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Trick or Treat?

By Curtin Library 31 October 2018 Databases Comments Off on Trick or Treat?

Curtin Library’s databases hold many treats and we would like to share one with you today for Halloween. Justis provides access to common law cases dating back to 1163. Amongst these treasures you can find trials reflecting the widespread belief of the supernatural including sorcerers and witches.

In 1616, Bishop Alexander Roberts, wrote about a local witchcraft trial of one Mary Smith in King’s Lynne, Norfolk[1]. Blogger Holly Kelsey summarises Robert’s description of Mary Smith’s trial[2]. The following is an extract from her blog:

Roberts introduces the maligned Mary Smith as a jealous woman who resents her neighbours for being better than her at her trade (cheese making). The devil supposedly appeared to her in the form of a ‘man’, who tempted her into renouncing God in exchange for gaining magical power over her fellow villagers.

Mary, like most people accused of witchcraft in this period, seems to have suffered from the unlucky combination of a natural ‘distemper’ and an exceptionally shrewd eye. For instance, after her first ‘victim’, John Orkton, hit her son, Mary ‘wished in a most earnest and bitter manner that his fingers might rotte off’. This rather specific wish did indeed come true: nine months later ‘his fingers did corrupt, and were cut off; as also his toes putrefied & consumed’. You wonder whether Mary might have had a talent for spotting future illness in people, or whether this was simply an exceptionally unfortunate development in John’s circumstances which happened to align to an old insult.

Others among Mary’s ‘victims’ were struck after petty neighbourly disputes. Mary believed one Elizabeth Hancock had stolen her hen, and grumbled at her, after which Elizabeth found she could not eat and began to waste away. Intriguingly, Elizabeth tried to counter the supposed curse put on her by baking a ‘witch cake’! Another woman, Cicely Bayle, quarrelled with Mary about sweeping the street. After this incident we get a fantastic story of Cicely becoming ill from a cat coming into her house which ‘sat upon her breast […] that she could not without great difficulty draw her breath’. It seems a bizarre image to us that a woman could become ill from being unable to get a cat off her chest, but at the time this would have corresponded with the common belief in ‘witches’ familiars’ – animals sent by a witch to do her dirty work for her.

The story ends badly for the unfortunate Mary. She confessed to the charges brought against her and was sentenced to execution. Confession to such outrageous accusations may seem inconceivable to us today, but was not uncommon – many of the accused had little chance of arguing their innocence in the face of mounting ‘evidence’, whilst a minority may have genuinely become convinced they had the powers ascribed to them.

To read the full trial of Mary Smith on Justis as published in The State Trials click here and log-in using your Oasis details.


[1] Alexander Roberts, A Treatise of Witchcraft (Project Gutenberg) <>.

[2] Holly Kelsey, ‘A Treatise of Witchcraft (1616) – Alexander Roberts’ on Shakespeare Trust Birthplace (August 15 2016) <>.

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