Weird Suffolk: The bewitching of Magdalen Holyday

A bewitched woman vomiting. Woodcut, 1720. Picture: Wellcome Collection

A bewitched woman vomiting. Woodcut, 1720. Picture: Wellcome Collection - Credit: Wellcome Collection

It’s a handmaid’s tale with a difference – one which saw a Saxmundham minister’s servant ‘bewitched’ and taken spectacularly ill as she served her master dumplings.

Magdalen Holyday, the 18-year-old handmaid to parish minister Simon Jones, had been working for her master for three years at his home in Rendham near Framlingham and was, according to a letter from Tobias Gilbert written to author of The Certainty of the Worlds of Spirits (1691), Richard Baxter, “…a civil, well-behaved young woman, of good conduct above her years, very decent and frugal in her apparel, modest in her behaviour, sweet and civil in her speech, and painstaking in her religion…”

The incident in question which concerns us today happened in 1672, less than 30 years after the infamous witch trials had begun to cast a black shadow over Suffolk and at a time when the execution of so-called witches was still taking place in the county: the last witch trial in Bury St Edmunds was in 1694.

In his letter, Gilbert spoke of a pretty young lady (“save only for a defect in the colour of her hair”), cheerful in demeanour who had enjoyed visiting local fairs on holy days with her family and who always kept “the scandal from her door”.

He then chronicled poor Magdalen’s sorry story, which began at the festival of the wheat harvest in August.

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“It happened on Monday, in Lammas, the year 1672, about noon, as she was carrying in dinner, no one in the parlour save the parson and his wife and their eldest daughter Rebecca…on a sudden, just as she had placed a suet dumpling on the board, that she uttered a loud shriek, as if she were distraught, and stooping down as in great pain, said she felt a pricking as of a large pin in the upper part of her leg; but did not think that any such thing could be there,” it reads.

Magdalen removed her stockings and searched for the cause of her pain: she found nothing. As the day drew on, she felt worse and began to retch. Mistress Jones sent for two apothecaries who declared they too could see nothing, but for good measure they made an incision and looked for the cause of the young lady’s agony.

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Meanwhile, the handmaid began to ponder what could have caused her illness – she “…asserted that a few days before, an old woman came to the door and begged a pin of her, and she not giving her one, the said woman muttered something, but she did not suspect her.”

Leeches were applied and the girl was mired in a world of pain, tormented day and night, “…her sleep was troubled with dreams and wicked apparitions; sometimes she saw something like a mole run into her bed, sometimes she saw a naked arm held over her, and so was this poor maid thus tormented by evil spirits, in spite of all Godly prayers and ringing of church bells.”

After prescribing a number of herbal remedies, an ointment was made to treat Magdalen which Tobias lists the ingredients for: “dog’s grease well mixed, four ounces; bear’s fat, two ounces; eight ounces of capon’s grease, four and twenty slips of mistletoe, cut in pieces and powdered small with gum of Venice turpentine, put close into a phial, and exposed for nine days to the sun till it formed into a green balsam.”

The ointment was placed on Magdalen but instead of getting better, she got worse until, horrifyingly, she started to be uncontrollably sick, expelling from her body a selection of weird items which those around her instantly attributed to the work of the devil.

She “…vomited, not without constant shrieks or grumbling, the following substances: - Paring of nails, bits of spoons, pieces of brass (triangle), crooked pins, bodkins, lumps of red hair, egg shells broken, parchment shavings, a hen’s bone of the leg, one thousand two hundred worms, pieces of glass, bones like the great teeth of a horse, a luminous matter, sal petri (not thoroughly prepared), till at length relief was found, when well nigh given up, when she brought up with violent retching, a whole row of pins stuck o blew paper!”

When the vomiting ceased, so did the other symptoms and

many believed that Magdalen’s affliction was due to allotriophagy, the act of disgorging foreign or foul objects usually associated with a possessed person who had been put under a spell or bewitchment.

Tobias was left wondering why innocent Magdalen – who went on to marry and have four healthy children – had been cursed.

He said: “Whether this punishment was inflicted by the said old woman, an emissary of Satan, or whether it was meant wholesomely to rebuke her for frequenting wakes, may-dances, and Candlemas fairs, and such like pastimes, still to me remains in much doubt.”

For more Weird Suffolk stories click here.

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