The Examination of Jean Brown accused of Witchcraft, 20th February 1706

A spooky blog post for this month of Halloween about witches, alleged murder and escape from prison!

This document is held at the Archives as part of the papers of the Trustees of Sir Douglas Seton-Steuart of Allanton and Touch. Although it concerns the Parish of Wigtown in Dumfries and Galloway, it is an interesting example of a late witchcraft case.

Wigtown Presbytery had examined Jean and was paying to keep her in prison there. She was from Penninghame, near Newtown Stewart and stood accused of ‘conversing’ with ‘spirits’. The full details of her examination are contained within the Presbytery minutes for Wigtown, held at the National Records of Scotland. After she had been examined the minutes state ‘She was dealt with by the Moderator and severall others of the brethren to convince her that she was under powerful and satanical delusions but without any success’. This is interesting as it indicates perhaps, that the belief in witchcraft is declining and this woman is regarded as delusional rather than evil. On the 20th February, the Presbytery appointed Thomas Kerr, Minister of Wigtown, to go to Edinburgh with a letter from the Sheriff Depute and an extract of Jean Brown’s confession to the Queen’s Advocate to request a civil trial for Jean. This letter and the extract are the documents shown here.

Jean confessed to communing with spirits and that they gave her power over people to make them well or ill or even lead to their deaths. She also admitted to worshipping them and said that she believed that they created heaven and earth. It is this latter sin of blasphemy that concerns the religious authorities the most, again indicating that the notion of witchcraft is becoming less credible to the Church.

The Presbytery minutes record that the answer given by the Advocate in Edinburgh was that the case was ‘not fit to be laid before the Council’ and that Jean was ‘more fitt for a bedlam [asylum] than a Criminall prison’. Again, this view shows the changing attitudes to the whole subject of witchcraft and an increase in the unwillingness to believe that such a thing is possible On the 17th June 1706, the Presbytery reports that the decision had been made to excommunicate Jean for her blasphemy but that by this time she had escaped from prison and was nowhere to be found.