THAT a deep-rooted belief in the power of the witch still lingers in the remote districts of Cornwall, cannot be denied. A gentleman, who has for many years been actively engaged in a public capacity, gives me, in reply to some questions which I put to him relative to a witch or conjurer, much information, which is embodied in this section.
A "cunning man" was long resident in Bodmin, to whom the people from all parts of the country went to be relieved of spells, under the influence of which either themselves or their cattle were supposed to be suffering. Thomas --, who resided at Nanstallan, not far from the town of Bodmin, was waylaid, robbed, and well thrashed on his way home from market. This act, which was accompanied by some appearance of brutality, was generally referred to one of the dupes of his cunning. Howbeit, Thomas-- appears to have felt that the place was getting too hot for him, for he migrated to one of the parishes on the western side of the Fowey river. Numerous instances are within my knowledge of the belief which existed amongst the peasantry that this man really possessed the power of removing the effects of witchcraft.
Thomas--took up his abode for some time with a small farmer, who had lost some cattle. These losses were attributed to the malign influences of some evil-disposed person; but as Thomas--failed to detect the individual, he with the farmer made many journeys to Exeter, to consult the "White Witch," who resided in that city. Whether the result was satisfactory or otherwise, I have never learned. Thomas--, it must be remembered, was only a "witch." The term is applied equally to men as to women. I never heard any uneducated person speak of a "wizard." There appears to be, however, some very remarkable distinctions between a male and a female witch. The former is almost always employed to remove the evil influences exerted by the latter. Witches, such as Thomas, had but limited power. They could tell who had been guilty of ill-wishing, but they were powerless to break the spell and "unbewitch" the sufferer. This was frequently accomplished by the friends of the bewitched, who, in concert with Thomas --, would perform certain ceremonies, many of them of an obscene, and usually of a blasphemous character. The "White Witch" was supposed to possess the higher power of removing the spell, and of punishing the 'individual by whose wickedness the wrong had been inflicted.
Jenny Harris was a reputed witch. This woman, old, poor, and, from the world's ill-usage, rendered malicious, was often charged with the evils which fell upon cattle, children, or, indeed, on men and women. On one occasion, a robust and rough-handed washerwoman, who conceived that she was under the spell of Jenny Harris, laid violent hands on the aged crone, being resolved to "bring blood from her." The witch's arm was scratched and gouged from the elbow to the wrist, so that a sound inch of skin did not exist. This violent assault became the subject of inquiry before the magistrates, who fined the washerwoman five pounds for the assault.
My correspondent writes :-- "I was also present at a magistrates' meeting at the Porcupine Inn, near Tywardreath, some years ago, when an old woman from Golant was brought up for witchcraft. One farmer, who appeared against her, stated that he had then six bullocks hanging up in chains in his orchard, and he attributed their disease and death to the poor old woman's influence. The case was dismissed, but it afforded a good deal of merriment. There was a dinner at the inn after the meeting, and some of the farmers present were disposed to ridicule the idea of witchcraft. I said, well knowing their real views and opinions, 'Gentleman, it is all well enough to laugh, but it appears to me to be a serious matter.' Upon which Mr , a farmer of --, said, 'You are right, Mr--; I'II tell of two cases in which one family suffered severely,' and he gave us the details of the cases. All the others present had a case or two, each one within his own experience to vouch for, and the whole afternoon was spent telling witch stories."
The extent to which this belief was carried within a comparatively recent period, may be inferred from the fact that, on one occasion when the visitors were assembled at the county asylum, a man residing at Callington came with the mother of a poor imbecile patient, and sent his card to the boardroom. This was inscribed with his name and M.A. Upon being asked how he became a Master of Arts, he replied that he was a "Master of Black Arts." The object of this fellow's visit was, having persuaded the mother of his power, to propose to the visitors that they should place the imbecile girl in his care, upon his undertaking, on their paying him five pounds, to cure her. Of course this was not listened to. This fellow imposed upon people to such an extent that he was eventually tried at the sessions, under an almost forgotten Act of Parliament, for witchcraft. The impression on the mind of my informant is that the case broke down.