By Helen Steadman, Jul 30 2017 11:38AM
On 21 July 2017, at Waterstones Aberdeen, I read from my novel, Widdershins, (Chapter 7, ‘The Hellish Circle’), and I gave a short talk about witchfinders.
I was pleased to meet some lovely local people, as well as support dog, Jasmine, and her trainee Loki.
For anyone who was unable to make it to Waterstones (or for anyone who wants further information), I’ve attached my notes below.
If anyone would like a copy of Widdershins, it’s available to order from Waterstones, Foyles and Blackwells. International readers can get a copy delivered free from Book Depository, and e-readers can get it from Amazon (Kindle), WH Smith (Kobo) and i-Tune store (Apple devices).
If you came to the talk, thank you for coming, it was lovely to meet you, and I hope you enjoyed it. If you didn’t make it, then I hope you enjoy the notes.
Best wishes, Helen
Notes from my talk
Good evening everyone and thank you for coming along tonight.
I’m from the north east of England, but for a short time, I’m an honorary citizen of the north east of Scotland while I work on my PhD at your beautiful university. Thank you all so much for coming here tonight to hear me read a little of Widdershins – a grand Scottish word I’ve pinched for my title!
As already mentioned, Widdershins is inspired by true events. In the middle of the 17th century, the people of Newcastle presented the common council with a petition demanding that something be done about the local infestation of witches.
It seems that the Witchfinder General (Matthew Hopkins) was either too busy fettling the witches in the south of England, or his fame hadn’t quite spread that far north. Either way, Newcastle was suffering something of a skills shortage, so it turned to its neighbour and sent two of its sergeants into Scotland to fetch back an expert witchfinder. And the witchfinder wouldn’t have needed too much tempting to cross the border. Newcastle Council paid him twenty shillings per witch, in what was perhaps the earliest example of local authority performance-related pay.
One of the most popular witch-testing techniques was witch pricking – and it seemed that this was the know-how that Newcastle wished to import from Scotland. Witch prickers would pierce a suspect’s skin with a variety of pricking devices ranging from pins and bodkins through to specially designed implements. Typically, an accused witch would be found to have a third nipple or teat about their person – not necessarily near to their chest. This teat, or even just a brown mark, would then be pierced with a needle. If no blood was let, or if no pain was felt, then the accused would be deemed guilty of witchcraft and put to death.
Just think about that for a second. Supernumerary nipples are relatively common in the population. I’m not going to ask if there are any members of the Triple Nipple Club here tonight. But I think it’s safe to say that there’s not a single person among us without a mole, beauty spot, birth mark or skin tag. Most adults have around a dozen of these hidden about our person. So you can see that even the most unskilled witchfinder would be hard-pressed to find a suspect without a mole.
The Scottish witchfinder wasted no time on arrival in Newcastle. He sent a bellman around the town – more or less inviting the locals to send out their witches, which they obligingly did. Thirty people were carted off to trial. Of these thirty, an astonishing twenty-seven were found guilty and set aside. Which tots up to a fairly handsome profit at twenty shillings per head. When you consider that an average working man would consider himself doing well to earn a shilling a day, this was not a bad afternoon’s work.
The witchfinder had something of an interesting technique. He would look for the devil’s mark. Then he would strip the women to the waist, bend them double and prick them in the top of the thigh. If they bled they were innocent, and if they did not, then they were deemed witches.
All was going swimmingly until a ‘personable and goodlike woman’ was tested. I think it’s safe to say that meant she wasn’t child-scaringly ugly… Her thigh was pricked and she was declared to be a child of the devil. At this point, a local naval doctor, one Lieutenant Colonel Hobson, intervened and insisted there was some form of trickery afoot. He demanded that the woman be stood upright (although, interestingly the record does not show that he insisted that the personable woman have her clothing restored). Once her blood had returned to the right parts of her body, he demanded that she be pricked again. This time, she bled. And the witchpricker declared that she was not a child of the devil, and she was set free.
Tragically, and puzzlingly, fifteen women and one man were still hanged on Newcastle’s Town Moor for witchcraft – making it possibly the single largest execution for witchcraft on one day in England.
The witchfinder was allowed to go on his way; he is said to have made his way to Northumberland where he was alleged to be charging three pounds per witch – which is pretty impressive inflation by anyone’s standards. At this point, an outraged former MP, Henry Ogle became suspicious and the witchfinder fled back to Scotland. It is said that he was arrested there and shortly before being executed, confessed to being responsible for the deaths of 220 women… So that’s a sort of happy ending.
Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to confirm the identity of the Scottish witchfinder, so John Sharpe in Widdershins is my own creation. However, in the course of creating him, I carried out a lot of research into witchfinders.
In particular, I looked at John Kincaid from Tranent, who was my chief suspect. He was certainly operational in the borders, and was famous for being able to find the devil’s mark on witches.
There exists a deposition from him in June 1649 (14 months before the Newcastle trials) at Dirleton Castle, near North Berwick, in which he boasts that he has ‘some skill and dexterity in finding the divillis mark’. The deposition describes his testing of a man and his spouse. He found a devil’s mark on each of them and claimed these marks ‘were not sensible’, indicating that they had no feeling. Insensate flesh was also said to be a sign of being a witch. Upon pricking these insensate marks, they gave forth no blood, which was a sure sign of being a witch. Curiously, the couple in question had volunteered to be tested after the man watched his wife copulating with the devil…
John Kincaid was still at large in 1661 in Dalkeith where he tested a woman who had two devil’s marks about her. He was reported as pricking her with pins of about three inches. So insensate was this woman’s flesh that she could not even tell which part of her body had been pricked… Kincaid administered this test under oath and it was witnessed by seven people, including the local minister.
Most likely, he was using a retractable pricking device – anyone who was a child in the seventies may have had one of those joke plastic daggers with a retractable blade that you could stick in your thigh to terrify your granny.
Perhaps one of Scotland’s most unusual witch prickers was John Dickson (can anyone hazard a guess why I called my witchfinder John?). John Dickson seemed to appear from nowhere and was given a highly lucrative contract in Moray to clear the place of its witches. As well as a daily subsistence rate of six shillings, Dickson was charging an eye-watering six pounds per witch – a sum that makes Newcastle’s twenty shillings per witch look positively frugal.
But John Dickson picked on the wrong person once too often. First, a man called John Hay, who had friends in high places and more than a smattering of the law behind him. Gradually, reports began to be made against this particular witchfinder who was thrown in prison. It was only at this point that an interesting discovery was made. John Dickson turned out to be a woman – Christian Caddell. However, despite sending as many as ten innocent people to the gallows, she was not executed, but instead transported to Barbados.
Finally, no discussion of witchfinders would be complete without a mention of the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, and his sidekick John Stearne who were operational in the south of England. The Witchfinder General came from a small town called Manningtree in Essex, which has one other famous resident: Margaret Thatcher. I’ll leave you to make of that what you will…
It seems that Matthew Hopkins was also something of a dab hand at PR – long before PR was invented. To expel any doubts that might have existed in the minds of the good people of Essex, he and John Stearne each published a book setting out their techniques and reasoning behind witchfinding.
These diaries are filled with fascinating (if troubling) insights into what might go through the mind of a man determining whether someone should live or die. In his short book, Hopkins sets out fourteen questions and replies to them. These questions range from whether he is a witch himself, through to whether witchfinders are simply fleecing people. In fairness to Hopkins, he appears to be rather cheaper than the Newcastle witchfinder. Hopkins states he charged only twenty shillings per town. This appears to be excellent value compared with the Newcastle witchfinder’s fee of twenty shillings per witch. However, it’s worth taking Hopkins’ word with a pinch of salt, bearing in mind that one of the town councils in the area spent one-seventh of its annual budget on witchfinding and had to raise taxes as a result…
Some of Hopkins’ justifications for finding people guilty of witchcraft are a little on the thin side. One of his favoured ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ was a form of sleep deprivation known as ‘waking’, which meant the suspects were kept awake for several nights until they confessed. By way of example, he reports one accused witch, who on her fourth night of being kept awake, confessed to having several familiars and imps. Hopkins lists the imps’ names given by the woman as ‘Elemanzer, Pyewacket, Peckin the Crown, Grizzel, Greedigut &c. which no mortall could invent…’ So, this woman’s fate has been sealed by her having a vivid imagination and a knack for making up names, which is bad news for any writers in the room…
While Hopkins’ book is short, to the point and easy to read, Stearne’s book overflows with so many biblical quotations, it is quite hard to get to the point of his defence. Despite using a range of terrible torture techniques to send dozens of (mainly) women to untimely and dreadful deaths, Stearne uses the bible as his defence and ends his book by reminding readers that he was doing God’s work. So, I’ll leave you to ponder on his words: ‘And so I leave myself to the censure of the world, yet desire it might be left to the Almighty, who knoweth the secrets of all hearts: For, blessed are they that do his commandments, Revel. 22.14.’
Sources for further information
Arnot, H. (1881) ‘Criminal Trials’, appendix, in J. Sands Sketches of Tranent in the Olden Time, ch. 3 ‘Witchcraft, 1591’.
Gardiner, R. (1849 ) England’s Grievance Discovered in Relation to the Coal Trade. North Shields: Philipson and Hare, ch. 53.
Gaule, J.  Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and Witchcrafts. London: Richard Clutterbuck.
Hopkins, H. (2010)  The Discovery of Witches in Answer to Severall Queries, Lately: Delivered to the Judges of Assize for the County of Norfolk and Now Published by Matthew Hopkins, Witch-finder, for the Benefit of the Whole Kingdome. Qontro Classics
Newes from Scotland (1591) ‘Declaring the damnable life of Doctor Fian a notable sorcerer, who was burned at Edenbrough in Ianuarie last.’ London: William Wright (in Special Collection Ferguson Al-a.36 at Glasgow University).
Notestein, W. (2010)  A History of Witchcraft in England from 1558 to 1718. New Haven, CT: Yale University.
Sands, J. (1881) Sketches of Tranent in the Olden Time, Pitcairns’ Justiciary Records, vol 111., p. 602 in Chapter 3 ‘Witchcraft, 1591’.
Steadman, H. (2016) https://helensteadman.com/writers-log/
Steadman, H. (2017) Widdershins, Impress Books, Exeter.
Stearne, J. (1973)  A Confirmation and Discovery of Witch Craft. The Rota.
Tyne & Wear Archives (2011)  Newcastle Chamberlain’s Accounts. Available from: http://blog.twmuseums.org.uk/question-how-much-does-it-cost-to-burn-a-witch-answer-15-19s-2d/.
Webster, D. (1820) Collection of Rare and Curious Tracts on Witchcraft and the Second Sight; with an Original Essay on Witchcraft, Edinburgh: Thomas Webster.