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Draw Blood, Break a Curse: Killing an English Witch in 1875

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hay harvest

Proper pitchfork duty during hay harvest — not quite what happened in Long Compton.

One of my research bunny-trails led me to some interesting fields the other day. Here’s a commentary on something that was headline news in England in 1875:

“As late as 1875 an inhabitant of [Long Compton] was convicted of manslaughter for stabbing an old woman with a pitchfork, causing her death. He gave as his motive that she was a witch–one of sixteen witches in the village–and that he was trying to break her spells.”[1]

1875! That’s not so long ago. It’s well within the framework of what we consider “the modern era.” Now consider that for just a moment.  What must have happened to lead to this tragedy for two?

The Witches of Long Compton

Long Compton lies northwest of Chipping Norton in Staffordshire, in the region we today call the Cotswolds.  The Cotswolds have a long history of witchcraft, mystical standing stones, and odd manifestations, although the area in general was left unscathed by the witch-hunts of earlier centuries.[2]

In this hamlet lived John Haywood, reportedly a “feeble-minded” fellow, who took it into his head that he was cursed by witches. Without seeing the original court reports I don’t know much more about him, but he was probably one whose life was not going right for whatever reason. If he was a farmer, maybe his crops were failing and his cow wouldn’t give milk. Or he was in ill health for no apparent reason. Or every venture he undertook failed. For these or any other reason, he became convinced the cause lay outside of himself.

Now there in the hamlet were  also 16 women–probably old women, or social outcasts, or both–of whom it was commonly believed (at least according to John) that they are witches. Haywood must have known all of them–there were only 267 people in the entire parish a few years earlier[3]–but his attention settled first on 79-year-old Ann Turner.  She may have been a close neighbor, someone he didn’t like too much, or she’d said harsh words to him in the past, so he became certain of her ill-will towards him. His suspicions may have been mirrored by his neighbors, as often happens in small settlements, but he’s the one who decided to do something about it.

Les botteleurs de foin  -  Salon de 1850 de Millet Jean Francois

Ann Turner was just going about her business in the fields, though given her age, she was probably not actually hay-making like the woman in this painting. (Millet Jean Francois, 1850)

One day John had enough. He resolved to break the spell or spells cast upon him that were ruining his life.  Drink seems to have been involved, but in any case, some straw finally broke the camel’s back. His imminent crime was probably not premeditated so much as it was done in the clouded heat of the moment.

Worked up, he picked up his trusty pitchfork and marched off to find Ann. Find her he did, in the fields, and promptly stabbed her twice with his farm implement. His intention, he said, was not to kill her, but to draw her blood (more about the logic of that tactic in a moment). But he did not stop at just scratching her skin. He skewered Ann, hit an artery in her leg, and she bled to death while the local doctor was attempting to save her.

John was tried at the Warwick Assizes and would have been put to death but for being simple-minded. Instead he was sent to an asylum for the criminally insane and died there 15 years later.

Witch-Hunts Are Over — Aren’t They?

What struck me most in this new old-news report is that a woman was assaulted and slain for being a witch in a year we generally think of as relatively modern.   This is not something that happened in the bad old days and misty past of the witch-hunt era, but in industrialized Britain. This was an era of telegraph communications, rail travel, and compulsory grammar school education for children. “Modern” by any measure, at least in terms of progress. But old attitudes die hard, and the Haywood/Turner case seems to be the tip of the iceberg about rural attitudes and beliefs about witchcraft.

Image of witches being hanged, from Ralph Gard...

Image of witches being hanged, from Ralph Gardiner, England’s Grievance Discovered in Relation to the Coal Trade, 1655. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When we think of witch-hunts and witch-slaying, we generally think of the 16th and 17th centuries, a time and mindset that was left behind as Europe clawed its way to the heights of the Age of Reason. The last executions for witchcraft in England happened in 1682. At the turn of the 18th century, public attitudes were changing, as articulated by Joseph Addison in an article in the highly respected The Spectator (No. 117).[4] In that publication in 1711 he criticized the injustice and irrationality in treating feeble and elderly women as witches.  By 1735 general belief in witchcraft had faded so far that statutes themselves were altered: the Act of 1735 prosecuted people for fraud rather than witchcraft, since it was no longer believed that people were literally in league with the Devil, or that they had supernatural powers.

But regardless of the laws, popular belief continued to hold onto the idea that some people–almost always women–were witches, ill-wishing others, casting curses, and doing other evil deeds when moved to. These beliefs have waned since the 18th century, but they persist and can be found even today, in Europe, America, and other countries around the world.

In the 19th century, such beliefs were already being considered quaint by mainstream society, and generally regarded as mere superstition, worthy of dismissive commentary in newspapers and scholarly journals.  This “superstitious” belief in witches was not always harmless, though.[5] It surfaced in many guises in many different places and times; it could be relatively harmless or overtly harmful. Whispered speculation can grow into avoidance and social shunning. Once a community shuns someone it is easier for unruly elements to attack that shunned party, because they are already marked as outcast.

Exactly this happened circa 1857, in a manner that illustrates why hapless John Haywood thought piercing a witch’s skin with his pitchfork would do him some good in breaking her spells.

The Troubled Last Days of Dolly Henderson

Rollright Stones, Oxfordshire

Rollright Stones, Oxfordshire

Northwest of Long Compton lies a hill, the location of the famed megalithic Rollright Stones[6], and at the base of that hill on the far side lies the village of Salford.  Around 1857, a mere 18 years before Ann Turner’s murder, an old woman named Dolly Henderson lived there. Dolly was considered “a notable witch” by the locals. One day Dolly had a disagreement with her neighbor Ann Hulver. Here is what Jinny Biggerstaff, who knew these people, recalled of these events 40 years later[7]:

“One day [Dolly] fell out with a woman named Ann Hulver, and bewitched her, so that she was very ill for a long time and could get no cure. At last she went to a cunning man named Manning, who told her that she would meet a woman as she went home, and that she was the person who had caused her illness, but she was not to speak to her, or say anything to anyone about her. But she did; she told some women that worked in the fields what the  man said, and so she got worse and worse til she was like a skeleton. About this time a boy was also bewitched by old Dolly, and his brother threw a thorn stick at her, which tore her arm and made it bleed a good deal. The woman and the boy then soon got well, but the old witch died, and the terror of the village was got rid of.”

Besides the usual suspicion and predictable hassling of the socially outcast “witch,” what is interesting here is the folk belief that drawing a witch’s blood will break the spell(s) she has cast.  Salford villagers thought a curse was lifted from Ann Hulver and the unnamed boy because Dolly Henderson was made to bleed by the thorn stick.

It was this same belief that caused John Haywood to settle on sticking Ann Turner with his pitchfork. He did not intend to kill her, just to make her bleed, which he thought would cause the curse upon him to break.

And the Moral of The Story Is. . .

Beneath this story lurks another, larger, one, about the actual practice of witchcraft or “the old religion” (a nature religion), what ignorant folk believe is the practice of witchcraft (curses and spells of ill-wishing), the truths and the grey areas between, and the social psychology of how people respond to outcasts and the unusual (or “deviance,” broadly stated) in small communities.  And I am intentionally skirting most of those subjects for now, for unfortunately they are far beyond the scope of this post. Hopefully I will have time to get into them more in the future.

Meanwhile, though, here is what strikes me as noteworthy in this news about the death of a witch in 1875.

Pagan practices, beliefs, superstitions and suspicion of the strange are still alive in western culture.  Even as our world became more modern, these things did not completely fade away with the coming of telecommunications–not in the 19th century, and not even in the 21st.

Suspicion of witchcraft flourishes even more so in rural areas where people are less exposed to viewpoints or knowledge that will unsettle their folk understanding of these things. Rural residents also live in more insular environments where their folk-beliefs are reinforced because everyone around them believes the same things are true. (This was especially true in the less-physically-mobile 19th century.)  This is almost a truism in anthropology and sociology, and we see a practical demonstration of it in Jinny Bigerstaff’s anecdote. “Draw a witch’s blood and it will break her spell” was not an isolated fancy, but common knowledge in the area. Here we see it in practice in two locations 18 years apart in time (1857 and 1875), but this is the sort of thing that falls into the “folk belief” category, and has no doubt persisted for centuries.

brewtnall witch detail2The fact that it is old women singled out in these villages as suspect witches, handy targets for a boy’s spitefully thrown stick or a simpleton’s pitchfork assault, is predictable but disturbing. It reminds one of Addison’s well-justified criticism in 1711 of  “injustice and irrationality in treating feeble and elderly women as witches.”  There is no doubt that many women did and do practice the Old Religion in various forms, but there is also no doubt that people on the fringes of society are easy to marginalize and keep distant from the main community life by tales told about them and various versions of social ostracism. When people become the target of community suspicion, life becomes uncomfortable. All the more so, when the subjects of disapprobation live in a time and place (like the late 19th century) when it is not possible, socially, financially, or even transportation-wise, to just pick up sticks and move somewhere else.

Old ladies in this situation had to tough it out as best they could. Whether suspicions against them had basis in fact, or were simply pot-stirring due to social friction, the end result was the same. Marginalization, an outcast status, and being fair game for attack paint an ugly picture of an elderly woman’s last years, but this seems to be a fate suffered by more than a few across the years.

Fear and ignorance are a combination that bode ill for anyone who is the unfortunate target of this state of mind. Add to this the willingness to put someone in a category and belief sets that prescribe how to deal with that category, and we can (as shown) end up with murder.  Of course, Ann Turner and witches in general are not the only example of this; this pitiful dynamic replays again and again with us slow-learning humans. This dynamic has given us such wonderful things as lynch mobs and ethnic cleansing and certain media outlets that specialize in fear-based propaganda and prescriptive remedies, to name just a few.

I suppose in the end I was surprised to learn of the historical anomaly of the killing of a “witch” at such a recent date in western history.  The folk beliefs (about blood and the nature of witchcraft) are both interesting and irritating, but mainly it is just sad that these old women met such fates.  Us enlightened modern people like to think that things like this don’t happen any more, but in fact they do.

When are we as a race going to grow up?

A visit to the witch - Edward Frederick Brewtnall, late 19th century

A visit to the witch – Edward Frederick Brewtnall, late 19th century


1.  Folklore, Vol. 13. Folklore Society, 1902, p. 290.

2. For more on the Cotswold’s history of witchcraft, the Long Compton case in particular, and the Rollright Stones, see generally Michael Howard’s article “The Witches of Long Compton,” at The Cauldron online. Howard refers to Ann Turner once as Turner and once mistakenly as Tennant. To judge by other historical accounts, Turner appears to be her correct name.

3. Long Compton is located in Ranton Parish. Population census figures for the period in question are here.

4. Wikipedia. “Witch-hunt”

5.  Superstition:  In our scientific modern world, we have on the one hand the rational-minded skeptic who categorically denies that such a thing as a witch really exists (or has any real powers), and the complete believer who trusts that there is magic (and probably also devils) and that some people work with these forces to no good end.  Both of these extremes approach the fact of the witch (or Wiccan, or pagan) fueled by a surfeit of ignorance.  The truth lies somewhere in between (or perhaps on a different axis entirely), but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion (or book).   When I speak here of the “superstitious” belief in witches, I am referring solely to a belief set fueled by folk knowledge and lore, not to the facts or realities of a witch’s existence or lived experience.

6. Rollright Stones. Megalithic stones on the hill between Long Compton and Salford, long reported to be the site of witch gatherings, magic rituals, and odd manifestations. For more, see the Howard article (footnote #2) or this official site.

7. Folklore, ibid., p. 290.  This anecdote came “from Mrs Jinny Bigerstaff, of Salford, aged 63, who knew the people mentioned.” The note is dated 9 Oct 1897.


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Author Deborah Teramis Christian

Teramis wrote her first book at age 9, but like all good literary lizards has taken her time charging upon the market. Finally in a situation where she can write full time, she is becoming the Dragon, Unleashed, or a close facsimile thereof. Roar, said the saur.

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