"...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, March 21, 2016

Christian Shaw: Satan's Victim or Demon Seed?

Bargarran House

Scottish history is particularly rich in strange, but unjustly forgotten characters. Earning an honored place in this lineup is Christian Shaw, who during the course of her life managed to go from one-girl Salem Witch Trial to self-made Textile Queen.

Christian was the third of five children born to John Shaw and his wife Christian. The family lived in comfort and respectability on the family estate of Bargarran, near Paisley. At the time our story opens, Christian was eleven years old. She was described as a "smart and lively girl with good inclinations," but one who probably showed no hint of just how lively she would become.

The fateful date in our tale was August 17, 1696, and the fateful instigation was a jug of milk. On that morning, little Christian caught one of the maidservants, Katherine Campbell, helping herself to the family milk supply, and she could not wait to tell her mother of this outrage. When tasked with the theft, Campbell erupted in rage against the little tattletale--one senses this was hardly the first time Christian had spied on the servants--and unburdened herself of a torrent of perhaps understandable but highly injudicious maledictions. "In a most hideous rage," says a contemporary pamphlet, Campbell imprecated "the curse of God upon the child, and at the same time did utter these horrid words: 'The devil harle [drag] your soul through hell!'"

Campbell would soon learn that Christian was the last little girl in the world she should have addressed in such a manner.

On August 21, an elderly woman named Agnes Naesmith called at Bargarran House. Naesmith had a rather sinister reputation as someone fond of making threats "which sometimes were observed to be followed with fatal events." On encountering Christian, Naesmith asked about the health of the little girl's mother, who had recently given birth. "What do I know?" Christian snapped in reply.

All seemed normal until the following night, when Christian suddenly began crying for help, as if she was in the grip of some malevolent force. She then abruptly flew out of bed so violently that if an onlooker had not caught her, she would have been thrown against a wall. When she was put back into bed, the girl lay rigid and apparently unconscious for an hour. When Christian came to, she complained of agonizing pains throughout her body. She did not sleep for the next two days. For eight days after that, she would periodically go into strange fits. Her body would contort violently, and she lost the ability to speak. By the middle of September, these "fits" took an even more alarming turn. She would seem to battle with invisible attackers. If anyone touched her during these episodes, "she did cry and screech with such vehemence as if they had been killing her, but could not speak."

Her frightened parents naturally sought medical aid. Apothecaries were brought in, but were unable to provide any relief for the tormented girl. Some time after that, Christian began to be able to speak during her "fits." She declared that Katherine Campbell and Agnes Naesmith "were cutting her side and other parts of her body."

By the time her parents brought her to Glasgow to consult with the best doctors available, Christian had expanded her unnerving repertoire. She began to "thrust or spit out of her mouth parcels of hair, some curled, some plaited, some knotted, of different colours, and in large quantities." By November, she was spitting out coal cinders, "some whereof were so hot that they could scarcely be handled." This was followed by ejections of straw, bones of "various sorts of sizes," sticks, feathers, stones, bits of candle, eggshells, and even manure.

The doctors--all men of high standing in their profession--were baffled by this singular patient. These men of science rejected the notion that Christian could be bewitched, but careful inspection during her "fits" convinced them that she was not hoaxing. Their initial assumption was that she suffered from a form of hypochondriacal hysteria--it was all in her head, in other words--but the prodigious amount of foreign substances she spat out proved to be impossible for them to explain. "Were it not for the hair, straw, etc.," wrote one physician, "I should not despair to reduce the other symptoms to their proper classes in the catalogue of human diseases."

Christian continued to insist that Katherine Campbell and Agnes Naesmith were responsible for her ordeal. During her fits, she would cry out, "Katie, what ails thee at me? I am sure I never did thee wrong; come let us gree; let there be no more difference betwixt us." Although her alleged tormentors were not physically present, Christian wailed that their spirits were in the room, thrusting swords into her.

After the Glasgow physicians essentially conceded defeat, Christian was brought back home early in December. The intensity of her "fits" continued to escalate. Ominously, she began naming other local residents as participating in her diabolic torments.

The local minister, Rev. Andrew Turner, was understandably disquieted by this evidence that Satan himself had set up shop in the neighborhood, and did what he could to help. As the regimen of fasting and prayer he had prescribed for Bargarran had failed to have any benefit, he brought the problem before the Presbytery of Paisley. These men of God appointed Turner and a Mr. Brisbane to prepare a report on the matter, which they would then bring to the King's Privy Council in Edinburgh "in order unto their obtaining a Commission for putting those who are suspected to be her tormentors to a tryall."

The result of these efforts was that on January 19, 1697, the Privy Council issued a warrant designating a number of worthies as Commissioners of Witchcraft. They had the power to imprison and interrogate suspects as well as examine witnesses. While this was being done, three ministers were appointed to monitor the demon-infested Bargarran House and offer what spiritual consolation they could. (Fun fact: One of these ministers was a direct ancestor of famed historian and folklorist Andrew Lang, thus proving that a knack for The Weird was in Lang's DNA.)

Bargarran was not a pleasant place to live at this time. Christian continued suffering horrifying episodes where in her agony, she would shriek and scream like a "wild beast." These spasms, she continued to maintain, were all the fault of the local witches.

At this point, it seemed that Agnes Naesmith caught a lucky break. When she was brought into the girl's bedroom to witness the torments of her "victim," the old lady prayed "that the Lord of heaven and earth might send the damsel her health"--and, last but not least, prove the falsity of the charges made against Agnes. This seemed to do the trick. Afterwards, Christian declared that although she had believed that Agnes was among her attackers, the woman was no longer troubling her. The success of this maneuver led investigators to bring Katherine Campbell for a similar visit.

This sickbed call had a very different result. Katherine, showing a proud disdain for the First Rule of Holes, refused to pray for Christian. Rather, she took this opportunity to curse the entire Shaw family, adding, "The devil let her never grow better, nor any concerned in her be in a better condition than she was in." This ill-timed outburst caused Katherine to immediately be thrown into prison. It was said that when she was arrested, "a ball of hair of several colours" was found in her pocket. After this was burned, Christian ejected no more hair from her mouth.

The girl still found plenty to keep herself busy. Christian was now nearly continuously shrieking, singing, dancing frenetically, and uttering wild, demonic laughs. She tore her clothes and wailed of being attacked by invisible spirit animals. She began to fall into "flying fits," where she was "carried away with a sudden flight, with such a swift and unaccountable motion that it was not in the power of anyone to prevent her--her feet not touching the ground, so far as any of the beholders could discern." She would hold complex theological debates with the Devil and his unseen emissaries. The Presbytery, alarmed by this evidence of "the great rage of Satan in this corner of the land," appointed a day of penance and fasting. Christian continued to add to the list of her alleged tormentors, until it seemed that most of the surrounding neighborhoods were populated entirely by witch covens.

The Commission began their formal inquiry early in February. The people Christian had named as emissaries of Satan were brought in for questioning. The youngest of the accused was a boy named Thomas Lindsay, who was no older than Christian. He was distinguished by allegedly having been fathered by the Devil himself. Among the first of these defendants to be interrogated was a 17-year-old named Elizabeth Anderson. Although at first, she strenuously denied having anything to do with this "bewitching," after being "seriously importuned and dealt with"--whatever that might have meant--she confessed her guilt, and, for good measure, denounced a number of others, including members of her own family, as well as Elizabeth Campbell and Agnes Naesmith.

On February 5, the defendants were all brought into Christian's presence. When they were told to touch the girl, she was immediately "cast into intolerable anguishes." Young Thomas--aka "Satan Jr."--was persuaded to admit not only that he was indeed following in his father's footsteps, but that everyone named by Elizabeth Anderson had also made compacts with the Evil One. After this revelation, the rest of the accused, curiously enough, began to fall into line. They started admitting their guilt, in confessions that piled one lurid detail after another. Elizabeth Anderson stated that she had been introduced to the Devil by her own grandmother. Her father had brought her to meetings of witches held on the moor at Kilmalcolm. She told of one gathering that went to a neighboring ferry, where Satan himself capsized the boat, drowning the ferryman as well as the Laird of Brighouse. Anderson added the charming detail that some of the coven wished to spare the ferryman, but his mother-in-law--who was among the witches present--insisted that he must die, as "he had expelled her out of his house a little while before." She reminisced about the time that she and the other witches had strangled the child of a William Montgomerie with a "sea napkin." Most relevantly, Anderson told of a witch meeting near Bargarran House, when it was resolved that Christian Shaw must die, although there was some disagreement about the method. "Some were for stabbing her with a touck, others for hanging her with a cord, a third sort for choking her, and some intended having her out of the house to destroy her."

Fourteen year-old James Lindsay, a "squint-ey'd elf," confessed that he had assisted his fellow witches in tormenting Christian by putting the coal cinders, hair, sticks, and so on down her throat, in the hope of choking her. He essentially confirmed everything in Elizabeth Anderson's account. Many of the other defendants followed in his wake, some of them denouncing other, hitherto unsuspected persons.

On March 9, the Commissioners made their report to the Privy Council, naming 24 people as suspected witches. Accordingly, the Council issued another warrant, appointing additional Commissioners to bring the accused to trial.

With this development, Satan evidently decided the game was up for him in Scotland. We are told that on March 23, "in the shape of a naked man with a shirt, having much hair upon his hands and his face, like swine's bristles," the Devil said farewell to Bargarran. On the following morning, Christian Shaw announced that she had made a miraculous and complete recovery.

The trials began in mid-April and lasted about a month. Unfortunately, no official record of the proceedings is known to exist, and few details survive in other accounts. All we know is that after all the witnesses gave their testimony, seven people--John Lindsay, James Lindsay, John Reid, Katherine Campbell, Margaret Lang, Margaret Fulton, and Agnes Naesmith--were found guilty and condemned to die the particularly dreadful end assigned to witches. All, apparently, acknowledged the justice of the sentence. However, John Reid managed to cheat the executioner. On the morning of May 21, he was found dead in his cell, hanged with his own neckcloth. The verdict was that he had been strangled by Satan.

The remaining prisoners were executed on June 10, on Paisley's Gallow Hill. It is recorded that they were "first hanged for a few minutes, and then cut down and was put into a fire prepared for them, into which a barrel of tar was put in order to consume them more quickly." Katherine Campbell had to be carried to the execution site kicking and screaming. True to form to the end, it is said that she "called down the wrath of God and the Devil on her accusers." This proved to be the last mass execution of witches in Western Europe. In 2008, a memorial was built on the site where the remains of the "witches" were buried.

After the end of the trial, Christian Shaw vanishes from history until 1718, when she married the Rev. John Miller. It is unknown whether Shaw remained unmarried for so long out of personal preference or because the whiff of brimstone in her past scared off suitors. The Reverend died seven years later, after which his widow returned to Bargarran. Christian Shaw Miller was an expert in spinning linen yarn, and one day, she came up with the idea of twisting it into sewing thread. She gained help in this new enterprise from a relative who managed to spy on the Dutch textile industry, which was then the finest in the world. The results were such a big hit among her neighbors that she was able to build up an extensive business operation. She opened various mills and established agencies in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Her "Bargarran Sewing Threed" became an immense success. Thanks to this former "victim of demon possession," "Paisley thread" became a great local industry that is still famed today.

In 1737, Christian, by now a wealthy businesswoman, married a glove manufacturer named William Gillespie. She died later that same year, on September 8.

Those who have studied this case get into a great deal of futile argument about Christian Shaw. Some believe she was merely a particularly venomous little actor who deliberately sent innocent people to their death--in which case she would certainly earn the judgment of one historian that she was a "wretched girl, antient in wickedness." Others, such as Andrew Lang, see her as a hypersensitive girl who responded to Katherine Campbell's curses with a genuinely neurotic hysteria. The fact that the condemned "witches" voluntarily confessed--apparently without the use of physical torture--only adds to the puzzle.

The full solution to the mystery of the Witches of Bargarran must remain as enigmatic as human psychology itself.


  1. The whole phenomenon of witches and witch-hunting is a strange one to me. Much of it shows, I think, the power of superstitious belief. Or the power of the supernatural...

  2. If Satan indeed was rampant in the seventeenth century, he seems to have had the prescience to limit his activities before the development of motion picture photography. I've seen some pretty wild cell phone videos on YouTube, but nothing as visually interesting as demonic possession has seemed to occurred since we got digital video.

  3. It's a few days later, and I had another thought. You wondered why the accused made voluntary confessions. I was watching a detective story on video, and when the murderer was cornered, he said: "Fine, take me in . . . but first, I'll just detonate this bomb that I planted here earlier." Then he sat back and laughed, as everyone in the room tried not to pee down their legs. It turned out, there was no bomb. Maybe confessing to supernatural powers was the pre-industrial equivalent of a bomb threat - hoping the accusers would be scared enough to pee down their legs, thinking you could make them cough up hairballs and hot coals.


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