TRICK OR TREAT
by Tony Storey
This article was originally published in the April 2008 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
The Sole Society was founded on All Souls’ Day, 2 November 1991. In the early Christian tradition, All Hallows’ Eve was when souls were released from purgatory for 48 hours, being All Saints’ Day followed by All Souls’ Day. Nowadays on All Hallows’ Eve or Halloween, you can be sure the supermarkets have been stocking pumpkins for weeks and, for reasons I don’t fully understand, we are about to celebrate witches and all things supernatural by encouraging children to knock on the doors of complete strangers and ask ‘trick or treat?’
Witches are part of our folklore: from Macbeth to the brothers Grimm, and from Hansel and Gretel to Harry Potter. My personal favourite witch is Samantha, as played by Elizabeth Montgomery in the 1960s television series ‘Bewitched’. The point is that they are make-believe and like ghouls, goblins and other nightmare figures, we can accept them as part of our fantasies, but it is quite a different matter when they encroach on our everyday world.
The earliest record of a witchcraft trial is in tenth century London when an unnamed woman and her son were tried for driving stakes into the image of a man. Found guilty, the woman was taken to London Bridge and drowned. The son escaped from custody and was outlawed. Many individual cases were recorded in the ensuing centuries where the authorities brought charges of witchcraft or sorcery against opponents of the state in order to silence them and send a warning to others. For example, in 1419 Joan of Navarre, the dowager queen, was imprisoned for using sorcery to threaten the life of King Henry V. Similar trials occurred in the reigns of Henry VI and Richard III. Henry VIII accused his second wife, Anne Boleyn, of using witchcraft.
Until Henry VIII’s Witchcraft Act of 1541, sorcery was not a felony to be tried in a court of common law but a heresy, which was tried before an ecclesiastical tribunal. Naturally, the Church was opposed to the shedding of blood so the ultimate penalty was to be burned at the stake! Elizabeth I gave her assent to the Witchcraft Act of 1563, which confirmed the death penalty for anyone using ‘witchcraft, enchantment, charm or sorcery whereby any person shall be killed or destroyed’.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
When Shakespeare wrote his ‘Scottish play’ in 1606, James I was on the throne and the new king regarded himself as an authority on witches and witchcraft. King James had extended the scope of the Witchcraft Act in 1604 to include ‘invoking evil spirits or communing with familiar spirits’. At this time witches were certainly not figures of fun. To the ordinary person they were a terrifying reality with power over the elements and over life and death. There were several high-profile witch trials in the seventeenth century, a contributory factor being extreme poverty, political uncertainty and religious extremism spreading fear and suspicion. One of the most infamous trials centred on the Pendle area of Lancashire, where there were two families headed by elderly matriarchs with a reputation for witchcraft. Using that reputation they exploited people’s fear and credulity to extort money, like modern gangsters enforcing a reign of terror over their neighbourhood. Ten of the Pendle witches were hanged at Lancaster Castle on 20 August 1612, another was hanged at York and another died whilst in prison. Quite clearly these were not poor innocent victims of prejudice and probably got what was coming to them. Even so, their confessions freely given displayed many symptoms, such as inner voices, delusions and hallucinations that nowadays we might associate with mental illness, possibly schizophrenia. The star witness for the prosecution was Jennet Device, a girl just nine years old, who twenty years later would herself stand accused as a witch.
King James had written a treatise on demonology, witchcraft and sorcery and the Protestant church was able to exploit the public paranoia about Catholic plots in order to persecute any non-conformists. His successor, Charles I, seemed less impressed by the Puritan zealots and showed little interest in prosecuting witches. Charles had a Catholic wife and many Protestants feared that England was drifting back to Catholicism. In 1642 the country descended into civil war and as the Puritans gained the upper hand it was perhaps inevitable that prosecutions for witchcraft would intensify. The Parliamentarians were particularly strong in the east of England and the Manningtree area of Essex was dominated by Puritan landlords and magistrates. A feature of the Witchcraft Act 1604 was to make the convict’s possessions forfeit, giving officials a financial incentive to find witches to convict. Protestant preachers warned that the Devil was everywhere and encouraged the belief that any accident, sickness or misfortune was likely to be the work of the Devil and his minions. Zealots were urged to seek out evil even amongst their neighbours and one such zealot was Matthew Hopkins, the son of a Puritan minister in Manningtree.
Hopkins called himself the Witchfinder General although there is no evidence he had any official authority. With a team of helpers he began his work in Essex in 1645, rounding up suspected witches, often women living alone: a widow from Mistley, four more from St Osyth, another from Thorpe-le-Soken. A young girl from Lawford accused of causing a woman to miscarry was persuaded to testify against several others in return for her freedom. Torture was illegal in England but Hopkins used sleep deprivation and relentless bullying to extract confessions. Eventually more than thirty women were held in the dungeon of Colchester Castle where some died before coming to trial. Four women were hanged at Manningtree and fifteen at Chelmsford. In the county of Suffolk it was a similar story as dozens were taken into custody on the testimony of their neighbours and many executed. On a single day, 27 August 1645, eighteen alleged witches were hanged at Bury St Edmunds. Hopkins extended his work into neighbouring counties, charging each parish an exorbitant fee for his services. Hopkins was only twenty-eight years of age when he died of tuberculosis in 1647. In a period of less than three years he is thought to have been responsible for nearly three hundred deaths.
After the Restoration of the monarchy, the public were uneasy with Puritanism because of its association with the regicide of Charles I. Religious hysteria waned, as did enthusiasm for prosecuting so-called agents of the Devil. The last witch to be sentenced to death in England was Alice Molland in Exeter, Devon in 1684. However, on the other side of the Atlantic Puritanism was very much alive and fear and religious fervour were about to create a situation that would rival any that had occurred in Britain. In January 1692 in the small New England community of Salem, Massachusetts two young girls succumbed to a mysterious sickness. They suffered convulsions and screamed blasphemies before lapsing into a trance. According to modern medical opinion, these symptoms are consistent with the ingestion of a hallucinogenic grain fungus, but such science was not available in 1692. The younger of the two girls, nine-year-old Elizabeth Parris, was the daughter of Reverend Samuel Parris who declared that the girls had been bewitched. In February 1692, three women were accused and arrested. Many more would suffer the same fate in the following weeks and months as hysteria gripped the community.
Samuel Sewall was born at Bishop Stoke, Hampshire, England on 28 March 1652, the son of Henry Sewall and Jane Dummer. In 1661, the family emigrated to New England and settled in Newbury, Massachusetts. Samuel graduated from Harvard in 1671. In 1676, he married Hannah Hull, the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in the colony, and began a career as a merchant. In 1681, Sewall, a devout Puritan, was appointed by the General Council to run the printing press and he was able to publish many articles of his own. On 27 May 1692 Governor Phips appointed nine judges to the Court of Oyer and Terminer to try the Salem witchcraft cases. One of the judges was Samuel Sewall.
Bridget Bishop was the first of the accused to hang on 10 June 1692, after which one of the appointed judges resigned in protest at the admission of ‘spectral evidence’, whereby to secure a conviction a witness had only to testify to hearing strange voices, feeling the presence of evil or having dreams in which the Devil had taken the form of the accused. The trials continued with Rebecca Nurse, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth Howe, Sarah Good and Sarah Wildes executed on 19 July 1692, and George Jacobs senior, Martha Carrier, George Burroughs, John Proctor and John Willard hanged on 19 August 1692. Giles Corey, who refused to submit to trial or to denounce his own wife as a witch, was pressed to death on 19 September 1692. His wife, Martha Corey, was hanged anyway on 22 September 1692 along with Margaret Scott, Mary Easty, Alice Parker, Ann Pudeator, Wilmot Redd, Samuel Wardwell and Mary Parker. Finally on 8 October Governor Phips ordered that spectral and intangible evidence should no longer be relied upon and later that month he dissolved the court.
Sewall's diaries provide important information about the trials but reveal little reservation or remorse concerning his own involvement in the conduct of the court at the time. However, in 1696, Samuel Sewall publicly apologised for his role in the trials and proclaimed a day of fast and penance, proposing reparation by the government for the sins of the witchcraft trial. In 1700 Samuel Sewall published 'The Selling of Joseph'. It was probably the first anti-slavery article to be published in the colonies and presented the religious case against slavery, arguing that all men are created equal. He served on the Governor's Council from 1691 to 1725 and died at his home in Boston, Massachusetts on 1 January 1730. He was buried in the family tomb at Granary Burying Ground, Boston.
In Scotland it is estimated that more than three thousand alleged witches were executed following Queen Mary’s law in 1563, the last being Janet Horne in 1722. Torture was used in many cases to secure a confession. A number of convicted witches have been granted posthumous pardons in recent years and there is a memorial by Edinburgh Castle, which acknowledges that many miscarriages of justice took place. In England over the same period the number of executions for witchcraft was probably no more than one thousand.
In Great Britain, a new Witchcraft Act of 1735 signalled a complete change in attitude and belief. The crime of witchcraft was replaced by the offence of pretending to cast spells, pretending to summon spirits or pretending to foretell the future. Clearly the authorities no longer believed in the supernatural so confined themselves to seeking to penalise those who claimed to possess supernatural powers. Offenders would be treated as vagrants and swindlers and be subject to fines or imprisonment. However, superstition persisted in many rural areas despite the official line and when in 1751 in Tring, Hertfordshire, a local woman, Ruth Osborne, was suspected of witchcraft, a number of villagers decided to subject her to ‘ordeal by water’ and threw her in a pond to see if she would float. The woman died and the mob’s ringleader, a chimney sweep called Thomas Colley, was tried for her murder and hanged. As late as 1863, an elderly man living in Sible Hedingham, Essex was attacked by villagers after a local woman had accused him of jinxing her house. After being beaten and thrown in a stream, the man, who was deaf and dumb, died of pneumonia. Two of his attackers were subsequently sentenced to six months imprisonment.
Helen Duncan was the last person in Great Britain to be imprisoned under the Witchcraft Act. In late November 1941 the Royal Navy ship HMS Barham was torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of Malta resulting in more than 800 of her crew being lost or missing. Helen Duncan held a séance in Portsmouth, in which she told an anxious mother that her son had died in the sinking. The boy’s mother was naturally devastated by the news, but so was the Admiralty. The wartime government knew that the ship had been lost but, fearing a catastrophic loss of public morale, had suppressed the news. The authorities tried to charge Duncan with conspiracy and fraud but failed. The only charge proven was that she had ‘pretended to summon spirits’ contrary to the Witchcraft Act of 1735. In April 1944 at the Old Bailey, Helen Duncan was sentenced to nine months in Holloway Prison, London. What seems an over-reaction by the authorities was probably a political ploy to silence her at a perilous time in our history, but it begs the question. How could Helen Duncan have possibly known that HMS Barham had been lost? Perhaps, as Hamlet says, ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’.
The legislation under which Helen Duncan had been indicted was finally repealed by Winston Churchill’s government in 1951 and replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act. So that’s official then; witchcraft no longer exists as far as UK law is concerned. There is the modern Wicca movement, which was founded during the Second World War. At the last national census around ten thousand people in the UK stated it to be their religion. I understand Wicca adherents believe in spirits rather than in a single god, and are certainly more likely to ride a bicycle than a broomstick. In the twenty-first century we can but hope that if someone’s cow dies they would not blame it on their neighbour because of his religious beliefs, nor on the lonely widow heard talking to her cat. Nowadays it seems barely credible that people could be hounded to death for being a little different. Nevertheless, ignorance, fear, superstition and an excess of religious zeal can be a heady mixture.
The victims of witch-hunts were usually women, often widows living alone. Some were healers or herbalists, wise-women whose activities were opposed by the established church. An odd feature common to many trials was the use of a young girl to testify against the accused. Looking back at the witch trials we now seem predisposed to believing most of the accused to be innocent of the charges made against them. We suggest a rational explanation for what occurred; psychotic illness, a grain fungus, mass hysteria, religious fervour or politics. It is as though our modern minds cannot accept that anything supernatural took place at all, preferring to put our faith in science and knowledge. Our ancestors were very different people from us, having little education and certainly no knowledge of modern science and medicine. They had no difficulty in believing that strange events were supernatural in origin and any person behaving oddly must be under a spell or possessed by demons
Were any of your ancestors involved in witchcraft trials, as victims, witnesses or even as the accused? There are several websites that provide lists of names, although few Sole Society names appear, I’m pleased to say. I would recommend the website www.personal.utulsa.edu which provides the UK Calendar of Witch Trials and, particularly if you have Essex ancestors, I suggest www.hulford.co.uk which lists 730 trials between 1560 and 1675 of persons accused of being or consorting with witches. Many records have been lost over the centuries so it is unlikely I will ever discover the fate of Widow Sawell of Stock, Essex who was accused of witchcraft in 1576, or that of Alice Soles of Leigh, Essex who was tried in 1622.
Anyway, I must go. There are three little creatures with pointy hats at my front door, who are as likely as not to ‘egg’ my car if I don’t find them some sweets. Perhaps there should be a law against it!
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