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)
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.
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.