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.

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

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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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.

“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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The Haunting at Frodis-Water

Iceland on the Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus, 16th Century. Wikipedia

Sir Walter Scott tells a shortened version of this story in Letter 3 of Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft; it is from The Eyrbyggja Saga (The Saga of the Ere-Dwellers) from Iceland. My retelling here is based on the 1892 English translation by William Morris and Eirikr Magnusson. The story encompasses Chapters 50 – 55 of the saga.

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From Letter 3: River Gods and Revenant Warriors

Franklin, Massachusetts. I just spent two straight days lecturing all day (ten lessons!) on statistics and machine learning. Exhausting. Now I’m curled up in my hotel wishing I had some hot cocoa to go with the snow, and the artificial gas fireplace in my room. Oh well.

As promised (or threatened?):Letter 3 of Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft. Here, Scott traces how early belief systems of the Celts, Germans and Nordic peoples contributed to the demonology of the subsquent Christian-dominated culture in Scotland and other parts of Great Britain. This is much like the inversion theory we’ve talked about before, with respect to aswang (manananggal) or penanggalan.

Illustration of the Devil in the Codex Gigas, 13th Century. Image: Wikipedia

Scott lists a number of examples. I’ll mention one: “Nixas, or Nicksa, a river or ocean god, worshipped on the shores of the Baltic”. I think the Nixas that Scott mentions is the same as Nikkar, or Nichus, the Scandinavian ocean god. Nikkar is apparently the incarnation of the destructive aspects of Odin (see Harland, below, as well as the “Note by Karl Haupt” beneath this Polish folktale about Nixes). According to John Harland, in Lancashire Folklore (1867), Nikkar metamorphized by the Middle Ages into St. Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors. From Nikkar probably also came “Old Nick”, by way of the water monsters known as Necks. And “Old Nick”, of course, is slang for the devil.

But I really want to talk about something else: two of the Nordic folktales that Scott mentions. Not because they fit in the inversion thesis, but just because they’re cool. I’ll do one today, and one (hopefully) tomorrow.

 …it was a favourite fancy of [the Norsemen] that, in many instances, the change from life to death altered the temper of the human spirit from benignant to malevolent; or perhaps, that when the soul left the body, its departure was occasionally supplied by a wicked demon, who took the opportunity to enter and occupy its late habitation.

This leads us to the story of Asmund and Assueit, two Norse chieftains and brothers-in-arms. The two were so devoted to each other that they took a vow that when one of them died, the survivor would go down into the sepulchre, or burial mound, and be buried alive with his friend. How very Egyptian of them. In fact, the burial mound also  contained (by tradition I assume) the dead man’s arms, swords, and war trophies.

This image was first published in the 1 st (18...
Image via Wikipedia

Assueit died first, killed in battle. Asmund kept his promise. Their soldiers buried them both, along with their war horses. And that was the end of it, for about a century, until a Swedish rover and his men wandered through the region. The locals told him the story of Asmund and Assueit (including the part about the arms and trophies). The rover decided to liberate the buried treasure, and ordered his men to open the sepulchre.

But when they did, they heard the sounds of battle coming from inside: yelling, the clang of swords hitting swords, swords crashing against armor. They lowered one of their men down into the tomb by a rope to investigate. When they pulled the rope back up, rather than their man, they recovered — Asmund, battered and scratched and mangled.

Asmund fell on his knees before the Swedes and recited —  in verse, apparently — his life for the past one hundred years. No sooner did their soldiers close up the tomb when Assuiet rose up, reanimated by some ghoul or demon. A hungry one, it seems, because the first thin Assueit did was devour both the war horses. Then he tried to eat Asmund. Asmund picked up a sword to defend himself, and the struggle lasted the entire century — I guess until just after the Swedes opened the tomb. Finally Asmund subdued the demon and drove a stake through the body, destroying him.

After finishing his story, Asmund fell down dead at their feet. The Swedes recovered Assueit’s body, burned it, and scattered the ashes. Then they reburied Asmund in the tomb.

I assume they took all the arms and trophies before they left.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Things have been quite hectic lately, and I’m on another business trip next week. I’m still working my way through Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, and I plan to post some folktales and folklore from Letters 3, 4, and 5 when I get a chance. I also want to post about some of the witchcraft trials that Scott discusses in Letter 5. I may stop after that; the rest of the letters are still interesting, but not necessarily on the theme of this blog. We’ll see.

Just to keep things from going completely quiescent, here’s a little folktale straight from Letter 3 (I’ve reformatted it a bit). The motif of hiding someone (usually a lover or a son, I think) by turning them into an ordinary household object is a common one. I have vague memories of a Baba Yaga story where the heroine uses this trick, but my Russian Folktales book is in a box right now, so I can’t look it up. I could try to find the Aarne-Thompson tale type for you — but alas, I feel lazy today. So just enjoy the story, instead.

328px William adolphe bouguereau the spinner
The Spinner (1873)
William-Adolphe Bouguereau
Image: Wikipedia

There is a remarkable story in the Eyrbiggia Saga (“Historia Eyranorum”), giving the result of such a controversy between two of these gifted women, one of whom was determined on discovering and putting to death the son of the other, named Katla, who in a brawl had cut off the hand of the daughter-in-law of Geirada.

A party detached to avenge this wrong, by putting Oddo to death, returned deceived by the skill of his mother. They had found only Katla, they said, spinning flax from a large distaff.

“Fools,” said Geirada, “that distaff was the man you sought.”

They returned, seized the distaff, and burned it. But this second time, the witch disguised her son under the appearance of a tame kid. A third time he was a hog, which grovelled among the ashes.

The party returned yet again; augmented as one of Katla’s maidens, who kept watch, informed her mistress, by one in a blue mantle.

“Alas!” said Katla, “it is the sorceress Geirada, against whom spells avail not.”

Accordingly, the hostile party, entering for the fourth time, seized on the object of their animosity, and put him to death. This species of witchcraft is well known in Scotland as the glamour, or deceptio visus, and was supposed to be a special attribute of the race of Gipsies.

Letter 2: Witchcraft in the Bible

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

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

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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