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The Last Known Witch Killing In England
The hanging of Thomas Colley
Ruth Osborn and her husband, John, were old and poor, which, in 18th century England, were two unhappy situations liable to bring about a third – living a miserable life in the workhouse. And to the workhouse they were sent, at Tring, where their only means of livelihood was begging, and seeking scraps of food.
Which is precisely what Ruth was doing one day, when she called at John Butterfield’s farm at nearby Gubblecote. Ruth must have thought her luck was in when she spied a number of pails brimming with buttermilk in the farmyard, but her request to farmer Butterfield to spare some was denied. ‘There’s not even enough to feed my hogs,’ said Butterfield, to which Ruth replied, ‘The King will take you and your hogs for your selfishness.’
A ‘nothing’ incident, you might think, especially in days when begging and being poor were commonplace. So it might have been, but when John Butterfield’s calves fell ill, and he began suffering from fits, he decided he’d been cursed by Ruth – even though it was on record that he had suffered from fits earlier, due to contracting cholera.
Naturally, John Butterfield related events to the neighbours. Their advice was to consult a ‘white witch’, or ‘wise woman’. One was found, in Northamptonshire, and it may come as no surprise to discover that when she heard the account of Butterfield’s encounter with Ruth over the buttermilk, and the story of the calves falling ill and his fits, she confirmed he had been placed under her evil spell. Such was the seriousness of this pronouncement, six men armed with pitchforks were posted guard at Butterfield’s farmhouse, night and day, and to ensure they came to no harm they wore charms to prevent them becoming bewitched also.
Today, the situation may be laughable. But it was no joke when, on 18th April, 1751, the town criers in Hemel Hempstead and Leighton Buzzard went into action, proclaiming that on Monday next, a man and a woman were ‘to be publicly ducked at Tring for their wicked crimes’. They meant Ruth Osborn, and her husband, John, who was also held in some way responsible for John Butterfield’s misfortune.
Despite the widely held custom of ‘ducking’ suspected witches, the decision to ‘duck’ John and Ruth Osborn was something of a surprise. This is because some years before, in 1736, Parliament has rescinded the Witch Trials law, thus making ‘ducking’ of suspected witches illegal. But old customs, it seemed, died hard. Indeed, had not King James I, no less, in a written work, Demonologie, encouraged his subjects to cope with the ‘plague of witchcraft’? The Lord Chief Justice himself had defined a witch as ‘a person who has conference with the Devil, to consult with him or do some act’. And John Wesley, the evangelist, would later write, ‘The giving up of witchcraft is, in effect, giving up the Bible’. No wonder ordinary people still believed ducking old women as suspected witches was still seen as a valid form of administering the law.
In any event, when the intention to ‘try’ John and Ruth Osborn became common knowledge – as it would be when read out by the town criers – one can only presume that the local magistrates turned a deaf ear. Perhaps they were afraid of public reaction to prevent the events that were to follow, or at best indifferent to them. And there were no police then to prevent lawlessness.
On the morning of the ‘trial’, John and Ruth Osborn must have been terrified for their lives. Especially when, as they would have learned, a crowd of about 5,000 – rich and poor, on foot and on horseback – had turned out to witness events. It was the ‘ducking’ of Ruth they had come to see, although her husband too would share the same fate and no-one seemed to mind. A section of the crowd went to the workhouse, where the governor, Jonathan Tompkins, declared the Osborns not to be there. Indeed they were not, for he had sent them to the local church at Tring, where he considered they would be safe and where they could claim sanctuary.
But a riotous crowd knows no reason. They stormed the workhouse, searched every room in the belief that the Osborns were a witch and a wizard. They even thought they had made themselves so small they could be hiding in the salt-box, which when opened revealed no sign of Ruth and John. In vain, they searched nearby houses, and determined to seek out their quarry told Tompkins that if he did not ‘produce the witch’ they would burn his workhouse to the ground with him inside. So Tompkins directed them to the church, where the Osborns were dragged mercilessly to the village pond, being kicked and spat upon along the way.
In keeping with custom, the Osborns were stripped naked, and their thumbs and toes toed together cross-wise. They were then wrapped in sheets so that there could be no escape, and each was placed in turn onto the ducking stool and thence dragged back and forth through the water. The focus of the crowd’s attention would be on Ruth, the ‘true’ witch, who kept rising as the air in the sheets buoyed her helpless body in the water. To float would prove ‘innocence’, so every time she rose she was prodded and turned with a pole, held by a chimney sweep, Thomas Colley, and others, until at last she was dragged out dead, drowned and ‘guilty’. John Osborn was dragged from the pond alive, but died hours or days later from shock and terror.
Thomas Colley, it seems, was held in high regard for his actions that day by a population who believed that the ‘trial’ was right and proper, and never mind it was by then unlawful. But when events reached ‘official’ ears, Colley, together with 21 others, including two men called William Humbles and Charles Young, was arrested. It seems these three only were indicted for trial at Hertford Assizes when witnesses – and there were plenty – gave their accounts of what had happened. One of them, John Humphries, had this to say:
‘Colley turned her (Ruth) over and over with a stick… then dragged her in a second time and pushed her with his stick as before… then a third time, before going around the crowd and collecting money for ducking the old witch…’ He said Ruth had tried in vain to grab the stick. Of all those involved, Colley took the rap, as we say today, as there were too many others to stand trial. He was found guilty, and sentenced to be executed and hung in chains at the scene of the crime.
Murderers, condemned to death, were asked to repent their crime. At first Colley would not, but he did make a statement in which, on oath, he swore he ‘had no belief in the power of witchcraft’. Ironically, it was read by the same vicar, the Reverend Edward Bouchier, in the very church from which the Osborns had sought sanctuary.
In part to prevent Colley being ‘rescued’ at his execution – the populace believing he had done no wrong, indeed he was regarded as something of a martyr – and in part to provide the occasion with solemnity, the execution of Thomas Colley was carried out with military display at 10 a.m. on 22nd August, 1751. He was taken from Hertford gaol, incarcerated overnight at St Albans and executed at the scene of the crime. The gibbet was left in situ for a time, ‘in order to strike the greater terror into the people and to deter them from such acts of cruelty in the future’ – a stark reminder to those who would take the law into their own hands.
They say Colley’s ghost, in the form of a huge, black shaggy dog with yellow fangs, can be seen on dark nights around Gubblecote. Nothing is seen of the ghosts of Ruth and John Osborn. It seems they stay well away