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Newspapers and the Popular Belief in Witchcraft and Magic in the Modern Period

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 January 2014


The newspaper archive is, potentially, the largest untapped source of material concerning the popular belief in witchcraft and magic for the period after the formal cessation of the witchcraft trials in 1736. Several historians have successfully exploited the newspaper archive to examine popular customs in the modern period. However, little use has been made of newspapers to examine magical beliefs in the period defined by the decline of learned belief in witchcraft during the early eighteenth century and the eventual demise of popular belief in witchcraft two centuries later. Writing some fifty years ago, L. F. Newman noted that many witchcraft cases “only appear in the local Press of each district and extensive search is necessary to trace cases.” Newman hoped that his own very brief search would act as a catalyst for more intensive studies. Unfortunately, no one has conducted such work, and our understanding of the extent and influence of witchcraft and magic in the modern period is much the poorer for it. The present discussion, which seeks to begin that task, is based on short searches through various newspapers from around the country, the following up of secondary references, and an extensive, systematic ongoing survey of Somerset newspapers.

As Gustav Henningsen has observed, the newspaper has an important advantage over the folklore record in that it “always shows us the tradition in a concrete social context” and also provides a definite chronological basis. The combined exploration of folkloric sources and newspapers provides great potential for the regional study of witchcraft and magic in defined cultural settings.

Research Article
Copyright © North American Conference of British Studies 1998

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2 A recent notable exception in a European context is the work of the Dutch historian Willem de Blécourt. See his Termen van toverij: De veranderende betekenis van toverij in Noordoost-Nederland tussen de 16de en 20ste eeuw (Nijmegen, 1900)Google Scholar.

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4 There are practical problems which can certainly deter one from conducting newspaper research. The often dreary task of systematically searching through decades of irrelevant newsprint, without any prior knowledge as to the likelihood of finding relevant material, is initially off-putting. Unfortunately, research is not helped by the fact that, with the exception of The Times, national newspapers have not been indexed. A few local studies libraries have card indexes for one representative county paper, but while acknowledging the hard work which went into creating these indexes, most have not been indexed in enough detail to list untitled reports and, most important, to list the nature of crimes before the various criminal courts. For those studying popular beliefs these indexes are usually of little use. Furthermore, most local studies libraries only hold one or two of the many local papers which served their areas.

5 Henningsen, Gustav, “Witch Persecutions after the Era of the Witch Trials: A Contribution to Danish Ethnohistory,” trans. Born, Anne, ARV: Scandinavian Yearbook of Folklore 44 (1988): 103–53, 148Google Scholar; first published in Folk og kultur, 1975, pp. 98151Google Scholar.

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11 Sherborne Mercury (28 August 1739). She was presumably prosecuted under the recently passed Witchcraft Act of 1736, as she sentenced to one year in prison and four visits to the pillory in Topsham.

12 Sherborne Mercury (7 December 1742). Considering the paucity of evidence for witchcraft in eighteenth-century London, it is worth giving details of the case here: “Three Men and a Woman went to a House in Butcher-hall Lane, Newgate-street, and enquired for an ancient Widow, who was a Lodger in the said House, and said they had brought her some Gloves to wash; but the Servant-maid, to whom they spoke, having often heard the Woman above mentioned say, that she had been for near a Year bewitch'd by the old Woman, and that she would have some of her Blood to dissolve the Spell, call'd out to the Widow to shut her Door, which she accordingly did; but the Fellows ran up, burst open her Door, and dragg'd her down stairs, where the Woman waited for her, and with a Penknife cut her Arms in about twelve Places, and rubb'd herself with the Blood that issued from the Wounds, after which they all went off. The poor Widow went soon after before a Justice, who granted her a Warrant to apprehend the Persons concerned in this wicked Act.”

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14 The Post-Master; or The Loyal Mercury (7 June 1723), reprinted in Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries 2 (1891): 63Google Scholar; Daily Journal (15 January 1731); St. James's Evening Post (7–10 January 1738). Some other later sensational cases which attracted newspaper attention include the activities of the Cheshire folk healer, Bridget Bostock, in 1748, the Bristol Lamb Inn witchcraft case of 1762, and the Tring witch-swimming trial of 1751. See, respectively, Chaloner, W. H., Bridget Bostock (Crewe, 1948)Google Scholar; Barry, Jonathan, “Piety and the Patient: Medicine and Religion in Eighteenth Century Bristol,” in Patients and Practitioners, ed. Porter, Roy (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 145–75Google Scholar; Carnochan, W. B., “Witch-Hunting and Belief in 1751: The Case of Thomas Colley and Ruth Osborne,” Journal of Social History 4 (1971): 389403CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sharpe, James, Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in England, 1550–1750 (London, 1996), pp. 14Google Scholar.

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22 The Times (19 July 1856).

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24 Ibid., p. 317: Sir Thomas Henry before the Select Committee on the pawnbroking trades, 1870.

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41 Tipton Herald (16 January 1926). It is interesting to note that the journalist referred to the “follies of half-a-century ago” rather than those of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

42 Similar antagonisms have also been observed in the reporting of witchcraft cases in France during the 1960s and 1970s. Jeanne Favret-Saada found that the local press unceasingly protested against the cynicism of the national press in exploiting local events to make Parisians laugh at the expense of naive country people. When the local press reported cases of witchcraft they denounced such beliefs in the strongest terms and separated those involved from the rest of the community with a “wall of shame and derision”: “It is a question, each time, of sacrificing some individuals, revealed by name as idiots or as insane, to preserve the reputation of the majority.” See Favret-Saada, Jeanne, Les mots, la mart, les sorts (Paris: Gallimard, 1977; reprint, Paris, 1992), pp. 6970Google Scholar.

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51 Styles, , “Print and Policing,” p. 71Google Scholar. Henry Carrington Bolton, who, in the 1890s, collected some ninety American newspaper advertisements and circulars by fortunetellers, also found that, in the smaller villages where newspaper penetration was not so extensive, handbills were usually distributed broadcast. Bolton, Henry Carrington, “Fortune-Telling in America To-Day: A Study of Advertisements,” Journal of American Folk-Lore 8 (1895): 299307CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

52 Scrapbook of handbill advertisements held in the British Library. See under “advertisements” in the British Library catalog.

53 The handbill by James Hallett, “Great News to the Afflicted!!!” (ca. 1790s) is held in the Harry Price Library, London. A photograph of the original can also be found in Maple, Eric, Magic, Medicine and Quackery (London, 1968), p. 144Google Scholar.

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55 Hereford Times (2 March 1867, 30 March 1867).

56 Encyclopedia Britannica, 9th ed. (London, 1885), p. 570Google Scholar, s.v. “Post Office.”

57 Hereford Times (9 March 1867).

58 Ibid.

59 See, e.g., Dean Forest Mercury (11 May 1906).

60 The following account of Hartwell's activities comes from reports in the Birmingham Daily Mail (18, 30 January 1883).

61 Ibid.

62 The Times (17 September 1912).

63 Davies, Owen, “Cunning-Folk in England and Wales during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” Rural History 8 (1997): 91107CrossRefGoogle Scholar, esp. 100.

64 Tyler, Philip, “The Church Courts at York and Witchcraft Prosecutions, 1567–1640,” Northern History 4 (1969): 84109CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Rushton, Peter, “Women, Witchcraft, and Slander in Early Modern England: Cases from the Church Courts of Durham, 1560–1679,” Northern History 17 (1982): 116–32CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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70 For an examination of the development of commercial advertising, see Nevett, , “Advertising and Editorial Integrity in the Nineteenth Century,” pp. 149167Google Scholar, The Development of Commercial Advertising, 1800–1914” (Ph.D. diss., University of London, 1979)Google Scholar.

71 Daily Mail (7 April 1900).

72 For two recent studies of the popular press, marking the one hundredth anniversary of the Daily Mail, see Taylor, S. J., The Great Outsiders: Northclijfe, Rothermere and The Daily Mail (London, 1996)Google Scholar; Engel, Matthew, Tickle the Public: One Hundred Years of the Popular Press (London, 1996)Google Scholar.

73 Morning Leader (1 September 1904).

74 Ibid.

75 Dean Forest Mercury (26 May 1905).

76 Other papers included, e.g., the Gloucester Citizen (29 May 1905) and the Dean Forest Mercury (2 June 1905).

77 Reported in the Dean Forest Mercury (2 June 1905).

78 Dean Forest Mercury (18 May 1906).

79 Ibid.

80 Dean Forest Mercury (1 June 1906).

81 News Chronicle (6 January 1947); Hole, Christina, Witchcraft in England (London, 1977), p. 178Google Scholar.

82 Justice of the Peace (21 April 1917); Justice of the Peace and Local Government Review (23 June 1928).

83 See Howe, Ellic, Urania's Children (London, 1967), pp. 6871Google Scholar.

84 See Davies, , “The Decline in the Popular Belief in Witchcraft and Magic,” pp. 179–83Google Scholar.

85 Vincent, Literacy and Popular Culture, The Decline of the Oral Tradition in Popular Culture,” and Bread, Knowledge and Freedom (London, 1981)Google Scholar.

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