Wytte, Joan

Wytte, Joan (1–113) Cornish woman known as “The Fighting Fairy Woman of Bodmin,” renowned as a witch. Joan Wytte was born in 1775 in Bodmin to a family of weavers and tawners (makers of white leather). Small in stature, she reputedly could communicate with Fairies and spirits. Wytte was clairvoyant, and people sought her services as a seer, diviner and healer. She was known to visit a local holy well called Scarlett’s, where she did scrying and tied clouties on the branches of the trees. (A cloutie, pronounced kloo-tee, is a type of Charm that is a strip of cloth taken from the clothing of a sick person. As it decays on the tree limb, the limbs of the sick person heal in a form of sympathetic magic. Clouties, consisting of strips of cloth and ribbons, are still tied to the trees at holy wells in modern times.) Sometime in her twenties, Wytte developed a serious tooth decay that eventually caused a painful abscess, for which there were few dental remedies at the time. The pain of this condition changed her behavior, and she became more ill-tempered. She shouted at people and picked fights, and turned to drinking. She suffered bouts of delirium and muttered in her sleep, causing others to think that she was possessed by the Devil. One day Wytte became involved in a fight with several people and Demonstrated almost supernatural strength by picking them up and hurling them around and beating upon them so seriously that they were injured. She was arrested and taken to Bodmin jail.

Wytte languished in jail for years, suffering the fate of other prisoners who had no wealth by which to procure their release. Eventually, the bad diet, damp and dreadful conditions—especially working the treadmill, the fate of all prisoners—caused her to become ill with pneumonia, and she died. Her body was dissected by the jail’s surgeon, and the skeleton was placed in a prison storeroom. A new prison governor arrived, William Hicks, who decided to use Wytte’s skeleton for amusement in a Séance for friends. The skeleton was placed in a coffin and a bone put in it for her spirit to use in answering questions. Two persons were given bones, which would be rapped. One was for receiving yes answers and one was for receiving no answers. Offstage Hicks secreted a person who also had a bone, and would play the part of Wytte. According to lore, the Séance took an unexpected turn of events. The coffin lid allegedly flew open, and, with a great whooshing sound, the bones were yanked from all three people and sent flying about the Séance room, beating upon the heads and shoulders of those present. The violence then stopped as abruptly as it had started.

Wytte’s bones remained in the jail storeroom. In 1927, after the jail was closed, her skeleton was acquired by a doctor in north Cornwall. It eventually passed into the hands of an antique dealer, and was acquired by Cecil Williamson, founder of the museum oF Witchcraft. Williamson put the bones on display in a coffin in the museum. When the museum, in Boscastle, Cornwall, was sold in 1996, the new owners, Graham King and Liz Crow, experienced poltergeist phenomena associated with the skeleton. They consulted a witch from St. Buryan, Cassandra Latham, who told them the spirit of Wytte did not want to be on public view and would not rest until she had been given a proper burial. The bones were removed for that purpose. The empty coffin remained on display, along with an account of the tragic story of Wytte.

Further Reading:

  • Jones, Kelvin I. Seven Cornish Witches. Penzance: Oakmagic Publications, 1998.


The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca – written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – Copyright © 1989, 1999, 2008 by Visionary Living, Inc.

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