October 11, 2021

When a society is transitioning from enchantment to disenchantment, when its population is paradoxically both godly and capitalist, it is not uncommon to hear accusations of witchcraft. In 1651, in Boston, Massachusetts, Hugh Parsons and his wife Mary were charged with making a covenant with the devil; 30 years later, in Bideford, Devon, Temperance Lloyd, Susanna Edwards, and Mary Trembles were similarly accused. Both cases are unusual: the Parsons case — in which a confessed witch accused her husband of the same crime — was one of the first witchcraft trials in New England; Lloyd, Edwards, and Trembles — the so-called “Bideford witches” — were the last witches to be executed in Old England.

Given that New England’s ideas about witches had been imported from the old country, the trials shared characteristics: illnesses that could not be explained, except by magic; familiars — demons in animal form — sucking on witches’ bodies; victims being tormented from afar, via apparitions or dreams (this “spectral evidence” would later dominate at the famous Salem witch trials). Both trials, too, have much to teach us about rationality and its limits, the power of collective opinion, and the psychology that leads people to identify others — and themselves — as evil.

The story of the Parsons is told in Malcolm Gaskill’s magnificent new book, The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World (out 4th November). Hugh and Mary were among the 25,000 Puritans who fled to New England in the seventeenth century to build a Promised Land. Both settled in Springfield, a town unusual in Massachusetts because it had at its heart not only a godly enterprise, but also a commercial one: its founder William Pynchon ran a trade in furs, buying them from the Native Americans they called Indians and sending them on to London.

Gaskill vividly evokes the reality of early colonial life, from the voyage in the crammed, low-ceilinged hold of a pitching ship — the reek of unwashed bodies, the snoring and bickering of other passengers — through to the sheer hard labour that made up their lives on land — the unremitting work of felling timber, breaking rocks, digging drains, mowing grass, tending cattle, chopping firewood, slaughtering pigs, clearing chimneys, sweeping floors, and on and on.

Their external struggle with nature was matched by internal wrestling: Puritan theology required its adherents to be gravely introspective. Gaskill describes it as a “strained, oppositional way of seeing oneself and the world, poised between flesh and spirit, self-loathing and elation.” As frontier neighbours, they were completely dependent on each other (and literally indentured to Pynchon), yet the contemplation of their own sins led quickly to the censure of others. And if the melancholy, constant toil and endless self-doubt were not enough, this was a society facing the constant, terrible death of beloved young children.

In this fraught environment, the accusations of 1651 settled on Parsons — an ambitious man whose eyes seemed full of sullen envy — and his wife — who talked too much of witches. The evidence of their witchcraft could be seen in many incidents — trivial in themselves but creating a cumulative, attritional effect: trowels and knives went missing and mysteriously reappeared; the making of a pudding repeatedly failed; people received night-time visitations from snakes or a small boy with a face as red as fire, while others suffered fits and convulsions; a two-year-old saw a spectral dog; and, above all, children were bewitched to death. All these incidents occurred after the victims had crossed the Parsons.

Gaskill’s finely tuned story unfolds less like your average history book and more like a Stephen King novel, building such a convincing sense of the mounting tension that it is possible to see why the inhabitants of Springfield came to believe that this must incontrovertibly be witchcraft — and yet also why their inferences were disbelieved by the court in Boston. The journey from enchantment to disenchantment was a mere 90 miles. What is collective and rational and what is unconvincing and marginal depends largely on where one is standing.

Perhaps it’s surprising to discover that scepticism was less in evidence 30 years later, where the accusations of Bideford carried undiminished to the court at Exeter. In The Last Witches of England: A Tragedy of Sorcery and Superstition (out last week), John Carrow meticulously explores the haunting tale of the Bideford witches: three women who were accused of witchcraft chiefly, he argues, because of “their poverty in the midst of plenty”. People don’t like to be reminded of their privilege. Temperance Lloyd was probably an abandoned wife, left without resources; the widowed Susanna Edwards, who had lost children, came from a family tarred by a history of unwed births; and Mary Trembles is seldom granted her own identity in the records Carrow has painstakingly trawled, suggesting her physical and mental dependency. All three were long-term recipients of the dole and begged for their living.

One thing that sets the Bideford witches’ case apart from the Parsons’ is that theirs was a story of emotional discrepancies between people of different economic status. Susanna Edwards’ visits to beg for food at the door of John Barnes’ house were seen by Barnes’ wife as “frivolous”; soon she was an alleged victim of Edwards’ witchcraft. Parsons, too, bothered people by turning up without obvious purpose — on “sleeveless errands” — but for New England the “most sensitive fault-lines,” Gaskill observes, “lay between near neighbours of similar status.” Yet even between the New Englanders, envy and perceived envy was at the root of accusations. Fear also, writes Gaskill, “incubated guilt, which was projected and returned as anger — much as colonists in New England imputed their own aggression to Indians, easing their own consciences and justifying drastic counter-measures”. In the New World, witches were not the only Other.

In 1680s England, the monarchy had recently been restored, bringing with it an Anglican regime. In Bideford, a substantial proportion of the population were nonconformist or Puritan, but now had to put up with an Anglican rector who drank, swore and extorted. Just when the witch trials hit, the Puritans had little in the way of responsible leadership, and that would turn out to matter.

The case against the three women started with an encounter in September 1681 between Lloyd and a sick woman called Grace Thomas. In attempting to appear kind and concerned, Lloyd instead seemed overfamiliar and intrusive. That evening, Thomas experienced “sticking, pricking pains”. These continued for months, and her memory of the conversation with Lloyd took on a sinister tone. A stray cat left a doll on her bed: the cat was deemed to be a witch’s familiar, the doll a poppet used to direct the stabbing pains to her body. A magpie that flew confusedly into Thomas’s sick chamber appeared as invasive as the beggar woman: it was thought to be another imp, acting on his mistress’s bidding. Both cat and bird, unwelcome visitors who scavenged for food and lived in the alleyways and fringes of the town, were reminiscent of the sinister figure of the beggar and, by equating them, Thomas was effectively dehumanising Lloyd.

She could because Lloyd already had a reputation as a witch and had even been tried — though acquitted. This past run-in with the law laid the groundwork for her later condemnation, for it meant that the respectable matrons of Bideford had once before searched her naked body for a “witch’s mark” or a teat on which a demon could suck. When they examined her again in 1682 — the violation far more genuinely invasive than the charges against her — they found what had not been there before: “two Teats hanging nigh together like a piece of flesh had suckt … in her Secret Parts … each … about an Inch in length.” What Carrow suggests might have been cervical polyps — not uncommon in menopausal women who have had children — was thought to be evidence that Lloyd had been feeding diabolic imps.

Lloyd herself quickly confessed to a devilish pact and to causing sickness with witchcraft. But she couldn’t get her story right: the familiars seemed to have control over her rather than the other way around; she had no grudge against her victim. The devil appeared not as a handsome man dressed in black, but as a creature (“about the length of her Arm”), with very big eyes, that capered, hopped, and leapt before her; he failed to entice her with promises of wealth and power.

What motivated Lloyd’s confession? She was highly suggestible, for one thing, and eager to please. But there was also potential satisfaction in appropriating one’s reputation as a witch (as many self-describing witches are finding today). Carrow suggests that Lloyd came to assume the identity that her neighbours had assigned to her because owning it gave power to a woman who had formerly been powerless. Thinking of herself as a witch made her feared and able to extract more charity. But the disguise came at a price: she came to believe it was real, and with that came guilt and shame, and an inability to defend herself convincingly. Mary Parsons, who claimed for some time that she was a witch, too, also experienced guilt, though Gaskill wonders if it slipped into the dangerous “thrill of notoriety”.

Mental ill-health was very obviously at play. Mary Parsons suffered from severe postnatal depression — possibly even postpartum psychosis. All three witches from Bideford were noted to be slipping into depression during their imprisonment — but it was only viewed as a further symptom of demonic suggestion. A later account by Roger North described them as “miserable old creatures that … were scarce alive; but were overwhelmed with melancholy, and waking dreams, and so stupid as no one could suppose they knew either the construction or consequence of what they said.” Another commentator said that they appeared “weary of their lives”.

In this age, on the cusp of the Enlightenment, much responsibility lay with authority figures who could validate or dismiss fears of witchcraft. In Bideford, every unexplained ailment that later became part of the evidence of witchcraft had first been suggested by a doctor or apothecary to be of unnatural origin. The town’s Anglican ministers, in an unusual annotation, wrote “bewitched” in the parish register when Lydia Burman died in 1672 — a clear sign that they believed in the reality of witches.

Much also came down to the application of the law, for witchcraft was a crime and had to be proved as such. And here the Justices of the Peace in Bideford abrogated their responsibilities, by allowing the gathering of all pre-trial evidence to be conducted by the alleged witches’ chief accusers. In gaol, Lloyd was questioned by Grace Thomas’s sister and brother-in-law without the supervision of authorities. It was to them that she confessed to having met the devil and having tried to destroy Thomas by witchcraft. We do not know, therefore, “how many of her recorded words were actually her own.” Edwards was questioned by a man called John Dunning, about whom we know little: he did not give sworn testimony, and his questioning was reported second-hand by one Joane Jones, whose husband claimed to experience spectral tormenting by Edwards. We don’t know what she made up.

But it is clear that the accused assented to much that was put to them, even when it did not make sense. There were so many slips in the chronology and inconsistencies in the substance of what the women confessed that had anyone cared to cross-examine, analyse and pick apart their testimonies — if anyone had cared, in short, if they were innocent — then the huge holes would quickly have been exposed. No one spoke in their defence while they “talked themselves”, said North, “to the gallows”. The alternative — recognising how melancholy, pain and madness shaped their testimonies — meant taking on the responsibility of their keeping. It is often easier to condemn the vulnerable than to care for them.

By contrast, in Springfield Pynchon did not interpose his own views as he gathered testimonies about the Parsons. Nor did he take sides. The court in Boston listened to the depositions of 30 witnesses, though only seven were present, which made a material difference: undistracted by passionate speeches, the bench could easily sift the stuff of evidentiary substance from the “hotchpotch of trivia”. Under Massachusetts law, a witch was one who had made a pact with the devil and, while there was much that was suspicious surrounding the Parsons, it was hard to discern proof of a diabolic covenant.

The trouble with witchcraft is that it was a “slippery crime, suspended between fantasy and reality, credulity and scepticism,” writes Gaskill. Now, some might think that believing in magic as absurd, but Carrow is at pains to stress its rationality in the seventeenth century. Gaskill similarly notes that we need to approach witchcraft as witchcraft and not as fraud, hysteria or delusion. Besides, belief and doubt are not quite as distinct as we might think. Even those who believed in witchcraft doubted, and those who doubted believed.

Giving testimony that would lead to one’s neighbour being hanged required the overcoming of one’s inherent doubt. This is why Gaskill concludes, citing Marina Warner, that “people believed what they heard, less in spite of its outlandishness than because of it”. What was being believed had to be sufficiently awful to contemplate, in turn, the awfulness of what might result from accusing someone. If you chant “witch!” loudly enough, you can drown out your misgivings. And you need to chant it with others for it to become true.

While both historians are keen to stress the non-hysterical nature of witchcraft charges, Carrow notes that the women of Bideford were questioned in “an atmosphere more akin to a bear-pit than a courtroom” and could not be acquitted for fear of mob reprisals. It is also evident that the weight of collective opinion can create guilt. Pynchon had prosecuted an earlier solo accusation of witchcraft as defamation, but when more than half the town had joined the chorus, reason dictated there must be something in it.

There is much of obvious parallel to today — the echo chambers of social media, the credibility of extreme fake news, the harshness of the judgements we make on the poor, on migrants, on our “Others.” But, quoting Peter Laslett, Gaskill reminds us that “only by taking the strange on its own terms can we understand ourselves in time”. It is that which contrasts with today that lends us understanding, not just that which is familiar; it is in deeply absorbing the realities of our predecessors’ lives — as witchcraft depositions, well handled, can help us to do — that we can perceive the otherness of the past and look more dispassionately on our own place in history.