In 1751, John Butterfield, publican of the Black Horse at Gubblecote, managed to rouse a mob against an old woman named Ruth Osborne, of Long Marston, and her husband, John. Butterfield claimed that, some years before, when he was a dairyman, he and his cattle had been bewitched by her. Despite the fact that the death penalty for witchcraft had been abolished in 1735, on 18 April the town crier of Hemel Hempstead, William Dell, announced in the marketplace: ‘This is to give notice, that on Monday next a man and woman are to be publicly ducked at Tring for their wicked crimes.’ The same information was ‘cried’ at Winslow and Leighton Buzzard.
Accounts of what happened next are conflicting, but from the deposition of John Osborne himself, the Coroner’s inquisition and the evidence of witnesses, we hear that the first he knew of it was when neighbours warned him that he and his wife were to be ducked. They were advised to leave their house, and took refuge in the Tring workhouse. On the Monday morning, as a precaution, they were locked in the church, but, in the interests of public safety, were given up when a mob attacked the workhouse.
The crowd bore the old couple off to Wilstone Green. According to the Gentleman’s Magazine, reporting the affair in April, May, and August of 1751:
The poor wretches were stript stark naked by the mob, their thumbs tied to their toes, then dragged two miles, and thrown into a muddy stream; after much ducking and ill usage, the old woman was thrown quite naked on the bank, almost choaked with mud, and expired in a few minutes, being kick’d and beat with sticks, even after she was dead; and the man lies dangerously ill of his bruises; to add to the barbarity, they put the dead witch (as they called her) in bed with her husband, and tied them together.
The pond they were ‘swum’ in for witchcraft was known as Wilstone ‘Were’ or ‘Wear’.
At the Coroner’s inquest, although thirty or so people were found guilty of murder, only one was hanged. This was Thomas Colley, a chimney-sweep. Ruth Osborne, who was over seventy, had survived most of her long ordeal, but Colley, when they dragged her across the pond for the last time, pushed her face down with his stick. The sheet she was wrapped in came untied, and she managed to get her head above water and grasp the stick, but he tore it out of her hand and again shoved her under. On being finally taken out of the water, she was dead. Cause of death was pronounced by the surgeon who examined her to be partly exposure, partly suffocation by mud and water. Her husband John died not long after.
When it came out that Colley had not been content with drowning the old woman but had gone round the bystanders collecting money by way of reward, he was sentenced at Hertford Assizes to be hanged and hung in chains at the scene of his crime. Some locals complained about the verdict, ‘grumbling and muttering that it was a hard case to hang a man for destroying an old wicked woman that had done so much mischief by her witchcraft’. Nevertheless, Colley was executed, not by Wilstone Were, because people living nearby protested, but at Gubblecote Cross, and his body hung from the gibbet in chains.
There it remained for years, doubtless fuelling local talk of a ghost. The Revd Frederick Lee, in More Glimpses of the World Unseen (1878), writes:
It is remarkable that the spot where this man was hung … is still reputed to be haunted. I recently learnt from John Reeves, parish clerk of Long Marston, that he and others, notably Edward Oakley and Mary Nunes of Gubblecote, have seen a spectral animal near a field called Gibraltar, and that the conviction of the reality of the apparition is firmly held by many.
Later sources specify that Colley’s ghost appeared as a great black dog. One who saw it was the village schoolmaster, whose account was printed in 1911:
I was returning home late at night in a gig with a person who was driving. When we came near the spot, where a portion of the gibbet had lately stood, he saw on the roadside bank a flame of fire as large as a man’s hat. ‘What’s that!’ I exclaimed. ‘Hush,’ said my companion, and suddenly … made a dead stop. I then saw an immense black dog just in front of our horse … He was as big as a Newfoundland, but very gaunt, shaggy, with long ears and tail, eyes like balls of fire, and large, long teeth, for he … seemed to grin at us. In a few minutes the dog disappeared, seeming to vanish … or to sink into the earth, and we drove over the spot where he had lain.
Bogey beasts elsewhere are sometimes likewise explained as ghosts (see also BRIGG, Lincolnshire).