During September of last year, while browsing digital resources in the London Metropolitan Archives, a familiar name caught my eye. It was a 1652 indictment from the Middlesex quarter sessions, which tried criminal cases, where a woman named Joan Peterson (or Micholson) was accused of murdering a wealthy older woman through witchcraft. The Folger has an interesting (and heartwrenching) document that I’ve shown before to visitors who are interested in witch trials: the lone such document in a group of letters related to the Lenthall and Warcup families, it appears to be a transfer, or warrant, describing the same woman. I had never had the time to look into Joan, but seeing this connection and her name on more court evidence got me interested.
One side of our document seemed fairly straightforward:
Receive into your Custody the bodie of Joane Micholsan alias
Peterson whome I send yow here with for being of lewde evill
and wicked life and beheavour And reputed by all her
Neighbours to bee a Cuni[n]ge woman and fortune teller
haveing foretold (some of them) of severall mishaps which
since have come to passe. And alsoe being accused by
Abraham Vandenbemde Esquier upon suspition to bee a
Witch or Sarcerer; Shee the said Jone alsoe haveing
confessed that shee hath usually given baggs of Seedes
to some parties to weare neere unto their bodies
thereby to provoke unlawfull love from some others,
towardes them; Moreover upon the search of the bodye
of the said Joane (by three Midwives; and severall
other honest women) there was found in a secret
part of her bodye a teate of fflesh neere an inch long
which is more then anye other women have, as the said
Midwives and women have testified, And alsoe for
being a fearfull prophaine Curser and Swearer. These
are therefore &c./
Essentially, the warrant conveys a prisoner named Joan into the custody of the recipient and names a lawyer who has formally leveled the charges of witchcraft against her. It isn’t signed. It likely came to be in this group of papers (again, the rest are mostly family letters, so this sticks out like a sore thumb) because Sir John Lenthall was the marshal of the King’s Bench Prison in Southwark, or perhaps because his kinsman Robert Warcup was the bailiff of Southwark. Based on the dates on the other letters, Folger catalogers initially signed it a tentative date of 1675, but this connection to the trial and execution of Joan Peterson as well as other evidence makes it seem likely that it was written closer to 1652. On the other side of this statement is a list of accounts, which one seasoned paleographer charitably described as “atrocious.”
The scrawling, inconsistent hand was simply noted as (and is clearly) an account, but finding that first document tugged me back to this mystery—who was Joan Peterson, alias Joan Micholson? A quick Google search drew up half a dozen blog posts, and deeper searching revealed an excellent article by Dr Clive Holmes which laid out all the gory details (see the end of this post for the full citation).
Worthy of Ricki Lake or Maury, the basic tale unfolds this way: wealthy widow Lady Mary Powell died, leaving her entire estate to a niece, Alice Levingston. Alice’s extended family, who had expected to inherit the fortune and lands that Lady Mary left, were unwilling to let Alice escape with what they claimed were her ill-gotten riches. The early modern English courts were filled with disputes like this, large and small, so in and of itself this was not so strange. Where we get into tabloid territory is when the prosecution claims that Mary Powell could only have been compelled to leave her lands to this niece by infernal powers.
Enter Joan Peterson, alias Micholson, who lived in Spruce Island (possibly connected to today’s Prusom Street) in Wapping, a rough neighborhood populated mostly by sailors and people practicing trades related to provisioning ships and supporting seafaring ventures. Joan was a “cunning woman,” a “white” witch who offered cures and restoratives. The prosecution initially approached her because they wanted to pay her to testify against Alice Levingston, and to say that Alice had purchased a charm to sorcel her aunt into writing her into the will so prominently. If Joan testified, even though she would be admitting to witchcraft, they assured her that she would be pardoned. They also approached two other women, Jane Simpson and Ann Hooke. Joan refused to testify, but Holmes concludes that as a result, they determined to use her anyway. Holmes’ excellent article lays out the legal details, and how this case reverberated in the English legal system for decades after, elegantly—if you want the full story, I highly recommend it! What our document adds to this tale is, seemingly, accounts kept by the prosecution that show payment to various lawyers, as well as fees for getting “hook wyff,” likely Ann Hooke (who did testify against Levingston) out of Newgate, as well as for paying her for her information.
As teased in the original crocodile post, this case was also one that included a significant information war in the press. It was fairly clear what the family members were trying to do, and Joan was a relatively sympathetic figure—she insisted on the truth, refusing to confess to bewitching Mary Powell, and was ultimately hanged on April 12, approximately 370 years ago next week. Printed pamphlets detailing the shocking behavior of the lawyers and politicians involved in prosecuting Joan circulated during the trial in March and April, and so, either in advance of these pamphlets or to combat their appearance, we see three lines with the following charges:
[March 7] for laing the prees for the petition £1.5.-
for 500 printed petitons printed a 3 seuerall tyms £2.-
[March] 14 dito for 10 ritten petition £ 2.5 –
What we don’t know is why written petitions were necessary, or what purpose they might have served, but that is a question for another day! This account sheds light on how an information war was waged, the paying off of witnesses, the cost of retaining a star legal team, and the costly nature of going grubbing for evidence in Wapping (£100). It is an account of how worthwhile it was to people in power to pursue a seemingly little fish, a woman who dealt in cures, and to turn her into a formidible sorcerer called the “Witch of Wapping.”
The transcriptions of the accounts were painstakingly rendered by the Folger’s brilliant team of citizen paleographers, who traded tips, ideas, and spent long hours puzzling out the various ways our anonymous accountant rendered their d’s, y’s, g’s, and e’s. Thank you to the hard work and labor of Sara Schliep, Emily Wahl, Elisabeth Chaghafi, Alexandra Kennedy, Abbie Weinberg, Kate Tallis, Anne Deschaine, Bob Tallaksen, Lucio Alvarez, Carl Lundquist, Campbell Hannan, Gail Weigl, and many others. Look for these transcriptions to be live in the digital image collection in the coming weeks!
Holmes, Clive. “The case of Joan Peterson: witchcraft, family conflict, legal invention and constitutional theory.” In Law and Legal Process: Substantive Law and Procedure in English Legal History, edited by Matthew Dyson and David Ibbetson, Cambridge University Press: 2013. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139629140
Jeffrey, Connie. “‘Southwark men, who are but traitors’: merchants, rioters, radicals and the ‘good old cause’ in the mid-seventeenth century.” Blog post for the History of Parliament Blog, June 11, 2020: https://thehistoryofparliament.wordpress.com/2020/06/11/southwark-men-who-are-but-traitors-merchants-rioters-radicals-and-the-good-old-cause-in-the-mid-seventeenth-century/