Witchcraft in Sheep Street, Stratford: Black Cats and Other Stigmatisation

A black cat, doing its best to appear fierce, and live up to its reputation.
Image from Pixabay

(continued from part one)

It is not just the word ‘witch’ that is still stigmatised, black cats have been tainted too. They are often depicted in popular culture as being a witch’s familiar (a supernatural being that helps and supports a witch. Traditionally, a familiar is an animal, most commonly a cat). When was the last time you saw a witch with a ginger cat?

Dangerous branding

Historically it was a very dangerous thing to be branded a witch, as if the allegation was ‘proved’ it could result in her death. There were a few ways to determine if a woman was a witch, the most notorious one was the ‘ducking test’. A rope would be tied around her middle and her right thumb would be bound to her left toe, and she would then be thrown in to a pond or river. If she was guilty she would float, as her body would be in league with the Devil, if she sank she was deemed innocent. However, in some cases by the time she had been deemed innocent she had drowned.

There was and is in some cases huge stigmatization to the word witch that is not attached to the word wizard. Even today witch can still be used as a label or insult for a woman. However there are many women that actively identify themselves as witches and there are museums that are dedicated to celebrating witchcraft, such as the Museum of Witchcraft in Cornwall which holds an impressive collection of artefacts and looks at the different aspects of witchcraft.

The court case

So back to the court case of John Davis. He believed that to break the curse that Jane had put on his family he had to draw her blood, and once he had done this he would break the witchcraft. The night after the attack Davis claimed that it was the first time he had slept that soundly for months and he attributed this to the fact that he had broken Jane’s spell.

Jane appeared in the witness box, with her face still bandaged up from Davis’s attack. She stated that for about four months prior to the attack, which took place on 25 October, Davis had taken to calling her a witch every time he passed by her front door and other family members began to do the same. On the night of the attack two women, identified as Davis’s sisters, began to verbally abuse her near her front door. Whilst this was happening Davis ran out and struck her twice in the face, the second blow was with a penknife causing a wound just under her eye which was half an inch wide, and about two and a half inches deep. After the attack she tried to stem the bleeding with her apron, whilst shouting ‘murder’. At this point Davis’s sisters ran away.

Who was Jane Ward?

My 3x great grandmother. At present I am unsure of Jane’s fate, the only thing I do know is she survived the attack, as the last time I can identify her in the records is on the 1871 census. One day I hope to discover what happened to Jane. After the attack my hope is that she was able to live out the rest of her life free from the stigmatisation of Davis’s accusation, in relative peace.

This article, by Emily Ward-Willis, has been adapted from the National Archives blog, and is reproduced under the terms of the Open Government License.