Conjuring Up Singing Devils

Conjuring up spirits.

Conjuring up spirits.

In a previous post, “Little Men with Axes,” there was a mention of a certain Thomas Perks who was said to have raised spirits. Here is what is reported about Perks and about the mysterious little people who came when he called.

AUTHENTIC COPY of a LETTER sent to the Bishop of Gloucester, by the Reverend Mr. Arthur Bedford, Minister of Temple Church, in Bristol. Bristol, August 2d, 1703


Being informed by Mr. Shute of your Lordship’s desire that I should communicate to you what I had known concerning a certain person who was acquainted with spirits to his own destruction, I have made bold to give you the trouble of this letter, hoping my desire to gratify your lordship in every particular may be an apology for the length thereof. I had formerly given an account to the late Bishop of Hereford, in which there are probably some things contained, which I do not now remember, which, if your lordship could procure from his lady, (who now lives near Gloucester,) would be more, authentic.

About thirteen years ago, whilst I was a curate to Dr. Read, rector of St. Nicholas in this city, I began to be acquainted with one Thomas Perks, a man about twenty years of age, who lived with his father at Mongatsfield, a gunsmith; and contracted an intimacy with him, he being not only a very good-natured man, but extremely skilled in mathematical studies, which were his constant delight, viz. arithmetic, geometry, gauging, surveying, astronomy, and algebra; he had a notion of the perpetual motion much like that wheel in Archimedes’s Mathematical Magic, in which he had made some improvements, and which he has held was demonstrable from mathematical principles, though I could never believe it. I have seen an iron wheel, to which he intended to add several things of his own invention, in order to finish the same; but, thinking it of no use, and being otherwise unfortunately engaged, it was never perfected. He gave himself so much to astronomy, that he could not only calculate the motions of the planets, but an eclipse also, and demonstrate any problem in spherical trigonometry from mathematical principles, in which he discovered a clear force of reason. When one Mr. Bayley, minister of St. James’s in this city, endeavoured to set up a mathematical school, I advised him to this Thomas Perks, for an acquaintance, in whom, as he told me, he found a greater proficiency in those studies than he expected or could have imagined. After this he applied himself to astrology, and would sometimes calculate nativities and resolve horary questions. When, by providence of God, I was settled in Temple parish, and not having seen him for some time, he came to me, and, we being in private, he asked my opinion very seriously concerning the lawfulness of conversing with spirits; and, after I had given my thoughts in the negative, and confirmed them with the best reason I could, he told me, he had considered all these arguments, and believed they only related to conjurations, but there was an innocent society with them which a man might use, if he made no compacts with them, did no harm by their means, and were not curious in prying into hidden things, and that he himself had discoursed with them, and heard them sing to his great satisfaction; and gave an offer to me and Mr. Bayley at another time, that, if we would go with him one night to Kingswood, we should see them and hear them both talk and sing, and talk with them whenever we had a mind, and we should return very safe; but neither of us had the courage to venture. I told him the subtility of the devil to delude mankind, and to transform himself into an angel of light; but he would not believe it was the devil. I had several conferences with him upon this subject, but could never convince him; in all which I could never observe the least disorder of mind, his discourse being very rational, and I proposed (to try him) a question in astronomy relating projection of the spheres, which he projected and resolved, and did afterwards demonstrate from the mathematics, so as to demonstrate at the same time that his brain was free from the least tincture of madness and distraction. — Having this opportunity of asking him several particulars, concerning the methods he used, and the discourses he had with them, he told me had a book whose directions he followed, and accordingly, in the dead time of the night, he went out to a cross way, with a lanthorn and candle consecrated for this purpose with several incantations. He had also consecrated chalk, consisting of several mixtures, with which he made a circle at what distance he thought fit, within which no spirit had power to enter. After this he invoked the spirit by several forms of words, (some of which he told me were taken out of the holy Scriptures, and therefore he thought them lawful, without considering how they might be wrested to his destruction;) accordingly the spirits appeared to him which he called for, in the shape of little maidens, about a foot and a half high, and played about a circle. At first he was somewhat affrighted, but, after some small acquaintance, this antipathy in nature wore off, and he became pleased with their company. He told me they spoke with a very shrill voice, like an ancient woman: he asked them if there was a heaven or hell; they said there was. He asked them what place heaven was, which they described as a place of great glory and happiness; and he asked them what hell was, and they bade him ask no questions of that nature, for it was a dreadful thing to relate, and the devils believe and tremble. He farther asked them what method or order they had among themselves; they told him they were divided into three orders; that they had a chief whose residence was in the air; that he had several counsellors which were placed by him in form of a globe, and he in the centre, which was the chiefest order; another order was employed in going to and from thence to the earth, to carry intelligence from those lower spirits; and their own order was on the earth, according to the directions they should receive from those in the air.

This description was very surprising, but, being contrary to the account we have in scripture of the hierarchy of the blessed angels, made me conclude they were devils, but I could not convince him of it. He told me he had bade them sing, and they went to some distance behind a bush, from whence he could hear a perfect concert of such exquisite music as he never before heard; and in the upper part he heard something very harsh and shrill like a reed, but as it was managed, did give a particular grace to the rest.

About a quarter of a year after he came again to me, and wished he had taken my advice, for he thought he had done that which would cost him his life, and which he did heartily repent of; and indeed his eyes and countenance shewed a great alteration. I asked him what he had done; He told me that, being bewitched to his acquaintance, he resolved to proceed farther in this art, and to have some familiar spirit at his command, according to the directions of his book, which were as follows:
He was to have a book made of virgin parchment consecrated with several incantations, likewise a particular ink-horn, ink, &c. for his purpose; with these he was to go out as usual to a cross way, and call up a spirit, and ask him his name, which he was to put in the first page of his book, and this was to be his familiar. Thus he was to do by as many as he pleased, writing their names in distinct pages, only one in a leaf, and then, whenever he took the book and opened it, the spirit whose name appeared should appear also; and putting this in practice, the familiar he had was called Malchi, (be my king,) a word in Hebrew of an unknown signification. After this they appeared faster than he desired, and in most dismal shapes, like serpents, lions, bears, &c. hissing at him, and attempting to throw spears and balls of fire, which did very much affright him, and the more when he found it not in his power to stay them, insomuch that his hair (as he told me) stood upright, and he expected every moment to be torn in pieces; this happened in December about midnight, when he continued there in a sweat till break of day, and then they left him, and from that time he was never well as long as he lived. In his sickness he came frequently to Bristol, to consult with Mr. Jacob, an apothecary in Broad-street, concerning a cure, but I know not whether he told him the origin of his sickness or not; he also came to me at the same time, and owned every matter of fact, until the last, and insisted that, when he did any thing of this nature, he was deluded in his conscience to think it lawful, but he was since convinced to the contrary. He declared he made no compacts with any of those spirits, and never did any harm by their means, nor ever pryed into the future fortune of himself or others, and expressed a hearty repentance and detestation of his sins; so that, though those methods cost him his life in this world, yet I have great reason to believe him happy in the other. I am not certain that he gave this account to any other person but myself, though he communicated something of it to Mr. Bayley, minister of St. James’s, in this city; perhaps your Lordship may be further informed by his relations and neighbours of Mangotsfield, which lies in Gloucestershire, not above a mile out of the road to Bath.

I have frequently told this story, but never mentioned his name before, and therefore, if your Lordship hath any design of printing such accounts as these, I desire it may be with such tenderness to his memory as he deserved, and so as may not be the least prejudice to his relations, who have the deserved character of honest and sober people. I am

Your Lordships dutiful

Son and servant,


A New and Complete Illustration of the Celestial Science of Astrology, Vol. II, Ebenezer Sibly, 1822

Little maidens dancing in a circle and singing in high-pitched voices is consistent with traditional notions of the Gentry. I have run across the combination of animal shape-shifting and balls of fire several times before–one wonders if whatever force generates ball lightning somehow creates fearsome animal images in the electrified brain. See this post for fire balls that are said to have caused harm and madness.  Has any one experienced the fire-ball/shape-shifter combination? chriswoodyard8 AT

Last December, the definitive book on Thomas Perks, the Bristol gunsmith who conjured up the singing devils, was published. It is called Raising Spirits: How the Story of Thomas Perks was Transmitted Across the Enlightenment. Here is the link at Amazon. The book is written by Professor Jonathan Barry of the University of Exeter, 18th-century scholar and one of the world’s foremost authorities on English conjurors and witchcraft. As Dr Beachcombing says, WANW.



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