“We shall here according to our promise … give a full and true relation of a strange account which, as a supplement to our papers of Apparitions and Witches, we offer to the impartial Considerations of our Modern Saducees; who deny the existence of Witches, Spirits, & c. The whole relation and affidavits hereafter are originals, and we have also had a more particular Account from the captain of the Ship, Viva Voce, because we would neither be impos’d upon ourselves, or be accessory to the imposing upon others…”
The writer is either Samuel Wesley (the father of John Wesley the Methodist), or John Dunton the bookseller and writer (soon to be the London publisher of Cotton Mather’s braying account of the Salem witch trials). The source is the periodical they produced, the Athenian Gazette or Casuistical Mercury, in the issue for Sunday, November 29, 1691. This publication was a twice-weekly print stimulus for coffee house chat, popular for “resolving weekly all the most nice and curious questions propos’d by the ingenious”. The ‘full and true relation’ was supplied as part of a continued campaign of propaganda for the validity of witchcraft beliefs: Wesley (or Dunton) was writing as one of the late 17th century die-hard believers in witchcraft.
After the brief polemical introduction follows a quite fascinating account of a witchcraft accusation made in a nautical context, on a ship full of emigrants heading to Virginia. I have not seen it referred to before. The late 17th century editor-writers of the Athenian Gazette claim that this account was original material, and that they had also interviewed the ship’s captain. John Dunton might have picked up the material and the personal contact during his own trip to America in 1685-6. It could also be a dishonest re-hash of a news pamphlet published closer to the date of the events, but I cannot find any sign of such publication on EEBO.
It is interesting in the way all witchcraft accounts are, but particularly striking is the setting, an accursed voyage in which the crew look around for the Jonah on board, and find a candidate whose culpability is endorsed by fellow passengers. The account lets us see the contagious idea of witchcraft on its way to America, with, indeed, an emigrant ‘witch’.
The difficult voyage from Plymouth
Here’s the voyage, with all its setbacks and accidents. This must be from the Captain’s ‘Viva voce’ account:
“On the twenty first of October, 1674, putting forth from Plymouth into the Sea, with the Ship Recovery of London: John Wood Commander bound to Virginia, we had very bad Winds as West South West, and at South, with very bad weather, that all our Fore Shrouds broke at times, being good Ropes, our Topmast broke twice, our Mizzen yard broak, our Spritsle yard washt from the Boultspreet, one Main and two Foretops split, most of our running rigging shatter’d, the Ship’s planks working from the Stern-post, our Men tyred with working: Fair weather or foul, it was all one, what was mended one day, would the next day be in pieces: In this condition we put into the Road of Fiall, in hopes of mending our gear: But being bad weather for six or seven days, that we were like to lose the ship, scarce able to get up our anchors, though all atground, our best bower cable broak, the Buoy under water, at a high water, which at half Ebb bearing, and good weather, our Boat went to the Buoy, and taking hold of the Rope, of seven Inches and a half, almost new, hal’d it up, having no hold of the Anchor which we lost; the Ship rolling excessively, Sea or no Sea: Upon this the Master ordered his Mate to get up the other two anchors, and stand off and on the road, until he went with the Pinnace to clear the Ship with the Councel, but proving clam, the Ship drove to Sea: The Master sending two Portagess Boats with Wines after her, could not reach the Ship, she drove so fast out. The mean times the Pinnace grabnels would not hold, that she drove ashore and sunk, breaking the hoodings to one Strake of her Keel upward from the Stem: The People on Shoar telling us we had a Witch aboard…”
There’s more material of this kind. Just possibly the Captain may have been covering up for an unseaworthy ship: he so continually stresses that these breakings and partings were all of new items of shipboard equipment that he may in fact have been covertly aware of actual deficiencies. He would then have backed the witch story which emerged as a fine distraction from his own failings.
The voyage must have been touch-and-go. The effort to ship wines from Portugal was a failure, with the ship ‘Recovery’ driven out to sea as if by supernatural forces. Those left ashore made a desperately risky attempt to catch back up with the departing ship, but once back on board, their only reward for their desperate risk-taking was a continued litany of disasters and deaths:
“Upon sight of the Ship, we put to sea with the Boat, making a Sail with three bisquet bags and one Oar for a gard, with which through Gods great mercy we reacht the Ship, the Wind fresh at North-East, the said ship accidentally tacking, fetch the Boat; which if the Ship had stood but one hour longer, and then tackt, she had weathered the Boat out of sight, that undoubtedly we had all perisht, being very leack, that we continuall hove the Water out with rundlets, and incapable to row; when we were well on Board, and the Boat in the Ship, bearing away our Course, we began to consider our Miserable Trouble and loss of Time, Anchor and Wine. One of our Passenger fell from the Ship, and was drowned. Thus being again at sea, we fell to our old trade of braking Shrouds, Chane, Boults and Plates, Rigging and Sails. Insomuch, that neither Iron, Wood, Ropes, or canvas would hold …
… Our Fore-yard broke with a little Wind, the Eye-boult of the Mizzen Sheet broke, the sheet was flown, the Sail split to Flitters …
… Every Night procured the Days work following, the Weather fair or foul, our men all sick, but the Master, Doctor and Steward, blessed be God, none of our seamen dying, but very weak and lame: Only one man with a rowl of the ship was flung from the head of the Maintopmast, making fast the Topgallon sail which blew loose, and was drowned under the ships stern; and another tumbled over the waist before day in a calm, and was drowned.”
The Identification of the Witch
Under this continued pressure, that old superstition of the sea (of there being someone on board who is causing all the misfortunes) meshes with the demonological aberration of their theology:
“The third of October 1674. at three or four a clock in the afternoon, our carpenters mate told our Master, our ship was bewitched by one Witch aboard, and two in England: and that we should not get to Virginia, but lye and spend our provision and liquor in the sea, and have no men left to help us, unless we bore away in time for some other Port…”
The opinion first voiced in Portugal is now openly voiced on ship. The carpenter’s mate is quizzed about where he has got this idea from – he is ready with a self-exonerative answer, it came to him as an answer to his prayers:
“Our Master questioning him how he understood this business, he answered, those often and continual accidents attending us, continually gave him Occasion fervently to call on God, begging of him to reveal to some body the Reason of our Miseries, and that accordingly in Prayers the particulars above mentioned, were revealed to him.”
The story is quickly believed, and acted on with astonishing speed. A candidate for the witch on board is identified then and there: Elizabeth Masters is seen alone, and she is either praying, or using the posture of prayer to sabotage the ship:
“Upon this Information, our Master observing Elizabeth Masters Posture, being on her knees on the forecastle, with her hands up, as if she were at Prayers, with her elbows between the kenels, where we were going to belay the Tack of our single small Foresail, which was now brought to our Main-yard, no female being upon Deck but her self, our said master calling down presently, said to several people, he feared that she was the witch, wishing she had no intent of mischief to the tack to which the sail was their belayed, at eleven aClock at night, the Master found the said Masters by her self upon the deck, all the rest of the passengers in their cabins, in the morning after day light, the said tack broak in little wind”.
This was a ship where things were always going wrong, and there were 130 people on board. So someone must always have been close to a piece of the equipment that soon afterwards fell apart. But Masters’ solitude and somehow suspicious display of piety (even though this was a ship where fervent solitary prayer might have been expected of anyone unfortunate enough to be aboard) have singled her out. There might even have been an invisible provocation in her surname: the ship’s ‘Master’ confronts, in Masters, a rival power on board, a woman with many masters. As she comes under scrutiny, in this next extract which tells of her actual arrest, ‘Master’ is actually set by the typographer as her surname. The ship’s master “Then rang the bell to prayers. Our gunner calling the passengers, sick and well up, the said Master as one startled at it, ‘What is the matter, Gunner’, who answered, ‘you must all to prayers’, she seeming blank, said no more, but was one of the first up, being observed to sit all the time in a very careless posture. At last the Foot Rope of the Mane or rather foresail broke in the clew, it being little wind as the others formerly did, and split, but we saved the canvas: Upon this suspicion, our Master Apprehended and clapt the said Masters in chain at a gun in the steerage …”
The testimonies against Elizabeth Masters
At this point, the Jonah-witch has been identified in this floating community. No petition of protest speaking of her good character follows, rather, a number of passengers come forward with their stories to confirm the justice of the detention.
Now, it tended to be taken as axiomatic that a witch under arrest could no longer command her spirits to do harm. The ship ‘Recovery’ was not going to recover so easily. Things continued to go wrong, and so a story rapidly emerges to account for Masters’ continued malign influence.
“after which apprehending of her: these particulars hereafter written, followed …We rummaged to know what Beer and water was in the said ship…” They find they have seven butts of water, and three of beer. Two of these butts of water are used, but two and a half butts of beer also are emptied, unaccountably. In the evening before they sighted land, only two full butts of water were left: and by the next morning “the water in both them was likewise out and lost, with the prints of the claws of some Creature, as cat or the like, left upon the Hoops of the said water-cask”. No one can see any sign of leakage, the water and beer supply is just being supernaturally drained. It turns into a close run thing: the ship arrives in Mari-Galante (an island off Guadeloupe) with “not above three gallons of water left”. Again, it’s hard not to suspect that Elizabeth Masters was a convenient scapegoat for some incompetent provisioning.
The captain’s account ends at this point, and there follows testimonies from passengers. They are all remarkable, and worth individual attention.
“William Rennols, Passenger
That in the month of October, 1674 in the night, Elizabeth Masters came to him as he lay in his Cabbin, between the decks of the said ship, and called this deponent by his name, who answered her the said Masters: This deponent further saith, that then the said Masters said to him, will you be of my gang? And if you will, you shall not want for Gold or Money: Saying, she was with this deponents mother, but the night before. This deponent farther saith, that he said to the said Masters, no truly, I will not have to do with you: This deponent farther saith, that the said Elizabeth Masters told him his Mother was a witch, and if he would be of her gang, he should go out of the said ship, and see his Mother when he pleased: This deponent farther saith, that his own Mother was a very lewd Liver, and kept a Brothel house in Dog and Bitch Yard, London, and would often in the night go abroad, and come home very bloudy, and that the said Elizabeth Masters lived with his said Mother.
The mark of William Rennols”
~ Rennols must have been a young adult who has turned godly, and rejected his previous life with his mother, the ‘lewd liver’. His internal conflict about his actions is obvious. He has heard the story about a ‘witch in England’ in league with the witch on board: he decides the witch back in England must be his own mother. This mother suddenly exerts a preternatural pull across the ocean, and even as he sails away from her, he is making no distance. Masters suddenly connects him closely to the lewd life in Dog and Bitch Yard which he had left, she embodies the temptation to go back to it, facilitating a return that would be quick and easy to do (but utterly evil).
The testimony of John Hall addresses the problem of Masters actually being under arrest, while the ship’s problems are continuing. She can also be a black cat. You will see that he automatically genders the cat he thinks he sees as female. Nor does that cat work its mischief alone:
“That on or about the twenty third of October, 74, He this deponent did see in the night, between the decks of the said ship, two things like black cats, which presently ran into a scupper hole, he this deponent catching at them, but mist them: this deponent further saith, that the next night he desired to watch with a Sword in his hand, to see if he could see any more Cats: This deponent farther saith, that accordingly he did watch, and that then, about Eight of the clock in the evening, he did see in the Great Cabbin of the said ship, something in the shape of a great black cat .. he did then and there with the said sword strike at the cat three blows, and, to his thinking, hit her every blow, and so it vanished. … there was not, to his knowledge, any Cat in the Ship.”
~ This is a classic story in witchcraft, that of the man who battles cats (in its full form, he actually injures the female witches who were in cat form. It’s in the Malleus Maleficarum, it’s in The Late Lancashire Witches.)
Matthew Lewis swore his corroborative account to Hall’s: “He did then on board the said ship, see a thing about the bigness of a cat, which looked him in the face, and that it came out of the Steerage of the said ship where Elizabeth Masters lay chain’d, and at his, this Deponents Cry, passed forward and vanished.”
Back across the Atlantic by coach and horses.
The deposition of Martha Jeffres is still more remarkable. We can sense the way she has listened avidly to both the initial deductions of the carpenter’s mate and to William Reynolds. She starts with a story which is directly based on the initial revelation:
“8th October. … she, this deponent, went into the Steerage of the said ship, where Elizabeth Masters lay chained, and that the said Masters then, and there, asked her, this deponent, If the wind was fair for the ship? Who answered, she knew not: the said Masters voluntarily saying, That the said Ship should never get to Virginia, nor to any other place: but should lye tumbling in the sea until the people were almost famisht for want of victuals and water … the said ship never should get to England, unless some place of the ship was opened, and that the Master should have a worse passage home than he had out, saying, That she would drown him, the said Master, if she could, and be revenged of some other person in the said ship, if she lived.”
Jeffres then picks up on that tension between desire to carry virtuously onwards, or return sinfully back which was expressed in William Reynolds’ story, as she invents an extraordinary mechanism whereby the speedy return to London Reynolds had hinted at as being within the power of Masters and her ‘gang’ might be carried out: you would travel in a coach pulled by four black horses across the ocean! Moreover, her fantasy of speedy return from this voyage full of high level dread back to familiar scenes is so strong that she cannot stop herself from saying that she actually made the trip. It’s like a supercharged version of Robin’s nocturnal ride on a black horse all the way from Lancashire to London and back (on a black horse) in The Late Lancashire Witches:
“The said Elizabeth Masters came to her to her cabin, between the decks of the said ship, at Midnight, about the middle of the month of October 74 and desired her to go to London in a coach, which she would provide for her, with four black horses, to fetch on board the ship, Mary, living in Dog and Bitch yard, London: She, this deponent, farther saith, she accordingly to this Elizabeth Masters second request, went into a coach, with four black horses the same night, and was conveyed out of one of the upper decks gun ports of the said ship, into a dark room, which, after a little time, was light, with a fire in the chimney: She, this deponent, farther saith, she stayed there a small time, speaking to the said Mary, to whom she was sent, telling her, that Elizabeth Masters would speak with her; the which said Mary answered that she knew where she was and would come that night, in a Coach, to the said Masters: This deponent farther saith, That the time she stayed in the aforesaid room, shee did see many black shagged Dogs, and at her return to the said Ship again, she, this deponent brought with her aboard the said Ship in the said Coach, several men and women. This deponent farther saith, That the said Elizabeth Masters sent a woman with her, who turned like a bullock when she talked with the aforesaid Mary; and that ending her discourse with Mary, she, the said woman which turned like a bullock, turning again like a woman, said to this deponent, Will you be as I am, and you shall want for nothing, you shall live as if you were in heaven, and keep a Maid … This Deponent farther saith, That on or about the 21th of October 1674 at Midnight, a Cat carried her on her back, from her Cabbin, up the Steeridg scuttle, so through into the forecastle to ease her self and from thence into the steerage again; where a woman, a stranger, tempted her, this deponent, to turn; who still refusing, the said woman vanish’d …”
After telling this extraordinary and not entirely innocent story, Martha tried to cover for her own silence about what had been going on, and for the inevitable denial of Elizabeth Masters herself:
“Masters told her, That if she should tell either the Captain, or any other body in the Ship of what had past, she, the said Masters, would torment her night and day: This deponent farther saith, That the said Elizabeth Masters saith, she will dye before she will confess any thing. The mark of Martha Jeffres.”
Frederick Johnson, the Quarter-master, confirmed that he too had seen the enchained Elizabeth on the loose in feline form. He also had a vision of spirit sailors up in the rigging, apt to his profession:
(6th December, 11 o clock at night), “sitting in the steerage, on board the Ship, Smoaking Tobacco, see a thing, in the shape of a Black cat, come from the place where Elizabeth Masters was chained.”
(Middle of January at Mari-galant) he saw “the Larboard yard-arm of the said Main yard, full of men, as if they were furling the sayls; this deponent declaring, he stood upon the Quarter deck near, and viewing them, for the space of half a quarter of an hour; at last all vanished.”
William Goodfellow, the ship’s cooper, was actually wounded by the cat:
(22nd December, near midnight) “something passed over him very hard, that it left the print of a Cat’s Foot, or the like, in the flesh of his Thigh, through his Cloaths”. A night or two later, he saw the great black cat in the ship’s great cabin which John Hall assailed with his sword - and “to this deponent’s thinking, hit her the said cat two or three blows, and then it vanished”.
You can imagine that a lot of the passengers on the ship Recovery would have been in a bad physical shape, or ill. “Mary Leare, passing.” may simply have been infested with fleas, but the identification of a witch on board offers a more dramatic explanation and a traditional anti-charm solution – scratching the witch and drawing blood, to break the charm. Masters was chained to a gun, and could not escape:
(Mary Leare was) “Dreadfully pinched at the small of her back, hips, and Buttocks: This deponent farther saith, That she was very desirous to get blood of Elizabeth Masters, believing it was she that pinched and Bewitched her: the which blood, the said deponent saith, She did fetch blood of the said Masters, and from that to this time hath gained her health.”
Others took the same course against their maladies. John Westrow testified that on 23rd December ,“standing behind Elizabeth Masters, where she lay in chains … it being after a Sick man had pricked her, to get her blood; which said sick man often declared, he see her, the said Masters pinch him in his cabin … which said Man is now dead: he, the said deponent, farther saith, he did then and there hear the said Elizabeth Masters say, You prick and punish me, but you do not punish Martha, who went the other night to London.”
Comment by the late 17th century editors
You can see by this last remark quoted that the inventive Martha Jefferies had talked herself into trouble. Frustratingly, the account ends there, and the fate of Elizabeth Masters is not mentioned. Wesley (or Dunton) finally make some remarks on the depositions:
“Remarks upon the first Deposition” (i.e., William Reynolds, ‘join our gang and you won’t be short of money’):
“'Tis an egregious cheat the Devill puts on 'em, making 'em believe, they enjoy such and such Treasures, Entertainments, &c which is evidently false, by their being always Lean and Poor.”
“Remarks upon the second Deposition” (i.e. John Hall, black cats):
“These apparitions are not the real parties chang’d into such Creatures, for the Witches are always exanimated at such times, and their bodies at home appearing to be dead…”
3rd (Matthew Lewis, black cats again): “ 'Twas no cheat, and seen by many: the Captain himself says, he saw it.”
5th (William Goodfellow, wounded by the cat): “this strengthens the Credit of the foremention’d depositions … we will allow Fancy may do much to the representing of the things, but it cannot pain a man to make him cry, nor wound him with shapes of Cat’s feet, &c … all saw the Impression upon his Thigh.”
The editorial comment on 7th and 8th depositions seems actually to begin with comment on Martha Jeffres’ dangerous testimony, the third given: “ 'Tis a great Question, Whether the Devill can use any Art to save a Person from expiring, in so swift a motions as this must be, we believe not; but rather that this Martha was her self deceiv’d, and was really a W---ch: (For the Captain told me, he heard that she was afterwards burnt for a W---ch. Tis probable, all that she thought, said, and did, was Delusion, and Suggested to her fancy by the Devil.”
King James in his Demonologie thinks that witches can fly for only so long as they can hold their breath, otherwise their velocity through the air would kill them. The editor seems to refer to this ‘great Question’. Martha’s fate sounds like hearsay. I do not know why ‘witch’ is here softened to ‘w---ch’, there had been no previous compunction about using the word. The editor goes on to condemn the practice of scratching: “Fetching Blood … 'tis unlawful, and a breach of the Sixth Commandment .. 'tis an unaccountable wickedness, and a running to the Devil, to be cur’d of the Distemper.”
So that’s the story, not quite complete. I suppose these people all eventually arrived at Virginia. They had endured a nightmare voyage, and, in a way very traditional to the sea, had identified the cause of their troubles, and tried to do something about it. That witches could raise tempests and sink ships was common lore. Transformation and transvection stories accrued to the collective narrative they shaped. A yearning to be back with their families, however disreputable, or simply safe by a London fireside was evident and understandable. Most victimised Elizabeth Masters without compunction; Martha Jefferies produced her dangerous narrative of complicity. What happened to the accused woman isn’t recorded, which is odd. It is easy to imagine that the Recovery sailed on, and that Guadeloupe inherited the problem of what to do with her. Indentured labour on a sugar plantation, I suppose.
My image is from A monumental memorial of marine mercy (1684). This will be my final post for a couple of weeks. I am off boating on the Norfolk Broads. Preferably without a witch.