Weird Suffolk: In league with the Devil in Dunwich
The Witchcatcher General’s shadow was cast over the coastal town of Suffolk and the legacy left by Matthew Hopkins condemned another poor lady to an early grave.
You may have heard of The Dunwich Horror, but have you heard of the woman who put the witch into Dunwich?
Poor Aubrey Grinset was a beggar in the coastal town of Dunwich who found herself at the centre of a scandal, whereby she was accused of bewitching two men to their death and of causing another man, Thomas Spatchet, to have terrible fits thanks to her demonic pact with Satan.
Spatchet was born in 1614, the son of James and grandson of Robert who was, in turn, connected to the late Lord Chief Justice Sir Edward Coke and therefore young Thomas had friends in high places which did not, unfortunately for him, prevent him from being the victim of less-than-attentive childcare. As an infant, Thomas was dropped on his head by a servant - he fell on stone and a deep scar pitted the side of his head from that moment on. As a young man he suffered a second accident when he went to draw water from a well and toppled down it, suffering deep cuts and another possible head injury. Bedridden and sick for days, he began to have fits and at times was unable to speak or sometimes move. He would twitch and shake and within a year and a half had lost all ability to hear or take part in the religious duties that had given him so much pleasure previously. Thomas appears in Dunwich's accounts as an officer of the borough in 1634 and by 1645 was a freeman. Three years later he served as coroner, a year later he was appointed as a bailiff - his meteoric rise up the ranks came immediately after he was paid as a 'watcher' by Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General. He gave evidence against Priscilla Collit and Elizabeth Southerne, claiming that Collit had been enticed by the Devil to destroy a boat belonging to Goodman Harper at Newcastle and had tried to walk on water to Boston. She had also, she said, held her child over a fire with the intention of burning it at the will of Satan who told her that if she didn't kill her children, she would always be poor (Elizabeth, meanwhile, met the Devil on the way to Westleton who promised her two and sixpence but later reneged on the deal, complaining of "the hardness of the times").
By 1665, Spatchet's fits were beginning to spiral out of control. It seemed entirely reasonable that rather than the two serious head injuries that he had endured as a baby and a young man, his neurological issues were in fact caused by witchcraft.
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When the bailiff had a particularly bad fit, he had a vague memory of lashing out and biting a hand or foot as it went to attack him: the next day, beggar Aubrey was seen wearing "an unusually large shoe" in which she was limping and there was a "saw-like" impression on her toe. The evidence was clear, said Thomas, Aubrey was a witch.
The accused quickly confessed that she had caused Spatchet harm along with many others, that she had been a witch for 20 years, was in league with the Devil and had bewitched John Collet of Cookly and Henry Winson of Walpool to death - as confessions were often made under torture and Aubrey was old and weak, it is unsurprising that she quickly said whatever was necessary to make the trial end. She said the Devil had appeared to her in the form of a handsome young man and then a cat or kitten, admitted to employing an imp which she sent to Spatchet and said that she had a third nipple (as one in 50 women and one in 100 men do) which the animal had suckled from.
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When searched by a jury of women, the nipple was found. When she was searched a few days later, she was found covered in scratches and when she was questioned a third time, she confessed again to hurting Spatchet but withdrew any confession regarding the murder of Collet and Winson. Thomas was urged to scratch or prick Aubrey, a practice which was two-fold: firstly, it was believed that witch's marks - such as extra nipples - would not bleed if pricked, secondly it was also believed that if a possessed person scratched a witch they would find relief if they drew blood.
At a trial, one of magistrates refused to convict Aubrey and set her free, making a comment that if she continued to bewitch men like Spatchet, she was welcome to continue doing so as far as he was concerned - within months of going home, poor Aubrey was found with all the skin of her arms and hands torn off her and by April 1667, she was dead.
Before she died, she warned Spatchet that his fits would continue regardless of whether she was dead or alive and said that kept two cudgels on her bed to fight with the Devil if he came to her in the night which, she said, he did, dragging her under the bed and torturing her.
As she had warned Spatchet during her trial, his fits would continue after her death - and they did, which he attributed, of course, to the fact that other witches had been in league with her.