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  • Late (Pregnant) Witch in Devon August 8, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    Beachcombing has often tried in this column to date the death of traditional beliefs: be that the death of fairy belief in Ilkley or the death of the werewolf faith in Strasbourg. These things are almost impossible to measure of course. Sources are fragmentary and these kinds of beliefs are in the private world of the illiterate. However, even he was shocked to read the following account relating to nineteenth-century Devonshire in 1839. Our author was at a political get together a world away from the green fields and clay lanes of the outer south-west.

    At the meeting I remarked a great number of parsons, and amongst the rest was the Rev. John Clarke, an outline of whose speech I annex with the rest [Beach is going to spare his readers]. This worthy divine is record of Clayhidone, and in order that you may know what is the degree of intelligence existing in his parish and how little education is required among his flock, I may mention the following anecdote. In the parish of Clayhidone, as in many other parts of Devonshire, there is entertained a firm belief in the existence of pixies, fairies, as well as in the exercise of the diabolical and now almost forgotten pranks of witchcraft. It was in this parish of Clayhidone that a poor woman was suspected of being a witch; and she was not long since seized with the pangs of childbirth, when, horrible to relate, there was not one of her own sex who would aid her, and the woman would actually have died by means of the cruel and barbarous superstition of her neighbours, if it had not happened that her husband returned at the time to his home, and was able to procure the assistance of a medical gentleman. This is a fact which I am assured can be attested to the very letter.

    Again that there is a vague belief in witches in the south-west in the 1830s is fair enough, perhaps even to be expected: but that facts and acts should flow from that belief is remarkable. The anecdote rounds off with a wonderful sentence that Beach will quote just as a reminder of how differently twenty-first-century social democrats are from nineteenth-century Tories.

    ‘[This story] shows how well justified the Reverend John Clarke and his brother clergymen of this county are in opposing the attempt to give education to the people confided to their care’! As the Oxbridge examiner would put it: ‘discuss’.

    Other late ‘organic’ (as opposed to Wicca) witchcraft from the UK? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    9 August 2011: Several emails alleging a typo or even a send up, for Clayhidone doesn’t seem to exist. Actually modern spelling is almost uniformly Clayhidon a tiny village in the middle of the Black Down Hills on the Devon-Somerset border.

    10 August 2011: Invisible has a very impressive catalogue here that should probably replace the original post. ‘I can’t say much about ‘organic’ witchcraft in the UK (free-range animal sacrifices?) , but I can give you examples about the belief in witches in the Ohio territories in the 19th and early 20th century. As luck would have it, I’ve just been going over my files on this subject and have a number of clippings about trials and scares. I will just summarize most of them. In 1805 Nancy Evans of Clermont County was accused by the Hildebrand family of being a witch. She was weighed against a Bible and found innocent. Source: Henry Howe’s Historical Collections of Ohio, p. 414. About 1814, a horse-breeder on Mill Creek [Hamilton County] believed his horses were dying as a result of witchcraft. He boiled certain mystical ingredients with pins and needles, which was supposed to “draw” the witch. Looking out his door, he saw his daughter-in-law. He immediately ordered his son to move his family off the farm. He also believed that a certain Mrs. Garrison, a sickly, aged woman, was the primary cause of his horses’ sickness. He was told to shoot a silver bullet at a sick horse he believed to be bewitched. Naturally the horse died, and Mrs. Garrison, depressed by the slanders the man had spread about her, also died a few days later. The man believed his charms had been a success. Henry Howe’s Historical Collections of Ohio, p. 414. In 1823 Abigail Church was tried for being a witch. Truthfully, the charge seemed more about fortune-telling for money / fraud, but she was aquitted. Souce: Court of Common Pleas for Gallia County May Term 1812, State of Ohio vs. Abigail Church. Reported in Ohio History, Vol. 33 p. 206. I will quote the next item from 1828 at length. It has some horrid details.  The annexed report of a case, that came before the court of common pleas in this county, is from the pen of a legal gentleman of high standing. It shows that in our day, the belief in witchcraft has not entirely vanished. Lawrence County Common Pleas. Term 1828. Action on the case, for a false warranty in the sale of a horse. Plea, general issue. The plaintiff having proved the sale and warranty, called a witness to prove the defendant’s knowledge of the unsoundness of the horse at the time of sale. This witness testified, that both he and defendant lived at Union Furnace, in Lawrence county, and that the latter was by trade a tanner; that he, witness, knew the horse previous to the sale to the plaintiff, and before he was owned by defendant, and was then, and at the time defendant purchased him, in bad health. He saw him daily employed in defendant’s bark mill, and was fast declining, and when unemployed, drooping in his appearance, and so continued until sold to the plaintiff. Having been present at the sale, and hearing the warranty, the witness afterwards inquired of the defendant why he had done so, knowing the horse to be unsound. He answered by insisting that the horse was in no way diseased, or in unsound health, but that the drooping appearance arose from his being bewitched, which he did not call unsoundness, and so soon as they could be got out of the home, he would then be as well as ever. The defendant further stated, that the same witches which were in that horse, had been in one or two persons, and some cows, in the same settlement, and could only be driven out by a witch doctor, living on the head waters of the Little Scioto, in Pike county, or by burning the animal in which they were found; that this doctor had some time before been sent for to see a young woman who was in a bad way, and on examination found her bewitched. He soon expelled them, and also succeeded in ascertaining that an old woman not far off was the witch going about in that way, and she could be got rid of only by killing her. At some subsequent time, when defendant was from home, his wife sent for witness and others, to see and find out what was the matter with her cow, in a lot near the house. They found it frantic, running, and pitching at every thing which came near. It was their opinion, after observing it considerably, that it had the canine madness. The defendant, however, returned before the witness and others left the lot; he inspected the cow with much attention, and gave it as his opinion that they were mistaken as to the true cause of her conduct,—she was not mad, but bewitched; the same which had been in the horse, had transferred itself to the cow. By this time the animal, from exhaustion or other cause, had lain down. The defendant then went into the lot, and requested the persons present to assist in putting a rope about her horns, and then make the other end fast to a tree, where he could burn her. They laughed at the man’s notion, but finally assisted him, seeing she remained quiet—still having no belief that he really intended burning her. This being done, the- defendant piled up logs, brush and other things around, and finally over the poor cow, and then set fire to them. The defendant continued to add fuel, until she was entirely consumed, and afterwards told the witness he had never seen any creature so hard to die; that she continued to moan after most of the flesh had fallen from her bones, and he felt a pity for her, but die she must; that nothing but the witches in her kept her alive so long, and it was his belief they would be so burnt before getting out, that they never would come back. Night having set in before the burning was finished, the defendant and his family set up to ascertain if the witches could be seen about the pile of embers. Late at night, some one of the family called the defendant to the window—the horse being near the place—and pointed to two witches, hopping around, over and across the pile of embers, and now and then seizing a brand and throwing it into the air, and in a short while disappeared. The next morning, on examination, the defendant saw their tracks through the embers in all directions. At a subsequent time, he told the same witness and others, that from that time the witches had wholly disappeared from the neighborhood, and would never return—and to burn the animal alive, in which they were found, was the only way to get clear of them: he had been very fearful they would torment his family. The writer found, after the above trial, from a conversation with the defendant, that he had a settled belief in such things, and in the truth of the above statement. SOURCE: Henry Howe’s Historical Collections of Ohio, p. 291 In 1893, Sadie Loop, a young woman in Salem , Ohio , was found guilty of spreading stories that Jacob Culp, a church trustee and the wealthiest farmer in the neighborhood, was a wizard. About a year later, more stories were spread by several other families in the church, accusing Culp of having the evil eye, drying up a well, killing cattle, and making a relative break his leg. The Rev. J.E. Hollister, pastor of the Hart’s Methodist Episcopal Church called upon the afflicted to disavow witchcraft and treat Culp as a brother or leave the church. They refused, so Hollister organized a church trial and two families were expelled for their belief in witchcraft. The case was reported all over the United States . I also have information on a “witch epidemic” in Reading, PA in 1883 as well as a 1897 “witchcraft scare” when 17 families in northwest Ohio claimed they could not sleep or eat and that they were constantly pursued by “black cats, which make faces and snarl at them.” They also claimed certain rooms in their houses were infested with evil spirits. “The people have burned their feather beds and resorted to other ancient methods in the hope of getting rid of the spell, but they claim they can not shake it off. Physicians can not diagnose the malady, but assure the patients that it is due to natural causes, possibly resulting from an unsanitary condition of the village.” Some 30 persons were reported on the verge of death. In 1919, a young woman named Celia Wrobleski or Wroblesky of Detroit was known as the “witch girl” and was believed to be able to turn herself into different animals and exercise a baleful influence over others. Supposedly thousands gathered outside her house to see her do something witch-like. The young woman was amused by the charges; her priest said they were all falsehoods.  1928 a pow-wow man (Pennsylvania Dutch equivalent of a witch doctor) was killed by a rival pow-wow practitioner and his young accomplices. (citing Wikipedia only because the only other site with good info is in painful green-on-a-black-background type.) Back in the UK , there is, of course, the Ann Tennant murder (even though the murderer seems to have been a lunatic) and the Charles Walton case of 1945, which has been framed by some writers as a ritual killing of a witch or cunning-man. And we cannot forget Hellish Nell, who still hasn’t been pardoned.  At a glance, there seem to be a number of 20th century stories in the British press about “fortune-tellers” being prosecuted under the Witchcraft Act of 1735. For example: An article entitled, “West End Fortune Tellers” in the London Daily Mail 9-9-1904 p. 3 tells of “Yoga”, “Keiro” and “Mme. Keiro”, who were committed for trial at the North London Sessions. But, of course, this does not endorse a belief in actual witchcraft.’ Thanks very much Invisibile, especially for the unpleasant details!

    11 August 2011: Simon writes in with a possible late witch killing – Beach will come back to this in August or September when he looks at a case from the 1860s but for now… ‘I saw your article a couple of days ago about the witchcraft dying out in Britain. I thought you might be interested in the story of Charles Walton which may have been have had ‘occult’ links. It only occurred in 1945 so it is within living memory. I have to say I like the response of the modern day villagers to the questions of the BBC reporter, seems like a ‘you be a outlander’ sort of place!‘ Thanks Simon!

    12 August 2011: Cory has this to say: ‘I just caught up with your late-survivals-of-witchcraft post and was reminded me of an anecdote I heard told by an elderly geologist some 25 years ago, when I attended a lecture on the geology of northern Bucks and southern Northampton Counties.  He said that when he was a young geologist – which would presumably have been in the late 20s or early 30s – the country people warned him against going up onto the hill known as Hexenkopf (which means witch’s head) on Walpurgisnacht, because the witches gathered there and anybody with any sense stayed away. I’ve always wondered whether they actually believed it or were just pulling his leg – but the survival of folk beliefs among Pennsylvania Germans was well known in the early 20th century, and is often referred to in weird fiction of the period.  It largely appears to have faded out after the 1930s, however, conceivably as a result of the promotion of rural electrification during the New Deal. I’m surprised, by the way, to find that googling on ‘hexenkopf’ turns up any number of references to the spooky reputation of the place and the superstitions that hang around it.  Contemporary neo-pagans even make pilgrimages there.  I never realized it was so well known.’ Then Invisible too has come across a curious early twentieth-century British account 23 August 1908. ‘The remarkable Essex witch case was disposed of at Witham Petty Sessions on Tuesday. The complainant an old thatcher, named George Moss, said he was violently assaulted by a farmer named George Cottee, of Tiptree. Cottee was alleged to have called Moss’s wife an old witch, and to have told some boys to throw stones at her. Cottee stated that many villagers at Tiptree believed Mrs Moss was a witch although he denied that he called her one. Cottee also said that he had been a member of the Metropolitan Police Force, and added that whatever opinion, he might have as to the witch theory, he knew better than to express it in public. A witness, called for the prosecution, said he heard Cottee cal out to Mrs Moss, ‘Get indoors, you old witch, or I will cut your legs off’ The bench bound Cottee over to be of good behaviour for six months and ordered him to pay costs.’ So there you are. It reminds Beachcombing of the distinction often found between traditional and late witch cases: namely traditional witch cases are the community against the witch, these late cases are, instead, often a single complainant against the witch and, in some cases, the witch and the community. Thanks Cory and Invisible!

    15 August 2011: Reporter writes in with a reminder that witchcraft is a contemporary issue in much of sub-Saharan Africa. ‘I was training a class of young newspaper reporters in Botswana about ten years ago and one of them told me he was the witchcraft correspondent. He stopped me dead in my tracks when he asked me: “In your country, are people killed for their sexual organs?” In Botswana witchcraft was, and probably still is, a potent and frightening phenomenon.’ Thanks Reporter!