Portent on entry of James II—Witchcraft in co. Antrim—Traditional version of same—Events preceding the Island-Magee witch-trial.—The trial itself—Dr. Francis Hutchinson.
The account of the following portent is given us in Aubrey’s Miscellanies. “When King James II first entered Dublin after his Arrival from France, 1689, one of the Gentlemen that bore the Mace before him, stumbled without any rub in his way, or other visible occasion. The Mace fell out of his hands, and the little Cross upon the Crown thereof stuck fast between two Stones in the Street. This is well known all over Ireland, and did much trouble King James himself with many of his chief Attendants”; but no doubt greatly raised the hopes of his enemies.
A few years later a witch-story comes from the north of Ireland, and is related by George Sinclair in his Satan’s Invisible World displayed (in later editions, not in the first). This book, by the way, seems to have been extremely popular, as it was reprinted several times, even as late as 1871. “At Antrim in Ireland a little girl of nineteen (nine?) years of age, inferior to none in the place for beauty, education, and birth, innocently put a leaf of sorrel which she had got from a witch into her mouth, after she had given the begging witch bread and beer at the door; it was scarce swallowed by her, but she began to be tortured in the bowels, to tremble all over, and even was convulsive, and in fine to swoon away as dead. The doctor used remedies on the 9th of May 1698, at which time it happened, but to no purpose, the child continued in a most terrible paroxysm; whereupon they sent for the minister, who scarce had laid his hand upon her when she was turned by the demon in the most dreadful shapes. She began first to rowl herself about, then to vomit needles, pins, hairs, feathers, bottoms of thread, pieces of glass, window-nails, nails drawn out of a cart or coach-wheel, an iron knife about a span long, eggs, and fish-shells; and when the witch came near the place, or looked to the house, though at the distance of two hundred paces from where the child was, she was in worse torment, insomuch that no life was expected from the child till the witch was removed to some greater distance. The witch was apprehended, condemned, strangled, and burnt, and was desired to undo the incantation immediately before strangling; but said she could not, by reason others had done against her likewise. But the wretch confessed the same, with many more. The child was about the middle of September thereafter carried to a gentleman’s house, where there were many other things scarce credible, but that several ministers and the gentleman have attested the same. The relation is to be seen in a pamphlet printed 1699, and entitled The Bewitching of a Child in Ireland.”
Baxter in his Certainty of the World of Spirits quotes what at first sight appears to be the same case, but places it at Utrecht, and dates it 1625. But it is quite possible for a similar incident to have occurred on the Continent as well as in Ireland; many cases of witchcraft happening at widely different places and dates have points of close resemblance. Sinclair’s story appears to be based on an actual trial for witchcraft in co. Antrim, the more so as he has drawn his information from a pamphlet on the subject which was printed the year after its occurrence. The mention of this latter is particularly interesting; it was probably locally printed, but there appears to be no means of tracing it, and indeed it must have been thumbed out of existence many years ago. The above story, marvellous though it may seem, is capable of explanation. The oxalic acid in sorrel is an irritant poison, causing retching and violent pains. But when once the suspicion of witchcraft arose the ejection of such an extraordinary collection of miscellaneous articles followed quite as a matter of course—it would, so to speak, have been altogether against the rules of the game for the girl to have got rid of anything else at that particular date.
Classon Porter gives what he considers to be the traditional version of the above. According to it the supposed witch was a poor old woman, who was driven mad by the cruel and barbarous treatment which she received from many of her neighbours on the ground of her being a witch. To escape this treatment she sought refuge in a cave, which was in a field attached to the old (not the present) meeting-house in Antrim. Her living in such a place being thought a confirmation of what was alleged against her, she was thereupon stabbed to death, and her body cut in pieces, which were then scattered over the places where she was supposed to have exercised her evil influence. For some years after this terrible tragedy her ghost, in the form of a goat, was believed to haunt the session-house of the old meeting-house near which she had met her cruel fate; it was popularly known as MacGregor’s ghost, this having been the name of the man who was sexton of the meeting-house when these things took place, and who probably had been concerned in the murder. So far Classon Porter. But we very much doubt if the above has really any connection with the Antrim witch-case of 1698. It seems more probable that it occurred at a later date, possibly after the Island-Magee trial, and thus would be an instance of one of those outbursts of cruelty on the part of a mob rendered ferocious by ignorance and superstition, of which examples are to be found in England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
On one occasion an Irish witch or wise woman was the means of having a Scotch girl delated by the Kirk for using charms at Hallow-Eve apparently for the purpose of discovering who her future husband should be. She confessed that “at the instigation of an old woman from Ireland she brought in a pint of water from a well which brides and burials pass over, and dipt her shirt into it, and hung it before the fire; that she either dreamed, or else there came something and turned about the chair on which her shirt was, but she could not well see what it was.” Her sentence was a rebuke before the congregation; considering the state of Scotland at that period it must be admitted she escaped very well.
We now come to the last instance of witches being tried and convicted in Ireland as offenders against the laws of the realm—the celebrated Island-Magee case. There is a very scarce published account of this, said to have been compiled by an eye-witness, and entitled: “A Narrative of the sufferings of a young girl called Mary Dunbar, who was strangely molested by spirits and witches, at Mr. James Haltridge’s house, parish of Island Magee, near Carrigfergus, in the County of Antrim, and Province of Ulster, in Ireland, and in some other places to which she was removed during her disorder; as also of the aforesaid Mr. Haltridge’s house being haunted by spirits in the latter end of 1710 and beginning of 1711.” This continued for many years in manuscript, but in 1822 it was printed as a pamphlet at Belfast, under the editorship of M‘Skimin, author of the History of Carrigfergus. This pamphlet we have not seen; but full particulars of the entire case can be obtained by combining the following sources of information, viz. Wright’s Narratives of Sorcery and Witchcraft; the Dublin University Magazine, vol. lxxxii.; a letter by Dr. Tisdall, the Vicar of Belfast, in the Hibernian Magazine for January 1775; Classon Porter’s pamphlet; M‘Skimin’s History of Carrigfergus (ed. M‘Crum, 1909); while the depositions that were taken are published in Young’s Historical Notices of Old Belfast, pp. 161-4.
The actual trial of the witches was preceded by a series of most extraordinary incidents. In September 1710, Mrs. Anne Haltridge, widow of the Rev. John Haltridge, late Presbyterian minister at Island Magee, while staying in the house of her son, James Haltridge of the same place, suffered great annoyance every night from some invisible object, which threw stones and turf at her bed, the force of the blow often causing the curtains to open, and even drawing them from one end of the bed to the other. About the same time, also, the pillows were taken from under her head, and the clothes pulled off; and though a strict search was made, nothing could be discovered. Continuing to be annoyed in this way she removed to another room, being afraid to remain in her own any longer.
Then about the 11th of December, as she was sitting in the twilight at the kitchen fire, a little boy came in and sat down beside her. He appeared to be about eleven or twelve years old, with short black hair, having an old black bonnet on his head, a half-worn blanket about him trailing on the floor, and a torn vest under it, and kept his face covered with the blanket held before it. Mrs. Haltridge asked him several questions: Where he came from? Where he was going? Was he cold or hungry? and so on; but instead of answering her he got up and danced very nimbly round the kitchen, and then ran out of the house and disappeared in the cow-shed. The servants ran after him, but he was nowhere to be seen; when they returned to the house, however, there he was beside them. They tried to catch him, but every time they attempted it he ran off and could not be found. At last one of the servants, seeing the master’s dog coming in, cried out that her master was returning home, and that he would soon catch the troublesome creature, upon which he immediately vanished, nor were they troubled with him again till February 1711.
On the 11th of that month, which happened to be a Sunday, old Mrs. Haltridge was reading Dr. Wedderburn’s Sermons on the Covenant, when, laying the book aside for a little while, nobody being in the room all the time, it was suddenly taken away. She looked for it everywhere, but could not find it. On the following day the apparition already referred to came to the house, and breaking a pane of glass in one of the windows, thrust in his hand with the missing volume in it. He began to talk with one of the servants, Margaret Spear, and told her that he had taken the book when everybody was down in the kitchen, and that her mistress would never get it again. The girl asked him if he could read it, to which he replied that he could, adding that the Devil had taught him. Upon hearing this extraordinary confession she exclaimed, “The Lord bless me from thee! Thou hast got ill lear (learning).” He told her she might bless herself as often as she liked, but that it could not save her; whereupon he produced a sword, and threatened to kill everybody in the house. This frightened her so much that she ran into the parlour and fastened the door, but the apparition laughed at her, and declared that he could come in by the smallest hole in the house like a cat or mouse, as the Devil could make him anything he pleased. He then took up a large stone, and hurled it through the parlour window, which, upon trial, could not be put out at the same place. A little after the servant and child looked out, and saw the apparition catching the turkey-cock, which he threw over his shoulder, holding him by the tail; and the bird making a great sputter with his feet, the stolen book was spurred out of the loop in the blanket where the boy had put it. He then leaped over a wall with the turkey-cock on his back. Presently the girl saw him endeavouring to draw his sword to kill the bird, but it escaped. Missing the book out of his blanket he ran nimbly up and down in search of it, and then with a club came and broke the glass of the parlour window. The girl again peeped out through the kitchen window, and saw him digging with his sword. She summoned up courage to ask him what he was doing, and he answered, “Making a grave for a corpse which will come out of this house very soon.” He refused, however, to say who it would be, but having delivered himself of this enlivening piece of information, flew over the hedge as if he had been a bird.
For a day or two following nothing happened, but on the morning of the 15th the clothes were mysteriously taken off Mrs. Haltridge’s bed, and laid in a bundle behind it. Being put back by some of the family they were again removed, and this time folded up and placed under a large table which happened to be in the room. Again they were laid in order on the bed, and again they were taken off, and this third time made up in the shape of a corpse, or something that very closely resembled it. When this strange news spread through the neighbourhood many persons came to the house, and, after a thorough investigation lest there might be a trick in the matter, were obliged to acknowledge that there was some invisible agent at work. Mr. Robert Sinclair, the Presbyterian minister of the place, with John Man and Reynold Leaths, two of his Elders, stayed the whole of that day and the following night with the distressed family, spending much of the time in prayer. At night Mrs. Haltridge went to bed as usual in the haunted room, but got very little rest, and at about twelve o’clock she cried out suddenly as if in great pain. Upon Mr. Sinclair asking her what was the matter, she said she felt as if a knife had been stuck into her back. Next morning she quitted the haunted room and went to another; but the violent pain never left her back, and at the end of the week, on the 22nd of February, she died. During her illness the clothes were frequently taken off the bed which she occupied, and made up like a corpse, and even when a table and chairs were laid upon them to keep them on, they were mysteriously removed without any noise, and made up as before; but this never happened when anyone was in the room. The evening before she died they were taken off as usual; but this time, instead of being made up in the customary way, they were folded with great care, and laid in a chest upstairs, where they were only found after a great deal of searching.
We now reach the account of the witchcraft proper, and the consequent trial. In or about the 27th of February 1711, a girl about eighteen years of age, Miss Mary Dunbar, whom Dr. Tisdall describes as “having an open and innocent countenance, and being a very intelligent young person,” came to stay with Mrs. Haltridge, junior, to keep her company after her mother-in-law’s death. A rumour was afloat that the latter had been bewitched into her grave, and this could not fail to have its effect on Miss Dunbar. Accordingly on the night of her arrival her troubles began. When she retired to her bedroom, accompanied by another girl, they were surprised to find that a new mantle and some other wearing apparel had been taken out of a trunk and scattered through the house. Going to look for the missing articles, they found lying on the parlour floor an apron which two days before had been locked up in another apartment. This apron, when they found it, was rolled up tight, and tied fast with a string of its own material, which had upon it five strange knots (Tisdall says nine). These she proceeded to unloose, and having done so, she found a flannel cap, which had belonged to old Mrs. Haltridge, wrapped up in the middle of the apron. When she saw this she was frightened, and threw both cap and apron to young Mrs. Haltridge, who also was alarmed, thinking that the mysterious knots boded evil to some inmate of the house. That evening Miss Dunbar was seized with a most violent fit, and, recovering, cried out that a knife was run through her thigh, and that she was most grievously afflicted by three women, whom she described particularly, but did not then give any account of their names. About midnight she was seized with a second fit; when she saw in her vision seven or eight women who conversed together, and in their conversation called each other by their names. When she came out of her fit she gave their names as Janet Liston, Elizabeth Cellor, Kate M‘Calmont, Janet Carson, Janet Mean, Latimer, and one whom they termed Mrs. Ann. She gave so minute a description of them that several of them were guessed at, and sent from different parts of the district to the “Afflicted,” as Dr. Tisdall terms her, whom she distinguished from many other women that were brought with them. “She was constantly more afflicted as they approached the house; particularly there was one Latimer, who had been sent from Carrigfergus privately by Mr. Adair, the dissenting teacher; who, when she came to the house where the Afflicted was, viz. in Island Magee, none of them suspected her, but the Afflicted fell into a fit as she came near the house, and recovering when the woman was in the chamber the first words she said were, O Latimer, Latimer (which was her name), and her description agreed most exactly to the person. After this manner were all the rest discovered; and at one time she singled out one of her tormentors amongst thirty whom they brought in to see if they could deceive her either in the name or description of the accused person. All this was sworn to by persons that were present, as having heard it from the Afflicted as she recovered from her several fits.”
Between the 3rd and the 24th of March depositions relative to various aspects of the case were sworn to by several people, and the Mayor of Carrigfergus issued a warrant for the arrest of all suspected persons. Seven women were arrested; their names were:
Janet Mean, of Braid Island.
Jane Latimer, of Irish quarter, Carrigfergus.
Margaret Mitchell, of Kilroot.
Catherine M‘Calmont, of Island Magee.
Janet Liston, alias Sellar, of same.
Elizabeth Sellar, of same.
Janet Carson, of same.
Her worst tormentors seem to have been taken into custody at an early stage in the proceedings, for Miss Dunbar stated in her deposition, made on the 12th of March, that since their arrest she received no annoyance, except from “Mrs. Ann, and another woman blind of an eye, who told her when Mr. Robb, the curate, was going to pray with and for her, that she should be little the better for his prayers, for they would hinder her from hearing them, which they accordingly did.” In one of her attacks Miss Dunbar was informed by this “Mrs. Ann” that she should never be discovered by her name, as the rest had been, but she seems to have overlooked the fact that her victim was quite capable of giving an accurate description of her, which she accordingly did, and thus was the means of bringing about the apprehension of one Margaret Mitchell, upon which she became free from all annoyance, except that she felt something strange in her stomach which she would be glad to get rid of—and did, as we shall see presently.
With regard to the woman blind in one eye, we learn from another deponent that three women thus disfigured were brought to her, but she declared that they never troubled her. “One Jane Miller, of Carrigfergus, blind of an eye, being sent for, as soon as she drew near the house the said Mary, who did not know of her coming, became very much afraid, faintish, and sweat, and as soon as she came into the room the said Mary fell into such a violent fit of pains that three men were scarce able to hold her, and cryed out, ‘For Christ’s sake, take the Devil out of the room.’ And being asked, said the third woman, for she was the woman that did torment her.” Yet Jane Miller does not seem to have been arrested.
In one of the earliest of the depositions, that sworn by James Hill on the 5th of March, we find an extraordinary incident recorded, which seems to show that at least one of the accused was a victim of religious mania. He states that on the 1st of March, “he being in the house of William Sellar of Island Magee, one Mary Twmain (sic!) came to the said house and called out Janet Liston to speak to her, and that after the said Janet came in again she fell a-trembling, and told this Deponent that the said Mary had been desiring her to go to Mr. Haltridge’s to see Mary Dunbar, but she declared she would not go for all Island Magee, except Mr. Sinclair would come for her, and said: If the plague of God was on her (Mary Dunbar), the plague of God be on them altogether; the Devil be with them if he was among them. If God had taken her health from her, God give her health: if the Devil had taken it from her, the Devil give it her. And then added: O misbelieving ones, eating and drinking damnation to themselves, crucifying Christ afresh, and taking all out of the hands of the Devil!”
Finally the accused were brought up for trial at Carrigfergus before Judges Upton and Macartney on 31st March 1711. Amongst the witnesses examined were Mr. Skeffington, curate of Larne; Mr. Ogilvie, Presbyterian minister of Larne; Mr. Adair, Presbyterian minister of Carrigfergus; Mr. Cobham, Presbyterian minister of Broad Island; Mr. Edmonstone, of Red Hall, and others. The proceedings commenced at six o’clock in the morning, and lasted until two in the afternoon. An abstract of the evidence was made by Dr. Tisdall, who was present in Court during the trial, and from whose letter we extract the following passages—many of the foregoing facts(!) being also adduced.
“It was sworn to by most of the evidences that in some of her fits three strong men were scarce able to hold her down, that she would mutter to herself, and speak some words distinctly, and tell everything she had said in her conversation with the witches, and how she came to say such things, which she spoke when in her fits.”
“In her fits she often had her tongue thrust into her windpipe in such a manner that she was like to choak, and the root seemed pulled up into her mouth. Upon her recovery she complained extremely of one Mean, who had twisted her tongue; and told the Court that she had tore her throat, and tortured her violently by reason of her crooked fingers and swelled knuckles. The woman was called to the Bar upon this evidence, and ordered to show her hand; it was really amazing to see the exact agreement betwixt the description of the Afflicted and the hand of the supposed tormentor; all the joints were distorted and the tendons shrivelled up, as she had described.”
“One of the men who had held her in a fit swore she had nothing visible on her arms when he took hold of them, and that all in the room saw some worsted yarn tied round her wrist, which was put on invisibly; there were upon this string seven double knots and one single one. In another fit she cried out that she was grievously tormented with a pain about her knee; upon which the women in the room looked at her knee, and found a fillet tied fast about it; her mother swore to the fillet, that it was the same she had given her that morning, and had seen it about her head; this had also seven double knots and one single one.”
“Her mother was advised by a Roman Catholic priest to use a counter-charm, which was to write some words out of the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel in a paper, and to tie the paper with an incle three times round her neck, knotted each time. This charm the girl herself declined; but the mother, in one of the times of her being afflicted, used it. She was in a violent fit upon the bed held down by a man, and, recovering a little, complained grievously of a pain in her back and about her middle; immediately the company discovered the said incle tied round her middle with seven double knots and one single one: this was sworn to by several. The man who held the Afflicted was asked by the Judge if it were possible she could reach the incle about her neck while he held her; he said it was not, by the virtue of his oath, he having her hands fast down.”
“The Afflicted, during one of her fits, was observed by several persons to slide off the bed in an unaccountable manner, and to be laid gently on the ground as if supported and drawn invisibly. Upon her recovery she told them the several persons who had drawn her in that manner, with the intention, as they told her, of bearing her out of the window; but that she reflecting at that time, and calling upon God in her mind, they let her drop on the floor.”
“The Afflicted, recovering from a fit, told the persons present that her tormentors had declared that she should not have power to go over the threshold of the chamber-door; the evidence declared that they had several times attempted to lead her out of the door, and that she was as often thrown into fits as they had brought her to the said threshold; that to pursue the experiment further they had the said threshold taken up, upon which they were immediately struck with so strong a smell of brimstone that they were scarce able to bear it; that the stench spread through the whole house, and afflicted several to that degree that they fell sick in their stomachs, and were much disordered.” The above were the principal facts sworn to in the Court, to which most of the witnesses gave their joint testimony.
“There was a great quantity of things produced in Court, and sworn to be what she vomited out of her throat. I had them all in my hand, and found there was a great quantity of feathers, cotton, yarn, pins, and two large waistcoat buttons, at least as much as would fill my hand. They gave evidence to the Court they had seen those very things coming out of her mouth, and had received them into their hands as she threw them up.”
Her tormentors had told Miss Dunbar that she should have no power to give evidence against them in Court. “She was accordingly that day before the trial struck dumb, and so continued in Court during the whole trial, but had no violent fit. I saw her in Court cast her eyes about in a wild distracted manner, and it was then thought she was recovering from her fit [of dumbness], and it was hoped she would give her own evidence. I observed, as they were raising her up, she sank into the arms of a person who held her, closed her eyes, and seemed perfectly senseless and motionless. I went to see her after the trial; she told me she knew not where she was when in Court; that she had been afflicted all that time by three persons, of whom she gave a particular description both of their proportion, habits, hair, features, and complexion, and said she had never seen them till the day before the trial.”
The prisoners had no lawyer to defend them, while it is hardly necessary to say that no medical evidence as to the state of health of Miss Dunbar was heard. When the witnesses had been examined the accused were ordered to make their defence. They all positively denied the charge of witchcraft; one with the worst looks, who was therefore the greatest suspect, called God to witness that she was wronged. Their characters were inquired into, and some were reported unfavourably of, which seemed to be rather due to their ill appearance than to any facts proved against them. “It was made appear on oath that most of them had received the Communion, some of them very lately, that several of them had been laborious, industrious people, and had frequently been known to pray with their families, both publickly and privately; most of them could say the Lord’s Prayer, which it is generally said they learnt in prison, they being every one Presbyterians.”
“Judge Upton summed up the whole evidence with great exactness and perspicuity, notwithstanding the confused manner in which it was offered. He seemed entirely of opinion that the jury could not bring them in guilty upon the sole testimony of the afflicted person’s visionary images. He said he could not doubt but that the whole matter was preternatural and diabolical, but he conceived that, had the persons accused been really witches and in compact with the Devil, it could hardly be presumed that they should be such constant attenders upon Divine Service, both in public and private.”
Unfortunately his Brother on the Bench was not so open-minded. Judge Macartney, who is almost certainly the Counsel for the plaintiff in the Lostin case, differed altogether from him, and thought that the jury might well bring them in guilty. The twelve good men and true lost no time in doing so, and, in accordance with the Statute, the prisoners were sentenced to a year’s imprisonment, and to stand in the pillory four times during that period. It is said that when placed in this relic of barbarism the unfortunate wretches were pelted by the mob with eggs and cabbage-stalks to such an extent that one of them had an eye knocked out. And thus ended the last trial for witchcraft in Ireland.
It is significant that witch-trials stopped in all three countries within a decade of each other. The last condemnation in England occurred in 1712, when a woman in Hertfordshire, Jane Wenham, was found guilty by a jury, but was reprieved at the representation of the Judge; another trial occurred in 1717, but the accused were acquitted. In Scotland the Sheriff-depute of Sutherland passed sentence of death on a woman (though apparently illegally) in 1722, who was consequently strangled and burnt. Ashton indeed states (p. 192) that the last execution in Ireland occurred at Glarus, when a servant was burnt as a witch in 1786. This would be extremely interesting, were it not for the fact that it is utterly incorrect. It is clear from what J. Français says that this happened at Glaris in Switzerland, and was the last instance of judicial condemnation and execution in Europe. We have drawn attention to this lest it should mislead others, as it did us.
Before concluding this chapter it will not be out of place to mention the fact that one of the most strenuous writers against witchcraft subsequently ornamented the Irish Episcopal Bench. This was Dr. Francis Hutchinson, who wrote the “Historical Essay concerning Witchcraft” in the form of a dialogue between a clergyman (the author), a Scotch advocate, and an English juror. The first edition was published in 1718, and was followed by a second in 1720, in which year he was promoted to the See of Down and Connor. As to the value of his book, and the important position it occupied in the literary history of witchcraft in England, we cannot do better than quote Dr. Notestein’s laudatory criticism. He says: “Hutchinson’s book must rank with Reginald Scot’s Discoverie as one of the great classics of English witch-literature. So nearly was his point of view that of our own day that it would be idle to rehearse his arguments. A man with warm sympathies for the oppressed, he had been led probably by the case of Jane Wenham, with whom he had talked, to make a personal investigation of all cases that came at all within the ken of those living. Whoever shall write the final story of English witchcraft will find himself still dependent upon this eighteenth-century historian. His work was the last chapter in the witch controversy. There was nothing more to say.”