In 1700, the people of Sarratt were horrified by what they believed was evidence that the devil walked among them.

Rebecca, Mary and Anne Baldwin were sisters living in Sarratt in the eighteenth century. All three of them became ‘possessed’ between 1700-04.

Rebecca was the first afflicted. At age 12 she was ‘taken with great pain in her sides’. This was followed by shaking and fainting fits, during which she frothed at the mouth.

Rebecca continued to suffer these symptoms for the next four years.

When her younger sister Mary turned 12, she too was struck down with similar symptoms. As well as shaking and fainting, she also whined, sang and laughed in a strange manner, and said she saw figures invisible to anyone else. She was sometimes unable to walk without crutches and even experienced periods of blindness.

At times her symptoms were so severe that she lost the strength in her arms and had to be fed by a member of her family.

The girls had to be watched constantly for fear that they would attempt to take their own lives. On one occasion, when Mary was left alone, she reported that ‘an Appearance’ told her to set fire to the house.

18-year-old Anne was the next to fall ill. Her symptoms included shivering, dumbness and convulsions.

Anne, however, was supposedly cured by days of fasting and prayer.

The girls’ symptoms disappeared when their parents sent them to stay with a friend. However, the symptoms returned if anyone suggested they go back home.

It was strongly believed that these girls were victims of witchcraft, their pain and suffering caused by witches in service to the devil.

Their story bears many similarities to the most infamous example of witchcraft accusations in history.

The Salem witch trials began in 1692, when nine-year-old Betty Parris and 11-year-old Abigail Williams began having fits. These included violent seizures and outbursts of screaming which were terrifying to witness.

Soon after, other young girls in the community began to exhibit similar symptoms.

The girls accused three women of being witches and of using witchcraft to cause them pain: the Parris’ Caribbean slave Tituba, the homeless beggar Sarah Good, and elderly Sarah Osborn. All three were arrested.

The accused witches were brought before the magistrates. As they attempted to answer the questions put to them, their accusers contorted, screamed and writhed in the courtroom.

Both Good and Osborn denied their guilt, but Tituba confessed to being a witch in the service of the devil. In doing so she was likely seeking to save herself by informing on others, and subsequently named several other witches in the village.

Hysteria and paranoia spread through Salem like wildfire. Accusations were made, family members turned against each other, and accused witches confessed and, under threat of death, named others.

The first convicted witch, Bridget Bishop, was hanged in June. 18 others were executed, while some 150 men, women and children were accused over the following months.

By September, 1692, the hysteria had begun to calm and the Salem villagers were no longer in favour of further trials.

The Massachusetts General Court later declared the guilty verdicts against accused witches to be null and void.

Historians have offered many possible explanations for the Salem witch trials.

Consumption of rye grains contaminated with a fungus known as ergot is one possible explanation. If eaten, ergot can cause hallucinations and fits similar to those reported to be experienced by the girls.

Another theory is that it all started because the girls in the village were bored. Puritans’ strict beliefs forbade many forms of entertainment. The restrictions were more severe for girls than they were for boys. It is possible that they started faking fits in order to cause some excitement.

This could also be the explanation for what happened to the Baldwin girls in Sarratt. The Baldwin family were devout Nonconformists who spent much of their days in prayer. Perhaps the fits and the claims that they had seen apparitions were merely the antics of children attempting to rebel against their parents’ strict religious regime.