Kill the witch!: murder and superstition in a Victorian village

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An appropriate post for Hallowe’en…

Witchcraft is most commonly associated with the seventeenth century – the era of James II and his obsession with witches, and Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder-General. Yet in rural areas, even in the late nineteenth century, the association of elderly women with witchcraft persisted, and could – and did – result in murder.

It is 15 September 1875 in the village of Long Compton, which is, as its name suggests, a linear village, between Shipston-on-Stour in Warwickshire and Chipping Norton over the border into Oxfordshire.

It is, even today, a quiet place; there is one gastro-pub, the Red Lion, and one village shop, and a church and primary school. If you time it right, you can catch the infrequent bus service to Stratford; or else you can explore the lovely countryside on all sides of the village.

It’s a short journey from the Rollright Stones – Neolithic and Bronze Age stones that, folklore says, was a group of men turned into stone by a local witch.

But in 1875, the village had a closer link to witchcraft. One newspaper commented that “there is a general belief in witchcraft at Long Compton and in other villages of South Warwickshire, among a certain class of the agricultural population.”

There was even a “wise man” living near Banbury, whom the local residents visited to try and get rid of witchcraft affecting them.

There was suspicion of several aged women, in particular, in the village, and the area on one side of the pub was even known as Witch End. Often, witchcraft was associated with widows; but here, ordinary married women were also viewed with suspicion.

But I digress.

It was around 7.30 on Wednesday evening, and 79-year-old Ann Tennant was returning from the village baker with a loaf of bread for her and her husband’s supper. She was married to John, who had had a varied career history working as a butcher, agricultural labourer and small dealer.

They had had several children, but although all had moved out of the family home now, several still lived on the same road with their own families, including sons James and John and daughter Elizabeth.

The Red Lion in Long Compton: photo by Mike Faherty from Geograph.

The Red Lion in Long Compton: photo by Mike Faherty from Geograph.

Coming the other way was James Hayward, a local farm labourer, then aged around 44. He was accompanied by his stepfather, and close to them was a 16 year old farm labourer named John Ivens, all returning home from work.

Ivens saw Ann coming down the road on the footpath, carrying her loaf of bread. He then looked at Hayward, with a pitchfork over one shoulder, from which hung a basket and a bottle – his lunch from earlier.

With no warning, on seeing Ann, Ivens saw Hayward throw his bottle and basket into the road before walking calmly up to the elderly women. He thrust his pitchfork into her, stabbing her several time in both legs, then hitting her over the head with the fork’s handle.

The shock of the attack seems to have paralysed those who witnessed it, but James Taylor, a nearby farmer, heard Ann’s terrified screams and ran to her aid. He grabbed Hayward and held him while the village constable, John Simpson, was called.

Meanwhile, others who heard the screams picked Ann off the floor and carried her to her daughter Elizabeth’s house, which was only a few yards away.

The Chipping Norton doctor, George Wright Hutchinson, was called and saw Ann lying on the floor of her daughter’s cottage, mumbling incoherently. She had wounds to her left temple, right ear, and both legs. Ann died 15 minutes after the doctor’s arrival, and he gave the cause of death as loss of blood and shock.

PC Simpson arrived and told James he had to lock him up, as he looked like he had killed Mrs Tennant. James replied:

“There are no odds about it, I hope she will die – there are fifteen more of them in the village that I will serve the same. I will kill them all.”

James was taken to the nearest prison cell, which was the Shipston-on-Stour lock-up, but by the time he was taken out of Long Compton, a crowd had gathered, and he was hooted with derision and anger as he left.

Once at the lock-up, James showed no remorse. He said,

“I hope she’s dead, she was an old witch: there are fifteen more in the village I’ll serve the same. I mean to kill them all.”

He then said that earlier in the week, he had been trying to work in a bean field for hours, and had been unable to be productive – “as they had witched me.”

The following morning, at about 11am, Superintendent Thompson informed James Hayward that he was to be charged with murder, as Ann had died of her injuries. “Dead?” asked James. “Yes.” Answered Thompson. “Well, I didn’t kill her outright,” was the strange reply.

The next day, James continued to act strangely. From his cell, he called the superintendent, James Thompson, to him, thrusting out a jug of water and saying, “the water I have is full of witches!” He then added,

“It is only those that have witches about them that can see them, and no-one can work, only when the witches will let them.”

For the rest of that day, he continued to ramble incoherently about witches and witchcraft. He said the Banbury wise man had told him he was possessed, and that James believed it was his duty to kill the witch who had possessed him.

The 1871 census, showing Ann Tennant living next door to her murder James Hayward (with his mother and stepfather). From Ancestry.

The 1871 census, showing Ann Tennant living next door to her murder James Hayward (with his mother and stepfather). From Ancestry.

Once transported to gaol, Hayward marked passages in the bible that he thought showed he was justified in his acts; and finally, he tried to bribe the prison governor with a sovereign to let him off the murder charge, arguing that he had killed her only to “avenge” the injury she had done him in possessing him.

At Ann’s inquest, which was held at the Red Lion on 17 September, several witnesses deposed that James, although appearing “quite rational” and having worked since his youth as a farm labourer, “was under the delusion that he was haunted with witches”.

Young John Ivens was called to give evidence, and related what he had seen. He had been working with Hayward all day in the harvest fields, and had seen him threaten Ivens’ grandfather and some other local women. He said that these women – Ann Tennant, Betty Ford, and Betty Hughes – were all witches, that they had been haunting him, and that he would kill them all.

The coroner’s jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against James, and he was duly sent for trial at Warwick Assizes. His trial was held on Wednesday 15 December 1875, when he was indicted for murdering Ann Tennant. It was reported that,

“the prisoner entertained most astounding delusions and superstituons respecting witches and witchcraft, which had haunted him for years, impelling him to murder the deceased, and which still held his mind in thraldom [sic].”

James made no friends at his trial by repeatedly refering to poor Ann as “a wicked old wretch”. John Tennant gave evidence, and stated that Hayward’s parents had also been firm believers in witchcraft, and frequently said that witches were “at” their son – “they won’t leave him alone”. They therefore brought James up to believe that when anything went wrong in his life, or with his work, it was not his fault but that of witches.

Although John Tennant said James was seen by others as being “not quite right” in the head, and that “he would drink any quantity of gin or liquor that could be put before him, and then he would go mad after”, another witness estimated that a third of the village believed in witchcraft.

James Taylor, the farmer who intervened in Ann’s attack, said that although he didn’t believe in witches himself,

“There were many persons in the village whom he knew to be popularly regarded as witches. They were all old women, and mostly widows. He did not know an instance of a young woman or a sick old woman being suspected of being a witch.”

PC Simpson added to this, stating, “I feel sure there are many people in Long Compton who believe in witchcraft.”

To a rural labourer, such as James, brought up in a family with these beliefs, blaming witches for poor work was a reasonable thing to do; but the more modern, urban jury saw it clearly as irrational and madness. They found James to be not guilty by reason of insanity. The judge commented,

“I do really think something should be done towards putting a stop to this unhappy state of things. Such ignorance and superstition is most criminal and lamentable.”

James was ordered to be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure; one source states that he starved himself to death a few months later.

 

Sources: The York Herald, 20 September 1875, p.3; Berrow’s Worcester Journal, 25 September 1875, p.6; The Bradford Observer, 16 December, 1875, p.5; Berrow’s Worcester Journal, 18 December 1875, p.3; Reynold’s Newspaper, 19 December 1875.

The House of Correction for Bad Wives

Joseph Townsend

Joseph Townsend

In 1791, the London Chronicle reported the existence of a “remarkable” house of correction in Barcelona, which had been visited by Joseph Townsend four years earlier.

It had two aims: the reformation of prostitutes and female thieves (the two apparently interlinked or one and the same thing to many); and the second aim was “the correction of women who fail in their obligation to their husbands, and of those who either neglect or disgrace their families”.

The women held in this house of correction were fed bread and meat, paid for mainly through fines, but the women were expected to help fund their own meals by working “as long as they can see”.

They were able to earn five shillings a month, half of which was given to the Governor, and the other half was kept on their behalf until their term of confinement had expired – enabling them to walk out of the House of Correction with some funds behind them.

It was made clear that this punishment was a last resort, for these strong-minded women should ideally be “corrected” by their husbands, fathers, or other relatives. If they were unable to give a “severe” enough chastisement, then they could apply to the magistrate to confine them “for a term proportioned to their offences”.

The relative who sought their confinement would be made to contribute the equivalent of fourpence halfpenny a day for their maintenance, “and with this scanty provision they must be contented.”

The whole building was designed to maintain 500 women, suggesting that Barcelona had (or anticipated) something of a problem with independent women, although at the time of Townsend’s visit, there were only 113 women confined there.

These included, apparently, some rather fashionable ladies, whose families would tell concerned people that they were “visiting some distant friends”. One woman present was a rather well-to-do lady who had been accused both of being drunk and “imprudent in her conduct”.

Such women would receive “bodily correction, when it is judged necessary for their reformation,” a good whipping presumably being just the think for getting rid of any unfeminine thoughts.

This tale was regaled to the English newspaper reader as a strange act carried out by those odd foreigners; one can imagine the Daily Mail salivating over the tales of posh drunks, prostitutes and errant wives, being forced to learn appropriate behaviour from men.

Yet the English press appear to have failed to realise the similarities between this establishment and the gaols of its own land; the willingness of the English law to punish women deemed guilty of unfeminine or immoral acts; and the legality of whipping for women in England at this time.

It wrote about the strangeness of the law in Spain, without recognising the equal strangeness of the law at home.

Source: London Journal, 30 June-2 July 1791; “A Journey Through Spain in the Years 1786 and 1787″ by Joseph Townsend (1791).

 

Why poor neglected females turn to crime

womenIt is a truth universally acknowledged that women do not always get paid the same as men for doing the same job, and this is in the 21st century. In the 18th century, women were often paid less than men, and had less recourse to the law than we do today to fight for a fairer deal.

Yet the fact that women were paid less, and sometimes paid a wage that they could not live on, was not a secret. Many knew it; and some had considerable sympathy for the plight of the female in the workplace.

One anonymous writer in 1796 argued that there was a clear correlation between the disparity in male and female wages and the likelihood of a woman turning to thieving as a result. He wrote that women were paid a quarter of what they should be, and added:

“I beg to remind the public that sempstresses had the same wages sixty years ago that they have now…while the wages of the men have been considerably advanced, those of the women had remained as before.”

In addition, legislation had regulated the wages of men, “while the poor neglected females have had none to plead their cause”.

And what was the result of this unfairness? The writer recognised the desperation of those who were out of employment, and who knew “the cravings of hunger”. He asked,

“Is there one man in a thousand who knows the cravings of hunger, who if a convenient opportunity offers to gratify his appetite even by means of theft, could withstand the temptation? No wonder that we heard of so many female thieves.”

The writer was relatively unusual in recognising why some women might be compelled to steal – not through a failing in their personality, or a lack of respect for society, but out of hunger, poverty, or lack of other choices.

Yet he still linked the criminality of women to that of men, unable to continue his argument that a woman could act independently of men. He concluded:

“The path of honesty once deserted, is very difficult to regain: but then entirely lost female virtue follows, and the consequence is, a connection is formed with the most infamous of the other sex, who then carry on the trade of thieving jointly.”

So once the female had set off down the path of thieving, it would be difficult to live an honest (poorly paid) life again; but if she met with an equally thieving man, she would be completely lost.

Source: The Oracle and Public Advertiser, 18 August 1796

 

'Six Stages of Mending a Face' (1792) © Trustees of the British Museum

Defacing Beauty

'Six Stages of Mending a Face' (1792) © Trustees of the British Museum

‘Six Stages of Mending a Face’ (1792) © Trustees of the British Museum

One eighteenth-century reviewer’s judgement on an exhibition of paintings, recorded in The Times, was marred slightly by one thing – the distraction of women.

The walking paintings at the exhibitions are by far more curious, more attractive, and more worthy the attention of the speculative mind than those whose situations are stationary. Why will women take so much pains to render their appearance unnameable – as Ordeal says in the new comedy, “they should be prosecuted for high treason in defacing beauty”.

- The Times, 13 May 1785, page 2

 

This put-out writer was misquoting the 1785 play Fashionable Levities, which had the character of Mr Ordeal praise a woman for her natural looks. Ordeal says, ‘her real face shall never be concealed under a counterfeit; some ladies coin complexions, and should be punished for high treason in defacing beauty’.

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Appropriately, given the legal language in the play, it was written by the Dublin barrister Leonard Macnally. He trod a fine line between comedy and the law, writing at least 12 plays – mainly satires and comedies – as well as comic operas, and writing both a well respected book on the law of evidence and a handbook (albeit described as ‘exceedingly inaccurate‘) on the role of the Justice of the Peace in Ireland. He is regarded as having helped define the standard of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ at criminal trials.

Yet Macnally was also a founding member of the Society of United Irishmen in the 1790s – set up to get parliamentary reform, but which became an Irish republican organisation – and defended other members in court, his clients including Wolfe Tone (also a former barrister). After his death in 1820, it was discovered that he had, in fact, been a government informant, spying on the United Irishmen for Britain. For the last 26 years of his life, he had been receiving payment for his services.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, one of his common tactics was, when given a brief for the defence in a government prosecution, to pass on its contents to the crown’s lawyers. Yet James McMullen Rigg stated that ‘though no great lawyer [he] was…a powerful cross-examiner.’

Of course, there are similarities between law and drama – there is an element of acting when you are a barrister presenting a case in court, and in drama, you say your lines wanting your audience to believe what you say, and believe who you are.

But Macnally confused things further, using legal language in his plays, and playing several characters himself – playwright, lawyer, republican, government informer.

Macnally’s life may have been interesting, but he does not come across as an attractive character – much like the made-up women he critiqued in his play.

 

Criminally interesting: the British Crime Historians Symposium 2014

Liverpool's St George's Hall - former location of the Assizes

Liverpool’s St George’s Hall – former location of the Assizes

On 26 and 27 September, criminal historians from across the UK – and indeed from around the world – gathered at the University of Liverpool’s Foresight Centre for the 2014 British Crime Historians Symposium.

It was an incredibly enjoyable and friendly conference, with several people commenting on how quickly the time went, listening to a wide variety of papers and talking to people working in diverse areas of criminal history.

The only downside, as usual, was choosing which panel to go and listen to; often, several equally interesting panels took place at a time.

The Digital Panopticon team were there, talking about data visualisation and other aspects of this project, which aims to study the impact of punishments on the lives of thousands of people sentenced at the Old Bailey in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Meanwhile, legal historian Richard Ireland gave a hugely entertaining paper about Welsh criminal justice which was later also looked at by Rachel Jones, who studied how Welsh magistrates’ local knowledge was used in their decision making.

Interesting things learned here included the fact that although English was the official language of the Welsh courts until 1942, matters were sometimes subverted by evidence being given in Welsh, without translation, or even by magistrates conducting affairs in Welsh themselves, leading to some rather brief reports in the press – the English-speaking reporters being unable to say what had happened in court. Magistrates might also be related to prosecution or defence lawyers, leading to some rather biased – but also strangely intimate – court cases.

In another panel, I was particularly interested in Louise Falcini‘s paper on the impressment of naked male bathers in London in the late 18th century and Guy Woolnough‘s on rural policing in Victorian Cumbria, which linked the Temperance movement and Methodism in the area to the nature of arrests by the local police.

On Saturday, I listened to a fascinating panel about a project, After Care, that sets out to document the life histories of children who were sent to reformatories in the late 19th century. Pam Cox, Heather Shore and Zoe Alker spoke about the challenges of the project, which is trying to find out what happened to these children – did they go on to lead successful lives, and how do we measure success?

I then took part in a panel with Cardiff University’s Cath Horler-Underwood about women’s involvement in crime in the eighteenth century – I spoke about the representation of female defendants in property offence cases heard by rural magistrates, and Cath about women’s involvement in coin uttering cases – which included some great detail about women who hid coins in their underclothes, which had to be ‘retrieved’ by searchers.

Here’s my Storify of the conference (my tweets were sadly limited as I couldn’t get onto the wifi – despite much trying). If you weren’t there, you missed out on a criminally interesting, entertaining, yet informative, conference that proved that criminal history is where it’s at!

 

 

 

condemned

The Ullingswick Murder, Part Five: On trial for rape and murder

This is the final part of my series this week on the Ullingswick Murder. Click on the links for Parts One, Two, Three and Four.

The trial of William Hope took place on 28 March 1863 at the Herefordshire Assizes.

Entry for William Hope at the Hereford Assizes in 1863, from Ancestry.

Entry for William Hope at the Hereford Assizes in 1863, from Ancestry.

The circumstantial evidence – William’s presence at the beershop, his attempts to get Mary to drink with him, his sudden absence from the shop when Mary left, and his failure to return back to his lodgings – was combined with the evidence of marks in the clay and mud matching his poorly mended cord trousers, and the teethmarks in his skin.

Particular emphasis was placed on this physical evidence, and the fact that the trousers had been found bloody and muddy. The newspapers reported that these were ‘damning proofs of the prisoner’s guilt’, and there was little surprise when the jury found Hope guilty of wilful murder, and he was sentenced to death.

In reality, Hope’s previous convictions virtually signed his death warrant. He was known locally as a bad character, a man with a criminal past, who was unable to get steady employment, who liked his beer a bit too much.Even his looks were perceived to be criminal.

He was the obvious suspect, and there is little evidence that the local community saw him as anything other than a bad apple. The press saw him likewise, stating that:

‘he displayed not the slightest feeling while sentence was pronounced, and seemed to be indifferent to the death that awaits him.’

It was reported that Hope was ‘sullen’ between his conviction and the execution, and that when the High Sheriff of Hereford had visited him in his cell two days before his death, he had admitted the murder, but blamed Mary for her own death.

He turned her second visit to the beer-shop as an invitation, a suggestion that she was interested in him – and so he followed her intending to ‘gratify his lustful passions’. He said that if Mary ‘had not returned a second time to the village beerhouse and shop, and waited for him in the road, it would not have happened.’

condemnedOn the night before his death, Hope had been unable to sleep, only getting two hours’ sleep between 3am and 5am. He ate the usual prison breakfast at 7am. He was then pinioned, and helped onto the scaffold. He then knelt down to pray with the chaplain for a few moments, before the noose was adjusted round his neck, and the white cap placed over his head.

On Wednesday 15 April 1863, at exactly 8am, William Hope was executed by hangman Smith.

‘He was assisted to the drop, gazed for an instant with a wild look on the thousands of persons who had assembled to witness a murderer’s end, and the next instant was launched into eternity, life passing away with scarcely a struggle.’

His hanging was reported in far less detail than the original offence. This is, perhaps, what he deserved; it also reflects a desire by the press not to turn this hanging into entertainment, given contemporary concerns over the point of such executions.

But it also shows how the focus of the press was on the juxtaposition of good versus bad; the goodness of the loyal servant and the evil of her death at the hands of a criminal who had been given a second chance by the judicial system.

Sources for these blog posts: The Standard, London, 23 October 1862, The Leeds Mercury, 24 October 1862, The Standard, London, 25 October 1862, Berrow’s Worcester Journal, 28 March 1863,  The Bury and Norwich Post, 31 March 1863, Bristol Mercury, 18 April 1863, Criminal Registers, 1851 census, 1861 census, 1871 census via Ancestry.

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The Ullingswick Murder, Part Four: The Criminality of William Hope

The penultimate part of my story of the Ullingswick Murder. Catch up on Parts One, Two and Three by clicking the links.

William Hope's entry in the criminal register for 1850, from Ancestry.

William Hope’s entry in the criminal register for 1850, from Ancestry.

William Hope was not a character with a blameless record, and so it was perhaps inevitable that he would be the first person on whom blame for Mary’s death would fall.

He was a local – born in Ullingswick in 1833 to agricultural labourer George and his wife Ann, at their house at New Bridge, Ullingswick. He was well-known to the other villagers, evne lodging for a while with Mary and John Bevans.

But although he was known by name, face and family, this did not stop him abusing his neighbours. In 1850, he had broken into Mrs Skerrick’s house in the village, this being before her husband had died. He stole fowls from the house and was duly tried at the Hereford County Sessions of 30 December 1850.

He was found guilty of housbreaking and robbery, and was sentenced on the first offence to a week’s imprisonment, but for the second, was sentenced to be transported for seven years.

He never made it to Australia, but instead was sent to Millbank prison in Pimlico, London, which was designed as a ‘holding’ prison where prisoners would be kept before they were transported.

William, though, served a whole three years of his sentence at Millbank. This was usual by the 1860s, as transportation had greatly reduced, with most people being sentenced in this way simply serving a prison sentence.

He then obtained a ‘ticket-of-leave’ and returned to Herefordshire, but ‘resumed his old habits and associations’.

Millbank Prison, 1867

Millbank Prison, 1867

The press reported that he had since been convicted twice for various misdemeanours, including the use of threatening language, and had been twice imprisoned for 14 days. However, the records of the Trinity Quarter Sessions held at Hereford in July 1861 also show that a William Hope was convicted of assault on that date and sentenced to six months in prison.

By 1861, he had found lodgings with a sawyer, Mr Proper, at Ullingswick, but was dependent on occasional labouring odd jobs to maintain himself. He was well known for his regular drinking in the Ship Inn.

He was a stout, thick-necked, burly man, and the Victorian press, in its usual way, decided that ‘his physiognomy tends to a low estimate of his moral character.’ He was also described as ‘a man of known bad character’.

The press also noted that he had previously been in the army and the Herefordshire Militia, clearly associating his criminal nature with his involvement in the armed forces. [The Bristol Mercury, 18 April 1863].

This was not a new association; as Clive Emsley has noted, the armed forces in England have long had a negative image, being associated with complex images of masculinity relating to aggressiveness, drink and violence [Clive Emsley, ‘Soldier, Sailor, Beggarman, Thief: Crime and the British Armed Services since 1914’, Oxford, 2013, p.11]

In short, William Hope had all the characteristics of a Victorian baddie. He was working-class, a drifter, with a long criminal record. He was just as much a stereotype, as he was depicted in the press, as any Dickensian character.

The final part of the Ullingswick Murder: On trial for rape and murder, will be published tomorrow.