* Glanville's Collection of Relations.
Such scenes happened frequently on the assizes while country gentlemen, like the excellent Sir Roger de Coverley, retained a private share in the terror with which their tenants, servants, and retainers regarded some old Moll White, who put the hounds at fault, and ravaged the fields with hail and hurricanes. Sir John Reresby, after an account of a poor woman tried for a witch at York, in 1686, and acquitted as he thought very properly, proceeds to tell us that, notwithstanding, the sentinel upon the jail where she was confined avowed that he saw a scroll of paper creep from under the prison-door, and then change itself first into a monkey and then into a turkey, which the under-keeper confirmed. " This," says Sir John, " I have heard from the mouth of both, and now leave it to be believed, or disbelieved, as the reader may be inclined."** We may see that Reresby, a statesman and a soldier, had not as yet " plucked the old woman out of his heart." Even Addison himself ventured no farther, in his incredulity respecting this crime, than to contend that, although witchcraft might and did exist, there was no such thing as a modern instance competently proved.
* Roger North's Life of Lord-Keeper Guilford, ** Memoirs of Sir John Reresby, p. 237.
As late as 1682, three unhappy women, named Susan Edwards, Mary Trembles, and Temperance Lloyd, were hanged at Exeter for witchcraft •, and, as usual, on their own confession. This is believed to be the last execution of the kind in England under form of judicial sentence. But the ancient superstition, so interesting to vulgar credulity, like sediment clearing itself from water, sunk down m a deeper shade upon the ignorant and lowest classes of society, in proportion as the higher regions were purified from its influence. The populace, including the ignorant of every class, were more enraged against witches, when their passions were once excited, in proportion to the lenity exercised towards the objects of their indignation by those who administered the laws. Several cases occurred in which the mob, impressed with a conviction of the guilt of some destitute old creatures, took the law into their own hands, and, proceeding upon such evidence as Hopkins would have had recourse to, at once, in their own apprehension, ascertained their criminality, and administered the deserved punishment.
The following instance of such illegal and inhuman proceedings occurred at Oakly, near Bedford, on 12 th July, 1707. There was one woman, upwards of 60 years of age, who, being under an imputation of witchcraft, was desirous to escape from so foul a suspicion, and to conciliate the good-will of her neighbours, by allowing them to duck her. The parish officers so far consented to their humane experiment as to promise the poor woman a guinea if she should clear herself by sinking. The unfortunate object was tied up in a wet sheet, her thumbs and great toes were bound together, her cap torn off, and all her apparel searched for pins; for there is an idea that a single pin spoils the operation of the charm. She was then dragged through the river Ouse by a rope tied round her middle. Unhappily for the poor woman, her body floated, though her head remained under water. The experiment was made three times with the same effect. The cry to hang or drown the witch then became general; and as she lay half dead on the bank, they loaded the wretch with reproaches, and hardly forbore blows. A single humane bystander took her part, and exposed himself to rough usage for doing so. Luckily one of the mob themselves at length suggested the additional experiment of weighing the witch against the Church Bible. The friend of humanity caught at this means of escape, supporting the proposal by the staggering argument that the Scripture, being the work of God himself, must outweigh necessarily all the operations or vassals of the devil. The reasoning was received as conclusive the more readily as it promised a new species of amusement. The woman was then weighed against a Church Bible of twelve pounds jockey weight, and, as she was considerably preponderant, was dismissed with honour. But many of the mob counted her acquittal irregular, and would have had the poor dame drowned or hanged on the result of her ducking, as the more authentic species of trial.
At length a similar piece of inhumanity, which had a very different conclusion, led to the final abolition of the Statute of James I., as affording countenance for such brutal proceedings. An aged pauper, named Osborne, and his wife, who resided near Tring, in Staffordshire, fell under the suspicion of the mob on account of supposed witchcraft. The overseers of the poor, understanding that the rabble entertained a purpose of swimming these infirm creatures, which indeed they had expressed in a sort of proclamation, endeavoured to oppose their purpose by securing the unhappy couple in the vestry-room, which they barricaded. They were unable, however, to protect them in the manner they intended. The mob forced the door, seized the accused, and, with ineffable brutality, continued dragging the wretches through a pool of water till the woman lost her life. A brute in human form, who had superintended the murder, went among the spectators, and requested money for the sport he had shown them ! The life of the other victim was with great difficulty saved. Three men were tried for their share in this inhuman action. Only one of them, named Colley, was condemned and hanged. When he came to execution, the rabble, instead of crowding round the gallows as usual, stood at a distance, and abused those who were putting to death, they said, an honest fellow, for ridding the parish of an accursed witch. This abominable murder was committed 30th July, 1751.
The repetition of such horrors, the proneness of the people to so cruel and heart-searing a superstition, was traced by the legislature to its source, namely, the yet unabolished statute of James I. Accordingly, by the 9th George II. cap. 5, that odious law, so long the object of horror to all ancient and poverty-stricken females in the kingdom, was abrogated, and all criminal procedure on the subject of sorcery or witchcraft discharged in future throughout Great Britain ; reserving for such as should pretend to the skill of fortune-tellers, discoverers of stolen goods, or the like, the punishment of the correction-house, as due to rogues and vagabonds. Since that period, witchcraft has been little heard of in England ; and although the belief in its existence has, in remote places, survived the law that recognised the evidence of the crime and assigned its punishment, yet such faith is gradually becoming forgotten since the rabble have been deprived of all pretext to awaken it by their own riotous proceedings. Some rare instances have occurred of attempts similar to that for which Colley suffered; and I observe one is preserved in that curious register of knowledge, Mr. Hone's Popular Amusements, from which it appears, that as late as the end of last century this brutality was practised, though happily without loss of life.