How a ‘personable and good-like’ woman escaped the hangman’s noose in the Newcastle witch trials

While carrying out research for my novel, Widdershins, I became intrigued why one woman was first found guilty of witchcraft at the 17th century Newcastle witch trials, but after the witch-finder was revealed as a fraud she was then set free. The woman was not named, but she was described by John Wheeler as a ‘personable and good-like’ woman, from which we might infer that her good looks saved her.

In his deposition, John Wheeler states that thirty women were brought into the town- hall. The witch-finder stripped them and then thrust pins into their bodies. Using this technique, he found twenty-seven of the thirty guilty.

In discussion with Lt. Col. Hobson, who was present, the witch-finder claimed that he knew whether women were witches or not based purely on their looks. When he began testing the aforementioned ‘personable and good-like woman’, Lt. Col. Hobson intervened and said ‘surely this woman is none, and need not be tryed’. However, the Scottish witch-finder said she was a witch because the town had said she was a witch and that she must be tried.

According to Wheeler, the witch-finder then, ‘in sight of all the people, laid her body naked to the waste, with her cloaths over her head’. He then drove a pin into her thigh, but she did not bleed. According to Wheeler, fright and shame had caused all her blood to contract into one part of her body. Of course, bending double would make the blood rush to her head. The woman was declared to be guilty and a child of the devil.

Wheeler says that Lt. Col. Hobson had ‘perceived the alteration of the foresaid woman, by her blood settling in her right parts’ and he insisted that the woman be tested again. This time, her clothes were pulled up to her thigh, and he required that the witch-finder push the needle into the same place. This time, under the close supervision of Lt. Col. Hobson, ‘it gushed out of blood’ and the witch-finder cleared her and said she was not a child of the devil.

Shockingly, despite the fact that the Scottish witch-finder was clearly a fraud, and one prepared to send innocent women to a terrible death, he was still allowed to collect his wages and move on to further, even more lucrative work in Northumberland. Even more shocking, fifteen(or sixteen) of the people he’d found guilty were still executed for witchcraft.

Source

John Wheeler’s deposition in Ralph Gardiner (1849 [1655]) England’s Grievance Discovered in Relation to the Coal Trade. North Shields: Philipson and Hare. Ch. 53.

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