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Kill the witch!: murder and superstition in a Victorian village

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An appropriate post for Hallowe’en…

Witchcraft is most commonly associated with the seventeenth century – the era of James II and his obsession with witches, and Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder-General. Yet in rural areas, even in the late nineteenth century, the association of elderly women with witchcraft persisted, and could – and did – result in murder.

It is 15 September 1875 in the village of Long Compton, which is, as its name suggests, a linear village, between Shipston-on-Stour in Warwickshire and Chipping Norton over the border into Oxfordshire.

It is, even today, a quiet place; there is one gastro-pub, the Red Lion, and one village shop, and a church and primary school. If you time it right, you can catch the infrequent bus service to Stratford; or else you can explore the lovely countryside on all sides of the village.

It’s a short journey from the Rollright Stones – Neolithic and Bronze Age stones that, folklore says, was a group of men turned into stone by a local witch.

But in 1875, the village had a closer link to witchcraft. One newspaper commented that “there is a general belief in witchcraft at Long Compton and in other villages of South Warwickshire, among a certain class of the agricultural population.”

There was even a “wise man” living near Banbury, whom the local residents visited to try and get rid of witchcraft affecting them.

There was suspicion of several aged women, in particular, in the village, and the area on one side of the pub was even known as Witch End. Often, witchcraft was associated with widows; but here, ordinary married women were also viewed with suspicion.

But I digress.

It was around 7.30 on Wednesday evening, and 79-year-old Ann Tennant was returning from the village baker with a loaf of bread for her and her husband’s supper. She was married to John, who had had a varied career history working as a butcher, agricultural labourer and small dealer.

They had had several children, but although all had moved out of the family home now, several still lived on the same road with their own families, including sons James and John and daughter Elizabeth.

The Red Lion in Long Compton: photo by Mike Faherty from Geograph.

The Red Lion in Long Compton: photo by Mike Faherty from Geograph.

Coming the other way was James Hayward, a local farm labourer, then aged around 44. He was accompanied by his stepfather, and close to them was a 16 year old farm labourer named John Ivens, all returning home from work.

Ivens saw Ann coming down the road on the footpath, carrying her loaf of bread. He then looked at Hayward, with a pitchfork over one shoulder, from which hung a basket and a bottle – his lunch from earlier.

With no warning, on seeing Ann, Ivens saw Hayward throw his bottle and basket into the road before walking calmly up to the elderly women. He thrust his pitchfork into her, stabbing her several time in both legs, then hitting her over the head with the fork’s handle.

The shock of the attack seems to have paralysed those who witnessed it, but James Taylor, a nearby farmer, heard Ann’s terrified screams and ran to her aid. He grabbed Hayward and held him while the village constable, John Simpson, was called.

Meanwhile, others who heard the screams picked Ann off the floor and carried her to her daughter Elizabeth’s house, which was only a few yards away.

The Chipping Norton doctor, George Wright Hutchinson, was called and saw Ann lying on the floor of her daughter’s cottage, mumbling incoherently. She had wounds to her left temple, right ear, and both legs. Ann died 15 minutes after the doctor’s arrival, and he gave the cause of death as loss of blood and shock.

PC Simpson arrived and told James he had to lock him up, as he looked like he had killed Mrs Tennant. James replied:

“There are no odds about it, I hope she will die – there are fifteen more of them in the village that I will serve the same. I will kill them all.”

James was taken to the nearest prison cell, which was the Shipston-on-Stour lock-up, but by the time he was taken out of Long Compton, a crowd had gathered, and he was hooted with derision and anger as he left.

Once at the lock-up, James showed no remorse. He said,

“I hope she’s dead, she was an old witch: there are fifteen more in the village I’ll serve the same. I mean to kill them all.”

He then said that earlier in the week, he had been trying to work in a bean field for hours, and had been unable to be productive – “as they had witched me.”

The following morning, at about 11am, Superintendent Thompson informed James Hayward that he was to be charged with murder, as Ann had died of her injuries. “Dead?” asked James. “Yes.” Answered Thompson. “Well, I didn’t kill her outright,” was the strange reply.

The next day, James continued to act strangely. From his cell, he called the superintendent, James Thompson, to him, thrusting out a jug of water and saying, “the water I have is full of witches!” He then added,

“It is only those that have witches about them that can see them, and no-one can work, only when the witches will let them.”

For the rest of that day, he continued to ramble incoherently about witches and witchcraft. He said the Banbury wise man had told him he was possessed, and that James believed it was his duty to kill the witch who had possessed him.

The 1871 census, showing Ann Tennant living next door to her murder James Hayward (with his mother and stepfather). From Ancestry.

The 1871 census, showing Ann Tennant living next door to her murder James Hayward (with his mother and stepfather). From Ancestry.

Once transported to gaol, Hayward marked passages in the bible that he thought showed he was justified in his acts; and finally, he tried to bribe the prison governor with a sovereign to let him off the murder charge, arguing that he had killed her only to “avenge” the injury she had done him in possessing him.

At Ann’s inquest, which was held at the Red Lion on 17 September, several witnesses deposed that James, although appearing “quite rational” and having worked since his youth as a farm labourer, “was under the delusion that he was haunted with witches”.

Young John Ivens was called to give evidence, and related what he had seen. He had been working with Hayward all day in the harvest fields, and had seen him threaten Ivens’ grandfather and some other local women. He said that these women – Ann Tennant, Betty Ford, and Betty Hughes – were all witches, that they had been haunting him, and that he would kill them all.

The coroner’s jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against James, and he was duly sent for trial at Warwick Assizes. His trial was held on Wednesday 15 December 1875, when he was indicted for murdering Ann Tennant. It was reported that,

“the prisoner entertained most astounding delusions and superstituons respecting witches and witchcraft, which had haunted him for years, impelling him to murder the deceased, and which still held his mind in thraldom [sic].”

James made no friends at his trial by repeatedly refering to poor Ann as “a wicked old wretch”. John Tennant gave evidence, and stated that Hayward’s parents had also been firm believers in witchcraft, and frequently said that witches were “at” their son – “they won’t leave him alone”. They therefore brought James up to believe that when anything went wrong in his life, or with his work, it was not his fault but that of witches.

Although John Tennant said James was seen by others as being “not quite right” in the head, and that “he would drink any quantity of gin or liquor that could be put before him, and then he would go mad after”, another witness estimated that a third of the village believed in witchcraft.

James Taylor, the farmer who intervened in Ann’s attack, said that although he didn’t believe in witches himself,

“There were many persons in the village whom he knew to be popularly regarded as witches. They were all old women, and mostly widows. He did not know an instance of a young woman or a sick old woman being suspected of being a witch.”

PC Simpson added to this, stating, “I feel sure there are many people in Long Compton who believe in witchcraft.”

To a rural labourer, such as James, brought up in a family with these beliefs, blaming witches for poor work was a reasonable thing to do; but the more modern, urban jury saw it clearly as irrational and madness. They found James to be not guilty by reason of insanity. The judge commented,

“I do really think something should be done towards putting a stop to this unhappy state of things. Such ignorance and superstition is most criminal and lamentable.”

James was ordered to be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure; one source states that he starved himself to death a few months later.

 

Sources: The York Herald, 20 September 1875, p.3; Berrow’s Worcester Journal, 25 September 1875, p.6; The Bradford Observer, 16 December, 1875, p.5; Berrow’s Worcester Journal, 18 December 1875, p.3; Reynold’s Newspaper, 19 December 1875.

1 Comment

  1. Reblogged this on galesmind and commented:
    What a sad story. Sadder still is that people still believe in bewitchment. So many women have been killed because of this nonsense.

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