The witch of Wapping, Or An exact and perfect relation, of the life and devilish practises of Joan Peterson, that dwelt in Spruce Island, near Wapping; who was condemned for practising witch-craft, and sentenced to be hanged at Tyburn, on Munday the 11th. of April, 1652. Shewing, how she bewitch'd a child, and rock'd the cradle in the likenesse of a cat; how she frighted a baker; and how the devil often came to suck her, sometimes in the likeness of a dog, and other times like a squirrel.
A generic pamphlet, you would think from the title. Joan Peterson had clearly acquired some local reputation for her cures, and one of the works that discusses her trial and execution describes her as a practitioner of ‘Physick’. Even this ‘witch of Wapping’ pamphlet, written to blacken her name, concedes that she was both ‘Good Witch’ and ‘Bad’: “it was clearly proved, that she had done much mischief, so there were divers that came to witnesse that she had cured them of several diseases”. A long-term migraine sufferer is mentioned. But in this account of her actions, that is to say, of her ‘witchcraft’, she falls out with one of her patients who bilks her of payment, and in this report threatened him with the witch’s usual type of effectual curse: “you had been better you had given me my money for you shall be ten times worse then ever you were”. The pamphlet asserts that after this her former patient would ‘slabber out his tongue, and walk up and down like a meer changeling’, ‘and at this instant (if he be not dead) languisheth away, and rots as he lies’.
To substantiate her witchcraft, diabolic familiars had to be found, and so there’s a confused story about the apparition of a great black cat, tenuously connected to Peterson in a bit of street gossip, while a former maid-servant gave witness that one night when she was sharing a bed with her mistress, Peterson had spent then night in conversation with a squirrel, ‘but being demanded what they discoursed on, she replied, that she heard her conference very perfectly, but she was bewitched by it, that she could not remember one word.’
Peterson was a relatively young woman, who might have been pregnant at the time of her execution. Her son, aged 7 or 8, had not helped his mother by telling his schoolfriends that his mother did her cures by following the instructions given to her by the squirrel.
She was hanged at
A pamphlet published a few days before the Witch of Wapping, entitled The tryall and examination of Mrs. Joan Peterson, before the Honorable Bench, and the Sessions house in the Old-Bayley, yesterday; for her supposed witchcraft, and poysoning of the lady Powel at Chelsey: together with her confession at the bar is really about another case of a purported diabolical pact entirely, but the current case of Joan Peterson saw her take the chief billing on the title page. All this pamphlet contains is the information, given in a paragraph tacked on as a last page, that Peterson ‘a practitioner in Physick, but suspected to be a Witch’ was tried at the Old Bailey on the 7th April, charged with conspiracy with another gentlewoman to administer a potion, or posset, to the Lady Powel’. This author reports that many considered that the 80 year old Lady Powel (for so she is here described) died of natural causes, and that Peterson denied witchcraft, and denied administering anything to Lady Powel but ‘was was comfortable and nourishing’.
As this author promises, in the news pamphlet, The Faithful Scout, further details of the arraignment follow (issue for the week
‘These are hideous things, yet the Jury quitted her upon the L. Powels business; and she stands convicted only upon the latter’ comments the author of the news pamphlet, who gives no indication anywhere of how the incriminating words he reports were transmitted to him.
In the subsequent issue (9th-16th April), Joan’s execution is reported: ‘the woman was condemned for Witchcraft, and seemed to be very much dejected, having a melancholy aspect: she seemed to be not much above 40 years of age, and was not in the least outwardly deformed, as those kind of creatures usually are’. ‘Her end was as miserable, as her life abominable; when the Minister exhorted her to repentance, she cry’d out, Away with this babbling fellow. After she was executed, and cut down, divers resorted about her, to take a view of the Teat which the Devil suckt, which was just under the breast, about an inch long, but as black as ink’
And so we can come to the true story of the venal-minded conspiracy that doomed Joan Peterson. Lady Powell died in 1652 after a long illness. As people in her situation tend to do, in her will, she rewarded the relative who had cared for her, Mistress Anne Levingston, and left others disappointed. The retaliation they attempted is told in the indignant pamphlet A declaration in answer to several lying pamphlets concerning the witch of Wapping being a more perfect relation of the arraignment, condemnation, and suffering of Jone Peterson, who was put to death on Munday the 22 of April, 1652. Shewing the bloudy plot and wicked conspiracy of one Abraham Vandenbernde, Thomas Crompton, Thomas Collet, and others. (1652).
First of all they tried to bribe one Joan Simpson to accuse Mrs. Levingston of having used sorcery against Lady Powell. Joan Simpson, however, ‘discovered the Plot’, and the conspirators were bound over to good behaviour. But they, undeterred, tried to bribe Joan Peterson (with £100) to make the same type of allegations, in a watered-down form, against Mrs. Levingston: that she had sold ‘certain powders, and bags of seeds, to help her in her law suits, and to provoke unlawfull love’. From this they would have proceeded to further discoveries, of course.
But Peterson refused. Fearing now what she could now testify against them, the conspirators got a warrant from a very pliable JP, a Mr. Waterton, to search Peterson’s house for the ‘Images of Clay, Hair, & Nails’. Nothing was found, but they carried her before the JP, who somehow now examined her on oath on the charge of having used sorcery and witchcraft to take away Lady Powell’s life. Joan said that she has never heard of Lady Powell, but that she had been approached to lay false witness against Mistress Levingston.
The JP, however, has Joan searched for a witch’s teat: but nothing is found on her body. The confederates arrest her again, and let her know that she can confess safely, as they only aim to accuse Mrs. Levingston. Peterson again refuses to play their game. Her obduracy in being honest makes her dangerous to them, so they move against her ruthlessly: they have brought four women along with them, and these women are commissioned to search Peterson’s body, and ‘one of which women told the Justice that there was a Teat of flesh in her secret parts more than other women usually had’. The compliant Justice commits her to prison on this basis, our indignant pamphleteer adds in a marginal note that the day before her execution, this purported ‘witch’s teat’ on her labia was pronounced normal by physicians. Subsequently rumour placed the teat beneath one of her breasts, as we have seen.
Trial followed on April 6th: the pamphleteer indicates who was backing the conspiracy with considerable verve: Sir John Danvers, Mr Winstanley ‘and Mrs (sic) Waterton Justice’. The Jury itself is not packed: rather, the whole legal bench is, with Sir John Danvers attending court to make sure the outcome is what he expects. Various worthless testimonies against Peterson are heard, while she produces a statement from Lady Powell’s physicians about the natural causes of death revealed from examination and autopsy, a document reproduced in the pamphlet. The case for the murder of Lady Powell by sorcery falls apart. Incredibly, the secondary case of Mrs. Peterson’s disgruntled client (Christopher Wilson) is now heard, though the pamphleteer says
The JP Waterton has intimidated any witnesses for the defence with the word that he will send them to Newgate if they appear in court. Some do, but are jeered at from the bench by the notional officers of the court: ‘are you for a witch? And is that all you can say?’ while others are simply turned away. A passer-by comes in to tell the court that a servant to the conspirator Crompton is out in the yard offering money to anyone who will come in and bear false witness against the ‘witch’ under trial. But he absconds before he can be brought into court.
Astonishingly, despite all this, the Jury convict her of witchcraft against
On the gallows, the next day, they are still harassing her: the ‘Ordinary’, the officiating chaplain, urges her so often to confess that the very executioner tells him he ought to be ‘ashamed to trouble a dying woman so much’. He weakly responds that he was commanded to do what he was doing. Here are the circumstances behind the ‘babbling fellow’ tale.
This pamphlet describes Joan Peterson (who is dying rather than be made, under duress, to accuse an innocent woman) as having made her peace with God, listening attentively to the prayers, and herself singing the 25th Psalm ‘very Christianly and cheerfully, and so died’.
The Sir John Danvers who shows up so discreditably in this episode was the beautiful young man who had married Donne’s witty and elegant friend Magdalen Herbert, notoriously twice his age at their marriage. He would use his good looks to win the hand, and, no doubt, property of two more women. His taste was extravagant, running much to lavish gardening in the Italian manner and interior décor. Running out of money, he had successfully used his influence in Parliament to contest his brother’s will. Henry Danvers, a royalist, had left his estate to his sister; John managed to have his own son instated as heir. Politically ambiguous, he was despised by Clarendon: “Between being seduced and a seducer, he became so far involved in their [i.e. the parliamentarian] counsels that he suffered himself to be applied to their worst offices, taking it to be a high honour to sit upon the same bench with Cromwell, who employed and contemned him at once” – eventually he signed to the regicide.
The author of the ODNB entry on
The case is interesting mainly for the pamphlet written in the defence of Joan Peterson’s reputation, which brings to light all the circumstances surrounding her death. It shows an accusation of witchcraft being used against women, and, once more, the hazards run by ‘cunning women’. Joan’s practices were part herbalism, part ‘blessing witch’: in the case of an afflicted cow, Joan boiled the cow’s urine, and the face of the witch who has attacked the animal appears to the owner in one of the bubbles. The willingness to convict her demonstrated by a Jury who surely must have noted that the Court was completely biased might be taken to show some kind of disapproval of her professional cleverness.