It was 10th January 1650, and a haggard old woman from Kirkthorpe, the little hamlet on the outskirts of the thriving market town of Wakefield, stood before the five stern men of the court, who sat in judgement of her. Old Margaret Morton’s life was in their hands. The charge brought against her? Witchcraft! Was this sly old spinster about to pay the ultimate penalty? Was it her fate to face death as a felon?
The locals had long suspected that Morton was a witch. They were certain that black magic flowed through her veins. After all, her own mother and sister, both long since dead, had each been accused of the same dreadful crime. That these accusations had never been proved in a court of law didn’t matter. It was obvious to everyone that the Mortons were descended from the Devil himself.
The first person to be called to give evidence in Margaret’s trial was one Mrs. Joanne Booth, of nearby Warmfield.
“Margaret Morton came to my house and gave my son a piece of bread,” the confident witness began, pointing a finger directly at the spiteful face of the accused. “My son was an ordinary, healthy boy, but as soon as he took his first bite, he began to vomit. His whole body swelled to enormous proportions, and he could barely stand. Margaret Morton bewitched my child!”
According to the witness, Morton then begged for the son’s forgiveness. This she did three times, before presenting one of her spindly, outstretched fingers to Mrs. Booth, instructing her to puncture it. Mrs. Booth duly took a pin from her sewing box and pricked the proffered finger. As soon as Margaret’s blood began to flow, the trembling boy before her was released from the spell, returning at once to his previous state of good health.
“Ever since that day,” Mrs. Booth concluded, “I have not been able to get butter when I churn, nor make any cheese. My family has been cursed by this witch who stands before you!”
The second eyewitness to step forward was Morton’s neighbour, Frances Ward, who’d searched the accused prior to the trial and found two suspicious black spots between her thighs; clear signs of the wicked woman’s witchery.
“They look like warts,” Mrs. Ward explained, “but, I tell you, they’re not. They’re something far more sinister. They are black on both sides, about an inch broad, and blue in the middle. They are the marks of the devil!”
This witness was the mother of two young children, who had both died in mysterious circumstances almost two years earlier. Their deaths had been slow and tormented ones, for they had been grievously perplexed with a terrible sickness. All the evidence pointed to evil doing on Margaret Morton’s part, for it was she who had been present when the children had breathed their last.
“Good mother,” one of the bairns had managed to gasp. “Put out Morton from this house. No good can come of her presence here.”
On considering all the evidence before them, the men of the court decided to send the accused for trial at York Assizes. But the locals’ hopes of justice were dashed when Margaret Morton was duly acquitted.
But this strange tale of unproved dark magic in these parts was not the last of its kind.
Six years hence, Jennet Benton and her son, George, both of Wakefield, found themselves before the court. Witchcraft was supposedly at large in the town once more.
“I am the tenant of Mr. Stringer, of Sharlston,” the principal witness, Mr. Richard Jackson, explained. “I work at Bunny Hill farm, not far from the town. One dark, rainy night, my servant, Daniel Craven, found Jennet and George Benson trespassing on the farm. They claimed to have right of way through the grounds, but this was not the case. I asked Craven to deal with the situation and see that the pair was ejected from the land.”
But the young servant never succeeded in his appointed task. For as soon as his words of warning had left his lips, George Benson, a tall, sallow man with an infamous reputation, picked up a sharp stone from the jagged path and cast it at Craven, cutting his mouth and breaking his two front teeth.
“Your master and his family will be ruined before this year is out!” shrieked a furious Jennet at the bloodied man, disgusted that he had spoken so harshly to her and her beloved son.
When Craven told Mr. Jackson of Jennet Benson’s threat, the man simply laughed, pouring scorn over the woman’s perilous predictions. Indeed, nothing untoward happened for months, until, with just a few weeks to go until the dawn of the New Year, Richard Jackson’s wife mysteriously lost her hearing and became utterly deaf. He tried not to panic, but just days later, the couple’s only child began to suffer terrible seizures during the night, and then, a previously healthy Jackson, was himself suddenly struck down by excruciating and inexplicable pains in his chest, back and shoulders, consuming him with dread. But this was just a taste of the terrors that were to follow.
“The first night it happened, I was certain I could hear music and dancing all around me, but no such activity was taking place,” explained a visibly shaken Jackson to the packed courtroom. “The following night, at around midnight, it occurred again. As sure as the cock crows, I could hear a noise like a peal of small bells, accompanied by raucous singing and the sound of dancing feet. It was inexplicable, for I knew I was all alone in the room. I sent for my wife and manservant, but of course Mrs. Jackson could hear nothing, and my servant claimed to discern no such sound. I asked them again and again, ‘are you sure you hear nothing?’ but the noise could be perceived by nobody but I.”
The courtroom fell silent as the gathered men pictured the ghoulish scene in their minds.
Jackson explained that he was about to dismiss his manservant and send his wife back to bed, but just then the assembled trio suddenly heard a low, blood-curdling groan from somewhere in the darkness outside. Such was its menace that Jackson’s dogs began to howl and bark at the windows, as if they were ready to tear any bold intruder to pieces, but alas, there was nobody there. In the farmyard beyond the old oak tree, the pigs were also greatly disturbed by this unseen peril, and a great many of them broke free of their pens, breaking down two barn doors as they did so.
“But that was not the worst of it,” Jackson went on. “The doors in my house began to rattle, swinging to and fro as if some invisible hand was opening and slamming them shut again. All of the trunks and boxes in my house vanished from sight, and apparitions, like black dogs and cats, began to roam the property, creeping up and down the corridors like shadows. How could this not have been some kind of dark bewitchment? Those Bentons have put a terrible curse on me!”
Could it really be so? Were Margaret Morton and the Bentons actually witches? Do such ghostly practises still lurk unseen within the streets and alleyways of the ancient city of Wakefield? Perhaps the witches and ghouls might ride again this Halloween night…
Visit Ancestry by Heir Line, as featured in this week’s edition of the Wakefield Express newspaper, to find out more fascinatingly spooky tales about the people in your history!