This blog entry I am writing for students on my ‘Witchcraft and Drama’ course, but also as part of my long term project to make some comment on each 17th century witchcraft pamphlet. Sterne was Matthew Hopkins’ fellow witch-finder, and has much to say about witches’ marks, and their familiar spirits.
The first thing you notice about John Sterne’s A confirmation and discovery of witchcraft …with the confessions of many of those executed since May 1645 (1648) is that, relative to the dozens of analogous texts ‘discovering’ witchcraft, this is a well produced book. The printer, William Wilson also did elite culture poetry, gardening books, royal epistles and books of divinity. His press produced Sterne’s work in an even roman type, with beautifully justified text - strictly in the typographical sense of the word.
Sterne’s document itself is a lot less sophisticated: we have that familiar tone of witchcraft texts, in which the convinced writer seems embattled by doubters, despite evidence which is to him overwhelming and unanswerable. It is clear that the author had not taken notes during his various interrogations, and he will say when he can’t quite remember if an incriminating detail came up precisely in the case he’s currently recapitulating. Everything has to come from his memory, and there were so many witches… But, to his bemusement, he finds that he has to say something to justify the actions he participated in: “what hath beene done, hath beene for the good of the common wealth, and we free from those aspersions cast upon us, and that I never favored any, or unjustly prosecuted others.”
Sterne does not write as a theorist of sorcery. After being involved in the hanging of ‘about two hundred’, he has finally “as my leasure hath permitted me … given my selfe to the reading of some approved relations touching the arraignement and condemnation of Witches” - hardly presenting himself, then, as a conscientious ideologist: do the executions first, read up on the demonology afterwards. Contemptuously characterizing Satan’s victims as “silly ignorant persons many of them”, he scarcely opens up much intellectual distance from them. Rather, he presents himself as having been a straightforward man involved in a partial local cleansing of a gigantic national stain. For Sterne, doubting or debating the very existence of witches is in the face of all the evidence. First, there’s all the witchcraft references he recollects from the Bible. Then, in his own immediate experience, the counties where he operated with Hopkins were simply seething with witches. The guilt of those witches was manifest by signs which he finds unambiguous – the ‘marks’ of the witches, and the spirit familiars which sucked at them. These reasons for confidence meant that he could go on with the methods necessary to produce the all-justifying confessions.
By his own account, Sterne has seen scores of witches’ marks, with multiple examples on most individuals accused. He confidently describes the typical witches’ mark in detail, and refutes other explanations of such pathologies that he has heard given: “some will say, These are Emrod-marks, and piles.” This is what he has to say about witches’ marks: “They are to be known by these tokens, as by the insensiblenesse of them, sometimes like a little teat or big, that is when it remains as the Imp or Familiar sucks thereof: if outward, then nothing to be discerned but as a little bit of skin, which may be extended and drawn out, and wrung, much like the finger of a glove, and is very limber, and hath no substance in it, except it be when their Imps have newly sucked them, and then it may be there may be a little watrish blood perceived, but may be known from natural marks several ways; for it hath no scar, but at the very top a little hole, where the blood cometh out.”
Sterne’s brutal forensic confidence about witches’ marks is bad enough. But inevitably the supernumerary teats could not be discovered on everybody brought before the two witch-finders. Sterne demonstrates the strategy evolved for coping with any failure in the accused person’s body to provide the sign that he and Hopkins sought: he tells his reader that, given a chance, witches will remove them. They will slip into their houses, protesting they must change before being searched for a third or fourth time, and put on some kind of magically concealing shift. They will hear that the Hopkins-Sterne team of ‘searchers’ is coming to town, and cut them off. Or they will pull them off with their finger nails: “Sometimes the flesh is sunk in a hollow, that is, when they pull them off, and pull them out with their nails, or otherwise cause them to be pulled off; as one of Over in Cambridgeshire confessed, it being so found and laid to her charge, that she heard of our coming to town, and plucked her marks off the night before.” “One Clarke of Keyston in Huntington-shire, a young man, who was so found, and set at liberty, expecting to have been searched another time, when he should not know of it; but he soon after confessed he had cut off his marks, saying they were fools that were found with the marks.”
It is the same story with the familiars, which Sterne classifies into the visible and the invisible. Experience and intuition helps him to know when a witch, even when under surveillance, is even then feeding an invisible familiar. Witches will also have the devil stand in as their body double, while they exit from a room, through holes however small, to feed their spirits (these people have kept it up for ten, fifteen, twenty years; in the related pamphlet A true relation of the araignment of eighteene vvitches. that were tried, convicted, and condemned, at a sessions holden at St. Edmunds-bury in Suffolk, the anonymous author (Sterne again?) has the witches “mightily perplexed and much tortured for want of his, her, or their sucking Impes”). When the familiars are reported in the confessions to have manifested as such a weird variety of lower animals (“One like a Dow, called Tib; One like a Miller called Tom; One like a Spider, or a Spinner called Ioane; and the other like a Waspe called Nann”), any living creature that’s seen in proximity to the witch is claimed to be the familiar in its visible form – a fly circling in the room becomes an object of horror and awe.
To get the initial confessions, Hopkins and Sterne used sleep deprivation (the suspect placed on a high stool at the centre of a room, sitting with her feet unable to reach the ground, and further kept awake by periodic ‘walking’. People even then objected, and Sterne has to justify the processes he had used (I break up a long paragraph):
“I desire to Answer one objection before I proceed further (that is) some say, and many will and doe say; But you watched them, and kept them from meat, drinke, or rest, and so made them say what you would. A very unnaturall part so to use Christians.
I answer so it were. But I never knew any deprived of meat, drinke or rest, but had what was fitting till they were carried before some Justice of Peace to be examined, and had provision to rest upon, as bolsters, pillowes, or Cushions, and such like, if they were kept where no beds were; yet I doe not deny but at first, some were kept two, three, or foure dayes, perchance somewhat baser, but then it hath been, either when no Justice of Peace was neere, or when the witnesses against them could not goe sooner, but then they have had beds.”
Here, he seems to allege that, after a confession induced by deliberately exhausting the accused, a softer regime was used. He goes on with an even more implausible assertion:
“and for other provision, I never knew any kept, of what ranke or quality soever, but that they had better provision, either meate or drinke, then at their own houses.”
After this incredible assertion, his main point: “For the watching, it is not to use violence, or extremity to force them to confesse, but onely the keeping is, first, to see whether any of their spirits, or familiars come to or neere them; for I have found, that if the time be come, the spirit or Impe so called should come, it will be either visible or invisible, if visible, then it may bee discerned by those in the Roome, if invisible, then by the party.”
Hopkins and Sterne were a peripatetic insanity vortex, strengthened by publicity, and by the customary sermons in these Puritan counties, dwelling always on the power of the devil. To them were drawn the crazed, the suicidal, and the formerly religious who had fallen into despair. In return for assent to their leading questions, lonely widows told the story of the devils that had come to their bed after the death of their husbands (able to have sex, but not to produce ‘nature’ – semen, these women tend to confirm to their interrogators). Those who had despaired of escaping the fires of hell so often drummed into them by their church sprang their pathetic (and fatal) counter-theologies of the devils who came and offered them, if not escape from hell itself, at least a remittance from hell fire and pains, in return for their souls.
I will conclude with Sterne’s account of Elizabeth Clarke of Manningtree, one of his most remarkable suspects. She was, for instance, virtually alone in being able to show Sterne and Hopkins ‘perfect money’ which she had been given by the devil (Sterne notes that in general these witches never acquired any wealth in return for their souls). After three days and nights of enforced wakefulness Bess Clarke was suddenly willing to display her ‘imps’ (I have modernized the spelling here):
“ ‘if you will stay, I will show you my Imps, for they bee ready to come’. Then said Mr. Hopkins ‘Besse, will they doe us no harm?’ ‘no’ said she, ‘what? did you think I am afraid of my children? you shall sit down’, so wee did, where she appointed us … and so presently fell a smacking with her lips and called ‘Lought’ two or three times, which presently appeared to us eight (For there were six which were appointed to bee with her that night before we went) in the likeness of a Cat, as she had formerly told us; for she told us before what shapes they should come in, and so that presently vanished; then she called again as before, ‘Jermarah’, then appeared another, like a red or sandy spotted dog, with legs not so long as a finger (to our perceivance) but his back as broad as two dogs, or broader, of that bigness, and vanished, and so after that called more, as before, by their several names, which came in several shapes, One like a Greyhound, with legs as long as a Stag; Another like a Ferret; And one like a Rabbit, and so in several shapes they appeared to us, till there were some seven or eight seen; Some by some of us, and others by other some of us; then I asked her if they were not all come, for there were more come then she spoke of, she answered that they came double in several shapes, but said, one was still to come, which was to tear me in pieces, then I asked her why, she said, because I would have swum her, and told me that now she would bee even with me, and so told in what manner it should come, black, and like a Toad, and so afterward did come, as the rest averred that saw it”