A busy day today, so a quick Suffolk witch story from 1877 involving “laying a spite” on a man for revenge–only to have the “spite” deflected onto his wife. One of the most interesting aspects of this piece is the fascinatingly transcribed language of the notes written by the wicked Mrs D. who admitted laying the spite. She confessed remorse for hurting the “ondissirven” wife and said that she was removing the spite in hopes that the husband would take it on himself and that the “poear dear” would agree to the transfer.
The St. James’s Gazette (April 16th) gives publicity to a Suffolk witch story which is worth preserving, if only to show how old beliefs linger in country places with but little difference from those found in the Middle Ages: It is premised that the editor has in his possession. “names, dates, fac-simile copies of letters,” &c. The story itself may be shortly put thus. About thirty years ago a scandal occurred near .Ipswich. A farmer and his coachman accused each other of being the father of a certain child and a good deal of bad blood was generated. By-and-bye the farmer died; but before his death he gave £100 to a friend, with orders to purchase revenge by means of witchcraft on the ex-coachman, who had married and had settled in Ipswich as a greengrocer. Some years passed before a wise woman could be got, but one (call her Mrs. D.) was at last found.
She was to “lay a spite” (a malicious spell, I imagine, not, as the St. James’s suggests, a” spirit”) on the man. However, he could not be got at direct, and so was approached through his wife. To the shop came Mrs. D., ostensibly to make a purchase, really to bewitch the woman by making her swallow some uncanny stuff by means of a kiss! (Surely a funny proceeding. Was the greengrocer’s wife on these affectionate terms with all her customers, I wonder?) Be this as it may or may not be, the poor woman, already an out-patient at the hospital for some affliction of the knee, now became afflicted with a mysterious sickness. All the doctors in Ipswich failed to cure her, and she was finally taken home to die. This was in March, 1877.
She did not, however, do more than sink into a state of coma; a living death fell upon her. For five years she lived on “sugar, tea, and milk “—of which I should have thought the latter quite sufficient if taken in adequate quantities—and was described in the local papers as the “fasting woman.” She could not speak: her mind, as she averred, was “dazed” by the influence of malignant spirits. The doctors could make nothing of her; people generally believed her to be a fraud. Among her visitors, at length, came Mrs. D., who, hoping that she and her husband had now had enough of this bedevilment, suggested that she might recover by transferring the malady to him (as per prior arrangement!), promising her at the same time the farmer’s £100. These offers were indignantly rejected. So things went on till last August when Mrs. D., who seems to have felt some remorse for her nefarious deed, addressed a letter to the husband’s brother, the essential part of which I transfer from the St. James’s,where it is printed verbatim et literatim.
“The time is geaten near for the poear dear to be released frome the great eveal spite [spirit] that shee have bean suffren from this last 10 year and i have sent thes few lins to have you be so kind as to see hear husband and geat him to break it to hear the best he can for the shock will com great to hear poer weak frame i hope you will be so kind and see your brother for shee have bean suffren for his bad deads . . . . if the lord do spear hear thear is 100 pounds left for hear and it will not be long if shee is speared but that will never reward hear poear dear for the spit shee have had laid on her ondisserven The caus of me righten to you is becouse i thout that i could not do it beater only by doing so for if i sent the nuse to him the leater might have caused death to the poear dear for the famly might have read the leater to hear if you should see hear ask hear if shee remambe a woman coming in to ask hear for sume beans witch laid at the winder for sale and that was the time this great spite was laid on hear and i never go to my bead but what i think of the weards she sead wene i asked hear and it was if shee wold like to live or dye and these was the weards, i am hear and i am willing to sirve my hevenle father for he is my gide I pray and i am willing to bear it for his sake, and i beleav shee is a trow good wom poear dear . . . . i shall send you or your brother afeu moer lines a day befor the witch leave hear and then i hope every thing will be dune for hear to restoear hear to geat hear beater but never well . . . . ”
Another letter came on August 16th, giving directions as to the way in which the “poear dear” was to be delivered from her possessing spirit.
“If the Lord spear hear to giet over next Saturday and Sunday shee will be geaten beater but tell your brother that it will hapen at midnight and shaken will last about 10 minits and then after that shee will be very sick and tell him to mak a holl in the earth and close it down and then do the same to hear pilar [pillow] shee have laid hear dear head on…then do all he can for the poear dear for hear suffer have been great. . . . .”
More minute instructions still came to the husband on August 21st. The “nuse” was on no account to be told to the sufferer. “There will be about 14 or 15 ours longer and it wll be over i pray pray give hear sumthing as sone as you can if abeal to take it. . . From Mrs. D., the wicked woman.” Now comes the most extraordinary part of this most astonishing story. I do not venture to alter the exact statement made in the St. James’s Gazette.
“The ‘wicked woman’s ‘ predictions were almost exactly fulfilled. At a quarter to eleven that night the sufferer, who had not been told a word as to the symptoms she might expect, was seized with violent shakings, which lasted ten minutes and were followed by sickness. It is believed that the sickness freed her from the mysterious something which she had swallowed ten years before. The husband at once buried it, with the pillow on which the woman had been lying; and from that moment she began to get better. Her speech and strength returned; but for the next month or two she suffered greatly from the ‘persecution of evil spirits, in whose power she still was’ (this is her own statement).”
How the husband then set to work to exorcise these evil spirits I need not stop to tell. “Not even the witches’ caldron in Macbeth contained such ‘hell-broth’ as this man and his wife brewed for the purpose of exorcising the evil spirit.” Knockings, rattlings, rappings resounded on the walls and doors of the room. “These noises were even heard by the neighbours; several of whom have signed a written attestation of the fact” (which does not amount to much, by the way). One by one the spirits went: the process continuing till the 9th of November, when the sounds ceased, and the ‘poear dear’ was left well, but with her legs still paralysed!
“Mrs. D. is described as ‘ a very fat full-faced woman,’ respectably dressed. From her last letter, dated the 8th of September, it seems that she is now engaged in getting the £100 out of the hands of some one in whose care it was placed. This person will not give it up (so writes Mrs. D. to the husband), ‘becaus the suffer will not give hear consent to have “you laid.”
However, Mrs. D. intends to pay the holder of the money ‘a vissit, and it shall not be a wealkom won,’ for, she says, ‘ i will not give it up till i now sumthing is dune for the poor ondissirven suffer.” Thus there is a deadlock. The ‘ondissirven suffer’ will not permit her husband (the original intended victim) to be ‘laid.’ and the money will not be given up until she does. Unless, therefore, Mrs. D. can ‘lay’ the obstinate stake-holder nothing can be done.”
And now that I have given the salient points of this story, what is one to say to it all? Has the editor been hoaxed? His plain and direct statement that he has facts, names, dates, and fac-simile letters in his possession precludes that idea, unless the hoax is a very elaborate one.
And I am in a measure prepared to believe that such statements might be made by the Suffolk peasantry with the utmost good faith, from what I know of the way in which such ideas linger on the East coast of England, and in, for instance, Devonshire. The Lincolnshire peasantry are quite prepared to accept such a story as I have told, and have a firm belief in witchcraft and “appearances.”
But what surprises me is the circumstantial account of how, the woman got well in accordance with the wise woman’s prediction, of which she had never been told. I am prepared to believe that she would believe herself to be bewitched, and her friends would agree with her: but the other part of the story is incredible. Is it possible, I wonder, that there is at the bottom of such stories some small germ of malign truth? Are all the stories in this and other countries of obsession, bewitching, putting spells on people, and so forth, creations of the imagination, survivals of savage legend?
Light 23 April 1887: pp. 175-76
Are we surprised that Mrs D. is having trouble getting the £100 out of the hands of that some one in whose care it was placed? Somehow one just knows that the “vissit” will prove a failure. The “uncanny stuff” transfered to the wife via a [French?] kiss is an oddity that I can’t recall seeing in other stories of witchery although touch was used to transfer or block spells.
Like inquests and trial transcriptions, late-19th and early-20th-century witch stories often contain a wealth of social and psychological detail. Belief in witchcraft there may have been, but it often was placed in service to more mundane ends such as revenge or hard cash–motives that are not always obvious in the stories from the earlier dark days of the witch persecutions. While the author of this piece is one of the enlightened, attemping to sympathize with the superstitious, he still gives this story a light touch, especially in quoting the rural dialect of the letters. There is a subtext of “gullible stage rustics,” which is at unpleasant odds with the genuine suffering of the “fasting woman.”
Other relatively late witch stories? Or glamour-filled kisses? No tongue, please, to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
You’ll find a chapter on witch stories in The Headless Horror: Strange and Ghostly Ohio Tales. Dr Beachcombing also has a series of stories on late witchcraft, like this one, from Devon.
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 murdereress 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.