"...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, August 24, 2020

The Confession of Ursula Kempe

Some years ago, I read a poll which stated that the number-one complaint people had about their neighborhood was “their neighbors”--a finding that can be confirmed by taking a quick peek at Nextdoor. Sometimes, these neighborly squabbles get bad enough to end up in a civil court--or, with the more extreme cases, a police station. Still, it could be worse: in the old days, such disputes often led to a witchcraft trial. One of the more famous examples took place in 1582, in the small English village of St. Osyth.

Two residents of this village, Grace Thurlow and Ursula Kempe, had been on bad terms for years. It was an ordinary example of two women rubbing each other the wrong way--the sort of thing you see in any community--until their simple mutual irritation turned into a grave legal matter indeed.

The trouble began when Thurlow’s young son Davy suffered a serious illness. One day, Kempe came by to try a little friendly white magic on the boy. She held his hand, intoned the words, “A good child how thou art loden,” and left the house. Kempe returned a moment later and repeated the ritual two more times, reassuring Thurlow that Davy would now soon get better. Fortunately, she proved to be correct.

At that time, Thurlow was about to have another child. Kempe apparently assumed--particularly after her success with young Davy--that Thurlow would ask her to assist at the birth. When she learned that Grace had secured the services of another woman, Ursula took this as a personal insult, and wasted no time in marching over to the Thurlow residence to let her know what she thought of such ingratitude. In response, Thurlow made reference to the fact that she had recently been troubled by lameness. She hinted ominously that if it didn’t go away soon, she would go to a magistrate and blame Kempe for her disability. Kempe offered her a deal: if Grace allowed her to attend Grace’s upcoming labor, she would teach Grace a ritual that would cure her lameness.

It is not recorded if Thurlow took her up on this witchy offer, but soon afterward she gave birth to a healthy daughter. Ursula offered to act as wet-nurse for the new baby, but Grace again refused her services, opting to nurse the child herself. Three months later, the baby fell from her cradle, fatally breaking her neck. Ursula’s response was one of the cruelest “I told you sos” on record: she sniffed that if Thurlow had just allowed her to nurse the child, the baby would still be alive.

You will not be surprised to learn that this incident ended any pretense of friendship between the two women. Grace’s lameness returned with a vengeance. Ursula told her that for the price of 12 pence, she would cure her ailment. Thurlow was in such pain, she agreed. Her lameness went away. All was well until a few weeks later, when Kempe called on Thurlow to collect her payment. Thurlow had to tell her that she was simply too poor to scrape together such a sum. Kempe, infuriated at this welshing of their deal, told Grace in very unladylike language just what she thought of her, and stalked off. Immediately afterward, Thurlow’s mysterious lameness came back. Worse still, the sickness of her only surviving child, Davy, returned.

Thurlow had had enough. In February 1582, she went to the local justice of the peace, Brian Darcy, and accused Kempe of putting a curse on her and her children. Ursula seems to have been a very unpopular woman--and from what little is recorded of her, that’s not really surprising--so other villagers saw this as an excellent opportunity for a bit of payback. On that same day, another woman, Agnes Letherdale, went to the magistrate with her own charges against Kempe. She told Darcy that Ursula had asked her for some scouring sand. Kempe would, in exchange, dye her a pair of hose. However, Letherdale, “knowing her to be a naughty beast,” refused. When she saw this sand being delivered to another household, Ursula was heard to mutter furious words to herself. Immediately afterward, one of Letherdale’s children fell gravely and mysteriously ill.

Letherdale went on to say that she visited a “cunning woman” to learn the cause of her child’s sickness. She was probably unsurprised to be told that Ursula Kempe’s witchcraft was responsible. When Letherdale confronted Kempe with this news, Ursula just shrugged and denied everything.

When Ursula was brought in for questioning, she told Darcy her side of the story. She claimed that some years back, she herself had become lame. She visited a “wise woman” in the neighboring village of Weeley, who informed Kempe that she had been bewitched. The woman gave Ursula a detailed cure for her ailment (it involved hog’s dung and drinking ale infused with sage and St. John’s Wort.) Having found that the treatment worked as advertised, she shared the formula with two other women who had also been “witched” into lameness, with the same happy results.

Darcy felt that this was all well and good, but it did not address the point at issue: did Kempe bewitch the Thurlow and Letherdale households? The magistrate, in essence, offered Ursula a plea bargain: confess everything, and she would not be treated harshly.

In response, Kempe burst into tears, and sobbed out a tale that was probably even more than Darcy bargained for. She claimed that she had four “familiars.” Two (a black toad named Piggin and Tiffin, a white lamb) caused sickness to her enemies and their cattle. The other two (cats named Titty and Jack) brought the ultimate curse: death. These evil spirits were responsible for the sickness plaguing the Thurlow and Letherdale children, as well as the death of Grace’s baby. As if that wasn’t damning enough, Kempe also volunteered that she had sent Jack to murder her sister-in-law.

Darcy brought in Grace and Agnes to confront this self-confessed murderer. Kempe hysterically begged their forgiveness, saying that in addition to her own crimes, she had arranged for another village woman, Alice Newman, to send her own “familiars” to torment Agnes’ child and Grace.

After a good night’s sleep, it began to dawn on Ursula that perhaps she had been a tad too chatty. The following day, she offered Darcy a slightly revised story. She said that a few months back, she and Alice Newman had quarreled. During the argument, Newman threatened to tell Darcy that Ursula was a witch. Despite this, the two patched up their differences, and by the time Alice left her house--carrying with her Ursula’s four spirit pals in a pot--they were good friends again.

Some time later, after Ursula’s fight with Grace Thurlow, she asked Alice to send Titty to cause Thurlow some grief. After Ursula got into a dispute with a John Stratton and his wife, she had Alice sic Jack on them. The women would reward the spirits by allowing them to suck their blood, like demonic mosquitoes.

Naturally, Alice Newman was brought in to see what she had to say. She confirmed that she and Ursula had quarreled, and she did indeed call her friend a witch, but she stoutly denied the rest of Ursula’s testimony--particularly the part about her possessing spirit contract killers.

Darcy then pulled a stunt worthy of Lieutenant Columbo: he threatened to take away her spirits if she did not tell him the truth. Alice snapped that it was impossible for him to remove them. Uh...if she had any spirits to remove, that is.


More villagers came forward to rat on the accused women. One William Hook told Darcy that he had once overheard Alice’s husband William blame her for all his troubles. Hook added that dinnertime conversation between the Newmans often took an odd turn. Whenever Alice served meat, Hook would overhear William saying “doest thou not see?”--which Hook took to mean that evil spirits were sharing their meal. Alice would reply that if William should see “something,” he should just give it some of their meat, and it would leave.

Meanwhile, Ursula had not finished incriminating her neighbors. She now said that other village women, Elizabeth Bennett, Alice Hunt, and Agnes Glascock, also kept spirits that they used to torment--and sometimes kill--anyone who happened to get on their bad sides.

When Glascock was hauled in for questioning, she stubbornly denied everything, even when a search of her body found suspicious spots in several places. When Ursula repeated her charges against Agnes to her face, Glascock erupted with rage, calling Kempe a witch and a whore. She maintained that, far from being a guilty party, she herself was a victim of Kempe’s sorcery.

Alice Hunt was not made of such stern stuff. She initially denied everything Ursula had said, but when she learned that she was to be arrested anyway, she, like Kempe, tried throwing herself on the mercy of the court. She went to Darcy and confessed that she did indeed have two spirits, Jack and Robin. They had even warned her that Ursula would eventually grass on her. She added that her sister, Margery Sammon, also had a pair of spirits. The siblings had inherited them from their late mother, who was also a witch. After a bit of prodding, Margery acknowledged that her sister was telling the truth.

It was beginning to look as if practically every woman in St. Osyth kept killer spirits around the house in the way normal housewives kept pots and pans. Evidently under the assumption that the more they talked, the easier Darcy would be on them, the accused women kept naming more and more of their neighbors.. A widow named Joan Pechey was said by Alice Hunt to be an even more skilled witch than Alice’s mother had been. Henry and Cicely Sellis were alleged to have used their spirits to unleash various forms of mayhem on their neighbors. A constable from a nearby village accused one Alice Manfield for causing his cart to become stuck in the ground. (She afterwards admitted to having four spirits.) Alice Hunt’s daughter and Ursula’s son confirmed that their mothers were witches, providing previously-unknown details about their diabolical doings. Kempe’s own brother, Lawrence, joined in. He declared that his wife, who had long been on bad terms with Ursula, had been “witched” to death by his sister.

Once Ursula began confessing, you couldn’t shut her up. Every time she was examined, she gave her questioners new names of witches, new crimes they had committed. To hear Kempe tell it, virtually every death, every illness, every bit of ill-fortune in and around St. Osyth was due to witchcraft.

On March 29, 1582, all the accused women stood trial for various crimes at Chelmsford Assizes. Ursula and Elizabeth Bennett were found guilty of murder by witchcraft and sentenced to hang. The others were either acquitted or remanded. (The latter often proved to be a death sentence; a number of the prisoners died in jail before they could be discharged.) The Great St. Osyth Witch Hunt was finally over, although I assume it was quite some time before the village settled down to anything like normal life. I also wager that for a long time afterwards, the inhabitants were very careful about how they argued with each other.

Thankfully, the days when you dealt with pesky neighbors via witch trials are extinct. Although from what I’ve seen of Nextdoor, there are a lot of people who would like to see such tribunals make a comeback.

[Note: Centuries after Ursula’s execution, there was a darkly humorous footnote to her tragic story. In 1921, a St. Osyth resident unearthed in his garden a skeleton. As it was nowhere near any burial ground, it was presumed that these were the remains of Ursula Kempe, who, as a convicted witch, was buried in unconsecrated ground. After spending some years in a local museum, the bones were purchased by an eccentric artist named Robert Lenkiewicz, who proudly displayed the skeleton in his library, next to the embalmed body of a tramp. After Lenkiewicz died in 2002, the bones were finally given a formal examination by an archaeologist. This study revealed that the skeleton was that of a young man, whose identity is fated to remain forever unknown.

This long-time impostor was given a dignified burial in a local cemetery. The real location of the bones of Ursula Kempe is still a mystery.

Addendum: For some background information on St. Osyth and how it relates to their witch hunt--highly interesting, but too lengthy to include here--see my main source for this post, Willow Winsham’s “England’s Witchcraft Trials.”]


  1. As you say, it’s likely that many of the accused women were hoping that co-operation would bring leniency, or at least put somebody else in the frame.

    But some of them may have believed what they were saying. They lived in a society which accepted the existence of witches as an established fact. It was also a society in which sudden death and illnesses that they did not understand were commonplace. In that environment, it’s quite possible that someone who had quarrelled with a neighbour who then suffered a misfortune might see it as cause and effect, and explain it to herself in terms of what witchcraft was then understood to be.

    Indeed, it may well have been the case that having the power to command demonic “familiars” was a common revenge fantasy among people living in small villages with lots of petty feuds and rivalries. It would then only require a few unfortunate coincidences to make those fantasies seem real.

    1. I do believe a lot of accused witches did indeed practice "witchcraft," that is to say, perform certain rituals to gain a desired end. Of course, that doesn't mean they deserved what they got.

  2. Good Heavens. I wonder what made people confess so loquaciously. The admissions and the accusations sound like what went on in Russia during the Stalinist purges...

    1. No doubt there was a lot of plea-bargaining and attempts to deflect attention towards somebody else.

      But imagine that you lived in that world and you feuded with your neighbour. You called her every name under the sun, told her to drop dead and go to hell. Then she suddenly falls ill and nobody can do anything to help her. If your mind is full of stories about witchcraft and devils then you might well imagine that you had literally cursed her, even if you hadn’t intended to.

      Once that idea gets lodged in your mind it will colour all your subsequent experiences. Sally’s hens not laying? Well, you never liked her, did you? John burned his hand on the stove, wasn’t that soon after you told him to go to blazes? It leads to a paranoia against the self, a pareidolia of witchcraft in which every word and action looks like proof of personal guilt. If you sometimes take pleasure in the powers you think you have then it will only lead to greater spasms of guilt later.

      For somebody in that state of mind, the possibility of confession and absolution would seem like a huge relief. The comparison with the Soviet Union is that in both cases the crimes were imaginary but the punishment was real.


Comments are moderated. Because no one gets to be rude and obnoxious around here except the author of this blog.