The Pendle Witches: 12 Disturbing Details About the Notorious 17th Century Witch Trials

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A Family of Witches

In an attempt to save herself, Alison Device told Nowell that since the incident with the peddler, John Law, she had renounced her familiar. Her conscience now cleared of her misdeeds, she continued to excuse herself by blaming her eighty-year-old grandmother for her corruption. Elizabeth Sowtherns, or Mother Demdike as she was known locally, lived with her granddaughter Alison, her daughter Elizabeth Device and her other grandchildren, James and nine-year-old Jennet.

The old lady was blind, and so Alison often acted as her guide as they were out and about the district. The family had no regular occupation other than begging, supplemented with casual labour. Because of their precarious, marginal existence, they were often abused and scapegoated by wealthier neighbours. However, these neighbours did so at their peril, for according to Alison Device, her grandmother was a very powerful witch.

Alison had seen her grandmother’s witchcraft in action. Some of the old lady’s activities were innocent enough. She was often called upon to cure neighbour’s cattle and once turned a pale of milk that Alison brought home into butter without touching it. However, the old lady also had the power to harm. Alison recalled how when a neighbouring farmer, Richard Baldwin had ordered her grandmother off his land; Mother Demdike had made Alison take her out one night. In the darkness, she performed a ritual and the following day, Baldwin’s daughter fell ill. Within a year, she was dead.

Quite why Alison confessed these events is debatable. Possibly she merely wanted to show her power was a family trait and that the Devices only used it to harm when sorely provoked. Perhaps there was a part of her that, now she had the attention of the local magistrate, wanted to show how powerful her socially marginalised family was. Perhaps she thought this would end the matter. She must have been very naïve or simple.