the whole matter. Which being removed, she began at her former denial; and being of new essayed in torture as of befoir, she then uttered these words: ‘Take off, take off, and before God I shall show you the whole form!’
"And the said irons being of new, upon her faithfull promise, removed, she then desired my Lord of Eglintoune, the said four justices, and the said Mr. David Dickson, minister of the burgh, Mr. George Dunbar, minister of Ayr, and Mr. Mitchell Wallace, minister of Kilmarnock, and Mr. John Cunninghame, minister of Dalry, and Hugh Kennedy, provost of Ayr, to come by themselves and to remove all others, and she should declare truly, as she should answer to God the whole matter. Whose desire in that being fulfilled she made her confession in this manner, but (i.e., without) any kind of demand, freely, without interrogation; God’s name by earnest prayer being called upon for opening of her lips, and easing of her heart, that she, by rendering of the truth, might glorify and magnify his holy name, and disappoint the enemy of her salvation."—Trial of Margaret Barclay, &c., 1618.
Margaret Barclay, who was a young and lively person, had hitherto conducted herself like a passionate and high-tempered woman innocently accused, and the only appearance of conviction obtained against her was, that she carried about her rowan-tree and coloured thread, to make, as she said, her cow give milk, when it began to fail. But the gentle torture—a strange junction of words—recommended as an anodyne by the good Lord Eglinton—the placing, namely, her legs in the stocks, and loading her bare shins with bars of iron, overcame her resolution; when, at her screams and declarations that she was willing to tell all, the weights were removed. She then told a story of destroying the ship of John Dein, affirming that it was with the purpose of killing only her brother-in-law and Provost Tran, and saving the rest of the crew. She at the same time involved in the guilt Isobel Crawford. This poor woman was also apprehended, and in great terror confessed the imputed crime, retorting the principal blame on Margaret Barclay herself. The trial was then appointed to proceed, when Alexander Dein, the husband of Margaret Barclay, appeared in court with a lawyer to act in his wife’s behalf. Apparently, the sight of her husband awakened some hope and desire of life, for when the prisoner was asked by the lawyer whether she wished to be defended? she answered, "As you please But all I have confest was in agony of torture; and, before God, all I have spoken is false and untrue." To which she pathetically added, "Ye have been too long in coming."
The jury, unmoved by these affecting circumstances, proceeded upon the principle that the confession of the accused could not be considered as made under the influence of torture, since the bars were not actually upon her limbs at the time it was delivered, although they were placed at her elbow ready to be again laid on her bare shins, if she was less explicit in her declaration than her auditors wished. On this nice distinction they in one voice found Margaret Barclay guilty. It is singular that she should have again returned to her confession after sentence, and died affirming it; the explanation of which, however, might be either that she had really in her ignorance and folly tampered with some idle spells, or that an apparent penitence for her offence, however imaginary, was the only mode in which she could obtain any share of public sympathy at her death, or a portion of the prayers of the clergy and congregation, which, in her circumstances, she might be willing to purchase, even by confession of what all believed respecting her. It is remarkable that she earnestly entreated the magistrates that no harm should be done to Isobel Crawford, the woman whom she had herself accused. This unfortunate young creature was strangled at the stake, and her body burnt to ashes, having died with many expressions of religion and penitence.
It was one fatal consequence of these cruel persecutions, that one pile was usually lighted at the embers of another. Accordingly in the present case, three victims having already perished by this accusation, the magistrates, incensed at the nature of the crime, so perilous as it seemed to men of a maritime life, and at the loss of several friends of their own, one of "whom had been their principal magistrate, did not forbear to insist against Isobel Crawford, inculpated by Margaret Barclay’s confession. A new commission was granted for her trial, and after the assistant minister of Irvine, Mr. David Dickson, had made earnest prayers to God for opening her obdurate and closed heart, she was subjected to the torture of iron bars laid upon her bare shins, her feet being in the stocks, as in the case of Margaret Barclay.
She endured this torture with incredible firmness, since she did "admirably, without any kind of din or exclamation, suffer above thirty stone of iron to be laid on her legs, never shrinking thereat in any sort, but remaining, as it were, steady." But in shifting the situation of the iron bars, and removing them to another part of her shins, her constancy gave way; she broke out into horrible cries (though not more than three bars were then actually on her person) of—"Tak aff—tak aff!" On being relieved from the torture, she made the usual confession of all that she was charged with, and of a connexion with the devil which had subsisted for several years. Sentence was given against her accordingly. After this had been denounced, she openly denied all her former confessions, and died without any sign of repentance, offering repeated interruption to the minister in his prayer, and absolutely refusing to pardon the executioner.
This tragedy happened in the year 1613, and recorded, as it is, very particularly and at considerable length, forms the most detailed specimen I have met with of a Scottish trial for witchcraft—illustrating, in particular, how poor wretches, abandoned, as they conceived, by God and the world, deprived of all human sympathy, and exposed to personal tortures of an acute description, became disposed to throw away the lives that were rendered bitter to them by a voluntary confession of guilt, rather than struggle hopelessly against so many evils. Four persons here lost their lives, merely because the throwing some clay models into the sea, a fact told differently by the witnesses who spoke of it, corresponded with the season, for no day was fixed in which a particular vessel was lost. It is scarce possible that, after reading such a story, a man of sense can listen for an instant to the evidence founded on confessions thus obtained, which has been almost the sole reason by which a few individuals, even in modern times, have endeavoured to justify a belief in the existence of witchcraft.
The result of the judicial examination of a criminal, when extorted by such means, is the most suspicious of all evidence, and even when voluntarily given, is scarce admissible without the corroboration of other testimony.
We might here take leave of our Scottish history of witchcraft by barely mentioning that many hundreds, nay perhaps thousands, lost their lives during two centuries on such charges and such evidence as proved the death of those persons in the trial of the Irvine witches. One case, however, is so much distinguished by fame among the numerous instances which occurred in Scottish history, that we are under the necessity of bestowing a few words upon those celebrated persons, Major Weir and his sister.
The case of this notorious wizard was remarkable chiefly from his being a man of some condition (the son of a gentleman, and his mother a lady of family in Clydesdale), which was seldom the case with those that fell under similar accusations. It was also remarkable in his case that he had been a Covenanter, and peculiarly attached to that cause. In the years of the Commonwealth this man was trusted and employed by those who were then at the head of affairs, and was in 1649 commander of the City-Guard of Edinburgh, which procured him his title of Major. In this capacity he was understood, as was indeed implied in the duties of that officer at the period, to be very strict in executing severity upon such Royalists as fell under his military charge. It appears that the Major, with a maiden sister who had kept his house, was subject to fits of melancholic lunacy, an infirmity easily reconcilable with the formal pretences which he made to a high show of religious zeal. He was peculiar in his gift of prayer, and, as was the custom of the period, was often called to exercise his talent by the bedside of sick persons, until it came to be observed that, by some association, which it is more easy to conceive than to explain, he could not pray with the same warmth and fluency of expression unless when he had in his hand a stick of peculiar shape and appearance, which he generally walked with. It was noticed, in short, that when this stick was taken from him, his wit and talent appeared to forsake him. This Major Weir was seized by the magistrates on a strange whisper that became current respecting vile practices, which he seems to have admitted without either shame or contrition. The disgusting profligacies which he confessed were of such a character that it may be charitably hoped most of them were the fruits of a depraved imagination, though he appears to have been in many respects a wicked and criminal hypocrite. When he had completed his confession, he avowed solemnly that he had not confessed the hundredth part of the crimes which he had committed. From this time he would answer no interrogatory, nor would he have recourse to prayer, arguing that, as he had no hope whatever of escaping Satan, there was no need of incensing him by vain efforts at repentance. His witchcraft seems to have been taken for granted on his own confession, as his indictment was chiefly founded on the same document, in which he alleged he had never seen the devil, but any feeling he had of him was in the dark. He received sentence of death, which he suffered 12th April, 1670, at the Gallow-hill, between Leith and Edinburgh. He died so stupidly sullen and impenitent as to justify the opinion that he was oppressed with a kind of melancholy frenzy, the consequence perhaps of remorse, but such as urged him not to repent, but to despair. It seems probable that he was burnt alive. His sister, with whom he was supposed to have had an incestuous connexion, was condemned also to death, leaving a stronger and more explicit testimony of their mutual sins than could be extracted from the Major. She gave, as usual, some account of her connexion with the queen of the fairies, and acknowledged the assistance she received from that sovereign in spinning an unusual quantity of yam. Of her brother she said that one day a friend called upon them at noonday with a fiery chariot, and invited them to visit a friend at Dalkeith, and that while there her brother received information of the event of the battle of Worcester. No one saw the style of their equipage except themselves. On the scaffold this woman, determining, as she said, to die "with the greatest shame possible," was with difficulty prevented from throwing off her clothes before the people, and with scarce less trouble was she flung from the ladder by the executioner. Her last words were in the tone of the sect to which her brother had so long affected to belong: "Many," she said, "weep and lament for a poor old wretch like me; but alas! few are weeping for a broken Covenant."
The Scottish prelatists, upon whom the Covenanters used to throw many aspersions respecting their receiving proof against shot from the devil, and other infernal practices, rejoiced to have an opportunity, in their turn, to retort on their adversaries the charge of sorcery. Dr. Hickes, the author of "Thesaurus Septentrionalis," published on the subject of Major Weir, and the case of Mitchell, who fired at the Archbishop of St. Andrews his book called "Ravaillac Redivivus," written with the unjust purpose of attaching to the religious sect to which the wizard and assassin belonged the charge of having fostered and encouraged the crimes they committed or attempted.
It is certain that no story of witchcraft or necromancy, so many of which occurred near and in Edinburgh, made such a lasting impression on the public mind as that of Major Weir. The remains of the house in which he and his sister lived are still shown at the head of the West Bow, which has a gloomy aspect, well suited for a necromancer. It was at different times a brazier’s shop and a magazine for lint, and in my younger days was employed for the latter use; but no family would inhabit the haunted walls as a residence; and bold was the urchin from the High School who dared approach the gloomy ruin at the risk of seeing the Major’s enchanted staff parading through the old apartments, or hearing the hum of the necromantic wheel, which procured for his sister such a character as a spinner. At the time I am writing this last fortress of superstitious renown is in the course of being destroyed, in order to the modern improvements now carrying on in a quarter long thought unimprovable.
As knowledge and learning began to increase, the gentlemen and clergy of Scotland became ashamed of the credulity of their ancestors, and witch trials, although not discontinued, more seldom disgrace our records of criminal jurisprudence.
Sir John Clerk, a scholar and an antiquary, the grandfather of the late celebrated John Clerk of Eldin, had the honour to be amongst the first to decline acting as a commissioner on the trial of a witch, to which he was appointed so early as 1678, alleging, drily, that he did not feel himself warlock (that is, conjurer) sufficient to be a judge upon such an inquisition. Allan Ramsay, his friend, and who must be supposed to speak the sense of his many respectable patrons, had delivered his opinion on the subject in the "Gentle Shepherd," where Mause’s imaginary witchcraft constitutes the machinery of the poem.
[Footnote 81: See Fountainhall’s "Decisions," vol. i. p. 15.]
Yet these dawnings of sense and humanity were obscured by the clouds of the ancient superstition on more than one distinguished occasion. In 1676, Sir George Maxwell, of Pollock, apparently a man of melancholic and valetudinary habits, believed himself bewitched to death by six witches, one man and five women, who were leagued for the purpose of tormenting a clay image in his likeness. The chief evidence on the subject was a vagabond girl, pretending to be deaf and dumb. But as her imposture was afterwards discovered and herself punished, it is reasonably to be concluded that she had herself formed the picture or image of Sir George, and had hid it where it was afterwards found in consequence of her own information. In the meantime, five of the accused were executed, and the sixth only escaped on account of extreme youth.
A still more remarkable case occurred at Paisley in 1697, where a young girl, about eleven years of age, daughter of John Shaw, of Bargarran, was the principal evidence. This unlucky damsel, beginning her practices out of a quarrel with a maid-servant, continued to imitate a case of possession so accurately that no less than twenty persons were condemned upon her evidence, of whom five were executed, besides one John Reed, who hanged himself in prison, or, as was charitably said, was strangled by the devil in person, lest he should make disclosures to the detriment of the service. But even those who believed in witchcraft were now beginning to open their eyes to the dangers in the present mode of prosecution. "I own," says the Rev. Mr. Bell in his MS. "Treatise on Witchcraft," "there has been much harm done to worthy and innocent persons in the common way of finding out witches, and in the means made use of for promoting the discovery of such wretches and bringing them to justice; so that oftentimes old age, poverty, features, and ill-fame, with such like grounds not worthy to be represented to a magistrate, have yet moved many to suspect and defame their neighbours, to the unspeakable prejudice of Christian charity; a late instance whereof we had in the west, in the business of the sorceries exercised upon the Laird of Bargarran’s daughter, anno 1697—a time when persons of more goodness and esteem than most of their calumniators were defamed for witches, and which was occasioned mostly by the forwardness and absurd credulity of diverse otherwise worthy ministers of the gospel, and some topping professors in and about the city of Glasgow."
[Footnote 82: Law’s "Memorialls," edited by C.K. Sliarpe, Esq.:
Prefatory Notice, p. 93.]
Those who doubted of the sense of the law or reasonableness of the practice in such cases, began to take courage and state their objections boldly. In the year 1704 a frightful instance of popular bigotry occurred at Pittenweem. A strolling vagabond, who affected fits, laid an accusation of witchcraft against two women, who were accordingly seized on, and imprisoned with the usual severities. One of the unhappy creatures, Janet Cornfoot by name, escaped from prison, but was unhappily caught, and brought back to Pittenweem, where she fell into the hands of a ferocious mob, consisting of rude seamen and fishers. The magistrates made no attempts for her rescue, and the crowd exercised their brutal pleasure on the poor old woman, pelted her with stones, swung her suspended on a rope betwixt a ship and the shore, and finally ended her miserable existence by throwing a door over her as she lay exhausted on the beach, and heaping stones upon it till she was pressed to death. As even the existing laws against witchcraft were transgressed by this brutal riot, a warm attack was made upon the magistrates and ministers of the town by those who were shocked at a tragedy of such a horrible cast, There were answers published, in which the parties assailed were zealously defended. The superior authorities were expected to take up the affair, but it so happened; during the general distraction of the country concerning the Union, that the murder went without the investigation which a crime so horrid demanded. Still, however, it was something gained that the cruelty was exposed to the public. The voice of general opinion was now appealed to, and in the long run the sentiments which it advocates are commonly those of good sense and humanity.
The officers in the higher branches of the law dared now assert their official authority and reserve for their own decision cases of supposed witchcraft which the fear of public clamour had induced them formerly to leave in the hands of inferior judges, operated upon by all the prejudices of the country and the populace.
In 1718, the celebrated lawyer, Robert Dundas of Arniston, then King’s Advocate, wrote a severe letter of censure to the Sheriff-depute of Caithness, in the first place, as having neglected to communicate officially certain precognitions which he had led respecting some recent practices of witchcraft in his county. The Advocate reminded this local judge that the duty of inferior magistrates, in such cases, was to advise with the King’s Counsel, first, whether they should be made subject of a trial or not; and if so, before what court, and in what manner, it should take place. He also called the magistrate’s attention to a report, that he, the Sheriff-depute, intended to judge in the case himself; "a thing of too great difficulty to be tried without very deliberate advice, and beyond the jurisdiction of an inferior court." The Sheriff-depute sends, with his apology, the precognition of the affair, which is one of the most nonsensical in this nonsensical department of the law. A certain carpenter, named William Montgomery, was so infested with cats, which, as his servant-maid reported, "spoke among themselves," that he fell in a rage upon a party of these animals which had assembled in his house at irregular hours, and betwixt his Highland arms of knife, dirk, and broadsword, and his professional weapon of an axe, he made such a dispersion that they were quiet for the night. In consequence of his blows, two witches were said to have died. The case of a third, named Nin-Gilbert, was still more remarkable. Her leg being broken, the injured limb withered, pined, and finally fell off; on which the hag was enclosed in prison, where she also died; and the question which remained was, whether any process should be directed against persons whom, in her compelled confession, she had, as usual, informed against. The Lord Advocate, as may be supposed, quashed all further procedure.
[Footnote 83: The precognition is the record of the preliminary evidence on which the public officers charged in Scotland with duties entrusted to a grand jury in England, incur the responsibility of sending an accused person to trial.]
In 1720, an unlucky boy, the third son of James, Lord Torphichen, took it into his head, under instructions, it is said, from a knavish governor, to play the possessed and bewitched person, laying the cause of his distress on certain old witches in Calder, near to which village his father had his mansion. The women were imprisoned, and one or two of them died; but the Crown counsel would not proceed to trial. The noble family also began to see through the cheat. The boy was sent to sea, and though he is said at one time to have been disposed to try his fits while on board, when the discipline of the navy proved too severe for his cunning, in process of time he became a good sailor, assisted gallantly in defence of the vessel against the pirates of Angria, and finally was drowned in a storm.
In the year 1722, a Sheriff-depute of Sutherland, Captain David Ross of Littledean, took it upon him, in flagrant violation of the then established rules of jurisdiction, to pronounce the last sentence of death for witchcraft which was ever passed in Scotland. The victim was an insane old woman belonging to the parish of Loth, who had so little idea of her situation as to rejoice at the sight of the fire which was destined to consume her. She had a daughter lame both of hands and feet, a circumstance attributed to the witch’s having been used to transform her into a pony, and get her shod by the devil. It does not appear that any punishment was inflicted for this cruel abuse of the law on the person of a creature so helpless; but the son of the lame daughter, he himself distinguished by the same misfortune, was living so lately as to receive the charity of the present Marchioness of Stafford, Countess of Sutherland in her own right, to whom the poor of her extensive country are as well known as those of the higher order.
Since this deplorable action there has been no judicial interference in Scotland on account of witchcraft, unless to prevent explosions of popular enmity against people suspected of such a crime, of which some instances could be produced. The remains of the superstition sometimes occur; there can be no doubt that the vulgar are still addicted to the custom of scoring above the breath (as it is termed), and other counter-spells, evincing that the belief in witchcraft is only asleep, and might in remote corners be again awakened to deeds of blood. An instance or two may be quoted chiefly as facts known to the author himself.
[Footnote 84: Drawing blood, that is, by two cuts in the form of a cross on the witch’s forehead, confided in all throughout Scotland as the most powerful counter charm.]
In a remote part of the Highlands, an ignorant and malignant woman seems really to have meditated the destruction of her neighbour’s property, by placing in a cow-house, or byre as we call it, a pot of baked clay containing locks of hair, parings of nails, and other trumpery. This precious spell was discovered, the design conjectured, and the witch would have been torn to pieces had not a high-spirited and excellent lady in the neighbourhood gathered some of her people (though these were not very fond of the service), and by main force taken the unfortunate creature out of the hands of the populace. The formidable spell is now in my possession.
About two years since, as they were taking down the walls of a building formerly used as a feeding-house for cattle, in the town of Dalkeith, there was found below the threshold-stone the withered heart of some animal stuck full of many scores of pins—a counter-charm, according to tradition, against the operations of witchcraft on the cattle which are kept within. Among the almost innumerable droves of bullocks which come down every year from the Highlands for the south, there is scarce one but has a curious knot upon his tail, which is also a precaution lest an evil eye or an evil spell may do the animal harm.
The last Scottish story with which I will trouble you happened in or shortly after the year 1800, and the whole circumstances are well known to me. The dearth of the years in the end of the eighteenth and beginning of this century was inconvenient to all, but distressing to the poor. A solitary old woman, in a wild and lonely district, subsisted chiefly by rearing chickens, an operation requiring so much care and attention that the gentry, and even the farmers’ wives, often find it better to buy poultry at a certain age than to undertake the trouble of bringing them up. As the old woman in the present instance fought her way through life better than her neighbours, envy stigmatized her as having some unlawful mode of increasing the gains of her little trade, and apparently she did not take much alarm at the accusation. But she felt, like others, the dearth of the years alluded to, and chiefly because the farmers were unwilling to sell grain in the very moderate quantities which she was able to purchase, and without which her little stock of poultry must have been inevitably starved. In distress on this account, the dame went to a neighbouring farmer, a very good-natured, sensible, honest man, and requested him as a favour to sell her a peck of oats at any price. "Good neighbour," he said, "I am sorry to be obliged to refuse you, but my corn is measured out for Dalkeith market; my carts are loaded to set out, and to open these sacks again, and for so small a quantity, would cast my accounts loose, and create much trouble and disadvantage; I dare say you will get all you want at such a place, or such a place." On receiving this answer, the old woman’s temper gave way. She scolded the wealthy farmer, and wished evil to his property, which was just setting off for the market. They parted, after some angry language on both sides; and sure enough, as the carts crossed the ford of the river beneath the farm-house, off came the wheel from one of them, and five or six sacks of corn were damaged by the water. The good farmer hardly knew what to think of this; there were the two circumstances deemed of old essential and sufficient to the crime of witchcraft—Damnum minatum, et malum secutum. Scarce knowing what to believe, he hastened to consult the sheriff of the county, as a friend rather than a magistrate, upon a case so extraordinary. The official person showed him that the laws against witchcraft were abrogated, and had little difficulty to bring him to regard the matter in its true light of an accident.
It is strange, but true, that the accused herself was not to be reconciled to the sheriffs doctrine so easily. He reminded her that, if she used her tongue with so much license, she must expose herself to suspicions, and that should coincidences happen to irritate her neighbours, she, might suffer harm at a time when there was no one to protect her. He therefore requested her to be more cautious in her language for her own sake, professing, at the same time, his belief that her words and intentions were perfectly harmless, and that he had no apprehension of being hurt by her, let her wish her worst to him. She was rather more angry than pleased at the well-meaning sheriffs scepticism. "I would be laith to wish ony ill either to you or yours, sir," she said; "for I kenna how it is, but something aye comes after my words when I am ill-guided and speak ower fast." In short, she was obstinate in claiming an influence over the destiny of others by words and wishes, which might have in other times conveyed her to the stake, for which her expressions, their consequences, and her disposition to insist upon their efficacy, would certainly of old have made her a fit victim. At present the story is scarcely worth mentioning, but as it contains material resembling those out of which many tragic incidents have arisen.
So low, in short, is now the belief in witchcraft, that perhaps it is only received by those half-crazy individuals who feel a species of consequence derived from accidental coincidences, which, were they received by the community in general, would go near, as on former occasions, to cost the lives of those who make their boast of them. At least one hypochondriac patient is known to the author, who believes himself the victim of a gang of witches, and ascribes his illness to their charms, so that he wants nothing but an indulgent judge to awake again the old ideas of sorcery.