It’s Halloween and the shops are full of make-believe witches and ghosts.
But Emily Ward-Willis has a more personal connection.
Her research into her family history found an ancestor accused of being a real witch, 150 years ago this week in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Such was the suspicion and whispering campaign around her great-great-great grandmother that her neighbours stabbed her.
They thought that 57-year-old Jane Ward had been sending headless ghosts down chimneys and performing witchcraft that was harming their families.
Her neighbour, John Davis, believed that the way to lift a witch’s curse was to draw her blood – and backed up by some of his family, he stabbed her in the face.
“I don’t think she was an actual witch,” says Emily.
“My mental image of her is as an old woman who had lived a hard life. She might have been slightly eccentric.”
The deep knife wound “would have been horrifically painful for her”.
To modern eyes, this looks like the harassment of an isolated and vulnerable woman. Or the Victorian version of fake news.
For months before the attack, Jane Ward had been shouted at and called a witch. The allegations escalated and she was accused of using evil powers to make ghosts appear, move furniture around and overturn the chair of a disabled child.
‘Very tough life’
“She had a very tough life, she’d lost numerous children as babies and her eldest son was in trouble himself and her other son moved away, so she was on her own and then her husband dies,” said Emily.
“She’d plunged further and further into poverty.”
Emily was able to find out about her ancestor’s story because her assailant was charged and given 18 months hard labour – with the court records available at the National Archives in Kew.
But what might seem surprising about this witchcraft story is that it took place as late as the 1860s.
Dr Jessica Nelson, a head of collections at the National Archives, says it’s very hard to know what folklore beliefs about witchcraft persisted into the 19th Century, particularly among those who were not literate.
In terms of the legal position, the witchcraft laws that had seen hundreds executed in the 16th and 17th Centuries had been overturned in the 1730s, with the presumption that witchcraft did not really exist.
Instead the laws were against people claiming to have such supernatural powers.
This version of witchcraft legislation, against people pretending to be witches or being able to summon spirits, was used into the 1940s.
But the attack on Jane Ward suggests that such old beliefs about the existence of witches ran deep.
And there seems to have been a consistent pattern of isolated and impoverished women being the most likely to be accused.
These were the archetypal scapegoats, accused of anything that went wrong.
“Witches could be accused of everything from huge natural disasters to someone’s cat dying,” said Dr Nelson.
10 myths about witches, from Dr Jessica Nelson at the National Archives
- Pointy hats. Not really. Those accused of witchcraft wore all kinds of hats or none.
- Broomsticks. Witches were claimed to be able to fly, but not always on broomsticks. They could also fly on their own or on horses. And they had other animals, including dogs, not just black cats.
- Always women? No. About 80% of accusations were against women. But men could be accused of witchcraft as well.
- Always old? Older, isolated people were more vulnerable to such claims, but young people were also accused.
- Were men called wizards? No. Male witches were just called witches as well.
- Were people accused of being witches always found guilty? No. Perhaps about three-quarters accused of witchcraft were acquitted.
- Ducking stools in village ponds. These were not used in testing for witchcraft.
- If they sank they were innocent but drowned anyway? This was not really a common practice. But people accused of being witches were “swum”, which meant being tied up and put into water and if they floated it was evidence of being a witch. But they were pulled back on to land if they went under water.
- Burning at the stake? No, more likely to have been hanged. Lesser offences had jail sentences or being put in the pillory.
- Halloween and witches. Modern popular culture has created a “bit of a myth” about the link between Halloween and witchcraft, much more so than the historical record.
“They were certainly scapegoated within their communities for things like sickness, women having difficult pregnancies, livestock dying, crop failures, raising storms.”
Dr Nelson has been researching waves of witch-hunting and accusations in Pendle in Lancashire in the 17th Century.
The witch finder in one of the Pendle cases was a 10-year-old-boy, who began to identify witches among local people.
Dr Nelson says the boy seems to have been encouraged by his father, who saw this as a way of making the family some money.
Under scrutiny, and when the accused were taken away from the witch hysteria and brought to London, the allegations fell apart, with the boy admitting he had made up the claims.
But even when people had been acquitted there remained a stigma.
“I’m sure it really did blight people’s lives,” says Dr Nelson.
“Often these accusations are coming out of very small communities, all the people involved know each other.
“In some cases you get accusations and counter-accusations made within families. You occasionally get, as in the first Pendle witch trials, children accusing their parents.”
Centuries later the idea of a “witch hunt” still seems to have a grip on the imagination. It’s still part of modern political language.
“There does remain this folk memory of people jumping on the bandwagon of accusations and it not really mattering whether those accusations were true or not,” says Dr Nelson.
“If someone was accused of being a witch in the 17th Century, it didn’t really matter whether they were or not, they had that taint.
“I suppose we still see that today sometimes. It doesn’t really matter if some accusations are true or false, they can be very damaging.”
But what happened to Jane Ward?
“She survived the attack and she continued to live at home with her daughter,” says Emily.
“We have her in the 1871 census, but after that, her life is a bit of a mystery.
“After checking all the records, I’m pretty sure that at some point I’ll come across her.
“But maybe she was a witch and she might still be alive… so who knows?”