Kentish Express Ashford & District
Doctor used science to save women on trial for witchcraft
PHYSICIAN to the King and discoverer of the circulation of blood, William Harvey also once helped to save women accused of being witches.
It was in 1612 when one of the most famous witch trials took place in Lancashire, that of the Pendle witches.
Evidence was given by a nineyear-old girl called Jennet Device who would ultimately be responsible for the hanging of her mother, brother and sister who she had accused of witchcraft.
Fast forward 22 years and Jennet would once again be in a witchcraft trial, but rather than giving evidence, she would be in the dock accused of the crime herself.
Ironically, it was thanks to her own testimony years earlier, that the words of children would carry weight in court.
Yet it would be down to the Folkestone-born Dr William Harvey, after whom Ashford’s William Harvey hospital is named, to prove to the country that the idea of witches was a ridiculous notion.
The story takes place in 1634 when a 10-year-old boy concocted a tale to explain why he had arrived home late and dishevelled.
While walking along a lane, Edmund Robinson claimed he spotted two greyhounds and had urged them to chase a hare. When they didn’t he went to strike them with a stick before they morphed into two witches.
Dragging the boy back to their isolated home, the child was confronted by more than 40 witches inside. He said he fled along a lane before encountering a hoofed man with whom he fought. That was the reason he was late and why his clothes were dirty and ripped, he explained to his parents .
Following the incident, he and his father travelled around churches and the boy pointed out 20 “witches” as he went, all of whom were arrested for practising witchcraft. Among them was Jennet Device.
It was then that William Har- vey stepped in. He was sceptical about witchcraft and the existence of witches, despite his previous patient, King James I, being convinced that witches were out to get him.
The King had written a book called Daemonologie suggesting witches could be spotted because of teats on their body which were suckled by the devil.
Dr Harvey decided to prove that witches and their “familiars” – spirits that had manifested into domestic pets, in this case a toad – were nothing more than normal animals and nothing to do with the occult or supernatural. Dr Harvey dissected the toad and revealed it to be just that, a normal toad.
He also took part in physical examinations of the women to prove that teats discovered on the body were not used by the devil to feed on.
In his report he wrote: “On the bodies, nothing unnatural nor anything like a teat or mark or any sign that any such thing hath ever been. On the body of Margaret Johnson we find two things which may be called teats. The first in shape like to the teat of a bitch but in our judgement nothing but the skin as it will be drawn out after the application of leeches.
“The second is like the nipple or teat of a woman’s breast, but of the same colour with the rest of the skin without any hollowness or issue for any blood or juice to come from thence.”
The 20 women - including Jennet Device - accused of witchcraft were eventually found not guilty but because jails made people pay for their stay, most of them remained and subsequently died in Lancaster Castle.
Dr Harvey, who continued with his practice in London, died on June 3, 1657 after suffering a stroke.