“We have a witch in the family. Isn’t it wonderful?”
— Aunt Petunia
I’ve told you before about my wife’s ancestress, Elspeth Craich — one of many, many characters I’ve found who make building a family tree fascinating (to me, anyway). She lived in Scotland from 1631 to at least 1656.
And she was a witch. Allegedly — although she confessed for reasons unknown. I very much hope the reason wasn’t that it was tortured out of her. I like to think she was being crafty. And the record says she “voluntarlie confesst” (for what that’s worth).
This isn’t family legend, by the way. I found documentation, here and here. As it happens, she was fortunate enough to be charged during a time in which Cromwell (Oliver, not Thomas) had banned the execution of witches. (Actually, other sources I glanced at were vague on this, but he was no fan of witch-hunting. He seems not to have believed in witches.)
This put the local authorities in a fix. They had her locked up, but didn’t know what to do with her. Finally, they had to just let her go. Why? Well, she apparently was eating too much. The record complains of “the great trouble that hath been susteaned be the inhabitants of this burgh in watching of Eppie Craich, witch, within thaire tolbuthe this quarter of this year bygane, and the great expens that this burgh is at for the present in susteanyng and interteanyng her in bread and drink and vther necessaris, and finding it to be expedient to dismis hir.”
You’ll notice they kept her in the “tolbuthe,” which is to say, toll booth. Made me think the town, Culross, had an inadequate tax base. They couldn’t afford to feed Elspeth, they couldn’t afford to send her to Edinburgh and let them deal with her, and they couldn’t even afford a jail. (But seriously, folks, that’s what they called a jail in those days. It was apparently a sort of multipurpose public building, like Andy Taylor’s courthouse, where Otis would sleep.)
Anyway, I’ve told you about her before.
Over the weekend, we discovered another such family “scandal.” And this time, it’s on my side of the family.
My grandchildren take varying levels of interest in the family tree, but one of them is into it enough to enjoy sitting by me as I rummage through our thousands of forebears. With her watching, I was poking around in the branch occupied by my great-great-great grandmother Isabella Telford. I actually have a photo of her — which is unusual with people back that far, which is why I went to that part of the tree to show it to my granddaughter. But I knew little about her, beyond the fact that she lived in New York state, making her one of very few ancestors I have who hailed from the North. I had her, and maybe a generation or two of her Telford antecedents.
I saw I had some “hints” from Ancestry on those people, so I decided to show my granddaughter how to add someone to the tree. I was looking through the hints for Isabella’s grandmother (and my 5th-great grandmother) Margaret McCaulay (who married a Tilford, a variant spelling). Ancestry had more than a dozen such clues to offer with regard to Margaret, who for some reason was nicknamed “Betty.” I was skimming down to see if she had a Findagrave page, as those are almost always helpful, when my granddaughter made me stop and go back to another hint I had skipped. “It said ‘witch’!” she told me.
So, you know, here we go again.
I went back and grabbed that document, and resumed searching. A moment later, I saw she did have a Findagrave page, and in place of the customary obituary, it displayed… the story of the witchcraft charge.
Mind you, this wasn’t in far-off Culross, Scotland, in the benighted 1600s. This was more than a century later, in the land of the free, during the American Revolution. And it happened in Salem! No, not Massachusetts — it was Salem, NY.
“It began when Archy Livingston’s cows began producing cream that couldn’t be churned into butter.” Ol’ Arch, a neighbor of the Tilfords, or Telfords, figured he needed some expert advice. Lacking a university-based agricultural extension service, he went to see a shady character named Joel Dibble, who “told people’s fortunes by cutting cards.” Wouldn’t you, under the circumstances?
Dibble worked his magic with the cards, and then broke the bad news to Archy — either the milk or the cows were bewitched. And being the oracle that he was, he could describe the witch: “a short, thick, black-haired woman who had a red-haired daughter.”
This described Margaret Telford to a T. Archy promptly shared the shocking news with everyone he knew, and the community was in an uproar. They were all like “We’re in the middle of a war, and now this!”
Archy’s father-in-law stuck up for the Telfords, and apparently gave Arch a piece of his mind for listening to a “malevolent designing scoundrel” like Dibble. But not everyone agreed:
However, others began to shun the Telfords. Some parents forbade their children to associate with the Telford children. The local magistrate refused to get involved. Or perhaps he was not asked — the Presbyterians might have thought that would have violated the separation of church and state. Because both families were members of Dr. Clark’s church, they agreed that the church was the proper authority to decide the matter.
The Presbyterian pastor initiated a formal investigation, and witnesses were called. Fellow church members testified that Margaret “was an upstanding Christian woman and her moral character was exemplary.” Nevertheless, Rev. Clark called expert witness Dibble:
During the examination, Dibble said he had learned his art in French Canada, and had paid good money for his lessons. He defended the art of cutting of cards on the grounds that, like any other art or trade, it had rules. He said he wasn’t naming any names. He just followed the rules of the cards and, through them, learned indications. With that, Clark cut off the examination, saying there was “nothing tangible here for the church to take hold of.” In Robert Blake’s account, he indicates simply that “the matter was still before the Church and undecided when Dr. Clark moved away.”
The matter was never resolved, and as one chronicler said, over the course of four or five years, “the subject was prudently dropped.”
I’d like to end the narrative on that encouraging note. But sadly,
Even after “the excitement died away,” Margaret continued to suffer from having been accused of being a witch. Many neighbors made life difficult for the family. The young Telford folks were shunned from many parties and merry-makings. When George and Margaret ‘s son John became engaged to Sarah Rowan, many of her friends and relatives opposed the match.
Nevertheless, Margaret and her husband George stuck it out in that community, and soldiered on, and from what I can tell, folks generally respected them for that. And in the end:
George and Margaret are buried in the “Old Cemetery” in Salem, so they must have remained members in good standing of the church that the Rev. Dr. Clark founded.
Of course, it might have helped if the minister had stood up and loudly denounced the nonsense, but I guess he felt he was in over his head. Or something. Sorry I don’t have a totally happy ending there for you (and for that portion of my family I’d never heard of before building my tree). But I think you can see what I mean about family history being interesting.
If you want to know what actually caused the problem with Archy’s cows, don’t look at me. We Telfords had nothing to do with it…