Island Magee Witches The last witch trial to occur in Ireland took place in 1711 and involved the mysterious death of a widow, poltergeist activities and the bizarre possession of a serving girl. The accused witches were not executed but sentenced to a much milder punishment of imprisonment and public ridicule.
The incidents leading to the trial began in September 1710. Anne Hattridge (or Haltridge), widow of the Presbyterian minister at Island magee, visited the home of her son, James, and his wife. The widow was plagued every night by some unseen force which hurled stones and turf onto her bed (see Lithoboly), blew open the curtains, stripped off her nightclothes and snatched the pillows from under her head. Frightened, mrs. Hattridge finally moved to another room.
But the mysterious activities continued in other forms. On December 11, as mrs. Hattridge sat by the fire at about twilight, a strange little boy about 12 years old appeared suddenly and sat down beside her. She couldn’t see his face, because he kept it covered with a worn blanket, but she observed that he had short black hair and was dressed in dirty and torn clothing. He didn’t answer her questions as to who he was or where he’d come from but danced “very nimbly” around the kitchen and then ran out of the house and into the cow shed. The servants attempted to catch him, but the boy had vanished as suddenly as he had appeared.
The apparition did not manifest again until February 11, 1711, when it apparently took a book of sermons that mrs. Hattridge had been reading. The next day, the boy appeared outside the house, thrust his hand through a glass window and held out the book to one of the servants. He declared mrs. Hattridge would never get the book back and that the Devil had taught him how to read.
The servant, named Margaret Spear, exclaimed, “The Lord bless me from thee!” But the boy laughed and produced a sword, threatening to kill all the occupants of the house. They couldn’t prevent him from entering, he said, because the Devil could make him any size or creature he pleased (see metamorphosis). He threw a stone through the window. When the frightened girl next looked out, she saw the boy catching a turkey cock and making off with it into the woods. The bird managed to escape his grasp.
Then the girl saw the boy begin to dig in the ground with his sword. He announced that he was “making a grave for a corpse which will come out of this house very soon.” He flew off into the air (see Flying).
All was quiet in the Hattridge household until February 15, when mrs. Hattridge’s clothes were moved about her room and then were found laid out on the bed like a corpse. By this time, the news of the supernatural activities had spread throughout town, and numerous people, including the new Presbyterian minister, had come to the house to investigate. No one was able to help. One night, mrs. Hattridge awoke at midnight complaining of a great pain in her back, as though she’d been stabbed with a knife. The pain persisted and mrs. Hattridge’s condition began to deteriorate, until she died on February 22. During her last days, her clothing continued to be moved mysteriously about various rooms in the house. The townspeople gossiped that mrs. Hattridge had been bewitched to death.
On February 27 a servant girl named Mary Dunbar came to stay at the house to keep the younger mrs. Hattridge company. The night she arrived, Dunbar was plagued by supernatural trouble. She found her clothing scattered about and one of her aprons tied into five knots (see knots). She undid them and found a flannel cap that had belonged to the deceased mrs. Hattridge. On the following day she was suddenly seized with a violent pain in her thigh and suffered fits and ravings.
Dunbar exclaimed that several women were bewitching her; she described them during two fits and gave their names: Janet Liston, Elizabeth Seller, kate m’Calmond, Janet Carson, Janet mean, Janet Latimer and “mrs. Ann.” Accordingly, the suspects were arrested and brought to trial. Whenever one of them was brought near Dunbar (usually without Dunbar’s knowledge), the young girl fell into fits, hearing and seeing visions of her tormentors and vomiting up great quantities of feathers, cotton, yarn, pins and buttons (see AllotrIophAgy). She would repeat her conversations with the alleged witches and thrash about so violently that it took three strong men to hold her down. According to testimony by rev. Dr. Tisdall, vicar of Belfast:
In her fits she often had her tongue thrust into her windpipe in such a manner than she was like to choak, and the root seemed pulled up into her mouth.
Dunbar claimed her tormentors prohibited her from leaving her room. Whenever she attempted to do so for a while, she fell into fits. One witness claimed he saw a knotted bracelet of yarn appear mysteriously around her wrist. Dunbar also said her tormentors told her she would not be able to give evidence against them in court. During the entire trial, she was struck dumb and sat senseless as though in a trance. Later, Dunbar said she had been possessed by three of the accused witches throughout the proceedings.
According to an account of the trial in macSkimin’s History of Carrickfergus:
It was also deposed that strange noises, as of whistling, scratching, etc., were heard in the house, and that a sulphureous [sic] smell was observed in the rooms; that stones, turf, and the like were thrown about the house, and the coverlets, etc., frequently taken off the beds and made up in the shape of a corpse; and that a bolster [ghost] once walked out of a room into the kitchen with a nightgown about it!
The defendants, none of whom had a lawyer, all denied the charges of witchcraft, and the “one with the worst looks, and therefore the greatest suspect, called God to witness she was wronged.”
According to court records,
Their characters were inquired into, and some were reported unfavorably of, which seemed to be rather due to their ill appearance than to any facts provided against them. It was made to 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 . . . they being every one Presbyterians.
The trial was short, lasting from six o’clock in the morning until two in the afternoon. In Judge Upton’s opinion, there was insufficient evidence to convict the defendants. He had no doubt that Dunbar’s affliction was “preternatural and diabolical,” but if the defendants really were witches 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.” He instructed the jury that they could not reach a guilty verdict “upon the sole testimony of the afflicted person’s visionary images.”
The jury felt differently, however, and declared a guilty verdict for all defendants. They were sentenced to a year in jail and to stand in a pillory four times during their incarceration. While pilloried, the “unfortunate wretches” were pelted with eggs and cabbage stalks; one of them was blinded in one eye.
Further Reading :
- Seymour, St. John D. Irish Witchcraft and Demonology. Dublin: Hodges, Figgis & Co., 1913.