The Hedingham Witchcraft Case

Foxearth & District Local History Society

It is remarkable to think that a belief in witchcraft was still sufficiently strong in the area in the 1860s to cause a near-lynching. Less surprising, perhaps, that a man could earn a living by telling fortunes; though how it was that a deaf and dumb man could do so is a puzzle.
It may not be apparent from reading the following account (which was repeated in The London Times on September 24th 1865) that the mob were attempting to 'swim' poor old 'Dummy' to ascertain if he were a wizard. This bizarre belief is described in detail in a separate publication on this site called 'The Swimming of Witches; Indicium Aquae'
Foxearth & District Local History Society

Bury and Norwich post

March 15th 1864.


Mr Fowke, a private gentleman from Sible Hedingham and one of the Guardians of the Poor of that parish, brought the case against Emma Smith the wife of a beer house keeper of Ridgewell and Samuel Stammers, a carpenter of Sible Hedingham, charging them with causing the death of an old man called "Dummy" under the following circunstances.

Dummy, who was deaf and dumb and about 80 years of age, had lived in a small mud hut near Sible Hedingham for the last 8 years and had been known in the neighbourhood for about 20 years, but his name and place of birth or his country were never known although he was generally supposed to be a Frenchman. His habits were peculiar and his inability to express himself otherwise than by grotesque gestures and was also very excitable caused him to be regarded by many as possessed of the power of witchcraft.

He was in the habit of travelling about the nearby villages gaining his livelihood by telling fortunes and was often consulted by youg people on the locality as to their love affairs.

He usually wore two or three coats the number of which he increased according to the heat of the weather and two or three hats of different descriptions at the same time and was always accompanied by three or four small dogs.

He seems to have been an inoffensive old man and was treated with great kindness by the good families of the neighbourhood and as a source of merriment by the youthful and the idle.

Among the places the old man went to was the village of Ridgewell, a few miles distance of Hedingham and there he made the aquaintance of the prisoner Smith, at the beerhouse of her husband.

On the occasion of one of these trips to Ridgewell, the poor old man wanted to sleep at the prisoner's house and on her refusing he stroked his stick and used other threatening signs to signify his displeasure at her refusal.

Soon after this the prisoner Emma Smith became ill and was reduced to a low nervous condition and at once expressed her conviction that she had beeb bewitched by poor old Dummy and that she would not recover until she had induced him to remove the spell from her. She made several applications to him without effect and at last while labouring under great mental and nervous excitement she went from her home at Ridgewell to Sible Hedingham on the evening of the 3rd of August.1863, and she met old Dummy at the Swan public house about a quarter of a mile from Dummy's hut.

They remained there for some time, she endeavouring to persuade him to go to Ridgewell with her and to sleep at her house and offering him three sovereigns to do so. Dummy however refused to do so and drew his fingers across his throat implying that he was afraid of having his throat cut.

As soon as it became known that a woman from Ridgewell who had been bewitched by old Dummy was at the Swan, a great number of villagers flocked to see her and the Swan soon became a scene of riot and confusion and the old man was pulled and danced about, falling once or twice violently to the ground.

The prisoner Smith still continued to urge the old man to go home with her, repeating she would give him three sovereigns and treat him well as she had been in a bad state for nine or ten months and that she was bewitched. After the closing of the Swan the parties moved outside with the prisoner Smith standing by the side of Dummy declaring that he should go home with her.

She then tore the old man's coat and struck him several times over the arms and the shoulders with a stick and kicked him and dragged him down to a little brook near the Swan and said "you old devil you served me out, now I will serve you out".

Smith then shoved him into the brook and when he was getting out the other side she went round over a little bridge and the other prisoner, Stammers, went through the brook and they pushed him back into the brook. He succeeded in getting out and went and sat down on a stone heap until the two prisoners dragged him towards the brook, one taking hold of him under the armpits and the other by the legs they threw him into the brook at a point where the brook is dammed up and was of some little depth, he remained struggling until one of the villagers called out that "If someone did not take the old man out he would die in a minute, " the prisoner Stammers jumped into the water and pulled him out.

He lay on the grass for some time in a very exhausted state, wet and muddy, they eventually led him home to his miserable little hut where he lay in that condition in his wet clothes all night.

The only direct evidence of the throwing into the brook by the two prisoners was that of a little girl named Eva Henrietta Garrad, who is about ten years of age and who gave her evidence in such a way as to elicit from the learned Judge the observation that she was gifted with extraordinary power of intellect and cleverness of explanation he had ever met with and that he could conceive no possible reason to doubt the truth of her story.

On the morning of the 4th the old man was seen in his hut by Mr Fowke, still in his wet clothes and trembling violently. He was also a good deal bruised and screamed from pain when his clothes were taken off him. He was then under the direction of the surgeon and taken to the Union House at Halstead and placed under the care of Mr Sinclair the house surgeon where he remained until his death on the 4th of September last.

The post mortem examination showed that the lungs and the kidneys were much disorganised, the pericardium adhering to the heart and a suffusion of the lymph on the membrane of the brain indicating recent inflammatory action and the witness gave as his opinion that he died from disease of kidneys produced by immersion in water and sleeping in wet clothes and in this opinion the witness was coroberated by another medical man who attended the post mortem.

For the defence it was contended that the evidence of the little girl could not be relied on and without it there was no evidence that either of the two prisoners threw the old man into the water and secondly there was not sufficient evidence that the death resulted from the immersion and that it might have resulted from some other injury the old man might have received by the falls the old man might have had in the tap room of the Swan public house.

The learned Judge then summed up the case with great care and the Jury immediately found the prisoners guilty and they were sentenced to six months hard labour, the learned Judge said that he took in to consideration the mental condition of the female prisoner and the fact that when Stammers found that there was a danger he took the poor old man out of the water. The case lasted five hours.

Police records indicate that it was Superintendent Thomas Elsey who was informed of the assault on Dummy by Mr Fowke and had Dummy removed to the Halstead Workhouse where he died on the 4th September.
The police under the direction of Superintendent Jeremiah Raison began an investigation into the events of the 3rd August and, on the 25th September, Smith and Stammers were charged by Superintendent Elsey, before the magistrates at Castle Hedingham, with having "unlawfully assaulted an old Frenchman commonly called Dummy, thereby causing his death." The case had attracted much interest and the small courtroom was packed. Witnesses to the events were reluctant to give evidence against Smith and Stammers, but several told the court the facts as are related above. Mr Sinclair, a surgeon to the Halstead workhouse, said that death was due to the treatment the old man had received. They were both committed to the next Assize court at Chelmsford.
This newspaper report is about this Assize court on March 8th 1864. which is remarkable for the fact that the star witness for the prosecution, Eva Henrietta Garrad, was only ten years old.
Although a harmless chap, poor Dummy played a dangerous game when he exploited the superstitions of the local people. He was certainly consulted by the young people about their love affairs; and when police searched his home they found numerous scraps of paper with various queries written on them. One such query read, "Her husband have left her many years, and she want to know whether he is dead or alive."

Bury and Norwich post

March 22nd 1864.

The Rector of Sible Hedingham has written to the "Times" to say, although too much commendation cannot possibly be bestowed on Mr Fowke, the gentleman who directed the prosecution in the witchcraft case which was reported last week's papers for the pains he has taken to bringing punishment to the perpetrators of so wanton an attack upon a poor and afflicted old man, he says at the same time it would most unfair that an impression certainly erroneous should get abroad that there were not many other persons in the parish who regarded with horror and detestation, the gross outrage committed on the night of August the 3rd. In proof of this the Rector stated that a subscription will be entered into among the parishioners by which the expenses of the trial will be defrayed.

There was another case which was said to involve witchcraft, just over fifty years later, at Tilbury Juxta Clare, not far away. However, the case would seem to have been more about the defendent's 'inflammation of the brain' than anything more subtle

Suffolk Free Press

August 16th 1916.

Witchcraft at Tilbury.

William Byford a labourer was charged with assaulting and beating Ruth Kemp at Tilbury, near Clare.

Complainant rattled off a statement which was difficult to follow. She said she remarked to Byford that there would be a storm and he replied "there is a blue mist coming up and how many imps was she was going to burn tonight",

He threshed her door and called her a ---- old witch and said both she and her son were witches and that he would kill one of them tonight.

He punched her in the chest, knocking her down, she then had a fit, she had felt it coming on and was out for 1� hours, when she came round she ran to her huisband who was making hay and asked him whether he could prove she was a witch or not.

She said her sons are all at the war so they do not want any killing.

The Clerk asked Mary Byford, the mother of defendant, what she knew about all this, she said

'My son William came home tired and went to the "Bell" for some beer, he had had a little beer during the day but there were people in there that didn't ought to be so he stopped with them, I went after him and took his arm and brought him along, when he got home he went to bed, he never went nigh that woman but I am hard of hearing, he said something to the woman but he didn't hit her as he was rods off when he fell in Lizzie Chambers yard.'

Defendant said

"I hope you will be lenient with me as I have an aged mother and three years ago I had inflamation of the brain caused by sunstroke, when I have a little beer it affects me".

The chairman said

"It is the same old trouble, when beer is in sense is out". Bound over in the sum of �5 and to keep the peace with Ruth Kemp particulary.

Costs 4s, defendant said

'I hope I will be in the army before long.'