"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Witches of Island Magee

Follower of Jan Mandijn, "The Witches Cove," 16th century

Earlier on this blog, I looked at the case of Jane Wenham, who is often (albeit erroneously) called the last person to be tried for witchcraft in England. Coincidentally, Ireland's final witch trial took place at around the same time. It was the unfortunate climax to what we would today call a particularly bizarre poltergeist case.

Our story opened in September 1710. A widow named Anne Haltridge, while staying in the Island Magee home of her son, James Haltridge, began to be the victim of some strange and frightening occurrences. Every night, an invisible force would violently throw stones and pieces of turf at her bed. Her pillow would be snatched from under her head, and the blankets torn away. A careful search was made of the room, but nothing could be found that would explain these attacks. Mrs. Haltridge, understandably unnerved by it all, moved to another bedroom, hoping that would be the end of her troubles.

It wasn't. One evening in early December, as she sat alone by the kitchen fire, a little boy suddenly materialized and sat beside her. His appearance was odd: he wore an old black bonnet, a torn vest, and was wrapped in a blanket that he used to cover his face. Mrs. Haltridge plied him with the obvious questions--Who was he? What was he doing there?--but the weird visitor merely danced around the kitchen for a moment, then ran outside. The servants chased after the boy, but he had vanished as suddenly as he had appeared.

After this, life returned to normal until February 11, 1711. That afternoon, Mrs. Haltridge was again alone, this time reading a book of sermons. She momentarily placed the book on a table. A few moments later, the book was gone. She had not left the room, nor had anyone else entered. She could not find it anywhere. The next day, the mysterious little boy reappeared outside the house. He broke one of the windows and thrust the missing book inside the hole. He told one of the servants, Margaret Spear, that he had stolen the book and that Mrs. Haltridge would never get it back. Spear asked if he had read the book. Oh, yes, the boy replied. The Devil had taught him how to read. "The Lord bless me from thee!" Spear gasped. "Thou hast got ill learning!"

The boy sneered that she might bless herself as often as she liked. It would do her no good. He then brandished a sword, announcing that he would kill everyone in the house. Spear ran into the parlor and locked the door behind her. The boy laughed at this, stating that he could come inside by the smallest hole in the house. The Devil could turn him into anything he liked. This sinister apparition then threw a large rock through the parlor window. Shortly after that, Spear saw the boy catching a turkey, which he threw over his shoulder. The bird's struggles loosened the book, which the boy was carrying inside his blanket, and it fell to the ground. The boy tried to kill the turkey with his sword, but it escaped. Spear then saw him using the sword to dig a hole in the ground. The girl asked him what he was doing. "Making a grave for a corpse which will come out of this house very soon," he replied. Then, obviously realizing he had delivered one hell of an exit line, he flew over a hedge and disappeared.

All was quiet for a few days. Then, on February 15, the blankets on Mrs. Haltridge's bed were mysteriously removed and placed in a bundle on the floor. The family replaced them on the bed, only to have them again yanked off and placed under a table. The Haltridges made another effort to put them back on the bed. For a third time, some unseen force removed the bedclothes, this time forming them into the shape of a corpse.

That night, the family's minister, Robert Sinclair, stayed with the now deeply shaken family, offering what comfort and prayers he could. Mrs. Haltridge retired to bed, but, understandably enough, did not sleep well. Around midnight, she gave a sudden yell of pain. She said it felt as if she had been stabbed through the back. The sharp pain never left her until the moment she died a week later. While she was on her deathbed, the blankets on her bed were periodically again removed and placed in that eerie corpselike shape.

These were not subtle spirits.

Inevitably, talk spread that Mrs. Haltridge had been bewitched to death. The surviving Haltridges found themselves wondering if the ordeal was over, or if a curse had been placed on the entire family. They got their answer at the end of February. A houseguest, a teenaged friend of the family named Mary Dunbar, found that some of her clothes had been removed from her trunk and scattered around the house. While gathering up the items, she found on the parlor floor an apron. It was rolled up in a tight ball, and bound with a string which was tied in a number of strange knots. When the apron was undone, a flannel cap that had belonged to Mrs. Haltridge was found inside. Miss Dunbar and the Haltridges were terrified. They took this as a sign that the malevolent spirits were about to claim another victim.

That night, Dunbar went into a violent fit. She cried that someone had run a knife through her leg. She claimed that she was being tormented by three women, whom she described in great detail. A few hours later, she had a second fit, during which she claimed to see visions of seven or eight women. When she recovered, she identified them as some local women: Janet Liston, Elizabeth Sellar, Catherine McCalmont, Janet Carson, Janet Mean, Jane Latimer, and one who was called only "Mrs. Ann." If Mary Dunbar could be believed, the Island Magee area was home to a vicious coven of witches, and after all that had happened at the Haltridge home, no one was inclined to doubt her.

The alleged witchcraft now became a serious legal issue. The Mayor issued a warrant for the arrest of all those suspected of belonging to the witch cult. Taken into custody were all the women Mary Dunbar had named, as well as one Margaret Mitchell, whom she identified as "Mrs. Ann."

Depositions dealing with the various strange events were taken. A typical witness was a James Hill, who told of an occasion when he was at the house of a William Sellar. A woman named Mary Twmain "came to the said house and called out Janet Liston to speak to her, and that after the said Janet came in again she fell a-trembling, and told this Deponent that the said Mary had been desiring her to go to Mr. Haltridge's to see Mary Dunbar, but she declared she would not go for all Island Magee, except Mr. Sinclair would come for her, and said: If the plague of God was on her [Mary Dunbar] the plague of God be on them altogether; the Devil be with them if he was amongst them. If God had taken her health from her, God give her health: if the Devil had taken it from her, the Devil give it her. And then added: O misbelieving ones, eating and drinking damnation to themselves, crucifying Christ afresh, and taking all out of the hands of the Devil!"

Island Magee was quite the neighborhood.

On March 31, 1711, the accused were put on trial in Carrigfergus. Our main account of the tribunal comes from the Vicar of Belfast, Dr. Tisdall, an eyewitness who compiled the closest thing we have to a transcript of the proceedings. He wrote,
"It was sworn to by most of the evidences that in some of [Mary Dunbar's] fits three strong men were scarce able to hold her down, that she would mutter to herself, and speak some words distinctly, and tell everything she had said in her conversation with the witches, and how she came to say such things, which she spoke when in her fits.

"In her fits she often had her tongue thrust into her windpipe in such a manner that she was like to choak, and the root seemed pulled up into her mouth. Upon her recovery she complained extremely of one Mean, who had twisted her tongue; and told the Court that she had tore her throat, and tortured her violently by reason of her crooked fingers and swelled knuckles. The woman was called to the Bar upon this evidence, and ordered
to show her hand; it was really amazing to see the exact agreement betwixt the description of the Afflicted and the hand of the supposed tormentor; all the joints were distorted and the tendons shrivelled up, as she had described.

"One of the men who had held her in a fit swore she had nothing visible on her arms when he took hold of them, and that all in the room saw some worsted yarn tied round her wrist, which was put on invisibly; there were upon this string seven double knots and one single one. In another fit she cried out that she was grievously tormented with a pain about her knee; upon which the women in the room looked at her knee, and found a fillet tied fast about it; her mother swore to the fillet, that it was the same she had given her that morning, and had seen it about her head; this had also seven double knots and one single one.

"Her mother was advised by a Roman Catholic priest to use a counter-charm, which was to write some words out of the first chapter of St. John's Gospel in a paper, and to tie the paper with an incle three times round her neck, knotted each time. This charm the girl herself declined; but the mother, in one of the times of her being afflicted, used it. She was in a violent fit upon the bed held down by a man, and, recovering a little, complained grievously of a pain in her back and about her middle; immediately the company discovered the said incle tied round her middle with seven double knots and one single one: this was sworn to by several. The man who held the Afflicted was asked by the Judge if it were possible she could reach the incle about her neck while he held her; he said it was not, by the virtue of his oath, he having her hands fast down.

"The Afflicted, during one of her fits, was observed by several persons to slide off the bed in an unaccountable manner, and to be laid gently on the ground as if supported and drawn invisibly. Upon her recovery she told them the several persons who had drawn her in that manner, with the intention, as they told her, of bearing her out of the window; but that she reflecting at that time, and calling upon God in her mind, they let her drop on the floor.

"The Afflicted, recovering from a fit, told the persons present that her tormentors had declared that she should not have power to go over the threshold of the chamber-door; the evidence declared that they had several times attempted to lead her out of the door, and that she was as often thrown into fits as they had brought her to the said threshold; that to pursue the experiment further they had the said threshold taken up, upon which they were immediately struck with so strong a smell of brimstone that they were scarce able to bear it; that the stench spread through the whole house, and afflicted several to that degree that they fell sick in their stomachs, and were much disordered.

"There was a great quantity of things produced in Court, and sworn to be what she vomited out of her throat. I had them all in my hand, and found there was a great quantity of feathers, cotton, yarn, pins, and two large waistcoat buttons, at least as much as would fill my hand. They gave evidence to the Court they had seen those very things coming out of her mouth, and had received them into their hands as she threw them up."

[Mary Dunbar warned that the "witches" had vowed that they would leave her unable to testify against them in court.] "She was accordingly that day before the trial struck dumb, and so continued in Court during the whole trial, but had no violent fit. I saw her in Court cast her eyes about in a wild distracted manner, and it was then thought she was recovering from her fit, and it was hoped she would give her own evidence. I observed, as they were raising her up, she sank into the arms of a person who held her, closed her eyes, and seemed perfectly senseless and motionless. I went to see her after the trial; she told me she knew not where she was when in Court; that she had been afflicted all that time by three persons, of whom she gave a particular description both of their proportion, habits, hair, features, and complexion, and said she had never seen them till the day before the trial."
The prisoners--who had no legal counsel--could only counter all this by fervently denying their guilt. Tisdall recorded that "It was made appear on oath that most of them had received the Communion, some of them very lately, that several of them had been laborious, industrious people, and had frequently been known to pray with their families, both publickly and privately; most of them could say the Lord's Prayer, which it is generally said they learnt in prison, they being every one Presbyterians...Judge Upton summed up the whole evidence with great exactness and perspicuity, notwithstanding the confused manner in which it was offered. He seemed entirely of opinion that the jury could not bring them in guilty upon the sole testimony of the afflicted person's visionary images. He said he could not doubt but that the whole matter was preternatural and diabolical, but he conceived that, had the persons accused been really witches and in compact with the Devil, it could hardly be presumed that they should be such constant attenders upon Divine Service, both in public and private."

Unfortunately for the defendants, Judge Upton's common-sensical opinion was in the minority. The other judge, James Macartney, held the opposite view. He saw no reason to doubt the accused were all in league with the Devil, and virtually instructed the jury to bring in a verdict of "guilty."

The jurors complied. The defendants were sentenced to a year in prison, during which they were to stand in the public pillory four different times. It is said that during one of these ordeals in the pillory, the crowd pelted them with garbage so violently that one of the prisoners lost an eye.

Thus ended the Haunting of Island Magee.

[Note:  Unfortunately, there are no surviving records of what became of Mary Dunbar and the "witches."  If they all remained in the area, the social encounters between them must have been more than a bit awkward.]


  1. It's interesting that even by 1710 and in a location which was probably less than cosmopolitan, those convicted of witchcraft were given only a year in prison. Times had moved quickly; it hadn't been so long before that witches were killed. This could be a transition case between medieval and modern beliefs.

  2. This story breaks down into two separate incidents. In the first episode, the harassment of the old woman, the most obvious suspect is the servant, Margaret Spear. All of the apparent poltergeist manifestations could have been done by someone living in the household; Ms. Spear was apparently the only witness to the truly weird behavior of the "devil boy;" and she may well have had reason to resent taking orders, and doing extra work, for a guest in the house. The death of the old woman could have been a normal result of illness, maybe speeded by her extreme agitation due to the constant "supernatural" harassment.

    The second episode is the harassment of Mary Dunbar. In this case, most of the manifestations come down to hysteria or play-acting. All of the people she accused were Presbyterians - in other words, members of a suspect "fringe" church who were socially ostracized by the dominant religion. In modern America, where you probably went to school with Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, and maybe even Hindus, most people would find it hard to imagine how deeply Anglican Christians suspected members of other churches. The real point of interest with the Mary Dunbar case is, how did the knots appear that were tied around her wrist, waist, etc? The witnesses claimed that she could not have tied these knots herself. Knot tying and untying is actually a traditional shamanic performance supposedly done by spirits, and I have no evidence that spirits didn't do it - but I doubt they were Presbyterian spirits, and I doubt these Presbyterian churchgoing ladies were really cursing Mary Dunbar with fits and hair-ribbon bondage. If you believe in poltergeists, you would have to suspect Mary Dunbar of manifesting these knots herself. If you believe poltergeists are frauds, you'd have to figure out how she made the knots in front of witnesses with no one seeing (or telling on) her. Either way, this is a great story. Thanks for citing it!

  3. I forgot to mention that I like the painting at the head of the article, especially the cats dancing in a circle to the oboe played by another cat.

    And a good response by Floodmouse.

  4. I don't know, maybe people in the 18th century were so accustomed to ghosts and devils and witches that instead of fleeing at the sudden materialization of a boy wearing a weird hat and torn vest etc. at their side , they would attempt to converse with him. I only know what I would have done, or would do...scream and run.

  5. I agree that Floodmouse's response is a good analysis of the story. The one comment I'd make is that in Antrim, where Island Magee is located, Presbyterians were the largest religious group. When Jonathan Swift was Prebend in Kilroot (close to Island Magee) in 1695, his parish was reportedly entirely Presbyterian. In the neighbouring county of Down, it was reported some Anglicans had to attend Presbyterian services because no alternative was available. So in this particular society, though legally disadvantaged, Presbyterians weren't socially ostracised. (The judges would be likely to be unsympathetic though and I wonder if that was a factor in the guilty verdict.)

    It's interesting that Francis Hutchinson, who wrote “A Historical Essay Concerning Witchcraft” was appointed as Bishop to the Diocese of Down and Conor (where Island Magee is located) in 1720. You'd wonder if that was more than a coincidence.


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