The Edinburgh Witches Well

Back in June, I came across an interesting article on Atlas Obscura, featuring a little noticed spot, near the entrance to the grounds of Edinburgh Castle, where there stands a small drinking fountain. Between the 15th and 18th centuries,  hundreds of women, accused of witchcraft, were executed on this spot, close to what is now Ramsay Garden. Scotland’s King James VI was a devoted persecutor of witches, and during the satanic panic that gripped Europe during that time span, anyone could be accused of using dark magic. Most were women, though regardless of gender all were denied proper trials and subjected to burning at the stake, and in the later years, to hanging.

By 1894, the forward thinking philanthropist, Sir Philip Geddes, commissioned John Duncan to design a small fountain to memorialize the victims.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The small plaque explains the major design elements. Duncan was an admirer of Celtic art and legend, interests that are reflected in his use of dualism to highlight the opposites of good and evil and to show that every story has two sides. features a bronze relief of witches’ heads entangled by a snake, uses dualism to highlight the balance between good and evil and that each story has two sides. The relief displays two heads representing the accused.  There is the image of a Foxglove plant from the centre of which is a coiled snake intertwined around the head of Aesculapius, The God of Medicine, and his daughter Hygeia, the Goddess of Health. The rod of Asclepius, a snake-entwined staff known as a caduceus, remains a symbol of medicine today. Hygeia as the personification of health, cleanliness, and sanitation represents hygiene. The Foxglove plant used medicinally can also be poisonous depending on dosage; and the image of the serpent imbued with wisdom is also acknowledged as evil. The symbolism of all represents good and evil. The years 1479 and 1722 are shown at upper left and bottom right, and two bolts in the upper corners show the Wiccan symbols of air and water. The hole below the serpent’s head dispensed water.

The trough is sculpted on three sides. The font displays flora with roots beneath the earth and branches above. The left panel depicts the evil eye with frowning eyes and nose; the words ‘the evil eye’ are written below. The right side depicts a pair of hands holding a bowl with the words ‘hands of’ written above the bowl and ‘healing’ written below.

I love symbolism in art and am very glad this monument is there to commemorate the terrible scourge of the witchcraft delusion. I do wish, however, that the plaque more explicitly condemned what happened there to all those innocent victims.  I also wish that I’d known about the fountain when we visited Edinburgh several years back.

 

 

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Historical Fiction: The Witch of Willow Hall, by Hester Fox

The Witch of Willow Hall
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The year is 1821. Boston’s prominent Montrose family has left town under a cloud of scandal, relocating to their stately “summer home” in New Oldham, a mill village in northern Massachusetts. Mrs. Montrose has been crushed by the shame of it all, but her husband is quite detached from everything but his new business venture. The three sisters make the move, but their brother remains behind, apparently oblivious to scandal. Their attempts to settle in to their new home is narrated by Lydia, the middle sister, who maintains a close bond with  Emeline, the youngest, but deeply resents  willful, Catherine, the eldest, whose behavior lies at the root of their problems. Lydia herself is quiet, studious, and sensitive. She has noticed with some trepidation that when she grows angry, strange things that she cannot explain occur; Mrs. Montrose, who is descended from a victim at the Salem Witch Trials, promises to explain all in due time.

From the moment she steps inside Willow Hall, Lydia feels a deep sense of foreboding, and the story she tells is romantic in some aspects, but deeply tragic in others. Having led a sheltered life, her viewpoint is that of a young adolescent, so the novel reads  like a coming of age tale for young adults. She is quite willing to grant legitimacy to  the supernatural events that occur around her, even though they make her fretful and fearful. Lydia’s emotions are amply described, but I did not find that they transferred to me as I read. The prose is competent, but here and there colored by anachronistic phrases (i.e. “I lost my cool” or I’m lousy at this”) that spoiled the mood. As for characters, they were types — the spoiled young heiress, the cad, the snide townspeople, the bored invalid aunt.  I was also puzzled by the book’s claim on the cover that  it takes place two centuries after Salem, when 1821 is only 130  years from the date of the trials.

I would recommend The Witch of Willow Hall to young adults rather than to readers looking for richer historical content.

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It’s a Mystery: The Colony, by F. G. Cottam

The Colony (The Colony, #1)
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s nothing like an enigmatic, unsolved mystery, especially a true one, to excite public (or private) interest. Hoping to inject new life into his ailing newspaper, fabulously wealthy media mogul Alexander McIntyre mounts an expedition to New Hope Island, planning  to get to the bottom of the abrupt disappearance of a fringe religious cult that settled there more than a hundred years ago.  McIntyre believes that aliens were involved (really!), but he  hires the best experts in the fields of archaeology, ufology, epidemiology, parapsychology,  and security, building them a state of the art base camp on the barren island, to uncover the truth, whatever it is.  He also sends his star reporter along, to file up to the minute reports on the team’s progress, thereby increasing circulation among spellbound readers.  But serious, unexplained problems arise from the moment the team sets foot on the island, not the least of which is that their communications center simply will not function, leaving them marooned in the presence of some very malevolent forces. Very soon, some of team are dead and gone — literally.

F. G. Cottam is skilled at combining the genres of thriller and paranormal, and The Colony is right up there when it comes to meeting his readers’ expectations. I would describe this one as disconcerting rather than horrifying, but subtlety is something I much prefer to graphic gore. What I particularly enjoyed was the in depth viewpoints provided by the various experts, and subplot  involving the young daughter of the team’s psychic and a maritime marine museum curator. Some of the characters were one dimensional, but others were more developed, depending upon their importance in the plot. When the deaths occurred, it would have been interesting to  know what became of their bodies, but perhaps that’s to be revealed in sequels to The Colony. Overall, this is a well presented paranormal mystery, but……

Evidently, this book was initially released only in a digital version. I acquired a print copy published somewhat later, by Ipso Books. Perhaps The Colony was spookier and more suspenseful than I found it to be. The reason I’m not certain is that my attention was constantly disrupted by what appear to be a very poorly edited text. Did you know that churches have “knaves”, photos can be “matt”, and punctuation can be omitted in very long sentences? My favorite gaffe is as follows: “They were helpless, no more any of them really he feared, than prey. (Bit of a weird sentence here, doesn’t really make sense.)”

Enough said. Despite all the annoying errors, The Colony was a pretty good story, sufficient to make me ignore my irritation to soldier on to the end. Properly published, it probably would have been even better.

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Almost Heaven: Near Death Experience, 19th Century Style

This is a true story about a woman by the name of Anna Mathewson, who was born in Coventry, CT in 1810. Anna grew up healthy and strong, but at the age of 24, things took a turn for the worse. Her health was described from that time on as delicate, and from 1841-44, Anna was confined to the house, often to her bed, unable to rise without assistance. Dr Norman Brigham attended Anna all this time, and finally, things grew so serious that often she could not speak. It was necessary to prescribe opiates for the pain (no diagnosis is provided in the record), and Anna herself claimed to be suffering “all the pains of death”. Death, she said, had “commenced at her extremities”, and when it reached her heart, she would fade away.

Apparently it did reach her heart, because on Tuesday, May 20, 1844, Anna’s spirit left her body and soared to heaven. The doors of heaven opened upon the “abode of the blessed”, and the most delightful singing was heard. Alas, Anna was welcomed but not permitted to enter. She was instructed to return to earth, and was given a divine mission, to “warn Christians to wake up, that the churches might be revived and sinners converted.” Only when her task was accomplished could she return to Paradise.

Imagine the reaction of her friends and family when Anna’s “corpse” sat up and spoke to them! There were even more surprises to come. Although Miss Mathewson had had difficulty speaking, and certainly had never sung, her voice suddenly “came to her and she would sing continuously for hours”. She told everyone that the angels were singing with her and she longed for all to hear them.

Mr. S. Bliss of nearby Tolland heard of this wondrous miracle, and decided to pay a visit. He published an account of his meeting in the Boston newspapers, fully corroborating the story. The rush was on. Seven hundred people descended upon little Coventry in seven days, and before all the excitement settled, more than 2000 made the pilgrimage. This in an era when travel was an arduous, lengthy process. One hardy and zealous soul trudged on foot 150 miles, “that he might see with his own eyes, and hear with his own ears” the woman who had been to heaven and back again.

[from The History of Tolland County, JR Cole]

History News: New Efforts to Preserve Lost Colony Site

 

Excerpts from AP article by Martha Waggoner:

Efforts to unravel the mysterious fate of North Carolina’s fabled Lost Colony could benefit after a preservation group took out its first-ever loan to buy a coastal tract where some colonists may have resettled hundreds of years ago.

The 16th century English colonists who vanished after being left in the New World have piqued popular imagination and intrigued historians for centuries. One North Carolina community is even holding a Lost Colony Festival this weekend. The preservation of land linked to their disappearance could enable future researchers to shed new light on the historic riddle.

In addition to being the place where historians now believe some of the colonists resettled, the land in rural Bertie County has been home to an Indian village and to the plantation of Gov. Thomas Pollock, who served two stints as governor in the early 1700s.

England’s ill-fated first settlement in North America was established in 1587, when 116 English settlers landed on Roanoke Island in what is now North Carolina, led by explorer John White. He left them there when he sailed back to England that same year for more supplies. When he returned in 1590, delayed by war between England and Spain, none of the colonists remained. White knew the majority had planned to move “50 miles into the maine,” as he wrote, referring to the mainland. The only clues he found about the fate of the other two dozen were the word “CROATOAN” carved into a post and “CRO” lettered on a tree trunk, leading historians to suspect they moved south to live with American Indians on what’s now Hatteras Island.

Archaeologists now believe that some found their way to the land in Bertie County. The possibility first came to light in 2012, when researchers at the British Museum in London announced they had found a drawing of a fort that had been obscured under a patch on a map of Virginia and North Carolina drawn by White in the 1580s.

The drawing placed the fort in an area of Bertie County where archaeologists have found colonial-era English pottery and signs of a Native American village. It is thought that perhaps up to 12 members of the Lost Colony settled on Site X, possibly as a watch party for incoming friendly or enemy ships. The remains of other small settlements or a single large one could be located nearby in areas where they haven’t dug, they said.

Archaeologists now believe that some found their way to the land in Bertie County. The possibility first came to light in 2012, when researchers at the British Museum in London announced they had found a drawing of a fort that had been obscured under a patch on a map of Virginia and North Carolina drawn by White in the 1580s.

The drawing placed the fort in an area of Bertie County where archaeologists have found colonial-era English pottery and signs of a Native American village.

While the area is best known now for its probable Lost Colony connection, it has more pottery shards from the Indian village of Mettaquem than from the Europeans, said Nick Luccketti, co-vice president of the First Colony Foundation, the group spearheading the archaeological dig on a parcel known as Site X.

The Native Americans are “a hugely important part of the story,” said Phil Evans, president of the foundation. “We tend to take a Euro-centric view but … that site can tell a whole century of North Carolina history from 1584 to the Tuscarora wars of the 1700s. It’s a century of North Carolina history that’s often forgotten because there are no standing structures for people to see.

The 1,000-acre property is so special historically and ecologically that the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust decided to take a risk and borrow $5.3 million for a real estate deal, said Lee Leidy, attorney and Northeast Region director for the trust. It’s the first time in 26 years that the trust has done so. The trust plans to turn the property over to the state, eventually, preserving it for future study.

It’s a Mystery: Weycombe, by G. M. Malliet

Weycombe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jillian White is bored. When she and her aristocratic husband married and moved to a posh enclave in the village of Weycombe, she thought her life was perfect. Then she lost her job producing a crime series with the BBC, and with time hanging heavy on her hands, she realizes that, as an American, she doesn’t quite fit in. So when her near neighbor Anna is murdered, Jill decides that investigating this crime on her own will liven things up for her, distracting her from her loneliness and from dwelling on  the failing health of her marriage.

The mystery is recounted in first person by Jill, and it isn’t until about halfway through the book that it becomes clear that she’s an unreliable narrator. Shallow and self-centered, she has difficulty empathizing with others, operating from a false  sense of superiority and keeping everyone at arm’s length.  The story has its interesting segments, broken too often by rambling soliloquies about Jill’s innermost thoughts. Something about the brittleness of  her shell is distinctly off-putting; then again, it seems that the entire population of this village are like that. Given the meandering nature of the bulk of this book, the ending seems rushed and abrupt, but it did contain surprises, and Jill does attain her goals at  last.

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It’s a Mystery: The Ophelia Cut, by John Lescroart

The Ophelia Cut (Dismas Hardy, #14)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Ophelia Cut is a welcome addition to the Dismas Hardy series, which has recently laid somewhat dormant. I enjoy this series  because of the depth of the main characters, who grow and change with time, and who strive to maintain their integrity even in the most  trying of their personal conflicts and their legal cases. In Ophelia, Attorney Hardy faces one of his greatest  challenges both personally and professionally.  His niece and God-daughter,  Britney, has been raped, and twenty four hours later, her assailant is dead. The prime suspect is Britney’s father, Moses Malone, brother of Diz’s wife. Diz decides to represent Moses in a situation that could not be more fraught with ethical dilemmas. What father wouldn’t feel murderous toward the man who raped his daughter? The picture is complicated further by the fact that Mose has started drinking again, and Diz and their circle of friends/colleagues are worried that, while under the influence, he might betray a secret that would severely damage each and every one.

I don’t know another writer who can write courtroom drama as well as Lescroart.  The scenes are particularly effective in the audio version of the novel, in this case adroitly read by David Colacci. The tension builds slowly, chapter by chapter, and the reader, along with Mose’s family and friends, is never sure whether or not he is guilty, anticipating the verdict with as much trepidation as the they are. The novel could have ended at that point, but it didn’t, and the final scene is a shocker that I never saw coming. This is a book without a final resolution, leaving many of its ethical questions unresolved. Can revenge ever be justice? What is a lawyer’s obligation when he suspects his witness is lying? What if the prosecution failed to pursue alternative theories? And if you’re wondering what the title means, you’ll have to wonder till the final page.

Highly recommended, one of Lescroart’s absolute best. The followup novel should be really interesting.

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