The following is a Gaslight etext....

A message to you about copyright and permissions

from THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, Vol. 37 (1895-jun)


by E.F. Benson

THERE seems to be no doubt, if we examine the motives which appear to have led to this crime, that the ten persons, nine of whom are to be tried on the capital charge of wilfully murdering Bridget Cleary, in the recent witch-burning at Clonmel, acted, if we may use such a word in connection with so ghastly a tragedy, honestly, and, as they undoubtedly appear to have believed, for the best.

   This cruel and unnatural murder, as at first sight the crime seems to be, was committed deliberately, in cold blood, and throughout the preliminary examination no evidence, however slight, tended to indicate that either the woman's father, her husband, or any of those concerned in it were actuated by anger, malice, or motives of gain. The account given on all sides of the reasons for inflicting the tortures which eventually caused the death of this woman, with whom, apparently, all parties concerned were on the best of terms, are both too fantastic on the one hand, and, on the other, too authentically based on what was at one time a very widely spread superstition, to have been invented. That such a superstition should still be so deeply ingrained in the minds of these peasants as to lead in practice to so horrible a deed seems surprising enough on first sight, and becomes doubly surprising when we consider to how primitive a stratum of belief it belongs.

   It appears from evidence given at the committal that Bridget Cleary, in consequence of certain nervous, excited symptoms which she exhibited, was forced to swallow certain herbs, was beaten and burned, and was repeatedly asked the question, "In the name of God, are you Bridget Cleary?" During this treatment she received the injuries of which she died, but it is, I think, quite clear that the men neither wished nor meant to kill her. All the witnesses, who on important points entirely corroborated each other, agreed in saying that the object of this treatment was to drive out from her body the fairy which had taken possession of it, and which exhibited its presence by her nervous disorder. The woman's own soul would then be able to return.

   This is not, then, a case of witch-burning at all. Bridget Cleary, they believed, was possessed, and they tried by violent means to make the invading spirit come out of her. But what is more convincing than the testimony of all the witnesses is the fact that they were acting strictly in accordance with a primitive and savage superstition.

   However, the woman died, and we notice that after her death, which I hope to show was entirely unpremeditated and undesired, the prescription as it were having failed to act, these men fell back o another very common superstition. They do not seem ever to have been thoroughly convinced that they had succeeded in driving the spirit out of the woman's body, and when she died they still hoped that it was the possessing spirit they had killed, and believed that the real Bridget Cleary would return, sitting on a grey or white horse, the reins of which would have to be cut to enable her to come back. According to the latest accounts this is still believed, and men wait in the "fairy inhabitance" for the coming of the white horse that will bear Bridget Cleary.

   Now, these two superstitions are quite distinct, and must be completely dissociated from one another. The second one only comes into notice after her death, when, being still unconvinced that they had driven the spirit out, the men concluded that she was body and soul a changeling. But while they were burning and beating her it is quite clear they did not think that she was a changeling, but that a fairy had taken possession of her body. This changeling idea is common enough among early superstitious beliefs -- though it is somewhat rare for an adult to be changed, the victims usually being children -- and is particularly common among Teutonic peoples. But it is that which possessed these men's minds (for truly it was they who were possessed, not she) as they were torturing her which I propose to examine, for it carries us back to a stratum of belief belonging altogether to a primitive and savage era. Also, as I have said, it can, I think, be made evident that this is not a case of witch-burning at all, and ought to be called manslaughter rather than murder.

   Primitive man knows nothing about germs, microbes, nerves, or laws of nature, and when the simplest and most evident of natural phenomena, like disease, death, or storm, are brought before his notice, he forms an equally simple and natural theory about them when he refers to them, as he invariably does, to the work of some malignant spirit. To the savage, and to the primitive religion generally, the idea of a purely beneficent god is altogether foreign. To him life, health, and the supplies of the simpler means of life are the normal conditions of his consciousness; sickness, famine, and death the abnormal, the work of some external agency, obviously malignant. And we therefore find that the earliest conceptions which he forms about the forces over which he has no control represent them as entirely evil, interfering in the normal and beneficent course of events.

   That the idea of external agencies being malignant should belong to the earliest stages of religious belief is natural enough, for evil is more readily referred to a cause than its opposite. The destruction of a crop by a thunderstorm, for instance, is easily traceable to the malignant spirit in the thunderstorm; whereas the slow ripening of wheat under the kindly influence of sun and rain is a more subtle phenomenon, because it is a less evident process, the workings of which are altogether hidden from him, and a more natural one, since, on the whole, wheat ripens more often that it fails to do so. Health, again, is naturally regarded as normal, and when disease attacks a town it is obviously due to a demon of disease, an evil hostile power, whereas health cannot be definitely referred to any one cause. Similarly, recovery and convalescence are but a reversion to normal conditions, due to the cessation of the action of the demon who sent the disease.

   This theory accounts for the undeniable fact that a purely healing cult finds no place in any system of early religious belief. The primary function of the spirit who is concerned with such matters is, not to remove, but to send disease, though, in a secondary manner, he is regarded as being able to remove it, inasmuch as he can stop sending it. But by degrees, as spirits pas from being considered the enemies into becoming the friends of man, prayer and sacrifice begin to be offered to them, that they may confer directly prosperity and health, and remove evils not necessarily of their own sending. In other words, the secondary function of primitive gods becomes at a later stage their primary function. So, also, the sorcerer, who was the medium between man and the malignant spirit, wand who induced him to send disease and death, while remaining his medium, becomes the priest of the god of health and life, and induces him to restore his suppliants to strength.

   Now, the earlier of these two stages brings us back to the most primitive and elementary forms of belief, and it is to such a stage of belief that the death of Bridget Cleary is to be referred. Evil agencies are at work about mankind to injure, to destroy, and particularly to take possession, and they must be fought against in all their manifestations. The idea confronts us most prominently and immediately in the methods by which savages deal with disease, and in the functions exercised by their doctors. A few instances will suffice to illustrate this point.

   The Patagonians regard all disease as possession by an evil spirit,1 and in Australia illness used to be considered due to the agency of ghosts of dead men, who gnawed the livers of the living. Similarly, in Spain epilepsy was considered to be possession by a devil, who had to be exorcised;2 and the same idea is found in the Gospels. Again, among the Veddahs of Ceylon medicine is never administered to sick men, but offerings are made to the demon who has sent the disease.3

>[1. Denny's Folklore of China.]<
>[2. Tylor, Anthropology, pp. 354, 355.]<
>[3. Transactions of Ethnological Society, N.S., vol. ii. (Bailey).]<

   In accordance with this idea, we find that in many savage tribes the priests or sorcerers are the only doctors. In Tonquin, the magicians, who were the medium between the malignant spirits and man, could also drive out disease.4 In the Bodo and Dhimal tribes of North-east India the exorcists who can drive out disease are priests of the tormenting deity.5 Again, among the Vancouver Indians the doctor used to pommel his patient in order to drive the spirit out, while all the family beat sticks together, in order to frighten it away.6 So, too, in Western Australia, the doctor or sorcerer, here, as in so many places, identical, used to run round and round his patient, shouting as loud as he could, in order to frighten the possessing spirit away.7 In other parts of Australia the idea of death by disease appears to have been incomprehensible. If not the result of violence, it was always attributed to the possession of a spirit, in most cases a demon called "Brewin," who is like the wind, and has to be exorcised. One of the Kurnai, for instance, who cures his father of colic, does so by calling "Brewin" opprobrious names until he quits his body.8 Again, in Cambodia the Steins make a great noise day and night around the beds of their sick in order to drive the possessing spirit away, and the Dacotas rattle gourds and shout for the same purpose.9 So, too, in Malabar, when a man was ill, the magicians, who were also the doctors, used to beat drums and basins round him, and blow on trumpets, in order to eject the tormenting spirit.10 Again, the Hottentots of the Cape of Good Hope used to "shake, jolt, and pommel" a dying man in a final effort to drive the spirit of disease out of him.11 But invariably, as time advances, these demons, originally malignant, and treated as enemies, to be got rid of by force and hostility, are found to be amenable to gentler means. In New Guinea, for instance, we find that the doctors used to paint their patient all over with bright colours, in order to please the spirit which possessed him, and induce him to come out.12 He is still malignant, but can be approached in a friendly manner. A similar custom has been noticed among the Chippewa Indians, who, when an inmate of the lodge is sick, procure a sapling, and tie various coloured thread to it, which are deemed acceptable to the manito, who has sent the sickness as a mark of his displeasure.13 This growing familiarity with spirits originally malignant, and their gradual change towards beneficence, has been traced on the Gold Coast. The natives there used to have a deity called Abro-ku, a malicious god who lived in the sea-surf, and whose sole functions were to upset the canoes of his worshippers. But when they got to know him better he was found to be friendly, and now he raises the wave which carries them in safety to the shore.14

 >[4. Churchill's Voyages, vol. v. pp. 28, 135, 366.]<
 >[5. Tylor, Primitive Culture, ii. p. 119.]<
 >[6.trans. Eth. Soc., N.S. vol. iv. p. 288.]<
 >[7. Lubbock, Origin of Civilisation, p. 25.]<
 >[8. Fison and Howitt, Kamilaroi and Kurnai, p. 250.]<
 >[9. Tylor, Primitive Culture, ii. p.18.]<
>[10. Churchill's Voyages, vol. vi. p. 160.]<
>[11. Sparman's Voyages, vol. 1. p. 310.]<
>[12. Lubbock, Origin of Civilisation, p. 25.]<
>[13. Schoolcraft, Thirty Years with Indian Tribes, p. 101.]<
>[14. Ellis, Tshi-speaking People of the Gold Coast, p. 45.]<

   Now, all the details of the death of Bridget Cleary point to the earliest stage in such beliefs, when the possessing spirit was thought to be purely malignant, and had to be forcibly ejected. What caused these men to imagine that she had been taken possession of by a fairy was the exhibition of certain nervous and excited symptoms. This, again, is well paralleled from the folk-lore of other nations. To take a few instances: among the Zulus there are spirits, called amatongo, supposed to be the ghosts of ancestors. A man possessed by them exhibits hysterical symptoms, which are regarded as a sign of possession.15 Among Siberian tribes, children liable to convulsions are looked upon as being possessed by the divining spirit.16 So, too, the priestess at Delphi passed into an epileptic trance before the oracular spirit descended on her,17 and the oracle of Trophonios produced hysterical laughter in those who consulted her.

>[15. Tylor, Primitive Culture, ii. p.120.]<
>[16. Ibid. 121.]<
>[17. Pind. Pyth. iii. 2; Eur. Iph. Taur. 1250; Hyginus Fab. 53, &c.]<

   A further confirmation of this theory to this case is shown in the fact that the door was left open, in order that the ejected spirit might pass out. Had these men wished to murder the woman, the very last thing they would have done would be to leave the door open; but such a proceeding is entirely in accordance with what they had in their minds. Like the Hottentots, who "jolt and pommel" a dying man in order to drive the spirit of disease out, so they beat and burned this wretched victim of superstition in order to expel the spirit that possessed her. Far from wishing to murder her, they wished to bring her back into the land of the living, and it seems that the remorse with which her husband was seized after her death was perfectly genuine. It is inconceivable that, if they had wished to kill her, they would have left the door open, that they should have allowed their shouts to attract the neighbours, or that ten persons should have been admitted to witness the deed. Terrible and ghastly as the case is, we cannot call it wilful murder.

   After her death they were influenced by an entirely distinct and different superstition, one that is commoner to the country, less primitive, and more elaborate. They had been unable to completely satisfy themselves that the soul of the woman had returned to her body, and they fell back on the hope that they had killed, not Bridge Cleary, but a changeling which had been substituted for her. In neither case was murder present to their minds, for in the first stage their design was to bring her soul back to her body, and in the second they believed, and still seem to believe, that it was not she who was dead.

   It seems, then, that whatever explanation we accept of the beliefs which led to Bridget Cleary's death, we cannot suppose that it was the purpose of these men to murder her. The account given of the matter by all the witnesses is too fantastic and too uniform not to be genuine. We cannot imagine that they, by pure chance, invented a course of reasoning to excuse their act which entirely tallies with a widely spread and primitive superstition, nor is there the smallest evidence to show that any of those motives which, for the most part, lead to murder were influencing, or had influenced, any of the actors. The story is too strange not to be true.

   That such superstitions should still be believed in a Christian country, and by men who by religion are Christians, is appalling enough; but the remedy for such a state of things is not to be found in the hangman's noose, nor yet, perhaps, in the convict prison, and one cannot but feel that it would be in the spirit of that wise and merciful law which ordains that boys under a certain age may not be hanged for capital offences to spare these men, even if they are condemned; for children they are if, as can, I think, be proved, they have acted under the influence of such superstitious fears, as surely as the savage who fears his own shadow is a child. It is as impossible for educated and unsuperstitious people to appreciate the enormous force which such beliefs exercise on untutored minds as it is for a heathen to estimate the immense power of religion in determining the conduct of a man. But if, as this paper has tried to show, they killed, but now with intent to kill, still less should the extreme penalty be inflicted.