Troubled By Spirits: The Overlap Between Demonic Possession, Witchcraft and Haunting

Dore_woodcut_Divine_Comedy_01First of all: apology/disclaimer: I’ve written this while on holiday, without my books, so it might be a bit scrappy

This is a bit of a stray thought/idea to be developed coming out of my research for my presentation at the ASSAP Seriously Possessed conference in a couple of weeks. In the research for my paper I came across a strange overlap between cases of demonic possession, haunting and witchcraft. It’s a bit of a work in progress, but here’s what I’ve got so far…

Haunting — The Tedworth Drummer
According to the account written by Joseph Glanville, Charles II’s Chaplain, a vagabond artist named William Drury was arrested for causing a public nuisance and travelling under false documents in the town of Lugarspal in Wiltshire, 1661. The tenant of Tedworth House, named Mompesson, confiscated the man’s drum and had him bound over by the local bailiff to be seen before the Justice of the Peace, at which the man confessed that he had forged his documents and begged to be given his drum back. Months later,

having retained Mr. Drury’s drum, Mompesson was getting ready for a return to London when the bailiff gave him the confiscated drum as a gift and he kept it in his house while on business in the city.

When he returned, his wife told him that she had been afraid of thieves, and within three nights a very loud knocking was heard outside the house, which Mompesson investigated while armed with a pair of pistols, and found nothing. Wherever he searched, the knocking would resume somewhere else, eventually continuing inside the roof when the Mompessons gave up and retired to bed.

Over time the knocking took up a regular pattern – lasting for five nights out of seven – and was heralded by a wailing in the air. It was just after this time that the phenomenon began to torment the children with particular force. According to Glanville’s account, their beds would be struck with such great force that they would be physically damaged, and the spirit would pick up the children, or chase them from room to room. The spirit started to attempt communication through creaking floorboards, and to emit a stench of sulphur.

When a local minister, Mr. Cragg, visited the house and attempted to pray at their bedsides of the children, the noises retreated in the attic but the spirit returned immediately that they stopped and began throwing chairs around. Eventually, the persecutions became so severe that the children had to be lodged in the parlour, and were still tormented.

After this, the haunting develops into a fairly mundane affair, with various tricks being played on the children and Mrs. Mompesson’s mother making noises about fairies, but we see a critical point of deviation: there comes a point at which the phenomena converge on the children, who Glanville says are even taken from the house and lodged elsewhere, but the spirit then takes to tormenting servants by lifting them out of their beds and playing other tricks, and the focus moves away from the children.

From Haunting to Possession: Nicole Obry and Rob Doe
Nicole, a sixteen year old girl in the village of Vervins, in Picardy. Here we have the involvement of the dead again begins the narrative: Nicole had a vision of her grandfather Joachim Willot, who claimed to be suffering in purgatory and to require family devotions in order to free him. Nicole’s visions narrate her family’s progress to a series of local shrines, but they are unable to meet the spirit’s demands. As the spirit deprives her of her senses — something we see in the Robert Briggs and Throckmorton cases — and the power of speech, we once again see the intervention of an outside, clerically educated source in the form of Nicole’s teacher, a Dominican friar, who interrogates the spirit through Nicole and challenges it with the observation that “it is not in the habit of good Angels to torment other creatures” and diagnoses the girl as possessed by the devil.

From here, Obry progresses to the performance we have already seen: huge audiences in a series of larger and larger venues along the ordinary stylings of the early modern demoniac, but it is in the following case, that of Robert Doe in Cottage City, Maryland, that we see again, the convergence of the two.

In Steve Erdman’s 1975 article for Fate Magazine, where he narrates the events as written in a ‘Jesuit Diary’ – we see a chain of events that develop into possession, but which seem at their beginning to cleave more closely to that of poltergeist activity.

In Erdman’s recounting of the Jesuit Diary the to-be-possessed boy hears the sounds of scratching at the walls and the sounds of squeaking shoes at night. This develops into knockings that identify the haunting spirit as a dead relative, then greater poltergeist activity such as Roland’s bed being moved while the boy lies in it, and his chair being tipped over with him in it. Another notable feature is that of the boy’s bed clothes being stolen time and again, similar to the interferences suffered by the children at Tedworth. In the Erdman narrative the diagnosis of demonic possession, and the idea of a demonic presence rather than that of a dead relative, only intrudes after a crisis of exorcism when Father Raymond J Bishop becomes involved, whereupon the spirit makes itself known as the Devil.

From Possession to Witchcraft: The Throckmorton Children and Thomas Darling
Here we have the phenomenon of possession bleeding into witchcraft. From 1589-93 five daughters and seven maids in the Throckmorton household were possessed, manifesting horrors at religious expressions such as prayer, or the presence of divines. According to an account written at the time, they could not stand to pray or read from the bible, which Sands observes might well be a rebellion against the constant prayer and admonitions of a 16th century Puritan household. Furthermore, a part of the girls’ struggle was played out in the realm of food. While possessed, the girls could only eat at a certain riverside, in the shadow of a certain tree, or their possession demon would clamp their jaws closed. In their fits would claim that they were possessed because of a neighbour Alice Samuel, along with her daughter and husband, had sent spirits to torment them.

Mother Samuel, as she was known, was even forced (involuntarily) to live in the Throckmorton house for some time, which seemed to ease the girls’ suffering. We see also in the case of Thomas Darling, the ‘Boy of Burton’ dispossessed by the Protestant minister John Darrell, who accused Alice Gooderidge, another local woman reputed to be a witch, of sending a spirit to cause his torments, with the unfortunate Mother Gooderidge dying in prison while awaiting trial (the Samuels were hanged for their reputed crimes).

The Hinterland
Although there is a slightly different progression between the cases of the Throckmorton Children and the unfortunate youngsters of Tedworth House, we can also see a commonality: a disturbance is brought into a household, centred around a child or children, but it is the adults who shape the narrative. In the case of Rob Doe one of the boy’s childhood friends is reported by the journalist Mark Opsasnik as blaming the young man’s Lutheran grandmother for introducing an atmosphere of excessive superstition into the household. In the case of Alexander Nyndge of Suffolk in 1573, we see that the diagnosis of possession is made by his brother, while the diagnosis in the case of Nicole Obry is made by a pair of local clerics.

Even in cases that seem to deviate, they come back to the narrative of the witch’s familiar. At the end of the tale of the Tedworth Drummer, the itinerant musician is found and made to confess that he sent the poltergeist by magic. An interesting counterpoint is that of the 18th century Bell Witch, outside of the Golden Age of the Demoniac, where the beginning of the phenomenon is very similar to the Tedworth drummer (noises, poltergeist activity, pranks) and goes through the ‘public’ phase common to demoniacs, but the atmosphere at the time does not move the Bell family to seek a diagnosis of demonic possession for their troubles.

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Filed under English Folklore, Religion and the Occult, Strange History, Whole Article

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