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Demonic Possession Cases, from 1696

Christian Shaw, Bargarran 1696-97

Margaret Murdoch, and Margaret Laird, Paisley 1699-1700

Patrick Morton, Pittenweem 1704-05

 

There are a number of interesting and unusual features in the accusations and prosecutions of Janet Corphat (or Cornfoot) and Beatrix Laing, from Pittenweem in Fife. One, because the date of their trial was relatively late, 1705, which was well after the peak in prosecution of alleged witches seen in 1662.

 

After this trials and prosecutions began to decline. This did not, however, mean that concerns and fears about witches and witchcraft had disappeared. On the contrary, although trials may have reduced, accusations continued, even well after the rewording of the Witchcraft Act in 1736-37.

 

Secondly, it is also interesting because it involved a relatively young teenage ‘victim’, Patrick Morton, who claimed that he had been bewitched and possessed. 

 

There were four teenagers, or pre-teenagers, in Scotland who claimed they were possessed, the most notorious being the 1696-97 case of Christian Shaw of Bargarran, in Renfrewshire, who accused a large number of people of bewitching her and causing her to manifest strange fits where her body would go rigid and suffer convulsions, she would vomit hair, straw, coal and other objects, and she would start speaking to invisible spirits. 

 

Two years later there was another case in the Paisley area where two girls  – Margaret Murdoch and Margaret Laird – displayed very similar symptoms: rigidity, spasms, vomiting, loss of speech. More than twenty people were accused of witchcraft.

 

The links between the Renfrewshire and Paisley cases are not coincidental as there had been much publicity about Christian Shaw and printed pamphlets describing events had been in circulation. Also one of the commissioners – Sir John Maxwell of Pollok – was involved in both the 1696-97 and 1698-99 investigations and trials. 

 

Patrick Morton is therefore part of a trend, albeit a short-lived one, that saw a number of people executed on the words of teenage witnesses.

 

Christian Shaw

In August 1696 when Christian Shaw was about ten she began to experience strange fits which lasted for about a year. She was seen to experience spasms when her body would jerk and her back arch.

 

Her explanation for her symptoms was that she had been cursed by a family servant, Katherine Campbell. Katherine was from the Highlands so spoke Gaelic, not a language that Christian would understand. Christian had reprimanded Katherine over some incident involving milk, which Christian accused Katherine of stealing or spoiling in some way. According to Christian, Katherine had cursed her by saying: ‘The Devil harle your soul through Hell’.

 

As Christian’s symptoms worsened she was examined by apothecaries and physicians – she was even taken to Glasgow to be examined by a leading physician, Sir Matthew Brisbane.

 

Undoubtedly, the reports that she vomited nails, animal hair, bones, straw and coal paint a distressing picture of the suffering of a young, pubertal, girl. Her body spasms must have caused her family great anxiety, and when she accused Katherine of cursing her that must have seemed an acceptable explanation.

 

As a subject of speculation and interest, people heard about Christian’s condition and many inquisitive visitors came to the house to see her. Ministers prayed over her and during these episode reportedly she would become extremely violent, claiming that she could see and engage in theological debates with the Devil. She then began to recite biblical verses, particularly from the Book of Job.

 

Her ability to refer to and quote from Job, which described similar suffering and torment, seems a tad advanced for a young girl, even one brought up in a Christian household in seventeenth-century Scotland, and perhaps more than a little convenient for those around her who might have been using the case for their own purposes.

 

Christian named up to twenty-four people who were involved in the bewitchment, and the Privy Council issued  a commission in January 1697. People were questioned, including some children, and confessed to sabbats and meetings which were held at Bargarran Orchard.

 

They claimed that they had caused the capsizing of the Erskine ferry boat and the death of John Hardie, a minister at Dumbarton. 

 

In the end, only seven of the accused were tried: Katherine Campbell, Agnes Nasmith, Margaret Fulton, Margaret Lang, John and James Lindsay – whose aliases were, it was claimed, the bishop and the curate – and another John Lindsay. One man John Reid hanged himself before his trial. Agnes Nasmith was said to have a reputation as an ignorant and malicious old widow who was given to cursing her neighbours. All of them, apart from Reid, were executed at Paisley in May 1697.

 

Christian made a full ‘recovery’ from her experience and after being widowed she returned to the family home and was one of the founders of the Bargarran Thread Company, which helped lead to the establishment of Paisley as a world-famous cotton and textile production area.

 

Christian’s contribution to wealth of the town was very important. However, she is better known for her role in the accusation and trial of witches particularly as subsequent publications about her sufferings added to the controversy. ‘A True narrative of the Sufferings and Relief of a Young Girle; Strangely molested by Evil Spirits and their instruments in the West: With a preface and postscript containing Reflections on what is most Material or Curious either in the history or trial of the Seven Witches who were condemn’d to be Execute in the country’ was published anonymously in Edinburgh, the following year.

 

To an extent it is this account which gave the case increased attention – even perhaps leading to ‘copy-cat’ cases  – especially given the general overall decline in prosecutions during the latter decades of the seventeenth century and the early years of the eighteenth century.

 

And indeed the controversy did not end with the end of the witch trials. The ‘Narrative’ has given later historians, and even contemporary writers, reason to accuse Christian of being an impostor, that her claims of possession and torment were mere pretence; a deliberate and malicious act. That a girl of ten or eleven was able to trick learned and educated ministers, theologians, physicians, and lawyers into believing that she was bewitched does seem somewhat unbelievable, nevertheless more educated men of the time were convinced of the reality of demonic magic than were sceptical about it, and so these men were at least prepared to accept the explanation of possession.

 

Another explanation that has been posed is that Christian may have been suffering from a mental illness, possibly hysteria, or experiencing some hormonal changes due to puberty, resulting in emotional turmoil. She could also have been suffering from some form of epilepsy; however this explanation seems less likely in the face of her recovery and longevity with, apparently, no further epileptic seizures.

 

One problem is how did she manage to perform the vomiting or spasms, the flying around the room, and the speaking in tongues, if they were all tricks? Did she have an accomplice or accomplices or was she perhaps a victim as well? Was any of Christian’s behaviour genuine or was it all exaggerated? Could she have been manipulated by others, particularly the ministers who were witnesses to her torment and who were the likely authors of the anonymous pamphlet? 

 

It has been suggested that these could have been Andrew Turner, minister at Erskine, and James Brisbane, minister at Kilmacolm, who was related to the physician Matthew Brisbane. Another possible author was Francis Grant, Lord Cullen, the prosecution lawyer.

 

The ‘Narrative’, and the events of Christian’s case, also bear striking resemblance to events which happened in 1692 at Salem, New England.

 

A version of the case involving Abigail Williams, a twelve-year old girl who experienced violent fits which she blamed on witchcraft, was written by Reverend Deodat Lawson, and published in Boston in 1692. Another version by Cotton Mather followed later.

 

The sentiments expressed by Lawson, affirming the existence of the ‘powers of darkness’ are also found in the preface to the ‘Narrative’, which states that this book will serve to glorify God’s name. It is possible, therefore, that the ‘Narrative‘ was written, much like Robert Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth, to prove the existence of God and spirits and to oppose what were seen as the increasingly dangerous forces of scepticism.

 

The presbyterian church in Scotland had faced a number of struggles during the seventeenth century: interference by Charles I, attacks on Covenanting ministers, imposition and later removal of episcopalian church government, and by the late 1680s and 1690s threats from not only sceptics but possible atheists.

 

Many felt that not only was the church beleaguered, but faith in Christianity was being questioned by these ideas. It might be that Christian Shaw’s argument with Katherine Campbell was turned into a publicity opportunity for those who felt threatened by those they identified as sadducees – non-believers in spirits.

 

Margaret Murdoch and Margaret Laird

Two years after the trial in Paisley, two young girls from the same area, claimed that they had been bewitched and demonstrated similar symptoms of demonic possession.

 

Margaret Murdoch’s experience was very like Christian’s: spasms of rigidity when her limbs could not be moved; vomiting of pins, wool, straw and hair; numerous burns and bruises all over her body. Margaret Laird fell into faints and was unresponsive to people around her. She appeared mute during these episodes, and also experienced convulsions and bodily contortions, reportedly claiming she could see the Devil during these fits.

 

Like Christian, the two Margarets named and accused a large number of people. Unlike the incident between Christian and Katherine Campbell, there does not seem to have been any personal argument or conflict involving the Margarets which sparked the initial complaint.

 

Sir John Maxwell of Pollok was key to the pursuit of the charges. His father had been the supposed victim of a group of witches and had been involved in their trial in 1677. Maxwell had been an active and enthusiastic commissioner during the Bargarran trial and in 1699 he was appointed Justice Clerk. This seems to have encouraged his involvement and in March 1699 the justice court issued permission to interview witnesses and record their testimonies.

 

Up to twenty people were accused by name, some of whom appear to have had pre-existing, suspicious, reputations amongst the local community. By April a formal indictment was drawn up naming twenty-four people. 

 

Although Maxwell was clearly a significant factor there were other people who were also involved in both cases, particularly James Brisbane, minister at Kilmacolm. Another minister, Neil Gillies, from the Tron in Glasgow, had also been a witness during the Bargarran trial.

 

It seemed as if this trial would progress the same way as the Bargarran one: Maxwell and some of the same ministers were involved and there were two victims to bear witness to the horrific nature of demonic possession. The accused had also confessed to demonic pact and supernatural activities. However, things did not go quite smoothly. 

 

There were numerous delays and by March 1700 the case was dismissed and the accused were freed. The reasons given were that the evidence was not reliable and it would seem, some of those involved in taking down testimonies expressed their doubts: John Anderson, depute-clerk to the Privy Council thought there was  little purpose to the trial.

 

Between July and November 1699 there was a lot of disagreement between the local Glasgow/Paisley ministers and the legal authorities in Edinburgh. At one stage the ministers requested that the circuit court trial be cancelled and a local commission granted instead. The justice court refused this as it had been recommended after 1662, by legal experts such as Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh, that all trials should be held before the central justice court as local trials tended to convict more easily. 

 

Undoubtedly the dismissal of this case was regarded as a worrying slight by many of those ministers who were fighting a rearguard action against scepticism, despite their apparent victory at Bargarran. By 1700, belief in the crime of witchcraft was still acceptable for many but the balance had swung in favour of caution – not total rejection – but care over the reliability of evidence and testimony.

 

Patrick Morton

The last of the demonic possession cases was in 1704 and in Fife, not in the Paisley area.

 

Patrick Morton, a sixteen-year old apprentice blacksmith who also claimed to have experience convulsions and fits. His body became rigid, his back would arch, and he developed a swollen stomach. It also seems that he became weak and emaciated, although he stopped eating which probably did not help his symptoms.

 

He also complained of being punched and pricked all over his body. The symptoms were very similar to Christian and to the two Margarets, although like Christian’s case there seems to have been an initial dispute between Patrick and one of the accused, Beatrix Laing.

 

It seems that Beatrix Laing, who was the wife of a local tailor, had requested Patrick to make her some nails, a request that he had refused. It may be that she muttered something which expressed her annoyance, she already had a bit of a reputation amongst the local population as she had been refused communion and was regarded as a woman of ‘ill fame’. 

 

Whatever the cause, Patrick interpreted this as a curse and when he began to complain of strange symptoms and bewitching he identified Beatrix as a likely source. Patrick Cowper, who was the local minister, had read the account of Christian Shaw’s sufferings and it would seem quite possible that this may have had some influence on the symptoms Patrick experienced, or claimed to experience. 

 

The hunt spread rapidly and seven others were named by Beartrix, although she later retracted these: Janet Cornfoot or Corphat, Nicolas Lawson, Janet Horseburgh, Isobel Adam and Thomas Brown and Lilias Wallace were named as accomplices. Another woman, Margaret Jack, was also implicated but like Brown, Horseburgh and Wallace, she did not confess. 

 

Patrick made his accusations and the minister and bailies of Pittenweem imprisoned the seven in the tolbooth and questioned and examined them. Laing, Cornfoot, Lawson, and Adam all confessed to renunciation of their baptism, making a demonic pact and attending meetings.

 

They were pricked – examined for the Devil’s mark – and deprived of sleep in order to encourage their confessions. Beartrix later appealed to the Privy Council claiming that because she would not confess she had been tortured by being kept awake for five days and nights and was continually pricked on the shoulders, back and thighs.

 

In June the kirk session, and then the presbytery of St Andrews, examined the accused and witnesses and later the burgh council of Pittenweem petitioned the Privy Council for a commission. Indeed they cited the precedent of the Bargarran case in their petition, probably on the advice of Cowper.

 

Friends of the accused had petitioned to have them released, but they were ordered to stand trial in Edinburgh, where they were examined in November 1704, in front of the Lord Advocate.

 

They were all subsequently released and Patrick Morton was declared a liar. There is some evidence that the accused were ordered to pay a fine of £8 Scots for their freedom, which they appeared to have paid. Thomas Brown had died earlier, of starvation, when imprisoned in the tolbooth at Pittenweem (the building survives although some have claimed that it is haunted, the activity perhaps linked to this episode).

 

The others, apart from Janet Cornfoot, survived the accusation and examination, although Beartrix wrote to the Privy Council asking for protection and detailing her ill treatment at the hands of the townspeople. Protection was granted in May 1705 and she moved to St Andrews.

 

Despite the adjudication of the lord advocate, the community of Pittenweem, encouraged by Patrick Cowper, the minister, did not accept the verdict.

 

When Janet Cornfoot had fled to Leuchars, (about twelve miles or so from Pittenweem) she was sent back by the minister, and in January 1705 she was set upon by the villagers of Pittenweem, apparently in an attempt to make her confess – which she refused to do.

 

She was dragged through the streets, suspended from ropes tied between a boat and the shore and stoned. They then cut her down and brought her back on land where they laid a heavy wooden door on top of her and crushed her to death by piling stones on top of the door and then driving a cart over her. The poor woman had refused to confess and the mob murdered her. 

 

The bailies eventually reported the incident to the Privy Council in February and claimed that several of those involved had been imprisoned but that Cowper had released them. Patrick Morton had been identified as an impostor but he was not punished.

 

It was a shameful episode that demonstrated the dangers of mob violence: as individuals people can behave reasonably, but this self control is often lost in a crowd or mob, which often act quite unreasonably.

 

The ordinary townsfolk of Pittenweem seemed to have had concerns about Beatrix Laing, as she already had a bad reputation, but there seems to be no evidence of previous concerns about the others.

 

So was this an example of a town panicking, feeling justified fear, or were they deliberately stirred up into a frenzy? If the latter is the case, who stirred up emotions? Patrick was a cheat and liar, but why would he want to create a moral panic in an east-coast fishing village?

 

Perhaps he was as suggestible as the other three, Christian and the two Margarets. How much did the minister Patrick Cowper influence events and actions?

 

It does seem likely that he encouraged Patrick in his claims about being bewitched, he was aware of the details of the Bargarran case, he arranged for those involved in the lynch mob to be released from custody, and he did little to intervene to prevent an extra-judicial execution.

 

It would seem that Cowper was of the same opinion as the authors of the ‘Narrative’, and may have believed that the threat from demonic spirits was a real and present one and that the afflictions experienced by these young people would demonstrate to any doubters the reality of these evil spirits. 

 

In a written account of the Pittenweem case, ‘A True and Full Relation of the Witches at Pittenweem’, which was published in Edinburgh in 1704-05, the author claimed that Morton’s experience would be used for the same purpose as Christian’s, to prove the existence of good and evil spirits.

 

It does seem unfortunate, to us, that these seventeenth-century Scottish ministers felt that in order to prove the existence of God they had to prove the existence of evil, and to do so they felt justified in manipulating young people, who may have been vulnerable, which then resulted in the execution of seven people, the starving to death of another man and the horrific murder of Janet Cornfoot by her own community.

 

 © Martin Coventry 2017

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© Martin Coventry