Walking with Witches

The word 'witch' conjures a stereotype that we are all familiar with. But what was the history behind the recently acknowledged genocide of the witch trails? During the month of September, Bodmin Jail is proudly looking at the history of two Cornish witches associated with the prison’s location, Anne Jefferies and Joan Wytte. Walk with us into the superstitious world of the 1600 and 1700s, from the court of James I to the burial of Joan Wytte's bones over two hundred years after her death on our new ‘Walking with Witches guided tour that allows guests a rare insight into the Cornish world of healers, cunning folk, hags, crones, scolds, beldams and she-devils.

Published on 05 September 2022


Witches were burnt at the stake

False: While it is the case that those convicted of witchcraft were burnt at the stake in Scotland and Europe, in England the method of execution was hanging. The exception to this were those women convicted of petty treason. Petty treason was an act against a social superior, for women, their husbands. This particular crime carried the penalty of death by fire until 1784.   

The last person to be burned as a witch in Scotland was Janet Horne at Dornoch in Ross shire in 1727.

Witches were dunked on stools to establish their guilt.

False: The story of the ducking stool is complex and confusing, and subject to various local usages right up to the early 19th century. While in some places women (and some men) were ducked on stools in order to establish whether or not they were witches, the more common means of identifying them was to throw them into the water with a rope attached to see whether or not they floated.  Witch swimming, as this was known, was the practice of tying up and immersing the accused into a body of water to determine whether they sink or float. Sinking to the bottom indicated that the accused was innocent while floating indicated a guilty verdict. 

Cucking stools or ducking stools were chairs formerly used for punishment of disorderly women, scolds and dishonest tradesmen. 

Helen Duncan or Hellish Nell

The last person to be imprisoned under the Witchcraft Act of 1735 (the Act that said there was no such thing as witchcraft, just people who fake it) was Helen Duncan or Hellish Nell in 1944 – Helen was a medium, famous for producing ectoplasm which was later proven to be made from cheesecloth. This act was repealed by the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 which prohibited a person from claiming to be a psychic, medium or other spiritualist while attempting to deceive and to make money from deception (other than solely for the purpose of entertainment). In turn it was repealed by the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. This is why shows such as ‘Most Haunted’ carry a disclaimer at the beginning. 

Join us this September for the Walking with Witches tour