I chose the trial of Jane Kent for study. Tried June 1, 1682, she was charged with practicing witchcraft and using it to murder Elizabeth Chamblet. Elizabeth’s father is the complainant in the case. He states that the problem started when a transaction fell through between him and Kent. Afterward, he believed that she cursed his pig, causing it to become ill. Soon, Elizabeth fell ill as well and died. Worried about his wife, he took various clippings from her to be “tested” for bewitchment. As he boiled the clippings, he claimed to have heard Kent scream outside his door. Chamblet also presented “eyewitnesses” also claiming to be victims of Kent’s witchery.
Kent denied all Chamblet’s testimony. She presented herself as a churchgoing woman who “lived honestly.” In the end, the jury ruled that Kent was not guilty.
I was actually amazed by the outcome of this trial. Despite the overwhelming “evidence” against Kent, the jury found her not guilty. This led me to dwell more upon the views of witchcraft accusations in this era. I concluded that though the court acknowledged these cases, accusations of witchcraft possessed a diminishing weight among the people. A common contemporary perception would be that, as Ankarloo and Clarke say, “denial of witchcraft is the devil’s work.” However, the jury’s verdict shows that these accusations may not have been taken as seriously from a legal standpoint. Though the government had to act, the people saw through the accusations. What would have in earlier times been deemed concrete evidence of witchcraft has less power in the late 17th century. This is not to say that witchcraft was not taken seriously—Ankarloo and Clarke certainly prove there was plenty of ostracizing done on the account of witchery in the era. I simply believe that religion forced society to acknowledge potential witchcraft cases, but society was not so easily compelled to punish for it. I would posit that this may have been a transitional period for social perceptions about witchcraft.
The sad truth is that this is likely the contrivance of an emotionally distraught man. After losing a deal and his daughter, he sought an object of blame, using witchcraft to exact vengeance on Kent. He wouldn’t find material gain in the endeavor; the emotional reward would be enough. Witchcraft accusations historically have required relatively little solid evidence for conviction—eyewitnesses would do.
H. Lewis Scaife asserts that “[s]uperstition generally decreases in proportion to mental development” (42). He associates superstition with a savage, undeveloped mentality, presenting various inferior cultures worldwide as proof of this claim. Countless Enlightenment commentators would agree. David Hume stated superstition developed from “ignorance of natural causes” (Ankarloo and Clarke 202). Lack of knowledge births superstition. The common perception is that, as understanding increases, superstition will die. To philosophers like Hume, Hobbes, and others, rampant superstition indicated a collective lack of knowledge. Understandably, this societal intelligence deficit, coupled with the terror superstition wrought, created much animosity toward superstition among the philosophical community.
Scaife, Hazel Lewis. A True Ghost Story, or Three Nights in a Haunted House and a Brief Sketch of Superstition. Louisville, KY: Press of R. H. Carothers, 1895.
Ankarloo, Bengt, and Stuart Clark. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Vol. 5. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1999.
Jane Kent Trial