In this month of spooks and witches, we tend to laugh off the whole ‘demonic possession’ thing as a bit of a joke, but there was a time when accusing someone of witchcraft had very real and very dire consequences. What follows is all true, and revisits the last witchcraft trial to be held in Ireland.
It all began one night in September 1710, when Mrs Anne Haltridge, widow of the Rev. John Haltridge, late Presbyterian minister at Islandmagee, Co Antrim, was being tormented by a strange force.
Stones and turf were flung at her bed, the curtains were pulled from one end to the other, the pillows were taken from under her head, and the clothes pulled off. Terrified and bewildered, Mrs Haltridge fled the room and slept elsewhere.
Things got spookier on the evening of December 11, when a little boy came and sat with her at the fireside. According to Mrs H, he was about eleven years old, with short black hair, and was wrapped in a threadbare blanket, which trailed on the floor. His vest was torn and he kept the blanket over his face
She asked him where he had come from and if he was hungry, whereupon he jumped up, did a jig around the kitchen and then ran out of the house and into the barn.
Servants chased him, but he was nowhere to be seen. When they returned to the house, there he was again in the kitchen. As hard as they tried they couldn’t catch him. He only fled when the master of the house, Mrs H’s son James, came home. But the boy would be back . . .
On February 12, he returned – naughtier than ever. Brandishing one of the old woman’s books, he smashed a window and then threw a stone through a door, telling a servant that he was sent from the Devil. He grabbed a turkey and tried to kill it with a sword, then he started digging a hole in the ground and said that it was a grave for someone in the house. At this point, he is said to have flown over the garden hedge, like a bird.
Three days later, the clothes were mysteriously taken off Mrs. Haltridge’s bed, and laid in a pile. They were replaced on the bed by a family member only to be removed mysteriously again later. They were put back. Then they somehow were taken off again. Finally, they were found arranged in a shape that resembled a corpse. Naturally, the Haltridges were terrified.
Local clergymen stayed praying with them for two days. At night, Mrs. Haltridge went to bed as usual. She later awoke screaming in pain, saying she felt as if a knife had been stuck in her back. The pain never left her and on February 22, the old lady died.
About a week later, Mary Dunbar, a pretty girl of 18 years or so, came to stay with Mrs. Haltridge, junior, to keep her company after her mother-in-law’s death. That night, the troubles began anew. When Mary retired to her bedroom, accompanied by another girl, they were surprised to find that some of her clothes had been taken out of a trunk and scattered around the house.
Going in search of the missing articles, they found an apron rolled up tight and tied with nine knots, which Mary proceeded to open, only to discover that wrapped in the middle of the apron was one of old Mrs Haltridge’s flannel caps.
Later, young Dunbar was seized with a violent fit, and screamed that a knife was being stuck in her leg by three women who were tormenting her.
About midnight she had another fit, during which she had a vision of seven or eight women who called each other by their names. So detailed were Dunbar’s descriptions, that the women were identified and summoned to the house.
Dunbar would convulse when each of the women was brought close, but not when other people were placed beside her. An investigation was conducted between March 3-24 leading to the arrest of seven women. They were:
Janet Mean, of Braid Island.
Jane Latimer, of Irish quarter, Carrigfergus.
Margaret Mitchell, of Kilroot.
Catherine M’Calmont, of Island Magee.
Janet Liston, alias Sellar, of same.
Elizabeth Sellar, of same.
Janet Carson, of same.
Dunbar then claimed that she was still being tormented by someone called Mrs Ann, whom she described and who was subsequently identified as Margaret Mitchell, who was also arrested.
The accused were brought for trial at Carrigfergus on March 31. The hearing would last only eight hours. A summary of the evidence was made by Dr. Tisdall, vicar of Belfast, who was present at the trial, and who wrote about it in the Hibernian Magazine in 1775. Here are two extracts:
“One of the men who had held her [Mary Dunbar] in a fit swore she had nothing visible on her arms when he took hold of them, and that all in the room saw some worsted yarn tied round her wrist, which was put on invisibly; there were upon this string seven double knots and one single one. In another fit she cried out that she was grievously tormented with a pain about her knee; upon which the women in the room looked at her knee, and found a fillet tied fast about it; her mother swore to the fillet, that it was the same she had given her that morning, and had seen it about her head; this had also seven double knots and one single one.”
“There was a great quantity of things produced in Court, and sworn to be what she vomited out of her throat. I had them all in my hand, and found there was a great quantity of feathers, cotton, yarn, pins, and two large waistcoat buttons.”
Dunbar never gave evidence in court. In fact, she never spoke. The accused had no lawyer to defend them, but they all denied the charge of witchcraft, Nevertheless, the jury found them guilty. The women were sentenced to a year’s imprisonment, and to stand in the pillory four times during that period. Each time, they were pelted by mobs of onlookers, in one case so fiercely that one woman lost an eye.
In his book, Possessed By The Devil, Dr Andrew Sneddon, of Ulster University, argues that Mary Dunbar made the whole thing up to break free from the tight social restraints put on her at the time and to become a local celebrity.
‘Being possessed allowed her to misbehave without consequence, move from invisibility to notoriety within her community and attack her elders at will,’ he told the Daily Mail newspaper.
He believes that Dunbar chose to blame the women because they had somewhat damaged reputations for one reason or other.
‘Some were physically disabled, others swore and drank alcohol. All were poor. The local male authorities believed Dunbar’s version of events because she was beautiful, educated and from a respected family,” he said.
The Islandmagee case was the last witchcraft trial in Ireland. What became of the ‘witches’ and Mary Dunbar is unknown. It’s a story that brings to mind the Salem witch trials and The Crucible, and of a time when the stoking up of superstition could reap terrible consequences.