superstition fades

The trial of Maggie Nattrass was for the attempt to set fire to an occupied house for the second time. Nattrass was accused of this crime because of several fires that occurred in the house. Oddly enough, no one ever saw the fires, which had already been put out by the time the witnesses arrived to the location of the incident (Old Bailey). Susan Chipperfield, said in a testimony that the defendant, Nattrass, once told her “I don’t know, I am bewitched, everything I touch seems to catch on fire” (Bailey). But another testimony by Henry Brown, a builder that was a friend of the prosecutor, said “the blankets were smoldering – I asked her why she did it – she said ‘ I don’t know how I did it; I did not do it willingly’ –I said before the Magistraitet hat she appeared to be out of her mind – I asked her whether she had any illness; I thought she seemed insane – I think so still; I don’t think a sane person would have acted as she did” (Bailey). The testimony of Brown was well enough to blame the fires on Nattrass’ insanity. She was found not guilty of the felony arson charge she faced. Mr. Justice Hawkins declared that she was not guilty of intent to injure another because only objects were burned, but he also said that a separate trial may be in order to charge Nattrass with destroying “goods” (Bailey).

This case doesn’t mention witchcraft in the narrative but the suspiciousness of the fires is enough for Nattrass to think, if only for a second, that she was bewitched. The testimony of Henry Brown was apparently enough to throw out the chance of witchcraft and sorcery. This relates to what Lewis Scaife said in a Brief Sketch of Superstition, by the 1700s, “Sciences stepped forward and declared that it would investigate the superstition and wonderful claims of the magicians the rife, and as soon as the existing conditions were pronounced false the clouds were pushed further back and the light of the truth began to shine once more on a benighted world” (pp. 46-47). Nattrass’ trial was held in 1886 so this trial could be proof of the ongoing societal shift toward science as an explanation and away from superstition.

In George Burr’s Narrative of the Witchcraft Cases there is also a disturbance with fire that is not pointedly related to witchcraft. This fire is more suspicious than the fire in the case of Nattrass. This witness states there was a fire caused by lightening hitting the chimney of their home and setting leanto aflame. Philip Delano said that during the fire he felt a “violent heat upon his body,” though his clothes were not burned (Burr; 15). This does not have a direct correlation to witchcraft but the account of Delano is suspicious so it is included in this narrative with Burr saying that he will leave it to the reader to decide if they believe it is a supernatural occurrence; probably because this was published in 1914, the times had changed and science overwhelmed superstition.


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