Sunday, 9 December 2007

Witch Finder Generall

Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne interrogate Bess Clarke, at Manningtree, Essex, Tuesday 24 March 1645.

Three women recruited by Hopkins and three other witnesses have already sat up through three nights with Clarke waiting for her familiars to appear, without result (women were employed to search people's bodies for signs of witchcraft, plague symptoms, pregnancy in felons hoping to avoid the gallows, and so on).

On the third night, Hopkins and Stearne themselves arrive, wait, and are about ready to leave when

asking only that they should not hurt her, Clarke begged them to stay, adding: 'I will shew you my Impes, for they bee ready to come.'

[she tells of her 'carnall copulation' with Satan, then calls for her familiar Holt, who does not appear. They wait for half an hour]

Then Hopkins, Stearne and the other watchers became aware of another presence. Before their eyes crept a white creature, like a cat but smaller, which silently greeted its mistress before retreating into the shadows. Next she called 'Jermarah!' According to Hopkins, 'there appeared an Impe like to a Dog, which was white, with some sandy spots, and seemed to be very fat and plumpe, with very short legges, who forthwith vanished away.' The one after that, 'Vinegar Tom', Stearne described as 'like a Greyhound, with legs as long as a Stagge.' There followed an imp resembling a polecat or ferret, and one like a toad. Were there more? asked Hopkins. The same ones would return in different shapes, Clarke replied, but there was another who had not yet appeared: a black beast called 'Sacke & Sugar', still out at work. It would be home soon, she promised, and would tear Master Stearne into pieces for trying to have her swum in the river. But when 'Sacke & Sugar' finally arrived, it seemed to be no more than a harmless rabbit. None the less, Clarke assured Stearne he was lucky it had not leapt onto his face, squeezed itself down his throat, and deposited 'a feast of Toades' in his belly.

Malcom Gaskill, 'Witchfinders', 2005.

Clarke was hanged at Chelmsford on Friday 18th July. The whole story is a fascinating and tragic one.

I would like to read the original accounts. Gaskill remarks of the trial, "the names of the imps in the indictment were surely the inventions of Satan", I am not clear whether this is a paraphrase or Gaskill's embellishment. The names sound to me like perfectly common, even traditional, names for domestic pets, which makes the lurid accusations seem even more pathetic.

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