Witchcraft in the 19th Century
Witchcraft still keeps its hold on the minds of many of our peasants.
They never doubt it's reaIity, although their conceptions of its effects, and the powers of those who are supposed to practise the art, have undergone much modification since the time when witchcraft was made a capital crime.
At present, reputed witches are supposed to employ themselves much more in doing mischief than in 'raising storms and causing great devastations both by sea and land'.
Witch feasts are now unknown; nor do the 'old crones' now fly through the air on broomsticks; but they are supposed to be able to cause bad luck to those who offend them; to produce fatal diseases in those they desire to punish more severely; and to plague the farmers by afflicting their cattle, and rendering their produce unprofitable.
Sickles, triple pieces of iron, and horse shoes, may still be found on the beams and behind the doors of stables and shippons; which are supposed to possess the power of destroying, or preventing, the effects of witchcraft; and self-holed stones, termed 'lucky-stones', are still suspended over the backs of cows, in order that they may be protected from every diabolical influence.
When cream is 'bynged', and will produce no butter by any amount of churning, it is said to be bewitched and a piece of red hot iron is frequently put into the churn, in order that the witch may be 'burnt out', and that butter may be produced.
To prevent cream from being bynged, dairy maids are taught to sing when churning:
Come, butter, come;
Peter stands at t'yate,
Waiting for a butter cake;
Come, butter, come.
When we see a fire on the top of a hill, we are sometimes assured that the flame is a witch-fire, and that the witches may be seen dancing round it at midnight.
It is firmly believed that no witch, nor even any very ill-disposed person, can step over anything in the shape of a cross. Hence persons are advised to lay a broom across the doorway when any suspected person is coming in. If their suspicions are well grounded, the witch will make some excuse and pass along the road.
The power of a witch is supposed to be destroyed by sprinkling salt into the fire nine mornings in succession. The person who sprinkles the salt must be the one affected by the supposed witchcraft, and as the salt drops down must repeat, 'Salt! Salt! I put thee into the fire, and may the person who has bewitched me neither eat, drink, nor sleep, until the spell is broken.'
During 187I a young man, resident near Manchester, suspected his own mother of having bewitched him, and the above spell was repeated in the presence of the magistrates before whom he was summoned, in consequence of his inhuman conduct to his mother.
There is also a female resident near Burnley, who refuses to live with her husband, because she suspects him of having bewitched her on many occasions.
Witches and Halloween
All-Hallow's Eve, Halloween, etc. (from the old English 'halwen', saints), denotes the vigil and day of All Saints, October 31 and November I, a season abounding in superstitious observances.
It was firmly believed in Lancashire that the witches assembled on this night at their general rendezvous in the Forest of Pendle, a ruined and desolate farmhouse, called the Malkin Tower
This superstition led to another, that of lighting, lating, or leeting the witches.
It was believed that if a lighted candle were carried about the fells or hills from eleven to twelve o'clock at night, and burned all that time steadily, it had so far triumphed over the evil power of the witches, who, as they passed to the Malkin Tower, would employ their utmost effor ts to extinguish the light, and the person whom it represented might safely defy their malice during the season, but if, by any accident the candle went out, it was an omen of evil to the luckless wight for whom the experiment was made.
It was also deemed inauspicious to cross the threshold of that person until after the return from leeting, and not then unless the candle had preserved its light. A Mr. Milner describes this ceremony as having been recently performed.
Killing a Witch
Some years ago I formed the acquaintance of an elderly gentleman who had retired from business, after amassing an ample fortune by the manufacture of cotton.
He was possessed of a considerable amount of general information, had studied the world by which he was surrounded, and was a leading member of the Wesleyan connection. The faith element, however, predominated amongst his religious principles, and hence both he and his family were firm believers in witchcraft.
On one occasion, according to my informant, both he and the neighbouring farmers suffered much from loss of cattle, and from the unproductiveness of their sheep.
The cream was bynged (soured) in the churn, and would bring forth no butter.
Their cows died mad in the shippons, and no farrier could be found who was able to fix upon the diseases which afflicted them.
Horses were bewitched out of their stables through the loopholes, after the doors had been locked, and were frequently found strayed to a considerable distance when they ought to have been safe in their stalls.
Lucky-stones had lost their virtues; horse shoes nailed behind the doors were of little use; and sickles hung across the beams had no effect in averting the malevolence of the evil-doer.
At length suspicion rested upon an old man, a noted astrologer and fortune- teller, who resided near Newchurch, in Rossendale, and it was determined to put an end both to their ill fortune and his career, by performing the requisite ceremonials for 'killing a witch'.
It was a cold November evening when the process commenced. A thick fog covered the valleys, and the wild winds whistled across the dreary moors. The farmers, however, were not deterred.
They met at the house of one of their number, whose cattle were supposed to be under the influence of the wizard; and having procured a live cock-chicken, they stuck him full of pins and burnt him alive, whilst repeating some magical incantation.
A cake was also made of oatmeal, mixed with the urine of those bewitched, and, after having been marked with the name of the person suspected, was then burnt in a similar manner.
The wind suddenly rose to a tempest and threatened the destruction of the house.
Dreadful moanings as of some one in intense agony, were heard without, whilst a sense of horror seized upon all within.
At the moment when the storm was at the wildest, the wizard knocked at the door, and in piteous tones desired admittance.
They had previously been warned by the 'wise man' whom they had consulted, that such would be the case, and had been charged not to yield to their feelings of humanity by allowing him to enter. Had they done so, he would have regained all his influence, for the virtue of the spell would have been dissolved.
Again and again did he implore them to open the door, and pleaded the bitterness of the wintry blast, but no one answered from within. They were deaf to all his entreaties, and at last the wizard wended his way across the moors as best he could.
The spell, therefore, was enabled to have its full effect, and within a week the Rossendale Wizard was locked in the cold embrace of death.