Today is the anniversary of the London premiere of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – an astonishing 76 years ago in 1938. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog – the wicked queen’s transformation from elegant beauty to gnarled old hag terrified me, not as a child but when I watched the film with my (completely unfazed) daughter.
From the dreadful spell, to the moment when her hands wither into claws, her voice changing to a terrible cackle, the scene is brilliant from start to finish, and her sudden appearance at Snow White’s window in the next scene still makes me jump.
But who was the woman behind this classic portrayal of a witch?
The queen was voiced by Lucille La Verne, an actress born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1872. La Verne began acting at a very young age, performing in what are known as summer stock theatres – those that put on productions only during the summer months. La Verne went on to tour with small theatre troupes as a teenager, becoming prolific and highly regarded – at the age of just fourteen she played the Shakespearian roles of both Juliet and Lady Macbeth back to back. La Verne made her Broadway debut in 1888 at the age of only 16 with a supporting role in ‘La Tosca’. She went on to appear in many productions, including roles in ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’, ‘Seven Days’ and ‘Way Down East’. In 1898, La Verne was made manager and director of the Empire Theatre in Richmond, Virginia where she also acted in productions such as ‘Hedda Gabbler’ and ‘Antigone’. She left the Empire in 1904 to make her London debut, in a supporting role in the play ‘Clarice’, a role she continued for the play’s Broadway run. La Verne continued to appear in many more plays and also branched into film, her debut, a role in the silent movie ‘Butterflies and Orange Blossoms’ in 1914. She continued to appear in film and on the stage.
The wicked queen was La Verne’s last role. After voicing both the queen and her alter ego, and live modelling for the film’s artists, she retired from acting and became a successful night club owner. La Verne died from cancer in 1945 at the age of 72, but her voice lives on, scaring generation after generation of children – and their parents!
When researching ‘The Black Hours’ I was horrified to learn of the dreadful persecution of the vulnerable that allowed thousands of people to be tortured and executed on trumped up charges of witchcraft. But that’s all in the past isn’t it? People don’t behave like that anymore do they? Well, sadly they do. Even now, in the 21st Century, the old, the young, the vulnerable, those who have no protection or who live on the edges of society, are still being accused, tortured, beaten and murdered for crimes they cannot possibly have committed. Here is a brief tour of the ignorance, cruelty and shame that is still going on.
Central African Republic: It is estimated that hundreds of people are convicted (that’s convicted, not just accused) of witchcraft every year.
Democratic Republic of Congo: As of 2006, it is estimated that between 25,000 and 50,000 have been accused of witchcraft. These children are known as enfants sorciers (child witches) or enfants dits sorciers (children accused of witchcraft). They are often subject to violent exorcisms carried out by religious pastors and are thrown out of their homes. It is believed that sometimes accusations of witchcraft are used as a way for a poor family to abandon children they cannot afford.
Gambia: in 2009, Amnesty International reported that 1000 alleged ‘witches’ were put into detention centres where they were forced to drink a hallucinogenic potion in order to secure confessions.
Ghana: So many women have been accused of witchcraft in Ghana that there are actually witch camps where they can go for safety, thought to hold around 1000 women. These women, mostly elderly, live in dreadful poverty, often without running water or electricity. An ActionAid report into the Kukuo camp states that the majority of women were accused of witchcraft after their husbands died – suggesting that an accusation of this type may be used as a way for families to take the widow’s property. In a quote that could have been written in 1647, Lamnatu Adam of women’s rights group Songtaba says that it is women who do not conform that are in danger of being accused of witchcraft:
‘Women are expected to be submissive so once you start to be outspoken in your views or even successful in your trade; people assume you must be possessed.’
(BBC News Magazine, 01/09/2012)
India: It is estimated that 750 people have been killed in witch-hunts in the states of Assam and West Bengal since 2003. Lynchings are often reported in the local press.
Kenya: On the 21st of May 2008, it was reported that at least 11 people accused of witchcraft had been burnt to death by a mob. The mob, comprised of up to 300 young men, hunted down and killed eight women and three men, most over the age of seventy.
Nigeria: Some 15,000 children have been accused of witchcraft. They may suffer horrible violence and exorcisms and mostly end up living on the streets. Lancaster-based charity Stepping Stones Nigeria has compiled reports of more than 250 cases of violence against children accused of witchcraft in Akwa Ibom state.
Papua New Guinea: In 2008 a local newspaper reported that more than 50 people had been killed for practising witchcraft.
Saudi Arabia: In 2006 Fawza Falih Muhammad Ali was condemned to death for practicing witchcraft. In April 2009, Amina Bint Abdulhalim Nassar was arrested and later sentenced to death for practicing witchcraft and sorcery. She was beheaded in December 2011. And in June 2012, a Saudi man, Muree bin Ali bin Issa al-Asiri was beheaded for sorcery and witchcraft. Few details of the cases are released by the Saudi government, but in the 2012 case, the defendant was found in possession of books and talismans, and also admitted committing adultery with two women.
Tanzania: in the Meatu district, it is estimated that half of all murders are witch-killings.
United Kingdom: On Christmas day 2010, 15-year-old Kristy Bamu died in a bath in Newham, east London after undergoing horrific tortures and beatings. He had been visiting his sister Magalie Bamu and her partner, Eric Bikubi. The couple were apparently obsessed with kindoki (the word for witchcraft in their native country, the Democratic Republic of Congo) and accused the boy of putting spells on a younger child. A couple have been jailed for life for torturing and drowning a teenage boy they accused of being a witch. After the couple were convicted and sentenced, detectives said that other children in Britain had been subjected to terrible ordeals after being accused of witchcraft. Children’s charities have called for churches and carers to be more aware of this type of abuse.
It seems, then, that centuries later, there are people in the world who think the same way as Matthew Hopkins did, and there are still hundreds of people willing to back those views, often with the approval and help of the authorities, and continue the persecution, torture and murder of innocents. As always, it is the vulnerable and the powerless that suffer the most.
Yes, I know it’s Valentine’s Day and lots of you will be receiving bouquets of roses and planning romantic dinners (not me- my husband knows I have no time for the gross commercialism that is Valentine’s Day and is under pain of divorce not to buy me flowers – and I mean it), however, it would seem that Valentine’s Day has always had a lot more to it than hearts and flowers. In fact, it originates from an ancient pagan ritual that was celebrated for years before anyone had heard of Valentine.
In Rome, many centuries ago, the festival of Lupercalia was celebrated from the 13th to the 15th of February. On the 14th of February, a day devoted to Juno, queen of the gods and patron of marriage, young women would place their names on slips of paper put into jars. The young men would pick out a name and the two would spend Lupercalia together.
Lupercalia itself was a strange festival. It was held in honour of the gods Lupercus and Faunus and the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. The ritual began at the cave where Lupa the wolf was reputed to have suckled Romulus and Remus. A goat (fertility) and a dog (protection) would be sacrificed, and the goat flayed. Men would then run through the streets whipping women and crops with this flayed hide, in a bid to encourage fertility and to ease pain in any future childbirth. Not quite as romantic as a candlelit dinner, but this was ancient Rome.
So how did this rather wild sounding festival become the St Valentine’s Day of today? The rise of Christianity saw Pope Gelasius officially condemn the pagan festival, banning it at the end of the fifth Century. He declared that 14th February be St Valentine’s day. Although no-one really knows who this Valentine was, he is possibly an amalgamation of two different men. During the reign of Emperor Claudius, it was decreed that all marriages be stopped. A priest called Valentine was imprisoned for continuing to perform marriage ceremonies. In the 3rd Century A.D. another Valentine was imprisoned for helping Christians. He allegedly fell in love with the daughter of his jailer and cured her of blindness. This good deed did him no good whatsoever, as he was executed on 14th February 289 A.D. These two Valentines may be the ones at the heart of Valentine’s Day (sorry!).
Even the tradition of young women placing their names into a jar to be picked by a man was incorporated into this new celebration – with one rather huge difference. The girl’s names were replaced by those of Saints; each man vowing to emulate the life of the saint whose name he picked for the coming year. Not quite as romantic as the original really.
So, like many other feast days and holidays, Valentine’s Day has its roots in something far from saintly. Still, whether you object to the commercialism or not, it’s as good a day as any other to tell someone you love them!
Since publishing ‘The Black Hours’ I have had a lot of feedback from readers who are intrigued by the character of Maggie Prentice. They want to know more about Maggie and about Alice’s mother Elizabeth and what happened before Alice was born. The story of Maggie and Lizzie has always been in the back of my mind – indeed it was all there waiting to be told before I started writing ‘The Black Hours.’ So, Maggie and Lizzie are the subject of my new novella ‘Blackwater’ – now in the final stages of editing.
I have a cover ready, designed by Paul Drummond who also designed the cover for ‘The Black Hours’.
Paul offers a great service for eBook design, including cover design, formatting and document conversion. Find details here.
I am hoping that ‘Blackwater’ will be ready for publication at the beginning of March. More details to follow soon. You can follow this blog, like my Facebook page or find me on Twitter to make sure you receive any updates.
As mentioned before here on my blog, the characters in ‘The Black Hours’ are named after real victims of the witch hunts. Alice Pendle is an amalgamation of the first name of Alice Molland, a woman executed in Devon in 1685 (find her story here) and the location of a famous prosecution in 1612 in Pendle Hill in Lancashire.
This trial and the subsequent executions are perhaps the most famous of the prosecutions in England. Many were accused in the interrogations that followed, including members of the same families: Elizabeth Southerns, a woman in her eighties (also known as Demdike, another name used in ‘The Black Hours’), her daughter Elizabeth Device, and her grandchildren James and Alizon Device; Anne Whittle, also known as Chattox (the surname given to poor Mary, who suffers in childbirth in ‘The Black Hours’) and her daughter Anne Redferne. Others accused at various points were Jane Bulcock and her son John Bulcock, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, Alice Gray, Jennet Preston (whose first name was used for Jennet Everard in ‘the Black Hours’), Jane Southworth, Jennet Bierley, Ellen Brierly, Isabel Robey and Margaret Pearson.
The trial of the Pendle witches was played out against a background of religious turmoil and intolerance, in a place with a strong Catholic background. Under Catholic Queen Mary, the people of Pendle were safe to follow Catholicism, but when Elizabeth came to the throne, Catholic priests had to go into hiding. In Pendle, and other remote areas, however, Mass continued to be celebrated, albeit in secret (leading to the use of priest hides, such as those in Harvington Hall.
Elizabeth was succeeded in 1603 by James I (James VI of Scotland). His ascension was met with hope by Catholics; however, these hopes were soon dashed. And King James also had a strong interest in witchcraft. He believed that witches had caused a storm that threatened a ship carrying him and his wife to Scotland. He even wrote a book’ Daemonologie’, that instructed his subjects to denounce and prosecute any supporters or practitioners of witchcraft.
Into this atmosphere of religious intolerance, suspicion and superstition came Roger Nowell, Justice of the Peace for Pendle. In 1612 Nowell, along with other JPs in Lancashire, was instructed to compile a list of recusants in the area. These were Catholics who refused to attend the English church and take communion. While compiling this list, Nowell heard a complaint from the family of a pedlar, John Law, who claimed to be a victim of witchcraft.
According to John Law’s family, the poor man was ‘afflicted’ and fell to the ground after refusing to give Alizon Device some pins. This is the accusation that Nowell investigated, and in the course of these investigations, the two families were implicated. The Device family, Demdike, Chattox and Redferne were sent to Lancaster Castle to await their trial for witchcraft. In nearby Salmesbury, another JP, Robert Holden, arrested another eight suspected witches.
Lancaster Castle where the majority of the suspects were held.
Of course, most of those accused never stood a chance of acquittal. Jennet Preston was charged with the murder by witchcraft of a local landowner and was tried first, at the York assizes. Apparently, the corpse bled fresh blood when she touched it. She was duly sentenced to death by hanging and was executed on the 29th of July 1612 on the Knavesmire, which is now the site of York racecourse.
At the Lancaster Assizes, Alizon Device, Elizabeth Device, James Device, Anne Whittle, Anne Redferne, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, John Bulcock and Jane Bulcock and Isabel Robey (who was from Windle, St Helens) were found guilty and hanged at Gallows Hill. Elizabeth Southerns died while awaiting trial and Alice Gray was found not guilty.
Of the eight Salmesbury witches, five were released. The other three, Jane Southworth, Jennet Brierley, and Ellen Brierley were accused by a 14-year-old girl, Grace Sowerbutts, of practising witchcraft, and the charges brought against them included child murder and cannibalism. However, under questioning, Sowerbutts admitted that she was lying, and all three were acquitted.
Margaret Pearson was acquitted of both murder and of bewitching a neighbour. She was, however, found guilty of bewitching a horse – a crime for which she was punished by being made to stand upon the pillory for four successive market days in Clitheroe, Padiham and Colne with a sign on her head stating her offence.
These trials are well documented and have spawned many books including Jeanette Winterson’s ‘The Daylight Gate’ which is apparently being adapted by Hammer Films. A search for the Pendle Witches brings up a myriad of results; images, news articles, gift shops selling Pendle witches merchandise, even videos claiming ghostly sightings including ‘Most Haunted’ (watch if you dare!):
There is even a photograph of snow melting on Pendle Hill, seemingly making the form of a witch on a broomstick:
It seems then, more than 400 years on, we are still fascinated by the tale of these poor accused ‘witches’, sacrificed in the name of superstition and ignorance, and all for the sake of a few pins!
Nestled in the lovely village of Boscastle on the Cornish coast in a pretty white cottage is the wonderful Museum of Witchcraft. Step inside this quaint little building and you will find the world’s largest collection of witchcraft related artefacts.
The museum was opened in 1960 by Cecil Williamson, after a rather troubled history. Williamson had first opened a museum on the Isle of Man in 1951, the year in which the Witchcraft Act was repelled. The museum had a resident witch – Gerald Gardner. The two men wanted different things for the museum, so Williamson sold the building to Gardner in 1954 and moved on to Windsor and then to Bourton-in-the-Water in the Cotswolds. Unfortunately, the museum was not welcomed – Williamson received death threats and the museum was fire-bombed several times. Eventually he moved the artefacts to their current home in Cornwall.
This was not the end of the troubles. In 2004 Boscastle was hit by flooding. The ground floor of the museum was filled with two metres of sewage, and walls were damaged. However, after months of painstaking salvaging, cleaning, restoration and rebuilding walls the museum reopened its doors. The flood line is marked on the walls for visitors to see.
The museum includes a display of images of witches. We have come to imagine witches as ugly old hags, toothless and covered in warts, cackling as they ride their broomsticks or stir frogs and newts into cauldrons. But the images on display in Boscastle have a different story to tell. Alongside these ‘traditional’ images there are beautiful images of witches as seductive and mysterious, and some really interesting examples of witches used in advertising like this one for Pears soap:
The display concerning the witch hunts was obviously hugely interesting for me, and extremely poignant. The horribly lengthy list of names of those persecuted is chilling; a stark reminder of the real lives that were caught up in the hysteria that swept through Europe, resulting in the murder of so many innocent people.
But this museum is not just a place of horror, torture and persecution, although there is plenty of that. The museum also has information and artefacts relating to sacred sites, the magic of Christianity, wise women and herbs and healing, protection magic, curses and divination. I found it really interesting to find out about how the pagan rituals and beliefs of early society were incorporated into Christian festivals – a very clever way of ensuring that the original beliefs were stamped out.
There is so much to discover at the museum that it is impossible to describe it all here. It is definitely well worth a visit. Details of opening times and admission prices can be found on the website here.