"...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

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

A Visit to the Witch, Edward Frederick Brewtnall

This week's clipping gives a helpful lesson in How Not to Unbewitch a Cow. From the "Caledonian Mercury," August 29, 1807:
A melancholy event took place on Tuesday night, in the house of Alexander Montgomery, tailor at Carmoney Meeting-house, which shows the extreme ignorance, folly, and superstition of the country people.

Montgomery had a cow which continued to give milk as usual, but of late no butter could be produced from the milk. An opinion, which has been too long entertained by many people in the country, was unfortunately instilled into the mind of Montgomery's wife, that whenever such circumstance occurred, it was occasioned by the cow having been bewitched. In this opinion she was fortified by the concurring testimony of every old woman in the parish. Various spells were pointed out, which would prove effectual in discovering the witch, or at least in destroying her power over the cow. Among many others, the following was tried--12 women were brought to the house, who, after certain essential ceremonies, proceeded in a solemn manner to bless the cow. This, however, also failed of success, and the cow was nothing better. At length the family were informed of a woman, named Mary Butters, who resided at Carrickfergus, and could by contrary incantations destroy the evil genius. They brought her to the house; the sorceress got a quantity of the cow's milk, which she proceeded to churn. Her familiar, however, it appears, deceived her; the charm failed of success, and no butter was produced. Three men who drank of the milk were soon afterwards seized with excessive sickness and violent vomiting; and, it is supposed, this was occasioned by some noxious ingredients which she had infused in the milk. The enchantress then informed the family, that after nightfall she would try another spell, which could not fail. Accordingly, about ten o'clock at night, she gave orders for Montgomery and a young man who was accidentally there, to go to the cow-house, turn their waistcoats inside out, and in that dress to stand close by the head of the cow until they heard from her. They immediately went out and did as she desired, whilst Montgomery's wife, his son, a lad about 20 years of age, and an old woman, who was a lodger, remained in the house to witness the astrologer's operations. She then caused the door to be shut, the chimney to be stopped, and every crevice that could admit air to be carefully closed up. Montgomery, the father, and the young man who went into the cow-house, remained there for several hours, until it was day light. The young man then went and knocked at the door, but not receiving any answer, he looked through a window, and beheld the four persons within side lying stretched on the floor. They immediately broke open the door, when they found the mother and son both dead, and the other two nearly so. They carried out the two former, but in doing so, the young man had nearly lost his life by the sulphurous vapour which filled the house. They obtained assistance, and the other two women were got out of the house. One of them expired in a few hours, but Mary Butters, the sorceress, recovered, and has been committed to jail. It is not known what stratagems she employed to work her pretended enchantment, but the people who went into the house found a pot on the fire, in which were needles, large pins, and crooked nails, with a quantity of milk. Little doubt can be entertained that she had been burning sulphur, and that the vapour from it had proved fatal to the sufferers. A Coroner's inquest has been held, and the following is a copy of their verdict:--"It is the opinion of the Jury, that the deceased Elizabeth Montgomery came by her death from suffocation, occasioned by a woman named Mary Butters, in her making use of some noxious ingredients, in the manner of a charm, to recover a cow." The report of the inquest upon the other bodies was similar.
The following spring, Mary Butters was tried for murder, but acquitted for want of evidence of how, exactly, the victims died.  (Her defense was that the Devil had shown up in the house and killed the others with a club. Unfortunately, His Satanic Majesty failed to show up in the courtroom for cross-examination.)  Although Butters was freed, I rather doubt there was much subsequent demand for her magical services.

What became of the cow is, regrettably, not recorded.

[Note: The Butters case inspired a popular contemporary ballad. As I have a taste for such literary works, I include it below.]
In Carrick town a wife did dwell
Who does pretend to conjure witches.
Auld Barbara Goats, or Lucky Bell,
Ye'll no lang to come through her clutches,
A waeful trick this wife did play
On simple Sawney, our poor tailor.
She's mittimiss'd the other day
To lie in limbo with the jailor.
This simple Sawney had a cow,
Was aye as sleekit as an otter;
It happened for a month or two
Aye when they churn'd they got nae butter,
Rown-tree tied in the cow's tail,
And vervain glean'd about the ditches;
These freets and charms did not prevail,
They could not banish the auld witches.
The neighbour wives a' gathered in
In number near about a dozen;
Elspie Dough, and Mary Linn,
An' Kate M'Cart, the tailor's cousin.
Aye they churn'd and aye they swat,
Their aprons loos'd, and coost their mutches
But yet nae butter they could get,
They blessed the cow but curst the witches.
Had Sawney summoned all his wits
And sent awa for Huie Mertin,
He could have gall'd the witches' guts,
An' cur't the kye to Nannie Barton. 1
But he may shew the farmer's wab,
An' lang wade through Carnmoney gutters;
Alas! it was a sore mis-jab
When he employ'd auld Mary Butters.
The sorcerest open'd the scene
With magic words of her invention,
To make the foolish people keen
Who did not know her base intention,
She drew a circle round the churn,
And washed the staff in south-run water,
And swore the witches she would burn,
But she would have the tailor's butter.
When sable Night her curtain spread
Then she got on a flaming fire;
The tailor stood at the cow's head
With his turn'd waistcoats in the byre.

The chimney covered with a scraw
An' every crevice where it smoak'd,
But long before the cock did craw
The people in the house were choak'd.
The muckle pot hung on all night,
As Mary Butters had been brewing
In hopes to fetch some witch or wight,
Whas entrails by her art were stewing.
In this her magic a' did fail;
Nae witch nor wizard was detected.
Now Mary Butters lies in jail
For the base part that she has acted.
The tailor lost his son and wife,
For Mary Butters did them smother;
But as he hates a single life
In four weeks' time he got another.
He is a crouse auld canty chiel,
An' cares nae what the witches mutter
He'll never mair employ the Deil,
Nor his auld agent Mary Butters.
At day the tailor left his post
Though he had seen no apparition,
Nae wizard grim, nae witch, nor ghost,
Though still he had a stray suspicion
That some auld wizard wrinkled wife
Had cast her cantrips o'er poor brawney
Cause she and he did live in strife,
An' whar's the man can blame poor Sawney.
Wae sucks for our young lasses now,
For who can read their mystic matters,
Or tell if their sweethearts be true,
The folks a' run to Mary Butters.
To tell what thief a horse did steal,
In this she was a mere pretender,
An' has nae art to raise the Deil
Like that auld wife, the Witch of Endor.
If Mary Butters be a witch
Why but the people all should know it,
An' if she can the muses touch
I'm sure she'll soon descry the poet.
Her ain familiar aff she'll sen'
Or paughlet wi' a tu' commission
To pour her vengeance on the man
That tantalizes her condition.


  1. How on Earth could even someone who believed in magic think that burning sulphur in a closed space would do any good? At least Mrs Butters stayed in the house, too, so she obviously thought she would be doing no harm. Is it too much of a coincidence, by the way, that she should have been called Butters, and that item was the cause of this debacle?

    1. I wondered about her name myself. Seemed only too perfect.


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