Witch Hunts: The Use (and Abuse) of Child Testimony

In a previous post, I talked about the anti-Catholic aspects of the Lancashire Witch Trials. Though I only said it indirectly, the post drew a parallel between the political/religious motivations of witch hunts, and the negative aspects of what Eric Hoffer called the True Believer — issues that still affect us today.

In this post, I’ll talk about the role that the testimony of children played in incriminating accused witches. Why did these children make such ludicrous accusations? And why did adults believe them? The accounts form a sobering account of how easily one can transfer one’s own beliefs to the impressionable. It’s a pattern that continues to manifest, even in modern times.

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Witchcraft at Salem Village, William A. Crafts (1876)
Image: Wikipedia

Much of the key evidence in the [Lancashire] trial of 1612 was given by two children, James and Jennet Device, aged about nine and twelve. Caught up in a terrifying web of charges and arrests they panicked, and their stories, designed to clear themselves, ended up in the deaths of most of their own family members, and indeed of James himself.

— Robert Poole, “The Lancashire Witches: 1612-2012”, Public Domain Review

James and Jennet were the younger siblings of Alizon Device, the first woman accused of witchcraft in this case. The Devices were a poor family living on the edge of the Pendle forest. Alizon’s grandmother was a local healer; apparently her rituals often used Catholic symbology. Given the prevailing anti-Catholic attitudes, this would likely be considered evidence of consorting with the devil. Naturally, the entire family fell suspect, and the investigators found the evidence they wanted in James and Jennet — primarily Jennet.

James Crossley, in his introduction to the 1845 reprint of James Pott’s 1613 The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster, is not as charitable towards Jennet Device — “the little precocious prodigy of wickedness” — as Robert Poole is.

A more dangerous tool in the hands of an unscrupulous evidence-compeller, being at once intelligent, cunning and pliant, than the child proved herself, it would not have been easy to have discovered.

I’ll agree with the “unscrupulous evidence-compeller” part. Crossley directly accuses the investigators of instructing Jennet to testify that the wealthy and respectable Alice Nutter had been present at a “great meeting of witches.” Apparently, the magistrate, Robert Nowell, had some sort of property dispute with the widow Nutter — and the fact that she was probably Catholic didn’t help, either.

It’s hard to read Pott’s treatise, which is redundant, in addition to being couched in archaic language and spelling. Still, I do get the impression that Jennet was rewarded for saying what the investigators wanted to hear. They refer to her testimony as “the wonderful work of God,” and there is a scene where she is placed up on a table in the middle of the trial to testify against her mother and grandmother.

James Device (and another child, Grace Sowerbuts, age fourteen) tried to please the court, too. Unfortunately, James wasn’t as good at it as Jennet — or perhaps he was a little too good. Based on Jennet’s testimony (and his own confession), James was convicted of being a witch, and executed. The account mentions that at his own trial, James was so “insensible and weak” that he couldn’t speak or stand, and had to be held up during the proceedings. Perhaps it had finally dawned on the poor boy that he had been too effective a storyteller.

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The Lancashire Witch Trials: Part 1

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Mother Chattox, Alizon, and Dorothy.
From The Lancashire Witches, A Romance of Pendle Forest, by William Harrison Ainsworth (1854)

2012 marks the four hundredth anniversary of the Lancashire Witch trials, the biggest peacetime witch trial ever held in England. The Public Domain Review today features an article by Robert Poole about the trial. Like most witch trial accounts, the story is both fascinating and depressing — not because of the occult aspects, but because of the demonstration these trials provide of how credulous and hateful human beings can be.

Unfortunately, these accounts are still relevant cautionary tales to us, today.

Poole’s article covers the history of the trial quite well. I’m going to focus on two specific aspects of the case. In this post, I’ll talk about the anti-Catholic aspects of witch trials. In my next post, I’ll discuss the reliance on (and abuse of) child testimony.

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Visits from Spirits: The Ingkanto Syndrome

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Balete tree. Image: Wikipedia

The only definition for “ingkanto” that I could ever get out my parents was “they’re like fairies”. According to the description given by Francisco Demetrio, they live in boulders, caves, holes in the ground, or in trees like the balete (a relative of the banyan tree) or the acacia. They are mischievous and capricious. On the one hand, there are traditions of them lending beautiful golden tableware for the weddings and fiestas of people in need; on the other hand, they can curse you and send diseases on you if you disrespect them (even accidentally), or if you don’t give proper greetings when you pass their homes. In the anecdotes that Demetrio collected, they are often described as fair-skinned, blonde and blue-eyed.

They also have a reputation for stalking people. The name Herminia Meñez gives to this phenomenon is “Ingkanto Syndrome”, though I don’t know if the term originates with her or not.

Meñez identifies three distinct stages to the phenomenon. In the first stage, the victim is visited by invisible beings, who try to seduce him or her away with displays of wealth and power. This is manifested to others who may witness the victim havings spells of stiffness and unconsciousness, disappearing for intervals of time without explanation, hanging from trees, or displaying other unusual behavior.

In the second stage, if the victim resists the spirits, they begin to abuse him physically and verbally. This manifests to witnesses as the victim becoming violent, and often extraordinarily strong. Often, family members have to tie the victim down to prevent him from “running away with the spirits”.

In the third stage, the victim’s family has brought the victim to a curer (a mananambal, for instance). Assuming the cure has been successful, the victim goes from wild and uncontrollable to “quiet and well-behaved”.

Demetrio describes the typical instance of the phenomenon similarly: “the disappearance of the victim and the seizure of madness usually accompanied by a show of extraordinary strength”.

In the traditional belief systems, the ingkanto syndrome can be brought about by any number of things. The victim might have accidentally violated the property of an ingkanto, for instance by destroying an anthill or mound that was their home, by building on an ingkanto’s land, or chopping down an ingkanto’s tree.

But there is another, more interesting folk hypothesis: the symptoms of madness were brought about because the victim was resisting their spiritual calling — namely, the call to be a shaman or healer. When the victim stops resisting and accepts the call, then the madness cures itself, and the victim becomes a more centered, thoughtful individual, one who is ready to serve the community through their spiritual or healing arts.

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Shuck Unmasked

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Shuck Unmasked, by Rick Smith and Tania Menesse.
Top Shelf Productions, 2003

I haven’t fallen in love with a comic book this way since I picked up Vampire Loves — the first comic I ever read by Joann Sfar, and still my favorite. Both books treat mainstays of horror fiction in a distinctly non-horror fashion. In a sweet fashion, even. Sfar’s book is about a vampire, obviously, while Smith and Menesse write about The Devil. At least, I think it’s The Devil, with a capital Tee and a capital Dee, but he isn’t in charge of hell, or anything else. In fact, he’s retired, and would like to stay that way.

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Mirror, Mirror

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The Queen at her mirror. Illustration by W.C. Drupsteen, 1885

Now the queen was the most beautiful woman in all the land, and very proud of her beauty. She had a mirror, which she stood in front of every morning, and asked:

Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
Who in this land is fairest of all?

And the mirror always said:

You, my queen, are fairest of all.

And then she knew for certain that no one in the world was more beautiful than she.

— Brothers Grimm, Little Snow White (1812 version)

I’ve gotten to the age where I get Snow White. Or to be precise: I get the evil queen. When I was younger (young enough to be reading fairy tales for serious), the queen was the obligatory, generic villain. Kids don’t worry about motivation: stepparents hate their stepchildren, just because — that’s how it works. Why would the queen be jealous of Snow White? How can she possibly compare herself to Snow? She’s a mom! She’s old!

But I get it now.

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Truth like Fiction

Just a quick post today. I finished the Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, and I still want to write something about the witch-trials that Scott describes, when I have more time. Today, I’ll just share a story with you from Letter 10.

This letter is about allegedly true ghost stories that are demonstrably non-ghost stories. I like this story because it takes an ordinary and “plausible” ghost story (plausible, if one admits the existence of ghosts, I mean), and gives it an utterly contrived sounding explanation.

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“The Spectre Skeleton” by George Cruikshank. Illustration for The Letters

 

This is directly from Letter 10, slightly re-formatted.


A club of persons connected with science and literature was formed at [Plymouth]. During the summer months the society met in a cave by the seashore; during those of autumn and winter they convened within the premises of a tavern, but, for the sake of privacy, had their meeting in a summer-house situated in the garden, at a distance from the main building. Some of the members to whom the position of their own dwellings rendered this convenient, had a pass-key to the garden-door, by which they could enter the garden and reach the summer-house without the publicity or trouble of passing through the open tavern.

It was the rule of this club that its members presided alternately. On one occasion, in the winter, the president of the evening chanced to be very ill; indeed, was reported to be on his death-bed. The club met as usual, and, from a sentiment of respect, left vacant the chair which ought to have been occupied by him if in his usual health; for the same reason, the conversation turned upon the absent gentleman’s talents, and the loss expected to the society by his death.

While they were upon this melancholy theme, the door suddenly opened, and the appearance of the president entered the room. He wore a white wrapper, a nightcap round his brow, the appearance of which was that of death itself. He stalked into the room with unusual gravity, took the vacant place of ceremony, lifted the empty glass which stood before him, bowed around, and put it to his lips; then replaced it on the table, and stalked out of the room as silent as he had entered it.

The company remained deeply appalled; at length, after many observations on the strangeness of what they had seen, they resolved to dispatch two of their number as ambassadors, to see how it fared with the president, who had thus strangely appeared among them. They went, and returned with the frightful intelligence that the friend after whom they had enquired was that evening deceased.


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Letter 2: Witchcraft in the Bible

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Saul and the Witch of Endor
Frontispiece to Saducismus Triumphatus, by Joseph Glanvill
archive.org

On to Letter 2 from Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, by Sir Walter Scott.

One of the motivations for writing The Letters was the success of a series of publications called Criminal Trials of Scotland, by Robert Pitcairn. The text covers a selection of criminal proceedings from 1487 to 1624, a period that included many witchcraft trials. Pitcairn actually sent Scott transcripts of trials that were still unpublished, as Scott was writing The Letters; unfortunately, none of them appear in Letter 2, though I’m hoping they might appear in a later letter.

Instead, Letter 2 addresses the Scriptural treatment of witchcraft. Scott’s primary point is that what the Bible calls “witchcraft” and the contemporary understanding of “witchcraft” are two different things. The justification for the execution of witches in Scotland, and in Massachusetts, and elsewhere, was Exodus 22:18 — “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

Many learned men have affirmed that in this remarkable passage the Hebrew word CHASAPH means nothing more than poisoner, although, like the word veneficus, by which it is rendered in the Latin version of the Septuagint, other learned men contend that it hath the meaning of a witch also, and may be understood as denoting a person who pretended to hurt his or her neighbours in life, limb, or goods, either by noxious potions, by charms, or similar mystical means. In this particular the witches of Scripture had probably some resemblance to those of ancient Europe, who, although their skill and power might be safely despised, as long as they confined themselves to their charms and spells, were very apt to eke out their capacity of mischief by the use of actual poison, so that the epithet of sorceress and poisoner were almost synonymous.

He goes on to say (with the appropriate citations) that the Old Testament deems witchcraft a capital crime because it is idolatry — worshipping or asking counsel of false deities — not because witches practice magic, per se.

To understand the texts otherwise seems to confound the modern system of witchcraft, with all its unnatural and improbable outrages on common sense, with the crime of the person who, in classical days, consulted the oracle of Apollo — a capital offence in a Jew, but surely a venial sin in an ignorant and deluded pagan.

The emphasis is mine. Clearly, Sir Walter didn’t put much credence in the accounts of witchy behavior that he read in the trial transcripts. He refers to the accusations later as “disgustingly improbable.” And he was very much against applying the biblical law “against a different class of persons, accused of a very different species of crime.”

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Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft: 1

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Painting on the wall of Rila Monastery, Bulgaria
Photo: Nenko Lazarov, adjusted by Martha Forsyth. Wikipedia

The more numerous part of mankind cannot form in their mind the idea of the spirit of the deceased existing, without possessing or having the power to assume the appearance which their acquaintance bore during his life, and do not push their researches beyond this point.

— Sir Walter Scott, Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, Letter 1

I started Sir Walter Scott’s Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft the other day. The book was originally published in 1830, as one of the volumes in a series called “Murray’s Family Library”. It’s in the form of letters to Sir Walter’s son-in-law, J.G. Lockhart, who convinced his father-in-law to write a piece on witchcraft for the Family Library. Sir Walter was recovering from a stroke at the time, and his son-in-law wanted to distract him from work that was too strenuous. Also, apparently, Sir Walter needed the money.

The first letter takes a skeptical tone towards supernatural phenomena. Sir Walter lists off a number of naturalistic explanations for ghostly appearances, omens, and the like. He backs up his list of phenomena and explanations for them with anecdotes and stories that he’s heard from friends and colleagues. It’s a bit like reading a nineteenth century Snopes.

It may be remarked also, that Dr. Johnson retained a deep impression that, while he was opening the door of his college chambers, he heard the voice of his mother, then at many miles’ distance, call him by his name; and it appears he was rather disappointed that no event of consequence followed a summons sounding so decidedly supernatural.

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Visayan Sorcery, 2012

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Salagdoong Beach — Maria, Siquijor
Photo: Peter V. Sanchez, Wikipedia

Once something is on your mind, you see it everywhere. I came across a feature story in BBC News Magazine today, called “Healing rituals and bad spirits on a Philippine island”. The reporter visited the island of Siquijor, to investigate what she calls “witches”, and the island’s tourism department calls “traditional healers”.

In Visayan, they are called mananambal. If you’ve been following my blog, then you’ll remember that I’ve written a bit about witchcraft and sorcery beliefs in the Central Visayas before, specifically as described in Richard Lieban’s 1965 book, Cebuano Sorcery. Lieban didn’t visit Siquijor, but he did mention it a few times. Apparently, the island is infamous for its witchcraft.

The BBC reporter, Kate McGeown, visited three mananambal, including a woman who is the last living practitioner of bulo-bulo on the island. Here’s Lieban’s description of bulo-bulo:

…the practitioner blows through a bamboo tube into a glass of water held over the patient; if the illness is supernatural, vegetable, animal, or mineral matter appears in the water, “extracted” from the patient.

You can see a video of the mananambal doing bulo-bulo on Ms. McGeown at the BBC link. It took three rounds of the ritual before her water came clear — apparently Ms. McGeown had some bad mojo going on.

Much of what she describes from her visit is familiar to me, from having read Lieban’s book. The mananambal she met with are devout Catholics, and they see no contradiction between their traditional rituals and their official religion. One of the mananambal dowses for spirits. Another one is an herbalist, who makes potions from herbs and roots that she gathers every year, between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

And this was familiar, too: Ms. McGeown asked the healers she visited why their services were still in demand. Because bad witches still exist, and put curses on people, they answered.

Or perhaps it is the more practical reason suggested by Francisco – that because the island did not have its own hospital until recently, traditional beliefs about illness and disease have stood the test of time.

Lieban said that, too — back in 1965. Back then, even in Cebu City, where modern medicine was readily available, people still visited mananambal, so lack of modern resources isn’t the only reason that folk medicine endures. Still, it’s a bit depressing that almost fifty years later, there are still places where people visit folk practitioners primarily because they have no other choice.


More Reading

“Healing rituals and bad spirits on a Philippine island”: The BBC Article

Siquijor Island: Tourist site about Siquijor. It looks like a beautiful place. I may have to grab my snorkeling gear and head out there for some, um, ethnographic research. Yeah, that’s it.

Losing Melanin

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Photo: John Mount

“You don’t dye your hair, do you?”

I don’t know where that question came from. I had been sitting at the kitchen counter, transcribing my parents’ ghost stories over toast and my morning coffee, when my mother popped that on me.

“Yup. For years, now.”

“Really?!?”

She sounded so shocked that I had to replay the question in my mind. She asked me if I dye my hair, right? Not if I strip for a living?

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