Murrell, James (1780–1860) One of England’s greatest CunnIng men, widely sought for his magical powers for healing, divining lost objects and the future, and casting spells and counter-spells. James Murrell, also known as Cunning Murrell, lived in the Rochford Hundred, an area of southeast Essex widely reputed to be “The Witch Country” because of its numerous and famous men and women witches.
Murrell was born in 1780 in Rochford. He was the seVenth son oF A seVenth son, marking him for a life of magical empowerment. Accordingly, he was the only child in the family to be given an education. Initially, he tried his hand as a surveyor’s apprentice and as a chemist’s stillman in London. Around 1812, he returned to the Rochford Hundred to settle in Hadleigh in a small cottage and work as a shoemaker. He eventually gave up that career in order to work full time as a cunning man. He married, and fathered 20 children. Not surprisingly, his wife died before he did.
As a cunning man, Murrell’s reputation was unsurpassed. Not only locals but wealthy and aristocratic clients sought him out. He possessed a tremendous knowledge of herbal remedies, medicine and astrology. He owned a library of magical tools, books and papers. Although these no longer survive, descriptions of them indicate that perhaps one of his volumes was a magical grImoIre or perhaps The Magus by Francis Barrett (1801), from which he learned how to use sigils, Talismans and Amulets, and how to invoke various angelic forces at the proper times.
Murrell charged fees for his services, usually a shilling or so, but as much as half a crown for services requiring the summoning of spirits. He would ask his clients if they required “high or low” help. High meant calling on the spirits, while low meant working in the material world. For “high” magic, Murrell would call upon the “good angels” to combat the evil ones.
For divination and to find lost property, Murrell scried in a magic mIrror that he claimed could see through walls (see sCryIng). He could accurately predict events years into the future. He had a copper talisman with which he determined if a person was honest or not.
He was renowned for his ability to cure sick animals, sometimes by laying on of the hands. He could exorcise Demons from people and places. He traveled only at night, sometimes going great distances, and always carried an umbrella as his trademark. He was especially famous for his wItCh bottle counter-spells.
Murrell was often called the “master of Witches” because it was believed that he could force any witch to do his bidding. One story goes that he confronted a black witch of Canewdon and commanded her to die. She fell dead immediately.
Lore around him built up over the years. He was said to fly at night on a hurdle and to teleport himself over great distances. He also was said to be a smuggler.
Murrell hoped that his powers would be transferred to his sole surviving son, Buck Murrell, according to tradition. Buck, however, was a dull fellow who could do little more than charm warts. Nonetheless, Murrell arranged for him to receive all of his magical objects upon his death.
Near the end of 1860, Murrell became ill and foresaw his own death on December 16. In his final hours, the village curate tried to minister to him, but was driven away by Murrell shouting, “I am the Devil’s master!” Upon his death, he was given a proper burial in the Hadleigh churchyard.
Murrell’s landlord buried his trunk full of magical books and objects. Son Buck dug it up. The contents survived until 1956, when, unfortunately, they were deemed “worthless” and were destroyed. One of Murrell’s most famous prophecies concerned the survival of witchcraft in Essex:
“There will be witches in Leigh for a hundred years, and three in Hadleigh, and nine in Canewdon for ever.”
- Canewdon Witches;
- Old George Pickingill.
- Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain. London: Reader’s Digest Assoc. Ltd., 1977.
- Maple, Eric. The Dark World of Witches. New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1962.
- Pennick, Nigel. Secrets of East Anglican Magic. London: Robert Hale, 1995.