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A Tale of Death - Witchcraft, Poison, or Something Else

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It started with an actual nightmare.

The wife awoke with a jolt in the early hours of the night. Her husband had been frantically crying out for his beloved wife. She tries to comfort him and wake him from his frenzied dream. He had dreamed that his pregnant wife was dead. She reassures him that she and the baby were both healthy and thriving and it was all a bad dream. Eventually they settle back into slumber. The next morning, the fear from the night before was gone and the husband again went out riding as he usually did for exercise. He later claimed that when he returned home that evening at about "six at night there appeared a man who twice crossed him (walked by him twice) and when he came to the place he saw him, he suddenly fell sick."

He took to his bed and again had a horrible nightmare, dreaming that he had been stabbed in the heart. Rumors would later circulate that the nightmares had been brought about by the mysterious encounter with the strange man, and the husband's dreams were haunting premonitions. On Saturday the wife moved her husband to their primary estate and the household steward called for a Dr Case from Chester. Chester was a good thirty miles away so the wife and her servants knew it would be some time before the doctor arrived. They were right; it took a full week for the physician to finally arrive. In the interim, the wife's anxieties about her husband health grew. He could not keep any food down, and was constantly crying out in agony. They decided they needed to do something to try to ease his pain, so they turned to a local "cunning woman" known only by the name of Jane.

There is a blurry line between medicine and magic, and cunning women and men were the practitioners who walked that line. The wife and husband and most everyone around them believed that magic was real, but they made distinctions between different kinds of magic. Black magic, such as curses and hexes, were done to cause harm, but white magic could cure ailments and sickness, keep pregnant women safe, and even help someone find a lost item. Cunning folks used herbal remedies, incantations and charmed amulets to wield their powers. Faith in those practitioners was deeply ingrained in both the husband and wife's culture, and it was possible to be a good Protestant and still rely on the practices of white magic.

Initially the wife believed that her husbands sickness had been brought about by his rigorous exercises which he took four days a week. If her husband had fallen ill from natural causes, such as overexertion, or had been poisoned by the mysterious man he had encountered Dr Case, a physician, would be able to help. Medical knowledge at this time was based on a belief that humors (liquids) in the body needed to be in balance to maintain health. The husband's constant vomiting meant that he had too much bile in his system, and bloodletting or enemas would be used to rebalance his humors to restore his health. If, however, the mysterious man had bewitched the husband, only a witch could remove the curse. The wife would not take a chance on her beloved husbands recovery and thus called both a cunning woman and a physician.

During the week between the time the wife had sent for Dr Case and his arrival she and the cunning woman tried to heal her husband. The wife also relied upon local medical practitioners who were less esteemed than Dr Case and household servants to care for her husband. The wife ensured that her husband was given chicken broth to provide some sustenance, while the cunning woman worked with herbal potions and even fashioned a wax figure with a heart drawn around the belly. If someone had been cursed, one possible cure was for the practitioner of magic to draw the hex out of the bewitched and transfer it to something or someone else. With the wax figure the cunning woman was trying to do just that. Nothing worked and the husbands condition worsened. The wife and others attending her husband would have seen that as a sign that his ailment was a curse by something other than witchcraft. Some of his last moments of lucidity was when the cunning woman was treating him. As a result, throughout his illness, when he could speak, he shouted in agony that he had been bewitched.

That week the husband refused to be bled because he firmly believed that his sickness had been brought about by witchcraft. But the wife, desperate for his revitalization, permitted other treatments to try to rebalance his humors and purge him of toxins. She feared that he might have been poisoned - perhaps by Catholic recusants in retaliation for his role in thwarting a plot that saw four brothers arrested - she and her attendants tried to treat him with a bezoar stone - small balls of partially digested food, hair, and other substances removed from a ruminant animal's stomach - as well as "unicorn horn" (ground horse hoof or deer horn which were common ingredients called for in various folk recipes to treat poisoning) although neither treatment worked. They administered glisters (enemas), intended to draw the humors downward, and for a brief time, it seemed that the husband was somewhat relieved. Comfort did not last long, however, and his health continued to deteriorate. For days his attendants attempted to balance his humors by continuing to administer glisters and forcing him to consume manna (a dried tree gum used as a laxative) and scabious (herbaceous) waters. As his aching body started to swell, they gave him medicines to induce sweating as a form of purging and coated his body in oils and plasters (concoctions of medicines that hardened on the skin) but nothing helped.

Between bouts of illness a week after falling ill, the husband dictated his last will and testament from his deathbed. Custom dictated that this younger brother would inherit the title of the earldom and two estates - one of which was the ancestral home - but the husband desired everything to pass completely intact to his wife. The younger brother would become the sixth earl, and retain control of the family's ancestral estates, but all of the landed wealth and income would pass to his wife and their children, essentially giving his brother the shell of an earldom. If the child his wife carried was a son, his wife would keep everything but her jointure entitled her to and the infant would inherit the remaining of its fathers landed power. If the child was another daughter then the eldest daughter would inherit everything else except for its mother's portion and what had been secured for her use by the terms of her jointure. This defied custom as, in principle, noble families wanted their estates to remain intact. The husband wanted his wife to keep everything in her jointure as her own property, hewing it off from his family holdings, which was precisely what a jointure was designed to do. His decision demonstrated a deep devotion to his wife and daughters and hints at a disdain for his younger brother. The husband spent his final days planning for the futures of his family until he began sinking into violent fits.

Dr Case finally arrived and did all he could to treat the husband. He inserted a catheter as a final attempt to purge the husband but "no water appeared." In the end the wife helplessly looked on as her husband "fell into a trance" and "he cried out against witches and witchcraft" reposing his only hope of salvation upon the merits of his blessed savior. On a Tuesday after eleven days of agony the husband called for his wife. He softly said his final goodbye to her. He also asked her to give a jewel with his coat of arms on it to Dr Case, who had worked so hard to save him. The the husband, an earl for just seven months, slipped away. Stoically, his wife "most honorable performed" her husband's final wish and thanked the doctor for all he had done.

Twelve days later word reached the wife's brother-in-law, a member of the Privy Council, that her husband had died. He put about that the peoples of that shire made "greater presumptions that the late earl was bewitched (rather) than poisoned". Either way, the popular assumptions were that the earl's death was caused by foul play, perhaps as retaliation for his having handed the four Catholic brothers over to the authorities. Through the circumstances surrounding his death could suggest poisoning, it is also possible that a routine illness combined with aggressive attempts to purge him and rebalance his humors contributed to his death. For there was truth in the fact that those treatments may have made things worse.

In the end there was never found the true cause of his death.

Wild gossip about poison and witches would continue to be told as well as embellished for a long time after.




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