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Chapter 8

Scratching was another popular, yet illegal, test to reveal a supernatural sign of witchcraft. The belief was that by scratching the suspect with the nails and drawing her blood, the bewitched victim could enjoy temporary relief of symptoms.1 Therefore, the victim’s relief after scratching a suspect confirmed the suspect’s guilt. Scratching was a practice of early origin that persisted in England from the thirteenth until the nineteenth century, but was rare on the Continent.2 Some supernatural ways of proof, scratching included, acted in the double capacity of both discovering the witch and of curing or countering bewitchment. These techniques, of course, involved the presence or participation of the suspected witch.

The rationale for this supernatural counter-magic practice was not articulated, and no one seems to know exactly how it worked. Rosen speculated that the rationale might have been to make the suspect’s body uncomfortable for the dwelling devil or that the blood might have been an offering aimed at appeasing the possessing devil and making him leave the bewitched in peace, at least temporarily.3 Another explanation may be that, while suffering pain, the witch was not available to hurt others.

Scratching should not be confused with ‘pricking’, which tested the sensitivity or insensitivity of suspicious bodily marks. The logic behind the pricking was that physical evidence directly proved the compact with the devil. The logic behind scratching was in the realm of the supernatural, as it remained an unexplained sign that proved the crime by miraculous coincidence.

The practice of scratching was portrayed in detail in the famous pamphlet of 1593 about the Warboys witches, an early account of possession cum discovery that served as a precedent and model for later accounts. The conflict between the Throckmorton family, who were gentry, and poor old Mother Samuel, her daughter and husband was described in a vivid and dramatic fashion. Scratching played a significant role in that account.

The Throckmortons suspected Mother Samuel of bewitching their five daughters, who suffered from fits and other symptoms and seemed to be possessed. To investigate their suspicions and obtain better supervision of Mother Samuel, they brought her to their home several times, although she was unwilling, imprisoned her in their home (without judicial permission) for a few months, and finally chose to prosecute her.

It was clearly stated that the parents, who consulted with clerics about their problem, were explicitly advised not to use scratching, an unlawful and irreligious procedure. When Mother Samuel refused to come to their house, as she ‘feared the cõmon practise of scratching would be used on her’, the girls’ uncle, Mr Pickering, convinced her that ‘lesse at that present was intended, for both the parents and the said M. Pickering had taken advise of good Divines of the unlawfulnes thereof’.4 Unfortunately for Mother Samuel, her concern was justified, and the inhibitions soon disappeared. On bringing Mother Samuel to meet one of their girls, Jane, they let the girl (or so the author presented it) initiate scratching, which they repeated in a manner of scientific experimentation.

Mr Pickering, who ‘was of that opinion, that scratching was meerely unlawful’, was reported to have seen the girl scratching her bedcover and to have lain his hand on hers, ‘but the childe feeling his own hand would not scratch it, but fortooke his hand and scratched still on the bedde’, while she was lying down on her belly, her face turned down and her eyes shut. Notwithstanding the advice of the divines against scratching, ‘the occasion being thus offered by the child, or rather by the spirit in the child, to disclose some secret, whereby the Witches might be by some means or token made manifest and knownen’, Mr Pickering went to the hall and took the unwilling Mother Samuel to the child’s room, where the girl ‘lay scraping with her nailes on the bed couering, saying, Oh that I had her’. Then Mr Pickering demonstrated to Mother Samuel how he put his hand in the child’s hand, and so did others who were present, ‘but the childe would scarce touch, much lesse scratch any of their hands’. Then Mr Pickering, ‘without either malice to the woman, confidence, or opinion in scratching (onely to taste [sic] by this experiment whereto the childes would tend) tooke mother Samuels hand and thrust it to the childes hande, who no sooner felt the same, but presently the childe scratched her, with such vehemencie that her nayles brake into Spilles with the force and earnest desire that she had to reuenge’.5 Mr Pickering, described by the author as acting from pure scientific curiosity, modified the experiment by laying his hand on Mother Samuel’s hand, which the girl was scratching with ‘extraordinarie passion’; however, ‘the child would not scratch his hand, but felt too and fro upon the bed for that which she missed, and if by any meanes she coulde come with her hand, or but with one of her fingers to touch Mother Samuels hand, she would scratch that hand onely and none other’. The author stressed that all this time Mother Samuel was ‘hidden or withdrawn’ from the child, and the girl’s eyes were shut and her head turned, and therefore dismissed the possibility that she scratched Mother Samuel upon seeing her.6 The enthusiastic uncle wished to proceed with the other sisters, but his plan was disrupted by the arrival of the parson, Dr Dorrington, who did not allow further scratching.7

This first dramatic encounter between the Throckmortons and Mother Samuel was followed by a series of escalating events and further scratchings, not only of Mother Samuel, but also of her daughter, Agnes Samuel.8 The alleged bewitchment of the eldest Throckmorton girl reached a stage where she started having conversations with the spirits that instructed her about scratching.9 The uncles, Thomas and Henry Pickering, played an active role, and the parents’ earlier objection to scratching because of religious reasons was no longer mentioned. Apparently, scratching was performed on Mother Samuel even after her arrest. One of the jailors suspected her of the death of his servant and serious illness of his son, who was cured instantly after her scratching. The assizes allowed his testimony at the end of Mother Samuel’s trial.10

The allowance of testimony about scratching in court was not the only instance of semi-formal recognition of this practice. There were cases where men of authority ordered scratching. The first record of scratching was in a pamphlet from 1592, wherein the parson of the town, M. Smith, and Maister Burbridge, of a nearby town, orchestrated the scratching of the suspect by the accuser, who was ‘perswading himselfe that was a remedy sufficient under God, that would make him well: neither was it or is it any Capital error, experience testyfies: for since that he hath mended reasonablie, and nowe goeth to the Church’. 11 The narrator bothered to justify the scratching both morally and practically; therefore we could learn that it might have been an acceptable solution but one that needed justification. A pamphlet from 1597 described how, after Alice Goodridge refused to admit to the charges, Sir Humphrey Ferrers, referred to in the text as one of ‘the justices’, ordered the allegedly bewitched boy to scratch her.12

Local ministers and magistrates were involved in scratching as late as the eighteenth century. In 1702 Richard Hathaway was indicted for fraudulently accusing Sarah Morduck of bewitching him and for assaulting her together with others. The court received evidence about two scratching events, the first initiated by the minister of the parish, Dr Martin, and the second by a London magistrate. It should be noted that Dr Martin orchestrated the scratching to expose Hathaway’s deceit. He caused Hathaway to scratch another woman, thus ridiculing his pretended recovery. Yet, although he obtained the consent of the other women to be scratched (therefore did not commit an assault), the active role of a minister in the theologically dubious practice of scratching was still questionable. The London magistrate, Sir Thomas Lanes, on the contrary, was pressed to order the scratching of Sarah Morduck after ‘the Rabble got about her and abused her’.13 This magistrate later found himself in an unpleasant situation when he needed to testify before the judges of Richard Hathaway and explain his decision. He tried to minimize his responsibility by describing his answer to those who demanded scratching as follows: ‘I appeal to them whether I did not refuse it, I said, if I should order this, it would be an assault; but if she will consent you may do it. Says she, if I may be secured for the future, I will let him … she did give her consent, and he scratched her.’14 The testimony demonstrates conflicting pressures on the magistrate. On the one hand, he was well aware of the illegality of the practice and, on the other, he strove to pacify the angry crowd awaiting his decision. On another occasion, in the presence of the JP who came to take depositions, scratching was prevented by bystanders, who took away the alleged victim who had already sprung to her feet, intending to scratch the suspect.15 The text is not clear whether scratching was prevented by the JP’s order or despite his ambivalent passivity.

Semi-official cooperation with scratching sometimes occurred by allowing the alleged victims to scratch the witch who was already awaiting her trial in jail. Mr Avery brought his sister, Mistris Blecher, to scratch the suspect in jail.16 The practice was clearly illegal and was not allowed in the assizes courts. These examples demonstrate how local magistrates, ministers and other figures of standing in the community cooperated with this practice.

The texts portrayed a popular belief in the effectiveness of scratching as a cure, though a short-lived one. The recurrent need of the Throckmorton family to scratch Mother Samuel and her daughter Agnes in the Warboys case illustrates this point. The pamphleteer in a case of 1612 described how, once the alleged victims scratched the suspect, they were immediately delivered of their pain, yet once the suspect was out of sight, they were tormented again by even more violent fits.17 The author was well aware of the popularity of the method and of objections to it as superstitious, and tried to remain neutral. He stated that ‘many haue attempted the practising thereof, how successfuely I know not’.18 It seems that the effectiveness of the method was largely a matter of interpretation.

Another pamphleteer explained the brevity of the relief by the witch’s return to her malicious wrongdoing once she was left unobserved. He described an incident of scratching, subsequent to which the victim began to mend and feel well. However, the suspect’s tendency to assiduous malevolent practice prevailed, and she could not resist an opportunity to touch the victim’s neck with her finger. So soon after she departed, ‘he fell into as great or farre worse vexation than he had before’.19

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