Little Men with Axes: Fairies or Clever Conjuring?

little men cut down magical tree

Turning today to the world of fairy, or perhaps just of clever conjuring, we find this tale from 18th-century Gloucestershire:

Extraordinary Incantation and Magical Effect Wrought by some Rustics Who Studied Magic And Witchcraft At A Village Near Mangotsfield, In Gloucestershire.—Communicated By Isaac Smith, Esq., Of Clifton, Somersetshire

The following singular occurrence can be attested by several characters of known truth and probity, upon oath, if required; were it otherwise, the narration thereof is so strange, that we should forbear to publish it. The narrator thereof is still living.

* * * * * * * * *

“It was in the latter part of the year 17—, that one bleak winter’s evening, at the village of Downend, in Gloucestershire, Mr. W. S., a miner of considerable property, had retired from the avocations of the day, and was sitting in his ‘apartment, listening to the fury of the elements, and meditating upon the labors he had just quitted when there came a knock at the door, and immediately two of his rustic acquaintance entered the house, probably to obtain some shelter from the inclemency of the weather, and entered the apartment where he was sitting. After the usual salutations customary in those parts were passed, and after the known hospitality of the owner of the house had been proved by somewhat copious libations very common in the west of England, where the juice of the apple is esteemed as much as the juice of the grape in more refined parts. The conversation insensibly turned upon the subject of ghosts, visions, magic, and incantations, a theme which appeared of great interest. As Mr. S., the landlord, was acquainted of old with the universal character these men bore in those parts for being expert in curious arts and secret mysteries, he at length requested them to afford him a specimen thereof, which, after some hesitation, they consented to do, and one of them, who was the principal, by the name of William Flew, told him “to place the table in the middle of the house, and they would show him some curious sport.” This being done, (at the desire of the rustic) he proceeded to draw a large and open circle around the table, and after performing several mystic ceremonies, and repeating several uncouth incantations, to the utter astonishment of those present, who were several in number, there grew up in the midst of the table a tree, nearly seven feet high, and of beautiful form, the branches distinguished for their verdure and similitude to nature. This being done, it may be well supposed the amazement of those who were present was extreme at such an extraordinary vision, but none exceeded that of Mrs. S., the mistress of the house, who was so convinced that the appearance she beheld was real, that she grew very angry at the thought of “her fine mahogany table being spoiled,” and with some difficulty she was persuaded to leave the magical illusion uninterrupted by threats and angry words. After this, another mystic and equally unintelligible ceremony was performed which took up a considerable time, and on a sudden there was seen to enter the room several little men, of small stature, and dubious form, with sacks or bags slung at their backs, each of them having an axe in his hand, with which are they instantly fell to work, and with great vehemence began to cut down the tree, which they did with such violence, that the chips flew in all parts of the room. After they had done this, these devils (for such they evidently must have been) proceeded with great care to pick up the various chips which were scattered about the place, and collected them in their sacks, seemingly very careful that none should be left. Having done this, they of a sudden departed, vanishing imperceptibly from the sight; however, one of the company, of a curious turn, found means to secrete one of the chips in his pocket, hoping to elude their vigilance; but he was soon astonished, and indeed not a little alarmed, to see one of the devils suddenly standing before him, and fiercely staring him in the face; however he paid but little attention thereto, but the person who performed the incantation then told him that “he must give up the chip he had secreted, or he would have no rest,” which he did accordingly, and immediately the supernatural appearance, or demon, vanished, and shortly afterwards the rustic magicians retired.

The house (and orchard) where this wonderful scene of illusion was acted, is still standing in statu quo, and it is very remarkable that it was the identical spot where Thomas Perks is said to have raised spirits, as recorded in “Sibly’s Occult Sciences.” [See the upcoming Saturday post for this story.] It is said that there are a number of books buried hereabout, a tradition much believed by the inhabitants, for, in former times, it was the junction of four cross roads, and the centre of the forest of Dean. It is no less remarkable, that the above estate and premises is the hereditary property of the astrologer RAPHAEL.  The Old Book of Magic: A Precise History of Magic, Its Procedure, Rites and Mysteries, Lauron William De Laurence, 1918

Several vivid details here: the mistress of the house, angered at the spoiling of her good furniture; the insistence on the retrieval of all the wood chips, which suggests a) a magician anxious to leave no clue to the illusion or b) evil luck brought by fairy gifts.

Raphael was the professional name of Robert Cross Smith, 1795-1832, a famous astrologer and issuer of books of predictions. Here’s an anecdote about his powers:


IN the month of August, 1822, a lady was introduced to this gentleman, by means of a friend, and requested to know the events which were pending at that period. The artist drew forth the horoscope, and informed her that, from the position of the heavenly bodies at that instant, he foresaw she would be in danger of “taking poison,” through the carelessness of a servant, and therefore warned her to be very careful what medicine she took for the next six months. The prediction was thought but little of at the time, but within six months from that period, the Astrologer received a letter in the lady’s own handwriting, stating “that the cup was actually raised to her lips, when recollecting the injunction, she was induced to examine it, and discovered it to be poison, delivered by the servant in mistake,” as was foretold. A striking proof of the science. The Old Book of Magic: A Precise History of Magic, Its Procedure, Rites and Mysteries, Lauron William De Laurence, 1918

The references to Raphael’s “hereditary property,” Thomas Perks raising spirits, the Forest of Dean where little people undoubtedly lurk, and the quadruple crossroads, all play up the notion that this is a place of Mystic Power.

Of course the mysterious growing tree illusion is well-known in the history of conjuring effects. Robert Houdin, for example, was famous for making an orange tree bear fruit as the audience watched. Here is an example, from India. The author claims that the event took place in front of a substantial number of respectable citizens including British Army officers, Jesuit priests, Church of England clergymen, members of the legal profession, and “a physician who is a materialist, disbelieving in the Supernatural altogether.”

 The performer or wizard, who dwelt amongst the tribes to the south of Chaibassa, owned a remarkable reputation….On the present occasion he produced a living tree or plant from an empty pot subsequently in the presence of the spectators, filled with common earth and a seed. The plant began to sprout before the spectators’ eyes…as he waved his hand in circles over the earth and pot; the green stem gradually increased, striking upwards; a leaf came out here, another there; until at length the plant seemed perfectly complete. It should be noticed that in the present instance the plant soon faded, withered, and died, and within three hours of its production had fallen to dust. A particular leaf, which one of the spectators had taken possession of as a curiosity and had placed in a used paper envelope, became a few mere particles of what seemed like grey ashes. Glimpses in the twilight: being various notes, records, and examples of the Supernatural, The Rev. Frederick George Lee, 1885

A leaf turns to ash, just as fairy gold turns to dead leaves? In the same book, the author writes of some animated little men witnessed by soldiers in India:

After placing some cardboard figures on a cloth spread out on the bare floor of our mess-room, the conjuror, a well-known local magician, began playing upon a reed instrument. In a moment up jumped the cardboard figures, one after the other, and began dancing in time to the music.

The incident also calls to mind items apported by 19th-century mediums, such as Mme. d’Esperance who conjured up a large plant with dirt still attached to its roots:

 On June 28, 1890, she brought as an apport a rare golden lily measuring more than seven feet from roots to top and carrying eleven perfect flowers. Toward the end of the sitting she tried to dematerialize the plant to take it away, but the force was too weak by then and she failed. She asked that it be kept in a dark closet until she could try again. The plant had been borrowed, so she said, and had to be returned. At half after nine on July 5th, the plant was removed from the dark closet and placed in the center of the circle of sitters. Almost instantly it vanished. Another spirit, not [d’Esperance’s spirit guide] Yolande, explained that the plant, in its invisible form, had been brought into the room at the first sitting fully an hour before it was solidified and became visible. [See a full account and a photograph of the lily in Shadow Land: Or, Light from the Other Side, E. d’. Espérance, 1897.]

Rambling even further, Mangotsfield was a mining village and the man who owned the house where these manifestations took place was a miner. Is there also some suggestion that the little men with bags were Knockers?

What about the books buried in the vicinity of the four crossroads? Books of Forbidden Knowledge? Proof that Bacon wrote Shakespeare? Or folk-memories of religious books buried during the Reformation? Shake off the dirt and send to: chriswoodyard8 AT along with any thoughts about knockers, fairies, or conjurors.

Last December, the definitive book on Thomas Perks, the Bristol gunsmith who conjured up singing devils and (above) raised spirits, 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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