Uncovering the lives of Bodmin’s witches and the dangers for anyone who dared to be different
As the spookiest time of year approaches, what do you think of when you hear ‘Halloween’ or ‘All Hallow’s Eve’? Black cats, ghosts, pumpkins and witches may come to mind.
Witches in particular have become tarnished with an unrealistic, ridiculed image in modern society. Naturally, we may think of an ‘old hag’, complete with warts, a crooked pointy hat, broomstick and a bubbling cauldron with all manner of unpleasant things being dropped in to create a horrifying potion.
But if you peel back the layers of this image, which has been force-fed to us at Halloween from childhood, the true meaning of being a witch and the history of their suffering becomes very clear. They were women and men, who focused on healing, nature and being in-tune with energy, and were often persecuted in the most horrific ways for their gifts, or for simply being different to other members of society.
In recent years, society has come to recognise just how barbaric the treatment of such people in years past was. Earlier this year, Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, apologised on behalf of the government for the treatment and murder of thousands of witches in their country between the 1500s and 1700s, when witch hunts were rife.
Cornwall, with its folklore and spiritual stories, was no doubt home to many witches. Two of them spent time in Bodmin, and their stories bring a stark reminder of the barbarities of the times they lived in, and just how dangerous it was to be a woman with different beliefs.
Throughout September, Bodmin Jail held two special tours a week to educate the public on the history of witchcraft, and the two local witches that were imprisoned in the town. Bodmin Life joined one of the last ‘Walking with Witches’ tours at the end of September, led by museum manager Jess Marlton and paranormal manager Kirsten Honey.
An eye-opening look into the jail and the treatment of witches, Jess gave an insightful background on Bodmin Jail, the misconceptions around witchcraft and how Bodmin’s witches would have been treated during their imprisonment. Kirsten, a witch herself, gave the group a fascinating look at witchcraft and how it is used today.
Bodmin Life spoke to Jess, who gave an amazing account of the lives of two witches associated with Bodmin, Anne Jefferies and Joan Wytte, women from two different eras, who suffered the same poor treatment in life and death.
“Witches have fallen into a stereotypical image of what a witch is - an old hag, child eater, devil-worshipper - everything that a woman was not meant to be,” Jess said. “We have an obligation to be careful about how we talk about witches. They were tortured and executed, and our responsibility is to take away that stereotype and reclaim it.”
The time between the 1500s and 1700s was the period that was most dangerous for witches - or people who were a little different from the rest. Anyone could have been accused of being a witch, including, astonishingly, midwives with knowledge of birth and women’s health, or old healers.
Jess explained that ‘collective association’ and the threat to patriarchal control led to the accusations of many people over the centuries, mostly women. They were accused by neighbours, friends and even family. One young girl in England accused her entire family of witchcraft. This during a time when women did not have a voice, and suddenly everyone was listening - did she understand the consequences of such an accusation?
Anne Jefferies was born in 1626 at St Treath, Bodmin. She worked for the Pitt family, looking after their young son Moses. Thanks to Moses, there is an account of Anne’s life, who otherwise may have been forgotten with history.
Anne claimed to have been abducted by fairies or spirits in the Pitt family garden, who then gave her the power of healing and clairvoyance. People came from miles around to be healed by Anne.
“The problem was, she was saying this in the 1640s,” Jess said. “The witch hunt mania was rife between the 1500s and 1700s, with the epoch at its height in the English civil war. The authorities went to her and told her to reconsider what she was saying - albeit in a less polite way.”
Bodmin Jail had not yet been built in Anne’s time, but she was held in the town for six months and given no food or water during this time. When typically waiting for an assizes court (hanging court), the accused would be interrogated, and Anne felt the harshness of this in full force. It involved depriving her of sleep and walking her back and forth, in the hope she would confess - which many did. Witches would also be ‘searched’, usually by other women, for a ‘Devil’s spot’ or teet in which to feed a familiar from the Devil.
Anne would have also been pricked with needles to look for areas on the body that were insensitive. Most of us know that the skin behind our elbows are loose and insensitive, but in Anne’s time, this would have been a sign of the Devil’s touch.
Anne was held in Bodmin for six months, suffering this horrendous treatment throughout. With Cornwall being a royalist stronghold during the civil war, the courts knew they had more important things to focus on and, likely due to lack of evidence, Anne was released.
Upon her freedom, Anne moved to Padstow, found God, got married, and lived until the 1690s. She narrowly escaped a grim fate.
The second witch associated with the town is Joan Wytte, a Bodmin lady who was known as ‘the Fighting Fairy Woman of Bodmin’. She was said to have had a mighty temper, thought to be caused by a painful tooth abscess.
Joan was locked up in Bodmin Jail for public brawling in 1813, and was described as a ‘cunning woman’ who had healing powers, practicing at Scarlett’s Well, when there was a clootie tree.
Joan died in the jail from pneumonia, but instead of being given back to her family to lay to rest, she was medically dissected.
Her bones were kept at the jail and used during a seance to summon the dead in the Victorian times. As expected, the seances terrified the people using the bones, and so they decided to remove them from the jail and they ended up in the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle.
In the 1990s, it was agreed that it was no longer appropriate to have the bones on display, and so she was interred at the woods behind Minster Church in Boscastle, although it is thought her bones will be buried elsewhere to prevent thieves from digging up the grave. People leave sweet treats for Joan, including toffees, brownies, rum, rolling tobacco - the things a lady with a sweet tooth would enjoy. Her gravestone reads, ‘No longer abused’. Jess recommends taking a walk from the church through the woods at Halloween. It is a quaint, beautiful spot - a perfect final resting place for a woman who had lived a difficult life.
While Anne received terrible treatment for who she was in life, and it took almost 200 years for Joan to rest peacefully after her death, the different eras in which the two women lived show the country’s evolving attitudes towards witchcraft.
Anne lived in a time when the slightest nod to something different could get you in trouble, with superstition and religion playing a huge role in society, while Joan existed during the Georgian era which was so intent on ridiculing women like her. Their similarities? Both lived in desperate times, when the poor folk in society would go to great lengths and risks to survive and often ended up in prison for it. Miraculously, neither of the women were executed for witchcraft, but both suffered at the hands of society’s views and superstitions.
“In the 1720s, the Georgians looked at the previous witchcraft acts and ridiculed it, so they came up with their own Witchcraft Act, which existed until the 1950s,” Jess said. “At the time of Anne Jefferies and the civil war, people thought it was the end of the world. There was talk of the apocalypse; it was family against family, county against county - so in a time of huge upheaval, for them, why wouldn’t the Devil be at work?”
While the Walking with Witches tours have come to an end, Bodmin Jail has plenty of other events coming up this month, including a Victorian seance on Halloween. If you head to their social media pages, they are running a Halloween ‘advent calendar’, with different stories and tales from the jail to get you in the mood for All Hallow’s Eve.
Jess added: “One of the things we should be proud of here in Bodmin, and there’s many things to be proud of, is our history.”
For more information about Bodmin Jail and their events this Halloween, go to https://www.bodminjail.org/whats-on/halloween/. If you live in Cornwall, you can also take advantage of their Locals’ 50 offer, allowing Cornish residents to get in for 50% along with 20% discounts in both the restaurant and shop. Simply bring proof of address along.