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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

Extract

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.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © North American Conference of British Studies 1998

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References

1 Thompson, E. P., Customs in Common (London, 1991)Google Scholar; Malcolmson, Robert, Popular Recreations in English Society, 1700–1850 (Cambridge, 1973)Google Scholar; Bushaway, R. W., By Rite: Custom, Ceremony and Community in England, 1700–1880 (London, 1982)Google Scholar.

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.

3 Newman, L. F., “Some Notes on the History and Practice of Witchcraft in the Eastern Counties,” Folklore 57 (1946): 33CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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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8 Burke, Peter, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (London, 1978)Google Scholar. As Burke himself was aware, his model of cultural separation is highly simplistic but certainly still valid. For some recent revisions of Burke's thesis, see Harris, ed., Popular Culture in England. It should be pointed out that not all members of the educated elite during the eighteenth century rejected the reality of witchcraft and magic. Methodists, for example, continued to believe in the diabolic witch.

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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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17 See Davies, Owen, “The Decline in the Popular Belief in Witchcraft and Magic” (Ph.D. diss., Lancaster University, 1995), pp. 6385Google Scholar.

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19 Nevett, Terry, “Advertising and Editorial Integrity in the Nineteenth Century,” in The Press in English Society from the Seventeenth to Nineteenth Centuries, ed. Harris, Michael and Lee, Alan (London, 1986), p. 152Google Scholar.

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21 Vincent, David, “The Decline of the Oral Tradition in Popular Culture,” in Popular Culture and Custom in Nineteenth-Century England, ed. Storch, Robert (London, 1982), pp. 2048Google Scholar.

22 The Times (19 July 1856).

23 Davis, Jennifer, “A Poor Man's System of Justice: The London Police Courts in the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century,” Historical Journal 27 (1984): 309–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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

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28 Irving, Washington, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon Gent (1820; reprint, London: Cassell, n.d.), p. 240Google Scholar.

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31 Peacock, Mabel, “Folklore of Lincolnshire,” Folklore 12 (1901): 165–80, 180CrossRefGoogle Scholar. “Idle-headed eld” refers to the reminiscences of elderly people.

32 Cited in James, Louis, Print and the People, 1819–51 (London, 1976), p. 21Google Scholar.

33 Neuburg, Victor, Popular Literature (London, 1977)Google Scholar; Pedersen, Susan, “Hannah More Meets Simple Simon: Tracts, Chapbooks, and Popular Culture in Late Eighteenth-Century England,” Journal of British Studies 25 (1986): 84113CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 Perkin, Harold, “The Origin of the Popular Press,” History Today (July 1957)Google Scholar, reprinted in his The Structured Crowd (Brighton, 1981)Google Scholar; Williams, Raymond, “The Press and Popular Culture: An Historical Perspective,” in Newspaper History, ed. Boyce, G., Curran, J., and Wingate, P. (London, 1978), pp. 4150Google Scholar. See also Hughes's, Michael foreword to Hindley's, CharlesCuriosities of Street Literature (1871; reprint, New York, 1970)Google Scholar.

35 Taunton Courier (5 January 1825).

36 Essex Standard (18 September 1858).

37 The Times (27 October 1866).

38 The Western Flying Post (26 August 1856).

39 The Times (7 April 1857).

40 Johnson, Richard, “Educational Policy and Social Control in Early Victorian England,” Past and Present, no. 49 (1970), pp. 96119Google Scholar.

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.

43 Somerset County Herald (18 March 1876).

44 Owen, Elias, “Folklore, Superstitions, or What-Not, in Montgomeryshire and Elsewhere,” Montgomeryshire Collections 17 (1884): 165–74, 165Google Scholar.

45 Baring-Gould, Sabine, Devonshire Characters and Strange Events (London, 1908), p. 70Google Scholar. For another, similar example, see Peacock, , “Folklore of Lincolnshire,” p. 174Google Scholar.

46 Somerset County Herald (23 June 1923).

47 Thomas, Keith, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London and New York, 1971), p. 779Google Scholar.

48 For the advertisement of unorthodox medicines, see Brown, P. S., “The Vendors of Medicines Advertised in Eighteenth-Century Bath Newspapers,” Medical History 19 (1975): 352–69CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Medicines Advertised in Eighteenth-Century Bath Newspapers,” Medical History 20 (1976): 152–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

49 Southey, Robert, Letters from England (London, 1807; reprint, London, 1984), p. 300Google Scholar.

50 Barry, Jonathan, “Publicity and Public Good: Presenting Medicine in Eighteenth-Century Bristol,” in Medical Fringe and Medical Orthodoxy, 1750–1850, ed. Bynum, W. F. and Porter, Roy (London: Croom Helm, 1987), pp. 2940, pp. 36–37Google Scholar.

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.

54 The Trial of Joseph Powell, the Fortune-Teller, at the Sessions-House, Clerken-well, October 31, 1807; Taken in Short-Hand by Mr. Gurney (London, 1808)Google Scholar; Brown, Philip A. H., London Publishers and Printers, c. 1800–1870 (London, 1982), p. 10Google Scholar.

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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66 Norwich Gazette (11 February 1725).

67 Yarmouth Independent (16 March 1895).

68 Leeds Mercury (17 May 1806); Wheater, William, “Yorkshire Superstitions: Witches and Wizards,” Old Yorkshire 4 (1883): 265–71, 271Google Scholar.

69 Leeds Mercury (23 August 1856); Western Flying Post (26 August 1856).

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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