The Witch of Wapping

Witchcraft trials were common in early modern England, but voices speaking in protest against them appear less often. The following comes from a mid 17th century pamphlet, and provides details of the trial and execution of the so-called Witch of Wapping. The case centres around the supposed murder of Lady Powell, a woman with a large estate and fortune.  The prosecution argues that Lady Powell was bewitched and subsequently killed by one Joan Peterson. The defence contests that Joan Peterson is an innocent, god-fearing woman, falsely accused by a group of people hoping to benefit from the death of Lady Powell, and that Lady Powell did in fact die of natural causes. The detail surrounding Joan’s treatment and execution highlight the disturbing way in which women suspected of witchcraft were often treated.

On the 7th of March last, the said confederates [plotters] came to Wapping, and got a warrant from one Mr. Waterton a Justice of the Peace, to apprehend the said Peterson’s person, and to search her house for Images of Clay, Hair, & Nails, which accordingly they did; but upon strict search and diligent inquiry could find no such thing; whereupon the said confederates carried her before the said Justice, to have her examined Whereunto the said Joan Peterson replied, that she never knew, nor heard of the said Lady Powell.

Then they caused her (contrary to Law) to be searched againe in a most unnaturall & Barbarous manner, by four women whom they themselves for that purpose had brought along with them. One of which told the Justice that there was a Teat upon the flesh in her secret parts more than other women usually had, whereupon the said Justice committed her first to New-prison and from thence to Newgate, where she was left to the mercy of one Brooks, a Keeper there, and an Agent of the said confederates.

On the 7th of April she was tried; at which triall the said confederates (who before had spent three weeks time at Wapping in procuring witnesses) were present, with three Councellors to prosecute the said Peterson. Then the Court proceeded upon the first indictment, for bewitching the Lady Powell to death; whereupon many women persons of mean degree (and of ill fame and reputation) were produced against her, and interrogated by the said Councel, according to the Briefs delivered unto them, wherein were all the witnesses testimonies, written before hand. And being asked what she had to say for her self (upon her knees) she took God to witnesse that she never knew the Lady Powell nor the house where she dwelt, nor was any wise guilty of her death, and delivered a paper of such witnesses as she had to defend her, desiring that they might be called, whereupon Dr. Bates, and Dr. Colledon  Physitians, together with Mr. Stamford, and Mr. Page  Chyrurgians, and divers other persons of good quality, testified the disease, manner of sickness, and the cause of the said Ladies death, which were the Dropsie, the Scurvey, and the yellow Jaundies, and that they wondred how she was able to live so long, having most of those diseases growing on her for many years before.

Then the Court proceeded to the other Indictment, which was for bewitching one Christopher Wilson (who doth not himself complain of any such thing) and the only materiall evidence that then was against her, was one Margaret Austin (who had formerly been a wandering person, but was in charity taken up, relieved, and kept, by the said Joan Peterson, until she perceived that Austin had purloined some of her goods out of her house) and two Witnesses more; the substance of whose Testimony was as followeth. That the said Wilson, having been a long time sick, and hearing that Joan Peterson had done good to many, sent for her to come to him, who accordingly did and administred meanes for his Recovery, which at first was conceived to do him good. But he afterwards relapsed, and the reason that was urged to induce the Court and Jury to believe that he was Bewitched, was, that during his sickness, she sent to him for monyes for her Phisick; to whom Answer was returned that he could then send her none. Whereupon it was then deposed that she did reply, that he had better have sent her monies, for he should be two times worse than ever was. And that afterwards he became very ill again, and remained languishing.  Many other witnesses were produced, but could only swear to generallities, hear-says, and most absurd and ridiculous impertinences.  Whereupon the Jury went forth, and brought in their verdicts, that the said Peterson was not guilty upon the first Indictment of bewiching the Lady Powell to death. But found her guilty upon the second, for which she was then cast, and the next day condemned to dye as a witch

On the 12th day the said Joan Peterson (being brought to the place of Execution) was by the Ordinary nine or ten times earnestly pressed to confesse something. Whereupon the Executioner told the Ordinary, he might be ashamed to trouble a dying woman so much, to which he replyed, he was commanded so to do, and durst do no otherwise.  And afterwards the said Ordinary still insisting in his discourse, and very often pressing the said Peterson to confesse and discharge her conscience before God and the world; she answered that she had already confessed before the Bench all she had to confesse; that she had made her peace with God; and therefore desired to die in quiet; that she died Innocently, and was in no wise guilty of what was laid to her charge, and that she hoped he would freely forgive her all her sins, and to this effect she still replyed to his frequent importunities. And having gone to prayers, she shewed her selfe very attentive and penitent, and after Prayer called to sing the 25th Psalm, which she performed very Christianly and cheerfully, and so died, &c.

Other posts on witchcraft can be found here

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