Occult Science and Oats: A Canadian Witch Trial
I’m a bit under the weather so instead of regaling you with stories of deadly turkeys and fatal Thanksgivings, I’m taking the easy way out and returning to my recent theme of modern (ish) witchcraft. There are a surprising number of court cases mentioned in the newspapers of the 1920s involving witch allegations. Frequently, as noted in the case of the pretty servant accused of poisoning a girl at Nanticoke, these involved clashes between different ethnic groups. This element does not seem to enter into the following case from Canada. Rather we see an echo of the Witchcraft Act being used to suppress Spiritualists and fortune-tellers in England.
WITCHCRAFT CASE IN HURON COUNTY; WOMAN ALLEGED SPIRITS AIDED HER TO LOCATE MISSING ARTICLES
Farmer Testifies He Paid Fifty Cents For Séance With Her
Case Now Before Court of Appeals in Toronto and Woman on Suspended Sentence
Toronto, March 16. A peculiar case in connection with spiritualism or clairvoyance will come before the Court of Appeals at Osgoode Hall her. It is an appeal on behalf of Miss Maggie Pollock, of Morris Township, Huron County, against a conviction at Goderich some time ago by Judge Henry Dickson, County Judge of Huron. The charge against Miss Pollock in the county court was that she did unlawfully pretend from her skill and knowledge in an occult and crafty science to discover when and in what manner certain goods and chattels, to wit, certain grain and oats, supposed to have been stolen from one John Lienhardt, could be found.” It was further laid to her account that she “did pretend to use a certain kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration.”
Judge Convicted Her.
While the judge recorded a conviction against the accused woman, he allowed her to go on suspended sentence on the understanding that she would not repeat the offence and in order to enable her counsel to take the case to the court of appeals.
It was not shown at the trial that the farmer actually located the thief, or that Miss Pollock’s “divination” had led to the guilty person’s discovery, but the farmer swore that he had paid fifty cents for the séance. Miss Pollock quoted Scripture as her warrant for summoning spirits of departed persons to gain information about mundane matters on which her assistance was invoked.
Found Ring For Girl.
One witness in Miss Pollock’s behalf at the trial, Mrs. Grace Sinclair, told of the finding of a valuable ring left her by her deceased mother, the recovery of the ring having occurred after a séance in which the spirit of the mother told where the ring was lying under the snow. The spirit advised patience and said the lost piece of jewelry would be found. Much snow was melted in hopes that the missing ring would thus be recovered, but on a second visit to Miss Pollock the distressed daughter was told to wait till spring, till the snow melted. This she did and the ring was found.
“I am absolutely convinced,” said Mrs. Sinclair in her evidence, “that this woman communicates with my mother.”
The Ottawa [Canada] Journal 17 March 1920: p. 17
IS WOMAN WITCH? COURT MUST RULE
Ontario Appeal Tribunal Is Asked to Reverse Conviction of Goderich Judge.
Toronto, June. A reminder of the dark ages when “witches” were burned at the stake [sic] in Salem, Mass., is contained in a case now before the Ontario court of appeal, in which Miss Maggie Pollock is asking for a reversal of the decision of Judge Dickson at Goderich, that she is guilty of practicing witchcraft.
Lacking old-time instruments to prove that beyond peradventure the woman was guilty of the offense on which she was convicted, the appeal court judges were forced to reserve judgment on the case.
It has been so many years since occult cases occupied the attention of the courts of any part of the world, that counsel and bench alike had to delve back generations for precedents. Sir William Meredith, chief justice, for lack of any other proof, had to take the word of the woman’s counsel that she had not been “Communicating with the devil.”
Miss Pollock was charged, her lawyer, C. Garrow, explained, with “by skill or knowledge in any occult or crafty science pretending to tell where any goods lost or stolen might be found.”
She had told a farmer, whom she had never seen before, that oats were stolen from his barn by a man and boy, who had loaded the grain in a buggy drawn by a bay mare with a long neck. The buggy, she said, was driven westward. This the farmer had afterwards proved to be true.
Mr. Garrow asked if it would be an offense if the articles stolen had been located through occult science, but Sir William Meredith and his associates were loath to assume such an apparent impossibility.
Pending the decision of the appellate court as to the correctness of Judge Dickson’s finding sentence was postponed. The maximum penalty for such an offense is one year’s imprisonment.
Duluth [MN] News-Tribune 4 June 1920: p. 12
And there, as so often happens with stories in historic newspapers, the story ends. I have not been able to find a final disposition of the case. Authorities seemed so nonplussed that one hopes that common sense prevailed and that Miss Pollock was not sent to jail for assisting the police with their inquiries, even if aided by “spirits.” One article speculated that since she helped catch the thieves, she was obviously a white witch and no more dangerous than a Ouija board.
We do have to wonder just how did she know about the theft? Did a friend of the thieves let something slip in her hearing? Did she know the thieves and hoped for a reward if she told what she knew? Did she make a lucky guess? Or was she actually a clairvoyant?
If you know any more about Miss Pollock’s story, seal the information in an envelope and I will attempt to read the contents by pressing it against my forehead. Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.