Sawyer, Elisabeth (?–1621) A poor Englishwoman framed and executed for witchcraft.
Elisabeth Sawyer, the “Witch of Edmonton,” was accused of bewitching her neighbors’ children and cattle because the neighbors refused to buy her brooms. She was also accused of bewitching to death a woman, Agnes Ratcliffe, who allegedly had struck one of Sawyer’s sows for eating some of her soap. The same evening, Ratcliffe became fatally ill; according to her husband, she was “extraordinarily vexed, and in a most strange manner in her sicknesse was tormented . . . she lay foaming at the mouth and was extraordinarily distempered.”
Sawyer was arrested and searched for a Witch's Mark. She denied the accusations and cursed her accusers. She was harassed by reverend Henry Goodcole, of Newgate Prison, into finally confessing that she had sold her soul to the Devil. The Devil appeared to her in the form of a Demon and a dog that was usually black but would be white if it appeared while she was praying. As a dog, he wagged his tail happily whenever Sawyer would scratch his back. Sawyer also confessed that she had prayed in Latin at the Devil’s request.
According to Goodcole, she told him that the dog “demanded of mee my soule and body; threatning then to teare me in pieces if I did not grant unto him my soule and my bodie when he asked of me . . . to seale this my promise I gave him leave to sucke of my blood, the which he asked of me.”
Apparently the dog deserted her once she was arrested, for Sawyer also told Goodcole that it had not visited her in jail.
At her trial, three women testified that they had examined her body, and had found “a private and strange marke,” which was said to be the teat by which the Demon dog suckled her blood. Other “evidence” against her was her crooked and deformed body, and her perpetual depression, all of which had made her an outcast in her own village. Goodcole maintained that she had turned to witchcraft out of “malice and envy” toward her neighbors.
Sawyer was hanged at Tyburn on April 19, 1621, two days after her confession. Her execution was one of only five during the last nine years of the reign of James I, an ardent witch-hunter. Her accusing neighbors, who were rumored to also be in league with the Devil, were not bothered by authorities.
The story, based on Goodcole’s account written just days after Sawyer’s execution, quickly became grist for a play by poets William Rowley, Thomas Dekker and John Ford. It is the first play to give a sympathetic portrayal of a witch. The plot revolves around illicit love and murder, with Sawyer as the bewitching agent who goads the protagonist into killing. Sawyer’s alleged Familiar, the black dog, is the play’s villain. A clownish character named Cuddy Banks befriends the dog, who has the power of speech, and is not affected by the dog’s evil. The play is moralistic, showing how the Devil attempts to seduce people into selling their souls, and how Sawyer foolishly fell victim to him.
- Harris, Anthony. Night’s Black Agents: Witchcraft and Magic in Seventeenth-Century English Drama. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1980.
- maple, Eric. The Dark World of Witches. New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1962.