“Although the most acute judges of the witches and even the witches themselves, were convinced of the guilt of witchery, the guilt nevertheless was non-existent. It is thus with all guilt” – Friedrich Nietzche
It’s got to be a little disconcerting to find out that despite your best efforts, a solid upbringing, and any evidence to the contrary, the court has legally determined that you are a witch. That’s the sort of thing one hopes to be aware of, especially since while the eternal severance package sucks, it comes with so many perks while you’re alive. When you’re blissfully unaware of your pact with the devil, you can’t ask for stuff and he gets your soul anyway. It’s a raw deal, no doubt. Bermuda planter John Middleton discovered this in 1653 when he was tried and executed for consorting with dark forces, much to his surprise.
It all started in 1652 when John Middleton’s wife Elizabeth was accused of witchcraft. Bermuda had been fairly lax on the epidemic witchcraft prosecutions that plagued Europe in the 17th Century, only paying lip service to the 1623 directives that demanded church wardens and sidesmen “present offenders for various crimes, such as heresy, going to irregular churches, absence from church, joining the Brownists, swearing, Sabbath-breaking, quarrelling, drunkenness, wife-beating, cruelty to servants, usury, etc., and against ‘all Sorcerers, Enchanters, Charmers, Witches, Figure-casters, or Fortune-tellers, Conjurers, or whosoever hath or seemeth to have any familiar consultation with the Devil” (Verrill, 1901, p878). With the appointment of Governor Josias Forster in 1652, a more zealous persecution of witches got underway (all witch trials in Bermuda happened in six years under his administration). Bermuda clergyman took no conspicuous part in the brief Bermuda witchcraft craze, and the matter seemed to be regarded as solely the purview of the criminal courts.
Captain Josias Forster, a Puritan, came to prominence in Bermuda during a time of social crisis. The residents of the island had taken umbrage at the execution of King Charles, and the entire colony had been declared “in rebellion” by Cromwell’s parliament. Puritans and Church of England notables were in open contention. The tobacco crop had suffered various agricultural setbacks, and there seemed to be a serious gender imbalance (many women in proportion to men). Forster was determined to initiate a campaign of moral reform, and this touched off a spasm of witch hunts.
On December 7, 1652, Elizabeth Middleton, wife to John Middleton, was brought before the court, accused of witchcraft. The official accusation read, “The Jury for the keepers of the Liberties of the Commonwealth of England do present Elizabeth Middleton of Sandis Tribe spinster [in this instance, one who earns a living by spinning yarn as she was married] for that she in the month of September last past did use many cursed speeches against a young child age 9 months, of Anthony White’s of Sandys Tribe aforesaid after which it fell into strange fits. And by her combination with the Devil did use that abominable Practice of Witchcraft upon the body of the child, and thereby did destroy yet contrary to the peace of the Commonwealth of England and the dignity thereof. The grand Inquest found this bill. ‘Ignoramus ‘ and the Prisoner acquit by proclamation” (Lefroy, 1877, p603). In short, the court ruled the accusation was bullshit. Of course, witchcraft trials are rarely so simple. During her arrest, Elizabeth Middleton was quite vocal about her husband’s occult proclivities, going so far as to declare that if there was a witch in Bermuda, it was likely her husband, rather than her. So much for marital bliss. By 1653, John Middleton was arrested under suspicion of bewitching an employee of Governor Forster, a 50 year old Scotsman named Makeraton.
John Middleton had been overheard threatening John Makeraton, followed by Makeraton falling into fits from which he had to be restrained, complaining that he was being pursued by a devilish black creature conjured by Middleton, claiming it would periodically “sit upon him very heavily and asked him if he would love him and he answered no”. On April 17, 1653, one Robert Priestly testified that he had seen the creature.
The examination of Robert Priestly, taken before Mr. Stephen Paynter and Mr. Wilkinson, Councell, April the 17, 1653: “Who saith that on Friday last, being the 15th of this instant, he being removing Mr. Tucker’s cattle in the evening on a piece of ground near to the house of John Middleton, he saw right opposite the house, a Black creature lay so upon the ground in the shape of a cat, but far bigger, with eyes like fire, and a tail near as long as a man’s arm. And this examinate being somewhat daunted at the first sight, yet took courage and went up close to it to look on it. He only saw it move the head, and drawing his knife with a resolution to stab it; as he lifted up his hand and knife to strike at it with all his force, he being a strong man, he found he had no power to strike it. At which this examinate was so amazed and affrighted that his hair stood up right on his head, and he departing from it looked back, and saw the said creature turn the head and look wishfully after this examinate, but he ran away and left it; reporting the same to the servant in his house, with much fear. And further saith not. (Signed), Robert Priestly (Verrill,1902, p880).
This, coupled with the statements of Middleton’s wife at her witchcraft trial were enough to get John Middleton hauled into prison. It didn’t help that while Makeraton was being held in prison for his own protection, a fellow detainee (housed in the same room as the disturbed Makeraton, and servant to the Colony’s secretary John Vaughn, by the name of Symon Attaine reported that one night “he saw through a hole in the wall a thing of black color…that ran so swiftly he could not well tell the shape of it, which thing went out of the privy hole” (Bernhard, 1999, p68). This was bad news for Middleton, who was now strongly suspected of consorting with the devil in order to torment Makeraton. Governor Forster appointed six men to examine Middleton’s body for signs of a “witches’ teat” (associated with the feeding of familiars), and the committee dutifully found suspicious marks on him. They then moved to that favored technique of 17th Century witch hunting, the dunking, a rather dubious ordeal by water based on the theory that the innocent would sink (and drown), but the witch would float, having renounced baptism in the Devil’s service. You either died or you were a witch. Middleton, much to his own chagrin, floated.
Now, until this point Middleton had maintained his innocence, but upon his return to prison after dunking he was asked what he had to say for himself. Middleton reportedly confessed that he was indeed a witch, “but he knew it not before”. Pretty inopportune circumstances in which to find that you are a witch. The sentence was fairly cut and dry after that. He was found guilty by a jury of twelve men, duly noted in the court records.
The Jury for the keeper of the Commonwealth of England doth present John Middleton of Sandys Tribe in the Somer Islands, Planter, for that he not having the fear of God before his eyes hath feloniously wickedly and abominably consulted and consented to and with the Devil to become a witch. As doth appear by several signs and marks upon his Body, and that diabolical sin of witchcraft hath put in practice now lately upon the Body or person of John Makeraton, a Scotsman of about the age of 50 years: and him hath vexed, tormented and disquieted contrary to the peace of the Commonwealth of England and the dignity thereof (Verrill, 1901, p881).
A death sentence was pronounced, and Middleton was executed by hanging on May 9, 1653, going to the gallows having been convinced that he had accidentally become a witch. Middleton was extremely considerate as he thanked his persecutors for clearing up his whole witch status, dying an object example of Francis Bacon’s notion that “It is a sad fate for a man to die too well known to everybody else, and still unknown to himself.”
Bernard, Virginia. Slaves and Slaveholders in Bermuda, 1616-1782. St. Louis, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999.
Lefroy, J. H. Sir, 1817-1890. Memorials of the Discovery And Early Settlement of the Bermudas Or Somers Islands, 1515-1685 [i.e. 1511-1687]. London: Longmans, Green, and co., 1877.
Verrill, A. E. 1839-1926. The Bermuda Islands: Their Scenery, Climate, Productions, Physiography, Natural History, And Geology: With Sketches of Their Early History And the Changes Due to Man. New Haven, CT, 1901.
Verrill, A.E. “The Bermuda Islands”. Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences. Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts And Sciences v11. New Haven: Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences; distributed by Archon Books, Hamden, Conn. [etc.], 1902.