The 'swimming' of Mary Sutton (1615)
One might have thought that, after the last woman was burned to death as a witch in 1722, the suffering was over. Not so, for the practice of 'Swimming' was inflicted of many of those who were accused of Witchcraft after that date
Although the belief in trial by water can be traced back to the third millenium BC, the official use of 'swimming' in English law dates back to King Athelstan (928-930), where trial by water, termed 'indicium aquae', was a general test for all crimes. It ceased to be an official Law in 1219 under Henry III's reforms. For the next six hundred years it was popularly, but unofficially, supposed to be infallible in discovering the guilt of witches and those suspected of subscribing to the black arts.
It was believed that water rejected servants of the devil and that if a suspected person floated and refused to sink when placed in water it was proof of guilt.
The ordeal of 'swimming' was endorsed by James I of England, who stated in Daemonologie (1597) "that God hath appointed ... that the water shall refuse to receive them in her bosome, that have shaken off them the sacred Water of Baptisme, and wilfully refused the benefite thereof."
As described by Sir Robert Filmer (1653) a suspect would be stripped naked and then tied up - the right thumb to the left big toe and vice versa. In this position she was then secured by ropes and thrown into a deep stream or pond three times. If she sank (and often drowned) she was deemed as innocent - if she 'fleeted' (floated) then she was 'guilty'. Often men with long poles were employed to push her under the water, while others, holding the ropes could drag her to the surface again. It became well known that, if the poor victim was laid out 'flat on their back and [holding] up their feet with a string' then 'the forepart will not sink' (Thomas Ady 1656)
The 'swimming' of witches was practiced right the way through to the end of the eighteenth century. for example, the Monks Eleigh Parish Register contains the following entry: 'December 19 1748. Alice, the wife of Thomas Green, labourer, was swam, malicious and evil people having raised an ill-report of her for being a witch.'
The final official use of 'Swimming' happened in Leicester in 1717, where the unfortunate accused, mother and daughter, 'swam like a cork, a piece of paper or an empty barrel, though they strove all they could to sink',
In 1737 a woman was swum in the River Ouse, at Oakley in Bedfordshire. A large crowd watched, yelling ‘A witch! Drown her! Hang her!’. Even the vicar of Oakley attended. In 1751 Ruth Osborne was swum in a pond near Tring. A crowd of thousands gathered to see the swimming, and a collection was even held to cover expenses. Unsurprisingly, Osborne died from her repeated immersions, and Thomas Colley, who played a prominent role in the affair, was subsequently hanged for murder.
In July 20th 1776, at Farnham, in Suffolk "a poor man suspected of being a wizard was swam in the river Deben in the presence of a great number of spectators who had assembled from different parts of the county of Suffolk on the occasion, he was put upon his watery trial about 7 in the evening with his feet and hands tied but to the surprise of the whole company he sunk to the bottom and had it not been for the assistance of a humane spectator the experiment would have terminated in a manner shockingly to it's protectors, mortified and disappointed the company soon dispersed, ashamed of themselves and angry at their own weakness and credulity." (Ipswich Journal July 20th 1776)
Even as late as 1785 we find a newspaper report of a case of suspected witchcraft in Northamptonshire stating that if a witch was thrown into the water she would swim. Sarah Bradshaw pleaded to be ducked to demonstrate her innocence. Fortunately, she quickly sank.
An old woman of Stanningfield, Suffolk, in 1792, let herself be swum before the community in order to clear her name. All her other attempts to clear her name having failed Her husband and brother held the rope at her swimming to ensure that she was not mistreated. Fortunately she sank, though she was dragged out ‘almost lifeless’.
There was a story published in 1861 about 'an old gentleman who died ... not long ago [who] when a boy had seen a witch swum in Polstead Ponds [and] she went over the water like a cork.' (E Lynn Linton 1861)
The last recorded official 'swimming' of a wizard in East Anglia was inflicted on a Mr Stebbings at Wickham Skeith who was 'swum for a wizard' in July 1825. This was related in The Times for 19th July 1825 This description was based on a report in the Suffolk Chronicle of a case of supposed witchcraft in that county.
However, the following account shows that the idea was still current even after the end of the Crimean war! Not only was there the suggestion of 'swimming' the accused woman but also of 'watching' to see if the imp or familiar spirit returned, another technique that the witchfinder-general Matthew Hopkins had used two hundred years previously.
The last time we hear of a suspected wizard being 'swum', albeit by a mob, was in The Headingham witchcraft Case in March 15th 1864, described in a separate publication
Belief in witchcraft remained, however. In February 1829 the Bury and Norwich post wrote
"It will scarcely be believed that in this present day that there should be persons so ignorant that they believe in witchcraft, yet an instant took place in Ballingdon this week, a labouring man named Ruggles having been afflicted since harvest and still remained so, three of his neighbours took it into their heads that he was bewitched or as they termed it " in bad handling". To rescue him they pared his finger and toe nails and cut off some of his hair and put the whole into a glass bottle and placed it on the fire using some incantations and expecting to see some evil spirit depart from the victim, the bottle burst, it so frightened these ignorant neeromancers that two of them have scarce recovered, two are tradesmen's wives another a bricklayers wife."
The following account is by no means isolated. Throughout Victoria's reign, magistrates up and down the country continued to receive requests for the arrest of suspected witches. In May 1870, for example, Mr Lushington, a magistrate at the Thames police court, was asked by a poor woman to arrest a neighbour named Biddy Coghlan for being a witch. The plaintiff had a hen that had died after laying a few abnormally small eggs, and Coghlan was held responsible. Not surprisingly, like the author of the following piece, Lushington had little time for such complaints, and told the complainant to go about her business.
Foxearth & District Local History Society
'To your Worship, I come to ask your advice concerning my wife.---'
' What is the matter?'
'Your Worship, she is harassed night and day by continual worrying, like wind teasing her stomach, like a sow with all her young pigs a-pulling her to pieces.'
' I don't see what I can do, why don't you send for a doctor?'
'Doctor Sir? We have been to all the doctors about; we have spent shillings to get a remedy. All my family knows, poor dears.
' I still don't know what I can do.'
'Well sir, it is thought by many in the parish that she is bewitched and that has been put upon us by an evil disposed person through envy. There is a family near L----- who got turned out and we put in. We think it is through them they set old Mrs C----- to do it.
' who is Mrs C---?'
'She lives near the Lion and she have a character of being a witch; and I thought I would step down and ask you your Worship whether you would give me a grant to prove it.'
' How is she to be proved?'
'Why sir, I thought you could have her swum.
I have heard that if they be a witch and if you take a line (not to do them harm) but just to swim 'em, then if they be a witch they won't sink. I have heard that there was a gentleman at-----who had one swum in the river. I don't know how it finished but she did not live long after that, he had it done in public. Her name was Pointer; they tied her clothes about her legs and used her decent. She had a line round her waist and one on each side to keep her from sinking if she was an upright woman, but if she is a witch she can't sink her no-how: When her head was up her heels were down when her heels were up her head was down.
They do say your Worship that sich folk are increasing about in this world., and if you have so many in your parish they do a sight of harm. Also, everyone who sees my wife says they never seed such a complaint and call out she is certainly bewitched, she fare haunted night and day, she fare dried up like a crisp, she say.
Will, I can't lay still! I might as well try to sink a bladder in water. I do hope your Worship will grant the police to take old Mrs C-all of a sudden like-by surprise and take her to a pit and swim her (not to hurt her). If she is an upright woman she will sink, if she not sink it will prove her guilty.
Well, your Worship, at least I hope you will take her to a room and have her stripped and see if she has any bad about her.
' What is she likely to have about her?'
'Why sir, they do say they have imps about them.'
' what is an imp? '
'I don't know sir. Some bad spirit or other or the power of old Satan,
' How come you fix upon this poor old woman Mrs C--?'
'Last Friday, near about one month ago, my wife, after she has something to drink or a little magnesia, she looked out the window and there she saw the woman standing before the window in the moonlight, in an agony of some sort.'
' Well I can't listen to any more nonsense! '
'Ask the squire's gamekeeper and ask Tom T----, steady men, let the squire call these men before him and the clergyman, we wished to come to you first your worship,
' I have written down what you said, you must not trouble the squire with such rubbish. '
'Sir, if our squire knew there were such bad things like witchcraft in the parish he would have it altered.'
' I cannot listen to you any longer!'
'What sir? Aren't you going to have it proved,? Can't you at any rate have her hitched to the Union House? That might be of benefit.
Exit applicant protesting against anything short of full proof (by swimming her).
The district policeman has informed me that, on a certain night, J. B. asked him to come and watch under the pretence of his ducks being stolen, but he discovered afterwards they wanted him to see if the witch appeared. He saw no-one, the old woman Mrs C--- is harmless and respectable and is so infirm she cannot possibly been as far as J. B's house.
The writer gives several instances to show belief in witchcraft is general among the poor and not uncommon in the class above them.