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Last Witch Killing? September 14, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

There is some argument about when the last witchcraft killing took place in Western Europe, but this, for what it is worth, is Beachcombing’s candidate dating from 1861: he fully expects to be proved wrong, drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com The name of the victim was Dummy. It is true that he was not killed immediately, but his swimming seems to have been punitive rather than an ordeal to see whether he would sink or swim.

From time to time cases come to light in England which show that there are districts there in which a belief in the superhuman power of individuals is exceedingly common. Probably, however, no instance of this kind, attended with results so revolting, ever previously came under public notice as that which has been engaging the attention of the magistrates at Castle Hedingham, and will, in March next, be heard before the Judge at Chelmford Assizes.

It appears that, for some years past, an old Frenchman, not less than eighty to eighty six years of age, had resided in the town of Hedingham. He had previously lived for some time at an adjoining town, but beyond that fact all traces of his history are lost. Even his every name was unknown. His tongue, it would appear, had been cut out, but why or by whom was never discovered. This man had lived through the French revolution; he might have been a soldier of the grand army; or, on the other hand, one of the emigrants who fled from their country during the Terror. It is even possible that he had himself been one of the instruments of the Terror; but everything concerning was absolutely hidden, and during the latter years of his prolonged existence he lived in a hut in Castle Hedingham accumulating about him heaps of nameless rubbish, and having, amongst other things, nearly 500 walking sticks and a large number of umbrellas stored in his wretched dwelling. The fact that he possessed a number of coins of the French Empire indicates that he cherished some reminisces of the reign of the First Napoleon.

Though the present report does not give his name: Beach repeats, the man was universally known as ‘Dummy’ in the area.

Whatever may have been his early history, his end was sufficiently sad. He was dumb, and it is thought he was also deaf, and the grotesque attitudes which he assumed when endeavouring to communicate with others caused the belief to become prevalent that he possessed some diabolical power; and he was consequently regarded  with much awe. That he gained a living by trading upon this belief is proved by the facet that in his hut were found hundreds of slips of paper, each of them containing a written question. Some persons asked after the fate of missing persons: ‘Her husband have left her many years,’ says one anxious but illiterate dame, ‘and she want to know weather [sic] he is dead or alive.’ ‘Shall I ever marry?’ is the oft-repeated query of blushing damsels; and some even desired him to foretell how many children they would have. That these inquiries were not made so much in thoughtless levity as in the firm assurance of the old man’s powers, appears from the wretched sequel of the story.

A woman named Emma Smith entertained the belief that the wretched Frenchman had bewitched her. She had given him permission to sleep in a shed, but when she subsequently wanted him to leave he wrote on the door that she would fall ill in ten days. The imagination of the woman caused the threat to become prophetic. In ten days she fell ill, and she remained ill from that time, so that no physician could cure her. The fact that no remedy was effectual at once indicates that the disease existed only in her own fancy. However, she not only believed herself to be afflicted, but she thought that the old Frenchman alone could cure her, and she came from her own residence, six miles away to bring him home with her. He declined to go, and she proceeded to use force. In the presence of a crowd of sympathisers, she struck him over the head and shoulders with a stick and threw him among the stones in a shallow stream of water. When the unfortunate man crept out, a cry arose in the crowd to float him in the mill-pond, and in a moment he was seized and flung deep into a deep pool of water, where it would appear, he was all but drowned. When taken out, his clothes were saturated, and thick slime lay upon his person, and in this horrible condition he crawled back to his hut, where he lay helpless through the night, and was found next day still lying in the clothes he had on. He was taken to the workhouse, and, after lingering a month, died from the effects of the ill-treatment to which he had been subjected.

It is scarcely possible to credit this horrible story, and yet it is only too true. A crowd of persons, any of whom would have interposed to save a dog from similar usage, stood calmly by whilst the dumb old man was being hustled among the stones, beaten with sticks, kicked by an infuriated woman, and floated in the mill-pond. The brutality of the scene can scarcely be excused by the ignorance of those who enacted it, and those who were passive spectators. But it is plain enough that if the victim who was being tortured before them possessed some supernatural powers which he had been malignantly using to destroy the health and the peace of some of their neighbours, they would never have permitted such occurrences to proceed unchecked.

It is extraordinary that there was a memory in nineteenth-century East Anglia of floating a witch in water, but that was Dummy’s fate.

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 28 Oct 2011: Shaun writes in bringing up an old friend of this blogger. ‘Your recent article on witchcraft trials in Western Europe does not mention the case of Bridget Cleary, who in 1895 was burned to death by her husband and several others who suspected her of being a Changeling. While not a witch in the strict sense, being more inclined as it is to Faerie superstition, it does rather distressingly follow the usual pattern: independent woman who has some success and assets is tortured and killed by men who seemed threatened by her very existence. The crime is then covered up with supernatural proclamations to scare away the inquisitive. Sadly for the husband, such malarkey does not cut the mustard in the Industrial Age, and he got a nice jail cell for his reward.’ Thanks Shaun!