Friday, February 15, 2013

The Case of the North Devon White Witch (1877)

an excerpt from:
"Doctors: Or, The science of medical thought among the people." 
by W.R. Bartlett, M.D., New Haven Conn. published in "The Sanitarian" vol. 7, 1879 (

"At the Exeter Quarter Sessions last week, John Harper, aged 83, a quack doctor and herbalist, known as the North Devon White Witch, appealed against his recent conviction and sentence to a month's imprisonment for obtaining money by false pretenses some time ago. He was called in to see a woman who was ill and had been given up by the doctor. He prescribed for her and placed in her hands rods with the names of planets attached, and told her to strike with them a piece of metal which he held in his hand, while he at the same time uttered some formula of words. He received a fee of twenty five shillings, but the woman afterwards died, and he was then prosecuted and convicted of obtaining money by palmistry and subtle devices."

The White Witch of Devon
Published in "The Standard", October  18, 1877
As quoted in "Notes and Queries," Fifth Series, Volume Ninth, January - June, 1878

"The case of the North Devon White Witch came before Earl Devon and other magistrates at quarter sessions at Exeter yesterday. The name of the so-called witch is John Harper. He is eighty three years of age, appears in his younger days to have been a good deal connected with mines in the neighborhood of Combmartin, in the north of Devon, and he now described himself as a mining proprietor. He, however, did a considerable business as a herbalist, or quack doctor, and was commonly known as the 'White Witch' of North Devon. In visiting patients he usually took with him a number of sticks or rods of wood or metal, with small pieces of parchment attached, on which were inscribed the names of different planets, and these rods were supposed to have some mysterious instrumentality in the cures he professed to effect. The proceedings leading to his being brought before the magistrates arose in consequence of a death of the wife of a cattle doctor. A medical man attended her for some time, but on his pronouncing her case as hopeless, her husband went a journey of twenty miles to see the White Witch. He came to the woman, and inquired as to the day, the hour, and the planet under which she was born. From a box he produced some rods with the names of the planets written on the parchment attached, and, placing these one at a time in the woman's hands, directed her to strike a piece of metal which he produced, and as she complited with his directions he spoke some words in a low tone. He also prescribed some bitters, ad gave a powder whihch was to be mixed in boiling water, and which, he added, he always used in every fever but typhus. He stated that though the woman was very weak there was no reason why she should not recover. She, however, died a day or two afterwards. When asked what his charges were, the so-called witch said twenty-five shillings, and that sum was paid him. For the defence it was stated that the rods were struck by the patient on a piece of manganese, and this produced an electric shock. It was further contended that the different planets actually did exercise a powerful influence over the human frame and the electric currents permeating the system. Some persons spoke as to the cures effected by Harper in some cases after medical men had given up all hopes. When he first came to the house he said he was a humble instrument in the hands of God, and he was not sure he could do anything. It was denied that he said there must be three persons of one faith in the room before he could do any good. The magistrates in petty sessions sentenced Harper to one month's imprisonment, but owing to his age they did not impose hard labour. The defendant now appeared against teh conviction, on the ground that the use of certain means and devices to deceive or impose on Her Majesty's subjects had not been proved, and objections were also taken to the form of conviction, the words 'hard labour' having been inserted in the copy now before court, whereas no hard labour was imposed. It was explained that these words were inserted as after the committal of the defendant it was found that he could not be imprisoned without hard labour. The objection was held to be fatal, and the conviction was quashed."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In a world where followers of Pagan (or indigenous) religions are imprisoned and/or executed by monotheistic Powers That Be, or by militias of Christ's/Allah's faithful, statements of any individual's 'nominal' religious affiliation can hardly be considered meaningful.