ISLANDMAGEE WITCHES, 1711

From Irish Witchcraft and Demonology, by St. John D. Seymour, [1913]

 

CHAPTER VIII

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A.D. 1689-1720

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

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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 say's 9). 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,

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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

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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.

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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

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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 bold 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 came to the said house and called out Janet Liston to speak to

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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

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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 choke, and the root seemed pulled up into her mouth. Upon

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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

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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,

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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

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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

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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,

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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.

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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.

 

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