Supernatural Evidentiary Techniques as Experiments

This figure has intentionally been removed for copyright reasons. To view this image, please refer to the printed version of this book


Chapter 9
Supernatural Evidentiary Techniques as Experiments

Whereas early writers on witchcraft emphasized its scriptural and theological basis, around the mid-seventeenth century the emphasis shifted to the search for factual proofs. The re-shaping of the ordeals as factual and empiricist observations fitted into this frame of thought. This does not imply a simple causal explanation, by which evidentiary techniques were influenced by the emergence of natural philosophy and modern science. The well-documented and influential Warboys case of 1593 provided rich details about the reconstruction of the ordeal as a factual experiment long before the blossoming of natural philosophy in the mid-seventeenth century.

The reconstruction of ordeals as experiments embodied aspirations for controlled conditions through standardization, repetition and use of a control. Controlled conditions were necessary to make sure that the experiments examined the witchcraft variable (whether the subject was a witch) and not other factors. Sometimes the methodical mode of observation was reflected not only in the manner of conducting the experiments, but also in the careful documentation of the observations. The condition of the bewitched victims was observed methodically and routinely, a few times a day, at different hours, and carefully noted down.1

The swimming test was standardized to a level where suspects in different cases were tied and cast into the water in a similar manner. Standardization could also be reached in a specific case by repeating the procedure in the same way every time. The first time Mother Samuel was brought to the Throckmortons’ house to be scratched, the author emphasized that the girl was in the same position (head turned, eyes shut) every time her uncle let her touch one of the bystanders. The girl scratched only Mother Samuel. The author led the readers to the conclusion that, everything else being equal, Mother Samuel must be a witch.2 The pamphlet about the Warboys case was abundant with examples of experiments and tests, some of which, like the scratching, were culturally established, whereas some were creatively fashioned according to the circumstances of the case. For example, after seven months had passed since one of the girls, Elizabeth Throckmorton, had been sent away from her parents’ home to stay with her uncle, and she had not yet recovered, the girl started claiming she would be better only if she was returned to her parents’ home at Warboys. There followed a series of experiments examining her condition while she was travelling toward her home. In front of ‘many’ observers, she was carried, put on horseback, or made to walk for some distance in the direction of Warboys and then made to return toward her uncle’s home. The repeated travelling was to examine the influence of the trip on the condition of the girl, who cheered up as they went toward her home and saddened as they turned back each time.3 Another episode in the Warboys case was the experiment to detect the effect on the girls of Mother Samuel’s presence in the house. She was made to enter and exit the house 20 times in one hour to demonstrate the effect on the girls’ fits.4

If the repetition of the experiment yielded similar results, both the proof of witchcraft and the validity of the procedure were augmented. In the Warboys case, Bible verses were read to one of the allegedly possessed Throckmorton girls to test the effect of a sacred text on her. The girl was reported to suffer from fits and rage as long as the Bible or any other ‘Godly booke’ was read to her and to be quiet once the reading stopped. As this ‘was a thing very strange, and therefore hardly beleeued’, the experiment was repeated despite the torment of the girl, and the same proof was repeatedly obtained.5 An example from another case (almost a century later, in 1689) is the casting of a suspect into the water three times until enough people were convinced she was a witch.6

For an eighteenth-century pamphleteer, not repeating the experiment was grounds for discrediting the proof. In the Jane Wenham case, the accusers set a bottle filled with the victim’s urine over the fire to observe whether the suspect would be in pain.7 Manipulation of the victim’s urine (by boiling, burying or otherwise) was considered one of the supernatural ways of discovery. The suspect would suffer great pain, usually from not being able to urinate, and thus be discovered.8 A sceptical author in 1712 flatly dismissed the urine-boiling test: ‘if they had a mind to have made the World believe, that there was any thing wonderful in this Experiment, they ought to have repeated it several times, and to have seen whether or no the same Effect always followed. For as the Story stands at present is but one single Instance, and of consequence will prove nothing at all.’9

Sometimes an experiment was repeated in variations to negate alternative explanations for the results and to guarantee that the suspect failed the test because she was a witch and not for a different reason. Thus, Jane Wenham was submitted to the test of the Lord’s Prayer, one of the supernatural means of obtaining evidence sometimes used in early modern England. The suspect was required to say the prayer, and failure (typically inability to pronounce the sentences ‘forgive us our trespasses’ or ‘lead us not into temptation’) was considered proof that the suspect was a witch. Bragge maintained that Wenham made several attempts to recite the prayer but always missed two or three sentences. After Wenham had failed to recite the whole prayer, the experiment was repeated with a slight variation. This time she had to repeat after Mrs Gardiner, who recited it slowly to her, sentence by sentence. Despite repeated attempts, Wenham failed again, ‘to the Amazement of all the By-standers. It was observed … she could not say this Sentence, Forgive us our Trespasses, as we forgive them that Trespass against us, nor that, Lead us not into Temptation.10 The next morning, she was again asked to say the Lord’s Prayer. She attempted it several times, each time stumbling on the same two problematic sentences. Instead of ‘Lead us not into Temptation, but deliver us from Evil’, she proclaimed ‘Lead us not into no Temptation and Evil’ or ‘Lead us into Temptation and Evil’. Wenham explained her confusion by saying that she ‘was much disturb’d in her Head by the Hurry she was in’ and asked for a rest.11 The test, therefore, resumed the following morning. Reverend Strutt:

told her … he hoped she was now in a good Temper, and her Head settled; she answered, yes, and that she had a good Night’s Rest. Then Mr Strutt reply’d, that he was come according to his Promise, to see whether she could say the Lord’s-Prayer; she answer’d she believed she could, for she had try’d several Times in the Night, and she made no doubt but she could say it, and accordingly she essay’d several Times to do it, but could not, making the same Blunders as before.12

The repetition with slight variations (sentence by sentence, after a night’s rest) proved that Wenham could not say the prayer properly because she was a witch and not because of bad memory, tiredness or confusion.

Sometimes, when the supernatural way failed to prove the suspect’s guilt, the experiment was repeated until success was achieved, namely, a result pointing to guilt was obtained. Sarah Morduck, for example, was scratched for a second time, although the first scratching proved the alleged victim, Richard Hathaway, to be an impostor.13

Often the experiments were designed to eliminate the effect of possible manipulation by the victim, whose reactions were often observed as part of the experiment. Therefore, the eyes of the allegedly possessed Throckmorton and Pacy girls were blindfolded when they scratched or touched the suspect. Yet, blindfolding the eyes of the alleged victim did not impress all as a sufficient precaution against fabricated symptoms. A sceptical author of 1712 criticized the experiment that confronted Jane Wenham with the allegedly bewitched Anne Thorn while the latter’s eyes were closed. According to Bragge’s account, Thorn recovered following the confrontation. The writer was not convinced that closed eyes were enough. The victim could still get a hint, recognize a voice or ‘peep out a little under her Eye-lids’.14

In addition to blindfolding, the neutrality of the experiment was reinforced by using volunteers as a control group. One of the chief supernatural methods of obtaining proof was based on the belief that by the touch of the real witch, the victim would react in some extraordinary fashion.15 The use of blindfolds and a control group could help discern whether the victim reacted to the presence or touch of the suspect alone or of any passerby.

The cases of the Throckmorton (1589–93) and Pacy (1662) families had many common features. In both cases the allegedly possessed victims were young girls of affluent local families, whereas the chief suspects were marginal and poor women, and the supernatural ways of proof were constructed in the format of an experiment. A prominent test in the case of the Pacys was touching. During the trial of Amy Denny and Rose Cullender, accused of bewitching the Pacy girls, ‘there were some experiments made with the persons afflicted, by bringing the persons to touch them’, and it was observed that the girls opened their clenched fists only when the defendants touched them. Subsequently, ‘lest they might privately see when they were touched, they were blinded with their own aprons, and the touching took the same effect as before’.16 Thereupon, an ‘ingenious person’ from the crowd objected that:

there might be a great fallacy in this experiment, and there ought not to be any stress put upon this to Convict the Parties, for the Children might counterfeit this their Distemper, and perceiving what was done to them, they might in such manner suddenly alter the motion and gesture of their Bodies, on purpose to induce persons to believe that they were not natural, but wrought strangely by the touch of the Prisoners.17

Only gold members can continue reading. Log In or Register to continue