The first well-known case of possessed young people and the successful destruction of witches based on the evidence of minors. The story of the five Throckmorton (also Throgmorton) girls in Warboys, Essex, England, foreshadowed by a century the witchcraft hysteria that unfolded in Salem, Massachusetts.
The sole account of the Possessions of the girls and trials and executions of the accused witches was published in 1593 in London in a book entitled The Most Strange and Admirable Discoverie of the Three Witches of Warboys, arraigned, convicted, and executed at the last Assizes at Huntington, for the bewitching of the five daughters of Robert Throckmorton, Esquire, and divers other persons, with sundrie Divillish and grievous torments: And also for the bewitching to death of the Lady Crumwell, the like hath not been heard of in this age. The book may have been written in part by the girls’ uncle, Gilbert Pickering.
Squire Robert Throckmorton of Warboys, his wife, and his five daughters—Joan, Elizabeth, Mary, Grace, and Jane—enjoyed a genteel life and were known for their generosity. As a wealthy landowner, Throckmorton supported many of his poorer neighbors, among them the Samuels. Alice Samuel and her daughter, Agnes, frequently visited the Throckmorton household and were well known to the girls.
In 1589, the youngest, Jane, began having sneezing fits and convulsions and fell into a trance. Her frightened parents consulted a Cambridge physician, Dr. Barrow, and a Dr. Butler. Looking only at Jane’s urine, both doctors diagnosed bewitchment. When the 76-year-old Alice Samuel visited to offer her sympathies, Jane cried out against her, accusing the old woman of Witchcraft, saying, “Did you ever see one more like a witch than she is? Take off her black thrumb’d cap for I cannot abide to look at her.” Within two months, all the other sisters were suffering violent, hysterical fits several times a day. They claimed to have no memory of the fits, but they all were certain that Mother Samuel was the cause.
The eldest daughter, Joan, predicted that there would eventually be 12 Demoniacs in the house. Soon thereafter, seven maidservants fell victim to the spells. If they were sent away, they recovered. If any left Squire Throckmorton’s employ, her successor also became possessed. All pointed to Mother Samuel as the source of their torments. The hysterical behavior of the daughters and the maids continued for more than three years.
As with other Demoniacs, the girls shrieked and contorted if the parson attempted prayer or read from the Bible, especially the beginning of the Gospel of John, known to be particularly offensive to the Devil. Such actions are generally accepted as the signs of true possession but may also have been a convenient way for the girls to avoid pious exercises. Elizabeth would throw fits to avoid religious lessons, only ending a tantrum if someone played cards with her. She clenched her teeth unless she ate outdoors at a particularly pretty pond, so the family had picnics every day.
Squire and Mrs. Throckmorton doubted the girls’ possession, since they had only lived in the area a short time and no one had any motive for bewitching the family. They ignored the girls’ accusations and tauntings of Mother Samuel, but the hysterics did not subside. Even as late as autumn 1592, Mrs. Throckmorton thought the “devils” might be lying.
In September 1590, the Throckmortons were visited by Lady Cromwell and her daughter-in-law. Lady Cromwell was the wife of Sir Henry Cromwell (grandfather of Sir Oliver Cromwell), the richest commoner in England. When she saw Mother Samuel, one of the Cromwells’ tenants, she angrily ripped the old woman’s bonnet from her head, denounced her as a witch, and ordered her hair burned. Horrified, Mother Samuel beseeched Lady Cromwell, “Madame, why do you use me thus? I never did you any harm, as yet.”
Back home, Lady Cromwell experienced a terrible nightmare, in which she dreamed that Mother Samuel had sent her cat Familiar to rip the flesh from Lady Cromwell’s body. Lady Cromwell never fully recovered; her health gradually declined, and she died a lingering death 15 months later, in July 1592. Mother Samuel was not immediately seen as the cause of her death. By this time, the girls showed signs of relief only when they were taken to the Samuel house or she went to theirs, and Alice was forced to live with the Throckmortons for several weeks. Alice; her daughter, Agnes; and another suspected witch were also scratched repeatedly by the girls, a custom similar to pricking that was intended to reveal true witches. If the skin was insensitive, it indicated a witch. The girls constantly exhorted Alice to confess her dealings with the Devil and repent and delivered pious speeches that moved onlookers to tears. Giving in to the constant pressure, Alice confessed just before Christmas 1592. Not long after Christmas, however, Alice’s husband, John, and daughter, Agnes, convinced Alice to recant, and she again claimed her innocence, only to confess again before the bishop of Lincoln and a justice of the peace in Huntington on December 29. All three Samuels were jailed, although Agnes was released on bail to allow the girls to extract incriminating evidence from her through more scratchings. The Demons identified were minor ones, with the silly names of Pluck, Catch, and White and the three cousins, all named Smackes. The Demons often appeared as chickens.
The Throckmorton children now accused Alice Samuel of bewitching Lady Cromwell to death, a serious accusation that placed Alice in jeopardy of capital punishment as a murderer under the Witchcraft Act of 1563. The Samuels were tried on April 5, 1593, on charges of murdering Lady Cromwell by witchcraft. The court, under the impressionable Judge Edward Fenner, accepted the testimony of the Throckmorton girls, as well as several other persons who claimed that the Samuels family had bewitched their livestock to death over the years. The jury took only five hours to convict all three. Alice, Agnes, and John were hanged, and afterward the Throckmorton girls returned to perfect health. Since Lady Cromwell had allegedly died through the black offices of Alice Samuel, her husband, Sir Henry Cromwell, received all the Samuels’ forfeited property and goods. He used the money to establish an annual sermon at Queens’ College, Cambridge, to “preache and invaye against the detestable practice, synne, and offence of witchcraft, inchantment, charm, and sorcereye.” The sermons lasted until 1812.
The Throckmorton case had a significant impact on public belief in witchcraft and the Evil Eye. The case was widely known through the publication of the account. It also had an impact on the governing class. The Cromwells served in the Parliament of James I, who gained the throne in 1603. In response to public pressure for more stringent actions against witches, Parliament passed a new Witchcraft Act in 1604, which stiffened punishment.
– Coverntry, William W. Demonic Possession on Trial: Case Studies in Early Modern England and Colonial America, 1593–1692. New York: AuthorHouse, 2003.
– Walker, D. P. Unclean Spirits: Possession and Exorcism in France and England in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.
The Encyclopedia of Demons and Demonology – Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – Copyright © 2009 by Visionary Living, Inc.