Academic journal article Western Folklore

Witchcraft Persecutions in the Post-Craze Era: The Case of Ann Izzard of Great Paxton, 1808

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Witchcraft Persecutions in the Post-Craze Era: The Case of Ann Izzard of Great Paxton, 1808

Article excerpt

THE CASE OF ANN IZZARD

At the Court of King's Bench, the highest court of common law in England at the beginning of the nineteenth century, two indictments handed down for the county of Huntingdonshire charge a number of the residents of Great Paxton with having in early May of 1808 attacked a man and his wife on each of two successive nights (PRO 36 'c', 37 'c'). There might seem to be little of interest for the student of witchcraft in legal documents concerned exclusively as they are with "Riot and Misdemeanors," especially from a period so long after the active persecution of witches in England, but these indictments include the curious charge that the accused had dragged the woman from her bed "...and with Pins and other Sharp Instruments did then and there lacerate and wound the said Ann in and upon the Neck Breasts Arms Sides and different parts of the body..."(PRO 36 'c'). A detail of this sort immediately suggests that this incident is connected with English witchcraft beliefs, but in the absence of further evidence, proving that such was the case would be nearly impossible.1 Fortunately, we have an insider's detailed observations about this incident from Huntingdonshire in the form of several contemporary publications by Isaac Nicholson, the curate of the parish which included Great Paxton, Little Paxton, and Toseland (Nicholson 1808; Nicholson 1810).2 For all our knowledge of the events, however, this persecution of Ann Izzard has until recently been all-but-forgotten in the literature on witchcraft,3 and only briefly noted in histories of the area.4 On the other hand, the case has maintained a certain notoriety in local tradition, and can be seen as something of a last full blossoming of vigorous local belief in witchcraft.5 From the Reverend Nicholson's testimony, the court documents and so on, the following account emerges, a narrative which bears many tell-tale signs of traditional beliefs and motifs concerned with witchcraft (noted here parenthetically).6 As the story unfolds-and as it develops over time in oral tradition-it becomes clear that the villagers' construction of the narrative looks to ascribe causation for the young girls' illness and then to repair the damage.

According to the Reverend Nicholson, the troubles of 1808 began on February 17, when Alice Brown falls through the ice while trying to cross the Ouse, and although she survives, Brown is now subject to convulsions, cannot work, and in a declining state of health. Several months earlier another young woman from Great Paxton, Brown's friend Fanny Amey, had also fallen subject to fits. At some point, a third woman, Mary Fox, exhibits similar symptoms (G263.4.2 Witch causes victim to harp fits; D2064.4 Magic sickness because of Evil Eye). On April 4, Brown's father, Thomas, acts on the advice that he place a bottle filled "with a particular kind of fluid" and set with pins in the cork in an oven in order to find out who is causing the trouble (cf. G271.4.1 (h) Breaking spell by boiling victims urine; G257.1 (d) Boiling needles or pins forces witch to reveal herself, and G271.4.1 (le) Breaking spell on person by putting quart bottle of pins by the fire). Strange noises are heard, but no image of the individual "who it is that does all the mischief' emerges (Nicholson 1808: iii). On April 5, Brown's brother informs the Reverend Nicholson that his sister "is under an ill tongue," or, as a man standing nearby puts it, she is "bewitched." The Reverend Nicholson continues,

If I was shocked at this man's absurdity and superstition, I was infinitely more so to understand, it was the general opinion of the people that Alice Brown, Fanny Amey, and Mary Fox were certainly bewitched by some person who had purchased a familiar, or an evil spirit of the devil at the expence of his own soul; and that a variety of charms and experiments had been tried to discover who it was (Nicholson 1808:iii-iv).

The Reverend Nicholson visits the Brown and Amey households later that day and argues against "wild and irrational" belief in malefic magic and asks the parents to try other means than "senseless charms" to cure their children (Nicholson 1808:iv). …

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