FEATURING a cursed kiss, a ghostly greyhound, and a woman vomiting horse-nails and pins, here’s the harrowing story of the alleged Witch of Youghal, Florence Newton....
When we think of witches, we mostly think of fictional witches. From the ghoulish Grand High Witch of Roald Dahl’s The Witches to the more whimsical Winifred Sanderson of the Disney classic Hocus Pocus, we do love a good witch story, especially at this time of year, Halloween.
However, the true stories of women caught up in the infamous Witch Trials of late medieval/ early modern Europe tell a different tale; one in which women are shamed, tortured and routinely murdered. Overall, the European witch hunts claimed more than 50,000 lives, most of these female.
Here, in Ireland, we had a different approach. Witches were most often seen as wise women. At best, they were healers and herbalists whose spells could conjure love, healing and fertility. At worst, they were cranky old crones whose spells conjured stolen butter and food for themselves.
Unfortunately, when the Tudor conquest of Ireland began in the 1540s, this positive attitude towards ‘witches’ changed in towns of predominantly English settlers who followed English law. One of these towns was Youghal.
The following story was recorded in Cork Assizes on September 11, 1661. This can be found in the Boyle papers at the library of the Royal Society, London.
In 1660, on a cold December day, 65-year-old Florence Newton, a local herbalist and begger, arrived at the home of wealthy gentleman John Pyne looking for food.
An 18-year-old housekeeper Mary Longdon, a girl already known to Florence, refused her request for a bit of the beef Mary was then salting, and Florence was said to have left grumbling under her breath. A week later, as Mary was fetching water for the household, Florence rushed towards her, kissed her ‘violently’ (as Mary describes) on the mouth and asked for her friendship.
A few days after being kissed, Mary reported being visited at her bedside by the spectral presences of Florence and the Devil, who promised her everything she wanted in return for her loyalty to the Devil. Mary dismissed them instantly, protesting her fealty to God. In the days that followed, Mary reported being hit repeatedly by small stones that would disappear once they touched the ground. She began having fits so violent three or four men couldn’t hold her, and she would vomit up needles, pins, horsenails, wool, and straw.
Bibles she took in her hands to read would fly across the room. Others testified to finding her levitating between ceiling rafters.
Mary claimed that the cause of all this was Florence Newton’s kiss, as she believed she had been ‘bewitched’ by the older woman. She said that during her fits she could see Florence’s spectre torturing her and enjoying every moment of it, and only when Florence was clamped in iron bolts and manacles, was Mary said to be symptom free.
Convinced by Mary’s story, Youghal mayor Mr Myre imprisoned Florence on March 24, 1661, in what is now the Clock Gate Tower, and tests to prove she was a witch commenced. These included driving a sharp awl (a tool used for piercing holes) into the wood of a stool she sat on, piercing Florence’s hands with a lance (an inch and a half deep and a quarter of an inch long), and looking for evidence of a witch’s familiar – a spirit animal all witches were thought to have. Florence later admitted, perhaps under pressure, that her familiar was a greyhound who visited her in her cell.
One of the most popular ways to test a witch at the time was to ask the defendant to say the Our Father. Proof of witchcraft would be maintained if the defendant couldn’t say it, the fault thought to be devilish interference.
In April, a man called David Jones began guarding Florence’s cell, and tried to teach her the prayer. Florence Newton was never able to say the Our Father in full, always stumbling at the ‘forgive us our trespasses’; line.
When asked why she could not remember it, she would refer to her age and memory problems. But, in gratitude for his help, Florence kissed the man’s hand. A day later Jones began to have arm pains which radiated to his heart. He blamed Florence and asked a friend: “Do you not see the old hag, how she pulls me”; David died two weeks later, and when Florence was brought to trial on September 11, 1661, she was charged with bewitching Mary Longdon, the sentence for which was a year’s imprisonment, and the death by witchcraft of David Jones – the sentence being death by hanging. She pleaded not guilty to both.
By this time, rumours abounded and Florence was also accused of the murders of three children from Youghal, each of whom she had kissed before their deaths.
Desperate, she named two other women in the town as possible witches but later recanted. Mayor Myre intimated to Florence that a ‘water test’ would soon be carried out. This would involve bringing her out on a boat, binding her right foot to her left hand and vice versa, and throwing her into the sea.
If she sank and died, she was innocent; dead but innocent. If she floated, she was a witch. To avoid this, Florence confessed, but said she hadn’t bewitched Mary, she had ‘overlooked’ her. This didn’t involve soliciting the aid of the Devil, but rather wishing harm on Mary through Florence’s own thoughts. Florence fell upon her knees and begged God to forgive her.
During the trial, various ‘respectable’ members of the community gave evidence against Florence, including Mary Longdon and David Jones’ wife. Nobody spoke for Florence, and she was never given the right to defend herself. The trial itself was often brought to a halt by Mary’s seizures. At one point, Mary was said to have fallen to the ground, shrieking and biting her arms. Onlookers swore they had seen Florence lift up her hands, and cast them in a violent, angry motion towards Mary, before the fit began, saying: “Now she is down”. Florence denied this.
The trial transcripts never recorded a verdict, but it was noted that Florence died during the trial. She may have been hanged, or possibly died of ill health brought on by enduring such a stressful time.
Looking back on this case with a modern eye, it’s possible Mary Longdon may not have been bewitched, but was instead epileptic. David Jones may not have been cursed by Florence’s kiss, but died from heart failure.
Indeed, poor Florence Newton, may have been nothing more than a herbalist and occasional beggar. But, in the spirit of all things Halloween, the mystery of the alleged witch of Youghal, Florence Newton, lives on.