Monday, February 11, 2013

“The Devil came to me once, I think, like a Lyon”: the Bideford witches of 1680-2

Sources under discussion

I return to an old project for this blog: to write something about as many witchcraft-related pamphlets as possible. In this post I will look at three pamphlets on the Bideford witches of 1682. The Bideford case is fairly well known, as it was almost certainly the last group hanging of convicted witches in England. There are various sites on the internet about the events, many of them perfunctory. This is an attempt to make sense of the main printed materials:

 1. A True and impartial relation of the informations against three witches, viz., Temperance Lloyd, Mary Trembles, and Susanna Edwards, who were indicted, arraigned and convicted at the assizes holden for the county of Devon, at the castle of Exon, Aug. 14, 1682 with their several confessions, taken before Thomas Gist, Mayor, and John Davie, alderman, of Biddiford, in the said county, where they were inhabitants : as also, their speeches, confessions and behaviour at the time and place of execution on the twenty fifth of the said month (the account runs to forty pages, 1682)

2. The tryal, condemnation, and execution of three witches viz. Temperace [sic] Floyd, Mary Floyd, and Susanna Edwards. Who were arraigned at Exeter on the 18th. of August, 1682. And being prov'd guilty of witch-craft, were condemn'd to be hang'd, which was accordingly executed in the view of many spectators, whose strange and much to be lamented impudence, is never to be forgotten. Also, how they confessed what mischiefs they had done, by the assistance of the devil, who lay with the above-named Temperence Floyd nine nights together. Also, how they squeezed one Hannah Thomas to death in their arms; how they also caused several ships to be cast away, causing a boy to fall from the top of a main-mast into the sea. With many wonderful things, worth your reading (six pages, 1682)

3. The life and conversation of Temperance Floyd, Mary Lloyd; and Susanna Edwards three eminent witches (eight pages, 1687)

There is also a street ballad which has survived, though its straightforward moralising about the case adds no new insight or information. This had the heading Witchcraft discovered and punished. Or, The tryals and condemnation of three notorious witches, who were tryed [at] the last assizes, holden at the castle of Exeter, in the county of Devon: where they received sentance for death, for bewitching several persons, destroying ships at sea, and cattel by land, &c. To the tune of, Doctor Faustus: or, Fortune my foe.

The chief source is the longest pamphlet. The second 1682 pamphlet, which doesn’t even get the names right, might be taken to be freely invented by someone who had read the first and longer account, but it still has some convincing additional information. Five years later the subject was returned to – again, the anonymous author supplies convincing details, either from his own invention, or from some informant, about the demeanour of the convicted women at their execution.

Intellectual context

Witchcraft cases simmered on in the last two decades of the 17th century. The author recommends his pamphlet as remarkable “in regard we have had no Conviction or Execution of any Witches for many years past”. That Joseph Glanvill was keeping the issue alive isn’t impossible: Saducismus triumphatus, or, Full and plain evidence concerning witches and apparitions in two parts was going through multiple editions in the 1680’s. Reports of Swedish witch Sabbaths at ‘Blockula’ kept it all going, and Scotland contributed its share. Then, of course in the early 1690’s, a blast of anxiety reached England from New England thanks to Cotton Mather’s hyperventilating tales of Salem.

Glanvill’s book, though it is described as “Dr. More’s learned Discourse” (Henry More had contributed material to the book about the recent Swedish panic) gets mentioned at the start of the largest pamphlet, which has the usual gambit of saying, in effect, ‘if you doubt the existence of witchcraft, the proof of its reality is to be found in these authorities’. Inevitably, first comes the bland and grand directive, “Study the sacred writ”, then the reader is invited to consider that there’s a parliamentary statute against witchcraft, and then to consult a brief bibliography: King James, Matthew Hales the judge, and Saducismus Triumphatus.

On the scaffold

The author warns his reader that if “any other” accounts do “creep abroad”, they will be “lame and imperfect”, whilst his is the “onely True, Authentick, and Exact Account”. Even so, the account is pitchforked together without any reflection: brusque summaries of the evidence given by the various accusers and their supportive witnesses against the three women in turn, and then “The Substance of the Last words and Confessions of Susanna Edwards, Temperance Lloyd, and Mary Trembles, at the time and place of their Execution; as fully as could be taken in a Case liable to so much noise and confusion, as is usual on such Occasions”. The interlocutors of the three women on the gallows amid the bedlam ‘usual on such occasions’ were the town clerk, John Hill, and the Sheriff.

Beneath the nooses prepared for them, the three women are faced by all the charges that have been made against them, and for which they have been found guilty: having carnal relations with the devil, suckling their familiar spirits, and a wide range of murderous malefice. All these charges, which they have had found against them, they deny flatly. Yet somehow they also give a muddled assent to their guilt: Mary Trembles half concedes “The Devil came to me once, I think, like a Lyon”. Temperance Lloyd, under the intense pressure of hoping at least to find mercy for her soul, tries to express her sense of what her conscience tells her to confess to: the devil, she explains, coerced her into some kind of malign action: “I did hurt a Woman sore against my Conscience: he carried me up to her door, which was open: The Woman’s name was Mrs. Grace Thomas.”

Up on the scaffold, amid the baying hubbub, the town clerk Mr Hill persists with the usual asinities of the demonologists: “Temperance, How did you come in to hurt Mrs. Grace Thomas? did you pass through the Key-hole of the Door, or was the Door open?” The door was simply open, Temperance affirms, either patiently or with some truculence. How the women got through doors seems to have been important to the case and perhaps to the guilty verdict.

Susanna Edwards came to these piteous extremes through poverty, but her final request was poignantly apt, and seems to show that she had been a pious women: those round the gallows “sung part of the 40 Psalm, at the desire of Susanna Edwards”. This psalm would have been asked for by her because of these verses:
11 Withhold not thou thy tender mercies from me, O Lord: let thy lovingkindness and thy truth continually preserve me. 12 For innumerable evils have compassed me about: mine iniquities have taken hold upon me, so that I am not able to look up; they are more than the hairs of mine head: therefore my heart faileth me. 13 Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me: O Lord, make haste to help me. 14 Let them be ashamed and confounded together that seek after my soul to destroy it; let them be driven backward and put to shame that wish me evil. 15 Let them be desolate for a reward of their shame that say unto me, Aha, aha. 16 Let all those that seek thee rejoice and be glad in thee: let such as love thy salvation say continually, The Lord be magnified. 17 But I am poor and needy; yet the Lord thinketh upon me: thou art my help and my deliverer; make no tarrying, O my God.
It may be right to assume that the congregational singing stopped short of these fine biblical reproaches to those saying “Aha!” around the gallows.

The Usual Suspects

The Bideford case developed as English witchcraft tended to, fitting very well to the ‘charity refused’ model. The three women were old (Temperance Lloyd being the oldest) and very poor. Susanna and Temperance are widows, Mary a ‘Single woman’. Their small importunities were continuous. They keep turning up at the door (“the said Susanna would oftentimes repair unto this Informants Husband’s house upon frivolous or no occasions at all”), or you ran into them in the street. Susanna confesses in the end that she first met the devil when out (like Elizabeth Sawyer in Edmonton) gathering sticks. A gentleman approaches, and she gathers herself to ask him for a ‘piece of money’, dropping her usual curtsy. But he is the devil, who asks her if she is poor, and this she absolutely confirms.

Through the whole account, one keeps meeting the word ‘door’: it gives a sense of doors being shut in faces, puzzlement in official questions about how such people ever got into the houses of shopkeepers to torment family members, an idea of respectable households under siege by the devil in the shape of a ‘Braget’ (does this mean ‘honey-coloured’?) cat or a magpie, the devil’s human accomplices either passing through keyholes, or entering invisibly, or themselves in feline form. In the 1687 pamphlet there may be a hint that it was remembered that whether a door (to the house of Thomas Eastchurch) was open or shut had been significant in the trial. A witness seems to have asserted that one of the accused had got through a locked door, and this proved that she had diabolical powers. One accused woman cried out “that is false, for the door was open, which tacitly implied that she was then an Actor” (p.7). A denial of having passed through a locked door rebounded as an admission that she had gone into the house to do something nefarious.
Exactly as the historians have the general picture of accusations, Temperance Lloyd had been suspected of witchcraft before, and had been put on trial once, twelve years before, and at that time acquitted, and then strongly suspected once more in 1679, even to the extent of being searched for supernumerary teats, though the case against her was not pursued.

With these unfortunate women obtruding themselves on people’s notice, and regular refusal to them of charity, a trigger like this was always going to happen:
“She (Mary Trembles) this Examinant did go about the Town of Biddiford to beg some Bread, and in her walk she did meet with the said Susanna Edwards, who asked of this Examinant where she had been. Unto whom this Examinant answered, That she had been about the Town, and had begged some Meat, but could get none. Whereupon this Examinant, together with the said Susanna Edwards, did go to the said John Barnes’s house, in hope that there they should have some Meat. But the said John Barnes not being within his house, they could get no Meat or Bread, being denied by the said Grace Barnes and her Servant, who would not give them any Meat.”

The request for a small gift is repeated, and gets the same refusal – it is then reported that a curse was uttered:
“And afterwards on the same day the said Susanna Edwards did bid this Examinant to go to the said John Barnes his house again for a Farthings worth of Tobacco. Whereupon this said Examinant did go, but could not have any; whereof this Examinant did acquaint the said Susanna Edwards, who then said that it should be better for her the said Grace if that she had let this said Examinant to have had some Tobacco.”

A doctor speaks

Meanwhile, it seems as though the uselessness of 17th century medical practices contributed to the problem. The local doctor, Doctor Beare “did repair unto this Informant. And upon view of her Body he did say, that it was past his skill to ease her of her said Pains; for he told her that she was Bewitch’d.”

This type of diagnosis gives you authority to find the person who is sending such preternatural torments, and as you have refused charity to the local poor women, they easily become the witches who are tormenting you. On the scaffold, as Temperance Lloyd tries to get across that the devil coerced her into harming Grace Thomas against her own conscience, the town clerk persists in trying to get her to confess to every premature, accidental, or suspicious death in the last few years. Those children died of small pox, she says, and no, she “never hurt any Ship, Bark, or Boat in my life”.

A visit to the Indignitas clinic?
But there is another side to all this fitting up of the most resented people in the parish as chief suspects. The women apparently had, prior to their last limited confessions on the scaffold, confessed to a whole range of diabolic activities. Temperance Lloyd in particular seems to have been suicidal, and if the author of the 1687 pamphlet has the Judge at the trial recognize as much of all three:
“At the Assizes being brought upon their Tryal, they all three pleaded guilty: Thereupon the Judge ordered the Gaoler to Secure the Prisoners, but in his charge to the Jury, “gave his Opinion that these three poor Women (as he supposed) were weary of their Lives, and that he thought it proper for them to be carried to the parish from whence they came, and that the parish should be charged with their maintenance; for that he thought oppressing Poverty had constrained them to wish for Death. Whereupon several neighbours, who had been great Sufferers by their diabolical practices, moved that if these Witches went home in peace, none of them could promise themselves a minute’s security, either of their Persons or Estates.”

That’s quite a moment. The Judge speaks up for Christian charity to the old, the parish rallies to see them hanged. Those who fancied themselves harmed by the three women lead the community, and backing them up are their corroborative witnesses, whose testimonies had been collected in pre-trial examinations. These people testified to various informal but demonologically florid confessions by the condemned. It’s a nightmare: every other person seems to be a reader of Sprenger and Kramer.

Popular demonological knowledge

“(Grace Thomas) upon the first day of this instant July, as soon as the aforesaid Temperance Lloyd was apprehended and put in the Prison of Biddiford, she this Informant immediately felt her pricking and sticking pains to cease and abate.”

Dorcas Coleman, given over as incurable by the facile Dr Beare, can see the spectral presence of Susanna Edwards around the bedroom where she lies suffering: “she this Informant would point with her Finger at what place in the Chamber the said Susanna Edwards would stand, and where she would go.” Elizabeth Eastchurch sees marks of pricking in one of the knees of her afflicted sister, Grace Thomas: “Whereupon this Informant afterwards, upon the same 2d day of July, did demand of the said Temperance Lloyd whether she had any Wax or Clay in the form of a Picture whereby she had pricked and tormented the said Grace Thomas?” Anne Wakely, tending on the preternaturally afflicted Grace Thomas, saw “something in the shape of a Magpie to come at the Chamber-window where the said Grace Thomas did lodge. Upon which this Informant did demand of the said Temperance Lloyd whether she did know of any Bird to come and flutter at the said Window.”

The good people of Bideford are determined to have proof that image magic has been practiced in their community against them. The day after their testimonies have been officially gathered, they return to the matter, “because we were dissatisfied in some particulars concerning a piece of Leather which the said Temperance had confessed of unto the said Elizabeth Eastchurch, in such manner as is mentioned in the said Elizabeth Eastchurch’s Examination, and we conceiving that there might be some inchantment used in or about the said Leather.” With the agreement of the Lord Mayor, they haul Temperance Lloyd off to the parish church for interrogation by the rector, Michael Ogilby. It’s the usual type of thing, featuring questions that are based on an assumption of guilt: “where the said Temperance was demanded by the said Mr. Ogilby how long since the Devil did tempt her to do evil.”

As would be the case at Salem, the legal proceedings are led astray by obvious impostures by accusers who have a firm notion of what they might do to secure conviction. Anthony Jones drew attention to Susanna Edwards’ involuntary bodily movements: “observing her the said Susanna to gripe and twinkle her Hands upon her own Body, said unto her, Thou Devil, thou art now tormenting some person or other. Whereupon the said Susanna was displeased with him, and said, Well enough, I will fit thee”. I think the words attributed to Susanna can be taken to be made up to fit the story. Jones has planted an idea, and later he will act out its proof:  “she the said Susanna turned about and looked upon this Informant, and forthwith with this Informant was taken in a very said condition as he was coming up the Stairs of the said Town-hall before the Mayor and Justices; insomuch that he cried out, Wife, I am now bewitched by this Devil Susanna Edwards.”

In response to all this, the women seem to have been acquiescent, almost ideal witnesses against themselves, readily responding to suggestions put to them with a willing compliance. It’s hard to see what is going on. Were the women just too old and confused to cope? (Temperance, the oldest, is said to be seventy in the 1687 pamphlet, the broadsheet ballad inflates this to eighty.) Was a long-harboured desire to strike back at their uncharitable neighbours gratified by a discovery that somehow, by some means mysterious to them, they had achieved exactly that? Were they indeed ‘weary of their lives’, and acquiescent because an end to their miserable existences was in sight?

The accused women have a general idea of what they should say. Once Temperance is being questioned, and confessing, the son of her victim from twelve years previously cannot understand her ready confession now, against her strong and then credited denials. Temperance knows that she is supposed to be party to a time-limited pact: “This Informant demanded of her the said Temperance, why she had not confessed so much when she was in Prison last time? She answered, that her time was not expired; For the Devil had given her greater power, and a longer time.”

Acquiescence and denial

Of course, there are moments when there is a mismatch between what the accusers want the women to say, and the stories they deliver. It is most obvious when it comes to their relations with Satan. They denied on the gallows things they had reportedly confessed to before, either before witnesses, or in their pre-trial examinations:
H. Had he any of thy bloud?
Mary. No.
H. Did he come to make use of thy Body in a carnal manner?
Mary. Never in my life.
H. Temperance Lloyd, Have you made any Contract with the Devil?
Temp. No.
H. Had he ever any carnal knowledge of thee?
Temp. No, never.
These denials can be compared to earlier examinations. (Mary Trembles): “after that she had made this Bargain with the said Susanna Edwards, that the Devil in the shape of a Lyon (as she conceived) did come to this Examinant, and lay with her, and had carnal knowledge of her Body. And that after the Devil had had knowledge of her Body, that he did suck her in her Secret parts, and that his sucking was so hard, which caused her to cry out for the pain thereof”.
“She (Joan Jones) did hear the said Susanna Edwards to confess, that she was suckt in her Breast several times by the Devil in the shape of a Boy lying by her in her Bed; and that it was very cold unto her. And further saith, that after she was suckt by him, the said Boy or Devil had the carnal knowledge of her Body Four several times.”

One has to wonder if Susanna wasn’t trying to make a confession that sounded impossible, putting out an invitation for someone to say, ‘this is absurd: a devil in the form of a boy, but still capable of having carnal knowledge of her?’ She repeated her de-sexualising formula at her pre-trial examination: “there was something in the shape of a little Boy, which she thinks to be the Devil, came into her house and did lie with her, and that he did suck her at her breast” – her demon-lover as baby. In a dim way, she is trying to forestall the salacity of the 1682 pamphlet:She confessed also that the Devil lay Carnally with her for Nine Nights together, and that she had Paps about her an Inch long, which the Devil us’d to suck to Provoke her to Letchery”. This is alleged about Temperance Lloyd, but illustrates the tendency to impute demoniality.

An interesting moment is captured, where we see Temperance Lloyd starting to do her best with confessional material which is being suggested to her. She is bodily searched by Anne Wakely, who discovers “in her Secret Parts two Teats hanging nigh together like unto a piece of Flesh that a Child had suckt. And that each of the said Teats was about an Inch in length. Upon which this Informant did demand of her the said Temperance whether she had been suckt at that place by the black Man? (meaning the Devil).”
What Anne Wakely meant as an alias for the devil, Temperance obediently makes literal. She takes the prompt  - though even as she does so, she is perhaps trying to forestall the next imputation, for she miniaturizes the black man: “Being demanded of what stature the said black Man was, saith, that he was about the length of her Arm: And that his Eyes were very big; and that he hopt or leapt in the way before her, and afterwards did suck her again as she was lying down; and that his sucking was with a great pain unto her, and afterwards vanish’d clear away out of her sight.”
~ their bodily relationship she specifies as painful. It also took place out in the street, the very place where she had first met this devil. It is as if Temperance Lloyd was trying to make impossible and unthinkable the grotesque idea she is simultaneously acceding to:
“she also confessed, that about twelve of the clock of that same night the black Man did suck her in the Street in her Secret parts, she kneeling down to him. That he had blackish Clothes, and was about the length of her Arm. That he had broad Eyes, and a Mouth like a Toad, and afterwards vanisht clear away out of her sight.”

Very late in the pamphlet what Temperance Lloyd actually met in the street in Bideford becomes more clear: it was a black bullock. But as all living things can be the presence of the devil, a bullock was enough. The devil will appear as ‘braget cat’, or a magpie, anything can be made suspicious.

Temperance Lloyd made one final gesture that was remembered. It seems to be hinted at in the title of the 1682 short pamphlet: being prov’d guilty of witch-craft, were condemn'd to be hang’d, which was accordingly executed in the view of many spectators, whose strange and much to be lamented impudence, is never to be forgotten. 

This unspecified ‘impudence’ (one might relish the ambiguous syntax, but it was the impudence of the convicted women) is explained in the 1687 version: “As to the manner of their Deportment going to the place of Execution. It is certainly affirmed the Old Witch Temperance Floyd, went all the way Eating, and was seemingly unconcerned; but Mary Floyd was very obstinate, and would not go, but lay down, insomuch that they forc’d to tye her upon a Horse-back, for she was very loath to receive her deserved Doom.”

There were two types of ‘impudence’ here: Mary Trembles making a scene, Temperance Lloyd being impudently phlegmatic. It was quite usual for the condemned to halt outside a tavern, and be given ale (a good tongue-loosener for the last confession). But to be so unconcerned as to be able to eat, not to be dry-mouthed with horror! That was not acceptable. Seen as “the woman that has debaucht the other two”, Temperance was last to be hanged. She was, perhaps, ready to go, and appeared too composed, too willing to die. Did the witnesses sense that they were the abettors of her judicial suicide? There may also be in this general ‘impudence’ a memory that the choice of Psalm 40 by Susanna Edwards was just too apt, a hit at them.

I find, then, plausible some of the description of the demeanour of the women at their execution in the two short pamphlets. It is the kind of thing that might be remembered and reported. But most of what they allege looks like free invention. The short 1682 pamphlet garbles the names, and seems to invent and edifying tale of “Mr. Hann a Minister in those parts … these Hellish Agents intended mischief and misery to the person of Mr. Hann: but the Over-ruling Power prevented them”.

Both this short pamphlet and the 1687 one come up with the same final ‘proof’ of guilt: “being asked at their Tryal to say the Lords Prayer, they answered, that they could not, except it were backward” (1682 short pamphlet), “and [the minister] desired them to say the Lords prayer, of which the last could not repeat one word, but Temperance Floyd said all, with these alterations; when she should have said Lead us not into Temptation, she said Lead us into Temptation, and instead of Deliver us from evil, said deliver us to evil; and protested that she could say no otherwise” (1687).

Belatedness and mutual disdain

The Bideford case, in conclusion, has about it an air of belatedness. The townspeople are just too knowing, working for and getting the outcome they want, while the accused women accept the role that's imposed upon them, for their own private reasons. If this is the last English group hanging - some claim Temperance Lloyd was the last English victim of all, the fatal phase of the English witchcraft scare ended at that Exeter gallows with contempt on both sides: a community killing impoverished elderly women who had made nuisances of themselves, and the victims projecting a disdain that made its mark