Devonshire Characters and Strange Events/White Witches

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


SOME years ago I wrote a little account of "White Witches" in the Daily Graphic, in which I narrated some of my experiences and my acquaintance with their proceedings. This brought me at the lowest computation fifty letters from all parts of the country from patients who had spent much of their substance upon medical practitioners, and, like the woman with the issue of blood in the Gospel, "had suffered many things of many physicians and was nothing bettered, but rather grew worse." These entreated me to furnish them with the addresses of some of these irregular practitioners, that they might try them. I did not send what was desired, and that for a very good reason, that I regard these individuals as impostors and the occasion of a good deal of mischief.

At the same time distinguez, as the French would say. They are not all so, and I have seen and can testify to very notable and undeniable cures that they have effected. That they believe in their powers and their cures is true in a good many cases, and I quite admit that they may be in possession of a large number of valuable herbal recipes, doubtless of real efficacy. Some of our surgeons are far too fond of using the knife, and the majority of them employ strong mineral medicines that, though they may produce an immediate effect, do injury in the long run. I take it that one reason why our teeth are so bad in the present generation is due largely to the way in which calomel was administered in times past, a medicine that touches the liver but is rottenness to the bones.

What Jesus the son of Sirach said centuries ago is true still: "The Lord hath created medicines out of the earth, and he that is wise will not abhor them … by such doth he heal men, and taketh away their pains. Of such doth the apothecary make a confection" (Ecclus. XXXVIII. 4, 7, 8). What the writer meant was herbs and not minerals. The simples employed by the wise old women in our villages were admirable in most cases, but they were slow, if sure of action, and in these days when we go at a gallop we want cures to be rapid, almost instantaneous.

But the professed herbalist in our country towns is very often not a herbalist at all, but a mere impostor. He puts up "herbalist" on a brass plate at his door, but his procedure is mere quackery.

Moreover, the true White Witch is consulted not for maladies only, but for the discovery of who has cast the evil eye, "overlooked" and "ill-wished" some one who has lost a cow, or has been out of sorts, or has sickness in his pig-sty. The mode of proceeding was amusingly described in the Letters of Nathan Hogg, in 1847. Nathan in the form of a story gives an account of what was the general method of the White Witch Tucker in Exeter. A farmer whose conviction was that disorders and disasters at home were the result of the ill-wishing of a red-cloaked Nan Tap, consulted Tucker as to how the old woman was to be "driven" and rendered powerless.

I modify the broad dialect, which would not be generally intelligible.

When into Exeter he had got
To Master Tucker's door he sot;
He rung'd the bell, the message sent,
Pulled off his hat, and in he went,

And seed a fellow in a room
That seem'd in such a fret and fume.
He said he'd lost a calf and cow,
And com'd in there to know as how,
For Master T., at little cost,
Had often found the thing's he'd lost.

Thereupon the farmer opened his own trouble, and told how he and his were bewitched by Nan Tap. And as he told his tale, it seemed so sad that the man in the room bade him go in first to consult the White Witch.

Now this fuming man was employed by Tucker to draw out from the gulls what their trouble was, and there was but a sham wall of paper between the room where the interview took place and that in which he received the farmer, whom he greatly astonished by informing him of all the circumstances that led to the visit. The remedy he prescribed was to carry a little bag he gave him, in which were some stones, and to dash water in the direction of the old woman, and say, "I do it in the name of Tucker," and if this did not answer, he was to put a faggot up his chimney, set fire to it, and say a prayer he taught him while it was burning. We need not follow the account any further.

There was a few years ago a notable White Witch of the name of Snow, at Tiverton, who did great business. In a case with which I am well acquainted, he certainly was the means of curing a substantial farmer. The man had caught a severe chill one night of storm, when a torrent threatened to inundate his house. He had stood for hours endeavouring to divert the stream from his door. The chill settled on his chest, and he became a wreck; he drew his breath with difficulty, walked bent, almost double, and as I was convinced would not live out the twelve months. He consulted the most famous and experienced physicians, and they did him no good. Then in desperation he went to "Old Snow." From that day he mended. What the White Witch gave him I do not know; but the man is now robust, hearty, and looks as if many years were before him.

I know another case, but this is of a different nature. A young farmer, curious as to the future, visited a White Witch to learn who his future wife would be. Said she—this witch was a woman, and an old one: there are female witches who are young and exercise very powerful charms—said she: "Next Sunday, you go along Narracott lane, and the first young woman you see pass, look her well in the face, and when you've gone by, turn your head and look, and if she's also turned her head and is looking at you, that's the one."

"Well now," said this farmer in later years, "it were a coorious thing it were, but as I were goin' along thickey lane there I seed Bessie Baker, and I turn'd, and sure enough her were lookin' over her shoulder to me, and wot's most coorious of all—her's my missus now. After that, don't ee go and tell me as how White Witches knows nothin'. But there's somethin' more to the tale. I heerd afterwards as Bessie, her'd consulted old Nan, and Nan had said to her, 'Go along Narracott lane, and the first man as you sees, when you've past, turn and look; and if he's lookin' over his shoulder to you, that's the one.' There's facts; and wi' them facts staring of you in the face, don't you go and say White Witches is nort."

There is an old woman I know—she is still alive. It was six years since she bought a bar of yellow or any other soap. But that is neither here nor there. She was esteemed a witch—a white one of course. She was a God-fearing woman, and had no relations with the Evil One, of that one may be sure. How she subsisted was a puzzle to the whole parish. But, then, she was generally feared. She received presents from every farm and cottage. Sometimes she would meet a child coming from school, and stay it, and fixing her wild dark eye on it, say, "My dear, I knawed a child jist like you—same age, red rosy cheeks, and curlin' black hair. And that child shrivelled up, shrumped like an apple as is picked in the third quarter of the moon. The cheeks grew white, the hair went out of curl, and she jist died right on end and away."

Before the day was out, a chicken or a basket of eggs as a present from the mother of that child was sure to arrive.

I have given an account of this same old woman in my An Old English Home, and will here add a few more particulars about her. She possessed of her own a two-storied house, thatched, built mainly of cob, but with two chimneys of brick. Some five-and-twenty years ago the house was habitable enough. The thatch had given way in several places, but she could not or would not have it repaired. Perhaps she had not the means; but the farmers offered her straw, and a thatcher would have done the work for her gratis, or only for her blessing. She would not. "God made the sky," she said, "and that is the best roof of all." After a while, however, the roof became leaky everywhere. Then she sought shelter for her head by stuffing up the chimney of her bedroom fireplace with a sack filled with chaff, and pushing her bed to the hearth, she slept with her head and pillow under the sack. But access to this bedroom became difficult, as the stairs, exposed to the rain, rotted and gave way, and she was compelled to ascend and descend by an improvised ladder.

alt"Top: Mariann Voaden, Bratton; Bottom: Mariann Voaden’s Cottage, Bratton
The rector of the parish went to her and remonstrated at the dangerous condition of the tenement.

"My dear," said she, "there be two angels every night sits on the rungs of the ladder and watches there, that nobody comes nigh me, and they be ready to hold up the timbers that they don't fall on me."

The rector's daughter carried her some food every now and then. One day the woman made her a present of some fine old lace. This was gratefully accepted. As the young lady was departing, "Old Marianne" called after her from the bedroom door, "Come back, my dear, I want that lace again. If any one else be so gude as to give me aught, I shall want it to make an acknowledgment of the kindness." The lace was often given as acknowledgment, and as often reclaimed.

After a while the ladder collapsed. Then the old woman descended for good and all, and took up her abode on the ground floor—kitchen and parlour, dining-room and bedroom all in one.

Finally the whole roof fell in and carried down the flooring of the upper story, but in such manner that the "planchin" rested at one end against the wall, but blocked up door and fireplace. Then she lived under it as a lean-to roof, and without a fire for several winters, amongst others that bitter one of 1893-4, and her only means of egress and ingress was through the window. Of that half the number of panes was broken and patched with rags. As the water poured into her room she finally took refuge in an old oak chest, keeping the lid up with a brick.

I knew her very well; she was a picturesque object. Once she and I were photographed together standing among the ruins of her house. She must have been handsome in her day, with a finely-cut profile, and piercing dark eyes. She usually wore a red kerchief about her head or neck and an old scarlet petticoat. But she was dirty—indescribably so. Her hands were the colour of mahogany. She promised me her book of charms. I never got it, and this was how. The huntsmen were wont, whenever passing her wretched house, to shout "Marianne! Marianne!" and draw up. Then from amidst the ruins came a muffled response, "Coming, my dears, coming!" Presently she appeared. She was obliged to crawl out of her window that opened into the garden and orchard at the back of the house, go round it, and unlace a gate of thorns she had erected as a protection to her garden; there she always received presents. One day as usual the fox-hunters halted and called for her; she happened at the time to have kindled a fire on the floor of her room to boil a little water in a kettle for tea, and she left the fire burning when she issued forth to converse with the gentlemen and extend her hand for half-crowns. Whilst thus engaged the flames caught some straw that littered the ground, they spread, set fire to the woodwork, and the room was in a blaze. Everything was consumed, her chest-bed, her lace, her book of charms. After that she was conveyed to the workhouse, where she is still, and now is kept clean.

Once, before this catastrophe, I drove over to see her, taking my youngest daughter with me. The child had breakings-out on her face; Marianne noticed this. "Ah, my dear," said she, "I see you want my help. You must bring the little maiden to me, she must be fasting, and then I will bless her face, and in two days she will be well." Her cure for whooping-cough was to cut the hair off the cross on a donkey's back, fasten it in silk bags, and tie these round the children's necks. "You see," she said, "Christ Jesus rode into Jerusalem on an ass, and ever since then asses have the cross on their backs, and the hair of those crosses is holy and cures maladies."

Although I did not obtain her book of charms, she gave me many of her recipes. For fits one was to swallow wood-lice, pounded if one liked, better swallowed au naturel.

For Burns or Scalds.—Recite over the place:—

There were three Angels who came from the North,
One bringing Fire, the other brought Frost,
The other he was the Holy Ghost.
            In Frost, out Fire! In the Name, etc.

For a Sprain.—Recite: "As Christ was riding over Crolly Bridge, His horse slid and sprained his leg. He alighted and spake the words: Bone to bone, and sinew to sinew! and blessed it and it became well, and so shall … become well. In the Name, etc." Repeat thrice.

For Stanching Blood.—Recite: "Jesus was born in Bethlehem, baptized in the river of Jordan. The water was wide and the river was rude against the Holy Child. And He smote it with a rod, and it stood still, and so shall your blood stand still. In the Name, etc." Repeat thrice.

Cure for Toothache.—"As our Blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ were walking in the garden of Jerusalem, Jesus said unto Peter, Why weepest thou? Peter answered and said, Lord, I be terrible tormented with the toothache. Jesus said unto Peter, If thou wilt believe in Me and My words abide in thee, thou shall never more fill [sic] the pain in thy tooth. Peter cried out with tears, Lord, I believe, help thou my onbelieve [sic]."

Another receipt for a Sprain.

2 oz. of oil of turpentine.
2 oz. of swillowes.
2 oz. of oil of earthworms.
2 oz. of nerve.
2 oz. of oil of spideldock (? opodeldoc).
2 oz. of Spanish flies.

I recommend this recipe to be taken to an apothecary. Order it to be made up, and observe his face as he reads it.

Marianne had the gift of stanching blood even at a distance. On one occasion when hay was being cut, a man wounded himself at Kelly, some eight miles distant, and the blood flowed in streams. At once the farmer bade a man take a kerchief dipped in his blood and gallop as hard as he could to the tumble-down cottage, and get Marianne to bless the blood. He did so, and was gone some three hours. As soon as the old woman had charmed the kerchief the blood ceased to flow.

At one time, now thirty to forty years ago, it was not by any means uncommon for one to meet the village postman walking with one hand extended holding a kerchief that was sent to the White Witch to be blessed. The rag must touch no other human being till it reached her. Moreover, at my own village inn, people from a distance frequently lodged so as to be able to consult the White Witch, and my tenant, the landlady of the inn, was absolutely convinced of the efficacy of the cures wrought.

The rector's son went to call on Marianne, and she brought out for him a filthy glass with poppy wine she had made, thick and muddy, and offered it to him. "I am almost a teetotaler," said he; "and so can do
A village Wise Man Devonshire characters and strange events.jpg


no more than just sip this to your health and happiness," and he put his lips to the glass.

"Ah! Mr. Edward, dear," said she, "I've offered thickey glass o' wine to some, and they'm so proud and haughty as they wouldn't titch it; but you'm no so—and now my blessing shall be wi' you night and day—and gude fortune shall ever attend you that I promise you."

A writer in Devon Notes and Queries, October, 1906, writes:—

"Fifty-nine years ago, two years after breaking my arm, I evidently chilled it by violent exercise and perspiring in a lengthened snowball battle on Northernhay (Exeter). This caused a large surface wound which neither doctor nor chemist could heal for months, but I had to renew on all opportunities daily the application of bandages wetted with Goulard's Extract (acetate of lead and water). Months went by, still no cure, and at last, in sheer despair, my mother, who had not long left the country to live in Exeter, resolved to take me to a Seventh Son whose fame was current in Exeter. He was at the time the carrier to and from Moretonhampstead. He saw my arm as he stood by his wagon, and bade my mother bring me the following Friday, when something was said over the wound, and I was invested with a small velvet amulet, which I believe contained the leg of a toad.

"The wet bandages were continued, and from that day to this I have never been able to tell which effected the ultimate cure, the wet bandages or the toad.

"About thirty years later I had of my own a seventh daughter, born in succession. The news got about, and within a fortnight we had two applications from troubled mothers. Would we let our dear baby lay her hand on their child's arm or leg, as may be, for it would not harm mine and might cure theirs of King's Evil?

"During the early years that I have named, there were several notable white witches in Exeter who took lots of good fees for pretended good services. Superstition dies slowly, for within the last seven years a friend of mine with the same surname as the White Witch of 1840-50, but a comparative new-comer to Exeter, was startled by an application of which he, knowing nothing of old wives' stories of Devon, could not fathom the meaning until asking the writer if he could explain. About 1880 my wife was met at the door by a man who might by appearance have been a small farmer. 'Missus, be I gwain right?' 'Where do you want to go?' (A little hesitation.) 'I waant to vind thickey wuman that tells things. My cows be wished and I waant to vind out who dood it.' So he was told to go to a cottage behind Friars' Green, where old Mrs. —— had a crop of fools for clients every Friday, and told them their fortunes by tea-grounds and cards, much to her and their satisfaction; but I certainly was amused to hear my wife say, 'Oh, Jenny So-and-so, Polly What's-her-name, and various others, and I, have gone there lots of times, and had our fortunes told for twopence.' "

At the beginning of this article I mentioned a farmer, a tenant of mine, who professed to have been cured by "Old Snow," of Tiverton.

Nine years after this I wrote the article on our Devonshire White Witches in the Daily Graphic. This was transferred to one or two Plymouth papers. Shortly after that, at our harvest festival, the farmer turned up. He had left my farm and taken another elsewhere; but he had a hankering after Lew Trenchard, and at our festival he appeared, robust and hearty. He came to me and said, "Why, sir, you have been putting me in the papers." "Well, old friend," said I, "I said in it nothing but what was true." "True, aye, aye, sir, true as gospel. The doctors in Plymouth and Mr. Budd, of North Tawton, gave me up, but Old Snow cured me. I met him on the platform of Tiverton station, and told him my case. He looked me hard in the eye, and said some words, and bade me go home and I was cured. Well, sir, from that day I mended. You see now what I am."

A friend wrote to me: "In 1891, my head man had an attack of influenza, and this fell on his nerves, and convinced that he had been ill-wished, he consulted a White Witch at Callington, who informed him that he had been ’overlooked' by one of his own profession, and that he had applied too late for a cure to be effected."

Now the person who exhorted him to have recourse to the White Witch was his daughter, who was mistress at the school of the parish.

The man eventually recovered, but not through the aid of the White Witch.

I know a farmer, a God-fearing, sensible man, and thriving in his farm and piling up money, to whom recourse is continually had to stanch wounds, and to cure abscesses, by striking the place and reciting certain mystic sentences.

A witch, white or black, must communicate the secret of power to one of an opposite sex before he or she can die—that is well known.

That in many cases the imagination acting on the nervous system acts curatively "goes without saying." It is that which really operates in the faith cures and in the Lourdes miracles. What a bad time witches, white or black, must have had when the short way with any one suspected was to throw her into a pond! If she sank, why she sank and was drowned, but had the satisfaction of being aware that her character was cleared, whereas if she floated, she was a convicted witch and was burnt.

I am not, however, sure that we are not too lenient with the professional White Witch nowadays, as the following incident will show. I do not name the locality, certainly not the persons, for nothing was proved.

A certain cattle-dealer three years ago was much troubled because his daughter who had had influenza did not rally, but was rather strange in her head. He went to the county capital to consult the White Witch. The latter showed him a glass of water, and said that the person who had overlooked his child was fair-haired and stout. Further, that she had never been inside his doors, but that she would enter them on the following Saturday.

The cattle-jobber looking into the glass of water thought he saw a face—it was that of a woman who lived not far from him. What he really saw was, of course, his own reflected, but with the words of the witch ringing in his ears and guided by his imagination he conceived that he saw a neighbour.

He returned home full of conviction and wrath. Next night the husband of the fair-haired, stout woman woke after midnight, and heard a strange crackling sound. He hastily dressed, and went outside his door, when he saw that the thatch of his house was in flames. He hastened to rouse his wife and family, there were six who slept in the house, and he had barely drawn them outside, before the roof fell in and the cottage was converted into one great bonfire. By the merest accident it was that six persons were not burned in their beds. Next morning the police, who investigated the matter, found evidence that the house had been wilfully and deliberately set fire to. Some one had stepped on to a hedge, and had lighted three lucifer matches, and in drawing them from his pocket had drawn out and dropped at the same time two halfpenny stamps. The first two matches had failed. The third took effect. Who had been the incendiary was not discovered.

Of course the circumstance first mentioned may be entirely unconnected with the second. But there can be no doubt that bitter animosities are bred by the charges of "ill-wishing" and "overlooking" which are made by the White Witches. They are far too shrewd to name names, but they contrive to kindle and direct suspicions in their dupes which may lead to serious results.

It is very difficult to bring these cases home, and on this immunity they trade. But it is devoutly to be hoped that some day certain of these gentry will be tripped up, and then, though magistrates can no more send them to the stake, they will send them to cool their heels in gaol, and richly they will deserve the punishment.