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Welcome to Unreal – The Season of the Witch.
Kissing has been part of human cultures for thousands of years. It holds a multitude of meanings – a kiss of love, a kiss of peace, a kiss of friendship, respect, or romance. It’s no wonder, then, that kisses have captured the imagination of storytellers throughout history. Although less common than in Disney films and modern retellings, kissing was nevertheless a potent and powerful mini-ritual in folktales, one that could lift enchantments, or break the most powerful of spells.
But kissing could sometimes have a darker purpose. From Judas’ kiss of betrayal in the New Testament to the “kiss of death” used in modern-day mafia stories, kissing a person does not always lead to a positive outcome – sometimes it condemns, captures, or even curses them, to an altogether less happy fate.
In 1661, rumours swept the town of Youghal about the deadly kiss of a woman named Florence Newton, a kiss that could bring terrible pain, claim lives, and that marked her out for what she truly was – a witch. I’m Ruth Atkins – and this is Unreal.
After the trial against Alice Kyteler and her companions in the 14th Century, there were very few witch trials recorded in Ireland, in comparison to Britain and Europe. There were a few reasons for this – among the Gaelic-Irish, witches were viewed as being much less threatening. People believed in good witches – wise women relied on by the community for charms, and even the malevolent witches just stole butter or food through their spells, rather than bringing serious harm to people. Instead of accusing particular people or women in the community of being witches, rumours of witchcraft tended to focus on the act itself, while the witches remained nameless. The Gaelic and Catholic Irish had plenty of their own counter-spells, prayers or rituals that they used to combat witchcraft, rather than putting their trust in a legal system belonging to British rule. As a result, the most well-known witchcraft trials in Ireland in the 17th and 18th centuries took place in the smaller puritan communities of Ireland, rather than Catholic ones.
Puritan was a term used to describe the deeply religious protestant groups that sprang up in the 16th and 17th centuries. These groups fiercely rejected Roman Catholic practises and sought to further reform, or “purify” the Church of England after the protestant reformation. Puritan groups gained huge power and influence in the 16th and 17th centuries, culminating in the English Civil War that saw King Charles I executed, and the puritan leader Oliver Cromwell rise to power as England’s Lord Protector, ready to begin his brutal plantation of Ireland. Puritans were known to believe strongly that evil forces existed, and their rise to power in England brought with it a major increase in witch trials – in England, Matthew Hopkins, known as the Witchfinder general, accused over two hundred people of witchcraft, causing many to face trial and execution.
By 1661, Cromwell was dead, a king was back on the throne, and the people of Youghal who had supported Puritanism and the Cromwellian regime faced the re-establishment of a church they had rejected, and the anger and revenge of those who had suffered under Cromwell. The puritans of Youghal were terrified that they would suffer reprisals, both by radical Protestants, and the catholic population of Ireland. Witch-panics have always thrived in unstable communities, and this was a time filled with upheaval and fear for the Youghal people. And where the seeds of fear are sown, whispers and accusations are never far behind. And so, it’s against this backdrop that we see the a feud between two women rock a community to its core, and the kiss of an old woman take on magnified, and maybe even magic proportions.
The trial of Florence Newton, is a very different case than that of Alice Kyteler. Florence was much closer to our modern day conceptions of women accused of witchcraft – she was old, and poor, and an outsider.
Shortly before Christmas in the year 1660, Florence Newton came begging to the door of the Pyne household. John Pyne was a respected and wealthy gentleman, the former Bailiff of the town, But it was John Pyne’s servant, Mary Longdon a woman of about eighteen who answered the door. Despite their age difference, Mary and Florence knew each other, and went back about three or four years. And perhaps that is why Florence expected that Mary would be generous in her time of need. Mary was salting beef for the winter in a powdering tub, and Florence begged her for a piece. But Mary refused. She could not give away her master’s beef, she told Florence. At this, Florence became angry, Mary later told the courts. She shouted that if Mary was good she would have given it to her, and left, muttering darkly to herself.
About a week later, when Mary Longdon went to get water for the household, when she ran into Florence again. Florence rushed towards Mary, knocking the pail of water from her head, and “violently” kissed her (so Mary described in later).
“Mary,” said Florence, “I pray thee, let thee and I be friends, for I bear thee no ill will.”
I can see how these interactions might have been pretty unsettling for Mary – first confronted, then kissed. But I can also feel a lot of sympathy for Florence, an old, poverty-stricken women who was afraid she had lost one of the few friends she had in the world. Looking back on it now, Florence’s behaviour seems desperate, rather than dangerous. But Mary didn’t think so at the time. And she soon escalated the fight far beyond anything Florence had intended. For a few days later, Mary said – strange things started happening.
Following her encounter with Florence, Mary claimed that she experienced a strange vision. In her bedroom were two figures – a woman with a veil over her face, and a little old man in silk cloths. The man spoke to Mary, and told her that if she listened and followed him, she would have everything her heart desired.
“I have nothing to say to you,” Mary answered. “My trust is in the Lord.”
It was clear to Mary who this strange old man was. Satan in those days was represented in two ways – handsome and dark haired, or old and deformed. And the woman with the veil was clear to her also – it was Florence Newton.
In the weeks that followed this vision, Mary fell ill, and became tormented by mysterious and violent fits. Sometimes her fits were so violent that it took three or four men to hold her down. Her master, John Pyne, said he saw her being pelted by small stones, that flew towards her seemingly from thin air, and vanished before they hit the ground. When she vomited, she brought up strange objects – thread, horse’s nails, straw and moss.
And there in her fits, Mary claimed, was always Florence Newton, enjoying her torments, torturing her, and sticking pins into her arms.
It’s hard to tell with the passage of time what was really going on here. Did Mary have a grudge against Florence, faking her symptoms and accusing her because she wanted to bring Florence harm. Was she a naïve and impressionable girl, who felt panicked by the idea of witchcraft and truly believed that she was a victim? Or was she in a desperate situation herself, accusing Florence because it was the only way to stop people’s suspicions from landing on her? We’ll never know for sure. What we do know is that Mary Longdon’s act was convincing to those who saw it. They believed she was under a powerful enchantment. A witch was in their midst.
Mary’s family, and all the people who saw her when she was like this, were very afraid by the strange illness that appeared to have come over her. Eventually, the minister was sent for, a man called James Wood. He went with Mary’s brother to her room, where he found Mary already deep in one of her strange fits. She was crying out against Florence, pleading with her to stop pricking and hurting her. But when the Minister arrived, Mary came to herself. Minister Wood asked Mary what troubled her. “Gammer Newton,” Mary replied.
“Why?” asked the Minister. “She is not here.”
“Yes she is,” Mary answered. “I saw her by my bedside.”
When Mary told Minister Wood the whole story, from the time Florence had come and begged for beef, to the kiss, to the visions and fits, he, and all who knew Mary felt sure that witchcraft was at play. But you couldn’t just declare that someone was a witch. You had to test it. And they knew how.
They got Mary up out of her bed, and sent for Florence Newton to be brought to the house. Florence refused, saying she was to sick to come, which the family believed was a lie. They called for the Richard Mayre, the Mayor of the town of Youghal, who then came and spoke to Mary. Once he had seen her condition he sent for Florence Newton himself.
The moment Florence arrived in Mary’s quarters, Mary immediately fell into a fit again, one that was far more violent, and three times as long as any other she had suffered before. The men tested this – sending Florence in and out of the chamber but keeping her hidden, they said, from Mary. Each time Florence got close to Mary, her fits seemed to worsen again. The tests were far from over, but the people had seen enough to believe that Florence was a serious danger to the community. Florence was placed in a prison cell.
There were many other tests carried out to prove Florence’s witchcraft. The Mayor ordered that Florence be put in manacles while in her prison cell, so that they could see that Mary’s condition improved when Florence’s movements were restricted. Some of the townsmen, who had read of another method, sent for Florence and made her sit on a stool, before trying to drive a sharp awl into the wood of the stool while she sat on it. They were unable to until the third try, which they believed was due to Florence’s magical protection. They then pierced Florence’s hands with a lance – an inch and a half deep and a quarter of an inch long, and again they said they had to cut her several times before she began to bleed. I can only imagine the pain and terror Florence Newton must have felt – totally alone and facing horrifying accusations and barbaric trials. It’s no wonder therefore that her resistance was beginning to crumble – soon, she would start to confess.
Inside her cell, those who watched Florence claimed that during the night there was a very great noise as though someone in bolts and chains was running up and down the room, and door of the prison shook and rattled on its hinges. The guards asked Florence what the noise was, and who she was speaking to, but she said she saw nothing and was not speaking at all. The following day though, presumably after some further coercion, Florence eventually confessed that the noise came from a magical greyhound that was her spirit familiar, a strange companion it was said all witches had.
On her second night in prison, the 24th of March, Florence faced further questioning, and continued to deny that she had done any witchcraft to hurt Mary. In her desperation, Florence actually accused two other women – Goodwife Halfepenny and Goodwife Dodd – suggesting that they may have had something to do with Mary’s condition.
At this point, the Mayor seems to have lost patience with Florence. He called for a boat to be provided, for what was known as a “water experiment” or a “swimming test.” You may have heard of this test of witchcraft before, it’s one of the most famous ones, and was a method used regularly by Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General in Britain. A suspected witch would be brought out on a boat into the water, bound with ropes so that her right thumb was tied to her left toe and vice versa, and fully submerged in the water. If she sank, she was innocent, although as she was likely to drown this wasn’t much use to her. If she floated, though, she was a witch.
Realising what was planned, Florence Newton finally confessed. She had overlooked Mary, she said, and she had done her wrong when she kissed her. Overlooking was not quite the same as witchcraft – it meant putting the evil eye on someone, causing them harm through wishing them ill in your thoughts, rather than soliciting the help of the devil.
The Mayor followed up on Florence’s claims about Goody Halfepenny and Dodd, both of whom denied the charges, and he also brought them to Mary, and asked her whether they too had caused her harm.
“No,” Mary said. “No, they are honest women. It is Gammer Newton that hurts me. And I believe she is not far away.”
By this time, most of the town had heard what had happened – and rumours were flying fast. Three aldermen, or men of the town council, alleged that Florence had kissed their children, and that the children had died shortly after. Mayor Mayre himself stated that when Florence Newton had been in his house, he had asked the name of his young daughter, Grace. “A gracious name,” Florence had said, taking the child up into her arms and kissing her. Five weeks later, the Mayor said, Grace was dead.
The accusations kept coming. In April, a man called David Jones guarded Florence in the prison at Youghal. He was hoping to watch her for any familiars that might enter through the bars of her cell. While he was there, he called out to Florence that he heard that she could not say the lord’s prayer, and wanted her to prove to him that she could. It was believed by many that witches could not say this prayer – that God or their dark master would prevent the holy words from leaving their evil lips. Florence refused, saying her memory had become poor in her old age, and so David began to try and teach it to her. Eventually, Florence called him forward, and when he approached her she recited the prayer – as far as the line “forgive us our trespasses” which caused her trouble again. When he taught it to her, Florence seemed grateful, and asked if she could kiss his hand in thanks. He put his hand through the grate. We hear all this from Francis Beesley, who was standing guard alongside David that night – because two or three days later, David began to be troubled by a pain in his arm, and became convinced that with her kiss, Florence Newton had bewitched him too. Two weeks later, David had died, and Florence faced charges not just for bewitching Mary, but for killing David Jones through her evil ways.
For 9 months, Florence Newton faced the speculation and whispers of the town. She spent over five of those months in prison, awaiting her trial at the Cork assizes. These took place on September 11th, 1661. Two charges were laid against Florence – the bewitching of Mary Longdon, for which she could receive was a year’s imprisonment, and the death by witchcraft of David Jones – for which the punishment was death by hanging. She pleaded not guilty to both.
The trial was long, with witness testimonies from pretty much everybody I have mentioned – the Mayor of Youghal, Minister John Wood, Francis Beesely, John and Nicholas Pyne, and Mary Longdon herself. Nobody spoke for Florence, and she was not given the chance to tell her version of what happened. Those sitting close to her watched her closely and reported anything she said or any movement she made as further evidence for the court.
The assembled court were rewarded with a spectacle early on in the trial. After Mary Longdon had finished giving her statement, she suddenly fell to the ground in yet another fit, biting at her arms and shrieking in front of the crowd. Those watching swore that Florence had cast her hands at Mary, and that the old woman was pinching her own hands and arms to bring Mary pain. After the fit had gone on for fifteen minutes, Mary was carried out and taken to a nearby house, and the court ordered that Florence be put in iron bolts for the rest of the trial. Florence, in fresh terror, cried out “I am killed, I am undone, I am spoiled” she pleaded. “Why do you torment me thus?”
But the evidence continued. Later in the trial, Florence was called on once again to recite the Lord’s Prayer, or the Our Father, to test her witchcraft. It’s painful to read this scene – Florence, a poor, probably uneducated woman, broken down and alone, facing the accusing eyes of the court and the likelihood of her own execution – reciting a prayer in public from memory. She stumbled through it until she reached the line that had always given her trouble – the line which incidentally has the longest word of the prayer – “forgive us our trespasses.”
“As we forgive them…” said Florence. “As we forgive them…” Four times she repeated this line, but she could not finish the prayer. The people’s minds were made up.
We don’t know officially what the verdict was for Florence Newton’s trial – but we can take a pretty good guess. Because the trial transcripts record that Florence – a spinster, aged about sixty-five or thereabouts, died that day at the Cork Assizes.
Just as we will never truly know Mary Longdon’s intentions when she first stirred up the panic, we also will never truly be sure of Florence Newton’s intentions with her kiss. Most likely she did mean it in friendship, that her actions were misread and her fate sealed by accusations she never expected. But it is possible that she knew that what she was doing would frighten the people around her, and she may even have wished to do them the harm they accused her of doing. With cases from this long ago, where we have limited knowledge of what happened, or of the people involved, we should take care not to assume we know the true meaning of everything that happened. The real truth will always be a mystery. Two things are clear though. Florence’s kiss, whether meant in friendship or as a threat, was not magical, and couldn’t save her – and in the end, the non-magical fury of the town proved a far more dangerous force than one old woman’s kiss.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Unreal. You can find links to the sources and music for this episode on my website, unrealpodcast.com. The song you are listening to right now is Ivory Tongue, by Ayla Nereo. If you enjoyed this episode, tell a friend or leave a review wherever you get your podcasts. Next week’s witchy episode will head to the north of Ireland, with Ireland’s last witch trial in Islandmagee. Until then though – go néiri an bóthar leat.