Weird Suffolk: The accused Suffolk ‘witch’ who ordered his own ‘sink or swim’ trial

Weird Suffolk: Wickham Skeith Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Weird Suffolk: Wickham Skeith Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

Accused of black magic by villagers in Wickham Skeith, the man said to have driven two people mad demanded that he was given a trial where he would sink or swim – meet Isaac Stebbings, who suggested his own witch ducking.

A pedlar accused of driving two villagers in Wickham Skeith insane by means of black magic in 1825 earned the dubious honour of being one of the last cases where a suspected witch had to endure a "swimming" in a pond - worst of all, he had suggested the torturous procedure himself.

Isaac Stebbings, a huckster or door-to-door salesman, was thrown into the village pond three times with his hands tied behind his back after a thatcher's wife and a farmer were said to have been driven mad by his witchcraft. Additionally, a shoemaker claimed the Stebbing had rendered his wax impossible to work with.

According to the Suffolk Chronicle, of July 16, 1825: "As in former days of gross credulity and ignorance, some one or other put forth the surmise that two afflicted persons are bewitched, and Stebbings was spoken of as the worker of the mischief."

Witch swimming, or trial by water, can be traced back to King Athelstan (928 to 930) who used it as a method to determine guilt in regard to all crimes. Under Henry III's rule, it ceased to be an official form of punishment in 1219 , but unofficially it remained the go-to method for fathoming whether someone was a witch or not.

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Water, it was believed, rejected servants of the devil and if a person were to float, it was proof that they were a witch.

In 1597, James I stated in Daemonologie (1597) "that God hath appointed ... that the water shall refuse to receive them in her bosome, that have shaken off them the sacred Water of Baptisme, and wilfully refused the benefite thereof."

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Poor Isaac was "swum" three times in the Grimmer, the somewhat apt name for the village pond, after he had demanded that he was offered a trial by water to prove his innocence and offer indefatigable evidence that he was not a practitioner of the dark arts. It was a foolish gesture which villagers jumped on with glee.

The London and Paris Observer: Or Chronicle of Literature, Science and the Fine Arts - Vol 1 of 1825, the process of the 'swimming' was described.

"Four men were appointed to walk into the water with him and the constable of the parish engaged to attend and keep the peace. The sides of the pond were crowded with spectators - men, women and children. Stebbings had on his breeches and shirt and when the men had walked with him into the water breast high, they lifted him up and laid him flat upon his back on the water," the account read.

"Stebbings moved neither hand nor foot and continued in that position for 10 minutes…he was like a piece of cork in the water." The process was repeated twice more and on each occasion, he floated. After the third attempt to get the 67-year-old to sink, the Suffolk Chronicle notes the old man "came out more dead than alive".

It added: "Even now in the nineteenth century, a portion of the populace - perhaps a considerable portion - retaining the foolish prejudices of their forefathers, believe that there are witches and wizards still.'

Stebbings was so determined to prove his innocence that he demanded a retrial and it began to be organised - hundreds of people prepared to attend, another man offered to 'swim' beside him - until the local clergymen intervened and sent everyone home with a flea in their ear.

It's said that villagers were so furious that a local cunning man was paid three pounds to ensure that Stebbings suffered a long and slow death: and, in a manner of speaking, this happened - Isaac lived for another 22 years and lived to the fine old age of 89.

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