Andrew Sneddon, Shannon Devlin (eds), ‘Documents from the Trial of the “Islandmagee Witches” at Carrickfergus Assizes, County Antrim, Ireland, 1711”.

The trials of the nine Islandmagee ‘witches’ took place in March and September of 1711, in Carrickfergus, County Antrim.1 They were Ireland’s last witch trials held under a dedicated witchcraft law, the Witchcraft Act of 1586.2 This is the first time all the surviving documents – a contemporary pamphlet account, pre-trial depositions, letters and newspaper reports – relating to the trial have been brought together, transcribed, and annotated. Spelling, pagination and page layout have been reproduced from original sources, and annotation has been kept to a minimum and used primarily to clarify rather than to explain. Digital images of source documents have been placed beside corresponding transcription pages in the below Flip-books. Font size on the second document, the depositions, was reduced to enable this. Two newspaper reports and a letter by an eye-witness have been placed at the end of this introduction.

This project was funded by a Research Impact Award from Ulster University to Dr Andrew Sneddon. Transcription and annotation work was completed by Dr Shannon Devlin and Dr Sneddon in summer 2022. Design and web work was completed by Dr Victoria McCollum. Please cite/attribute the transcriptions/flip-books using the following reference: Andrew Sneddon, Shannon Devlin (eds), ‘Documents from the Trial of the “Islandmagee Witches” at Carrickfergus Assizes, County Antrim, Ireland, 1711”.

In February 1711, the elderly widow of Presbyterian minister, Ann Haltridge3 died suddenly after suffering months of demonic attack in her home in Islandmagee, later referred to locally as Knowehead House. Islandmagee is an eight-mile-long peninsula on the east coast of County Antrim, which in the early eighteenth century contained around 300 Presbyterians of Scots descent. After Ann’s funeral, her niece, eighteen-year-old educated gentlewoman, Mary Dunbar, arrived at Knowehead House. Almost immediately, Mary began to display the classic symptoms of demonic possession: from convulsions, to vomiting household objects, to levitation. During the month of March 1711, Dunbar accused eight Presbyterian women from Islandmagee and the surrounding areas of using witchcraft to attack her in spectral or spirit form and to summon demons to possess her body. The women were eventually tried on 31 March 1711 at the Spring Session of Carrickfergus County Assize Court before two judges travelling the North-East Assize Circuit from Dublin, Anthony Upton, Tory Justice of the Common Pleas, who directed the twelve-man, petty jury to acquit the women, and James MacCartney, Whig Justice of the Queen’s Bench, who made a case for their conviction. Despite pleading not guilty, they were convicted under the 1586 Act and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment and four stints in the pillory. Unlike most demoniacs (demonically possessed persons), the incarceration of the convicted witches did not improve Dunbar’s health. Dunbar now claimed that William Sellor, husband and father to two of the convicted women, had begun bewitching her. William was convicted of witchcraft at Carrickfergus summer assizes on 11 September 1711. Mary Dunbar however had died a few weeks after the first trial, turning William’s original offence into a capital crime for which he was probably executed: he was thus one of a possible two people put to death in Ireland under a witchcraft Act.4

In 1822, Samuel McSkimin (1775-1843)5 edited a contemporary manuscript account of the trials, THE ISLANDMAGEE WITCHES, which was publishedby Joseph Smyth,6 ‘one of the giants of popular publishing in early nineteenth century Belfast.’7 Internal evidence suggests that the manuscript was written just after the trial of William Sellor, in late 1711. It presents such a detailed description of the case that one suspects its author was well acquainted with Islandmagee and its inhabitants and perhaps personally involved in the trial itself. A rare copy of the 1822 edition of THE ISLANDMAGEE WITCHES forms part of the Francis Joseph Bigger (1863-1926) collection held in Belfast Central Library.8 Before Bigger bought the pamphlet from an unknown party, it was in the possession of Rev. Classon Porter (1814-1885). Porter was the life-long, non-subscribing Presbyterian minister for Larne, County Antrim, and a local historian and biographer. In this latter capacity, he ‘wrote a series of articles on Ulster’s ghosts and witchcraft trials for the Northern Whig newspaper which were reprinted in book form as Witches, Warlocks and Ghosts (1885).’ This book included a lengthy account of the Islandmagee trial which was, unsurprisingly, based on a close reading of THE ISLANDMAGEE WITCHES.9 An inscription on the title page of the Porter/Bigger copy suggests it was gifted to Porter by George Benn, historian of Belfast: Porter and Benn frequently corresponded on historical and antiquarian matters from the late 1860s until the early 1880s.10 Sometime between ‘May 1875’ and his death in 1885, Porter wrote various notes on the Islandmagee trial on its flyleaf, including the following: ‘Mr Edward Blaine of Glenone [County Londonderry] has the original Manuscript from which this [pamphlet] is printed. I have seen what is left of this.’ He confirmed the manuscript’s existence in Witches, Warlocks and Ghosts:

‘This narrative continued for many years in manuscript, in which form we have seen its existing remains, but in 1822 it was printed as a pamphlet at Belfast, under the editorship of the late Sam. McSkimmin [sic], the historian of Carrickfergus. Of this rare tract we happen to have a copy.’11

Given the perilous condition of the manuscript version at the end of the nineteenth century, it is unsurprising that it did not survive into the twenty-first century.

As an appendix to THE ISLANDMAGEE WITCHES, McSkimin added a letter written in April 1711 by trial attendee, Rev. William Tisdall (1669-1735). Tisdall was Church of Ireland vicar of Belfast, owner of property in Carrickfergus, a Tory in politics, and rabidly anti-Presbyterian.12 The letter provides crucial insights into the conduct of the first trial as well as background information on trial witnesses and the accused. McSkimin transcribed the letter verbatim from the January 1775 edition of the literary periodical, the Hibernian Magazine.13 A privately printed second edition of the THE ISLANDMAGEE WITCHES appeared in the early twentieth century, which apart from font size and pagination was identical to the first edition.14 The below transcription and digital images are taken from the second edition of McSkimin’s pamphlet.

Original Document and Transcription of
The Islandmagee Witches, A Narrative by Samuel McSkimin, 1822.

In 1896, Robert Magill Young (1851-1925), Belfast-based architect and antiquarian published the ‘Depositions in the case of the Island Magee Witches’.15 These statements were taken before the trial, in early March 1711, from key witnesses by Edward Clements (d. 1733), Mayor and Justice of the Peace of Carrickfergus. Young based his publication on transcriptions made in the 1860s by Belfast-born antiquarian, William Pinkerton, from manuscripts held in Trinity College, Dublin (TCD),16 where they are still stored.17 Young’s version has been compared to the original TCD manuscript and it is an exact copy. The depositions are dated 1710 because they were recorded by Clements on or before the start of the new year, which according to the Julian calendar began on 25 March. After the official switch to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, the new calendar year begun on 1 January. If this date is taken as the start of the new year, then the depositions were collected in 1711 and not in 1710 as stated.

Original Document and Transcription of the Depositions, 1711, by R.M. Young, 1896.

The deponents were men of higher social status, excluding of course Mary Dunbar, and all except Dunbar and James Blythe appeared as witnesses for the prosecution at the trial before Justices Upton and MacCartney: Dunbar was unable to testify as she claimed to have been robbed of speech just before proceedings began by the witchcraft of William Sellor and his accomplices. Before the trial took place, the depositions supplied by Mayor Clements were passed to the clerks of the court who used them to draft bills of indictment for the consideration of the Grand Jury. Irish Grand juries were composed of between 12 and 23 men from the higher reaches of county society and often represented specific factions or family groups. Unlike their English counterparts, Irish Grand Juries did not interview witnesses and based their judgement on whether there was enough evidence to warrant a trial on draft bills of indictment. If this was judged to be the case, then a Billa Vera, or True Bill, was issued and the accused were arraigned. The new Bill of Indictment was then read out by the clerk of the court and the defendants entered a plea, which in this case, as in most trials involving serious charges, was not guilty. After a final check was made to see if the prosecutors were present, the petty jury was sworn in under oath and the defendants brought into court. The trial started at six o’clock in the morning, an hour or two earlier than most criminal trials in Ireland at that time.18

The depositions thus played an important administrative role in the prosecution of the Islandmagee witches. From the distance of some 300 years however we cannot say how accurately they reflect what deponents said as the recorder could have refashioned their testimony into a more coherent narrative, or silently added or deleted words, phrases or details.19 However, if Clements or someone else did indeed rework them, this is not readily apparent from the text and they remain the sole surviving example of pre-trial depositions for an Irish witchcraft case.20 The digital images and transcriptions are taken from Young’s edition.

This collection concludes with two short documents. Firstly, with a letter written in Armagh in May 1711 by scientist and politician, Samuel Molyneux, to his uncle in Dublin, Thomas Molyneux, the noted antiquarian and physician. It alludes to discussions Molyneux had with Mary Dunbar and the trial Judges and suggests that he might have been responsible for sending copies of the depositions to his uncle whereby ensuring their survival. Secondly, two newspaper reports from the Dublin Intelligence, an Irish newspaper operative from the late seventeenth century until the early eighteenth century. The reports are brief but provide vital information on what happened to Mary Dunbar.

Dr Andrew Sneddon, Ballymoney, Co. Antrim, September 2022.

© 2022. This work is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license

Transcript of Letter from Samuel Molyneux, Armagh, to his Uncle, Dublin, in 1711.
Transcripts of Irish newspaper articles published in The Dublin Intelligence, 1711

[1] In surviving primary sources there is wide variation in spelling of the personal names of the ‘Islandmagee Witches’ but they have been fixed thus in recent historical work: Catherine McCalmond, Janet Liston, Elizabeth Sellor, William Sellor, Janet Carson, Janet Main, Janet Millar, Janet Latimer, and Margaret Mitchell. See: Andrew Sneddon, Possessed By the Devil: The Real History Of The Islandmagee Witches And Ireland’s Only Mass Witchcraft Trial (Dublin, 2013); idem, Representing Magic in Modern Ireland: Belief, History and Culture (Cambridge, 2022); idem, “‘Creative’ Micro Histories, Difficult Heritage, and ‘Dark’ Public History: the Islandmagee Witches (1711) Project,” Preternature, 11:1 (2022), pp 109-130; idem, ‘Witchcraft Belief, Representation and Memory in Modern Ireland’, Cultural and Social History, 16:3 (2019), pp 251-270. The following discussion is based on this work unless otherwise stated.

[2] ‘An Act Against Witchcraft and Sorcerie,’ 28 Eliz. I, c. 2 [Ireland] (1586).

[3] Ann’s family name is given as Hattridge in the pamphlet account but as Haltridge in other primary sources including the pre-trial depositions. Again, in keeping with secondary work, Haltridge has been used in this introduction.

[4] Historical opinion is divided over whether Florence Newton was executed after her conviction for the bewitchment of Mary Longdon and murder of David Jones at Cork summer assizes on 11 September 1661: Andrew Sneddon, ‘‘Florence Newton’s Trial for Witchcraft, Cork, 1661’, Irish Historical Studies, 43:169 (2019), pp 303-304. See also: Mary McAuliffe, ‘Gender, History and Witchcraft in early modern Ireland: a re-reading of the Florence Newton Trial’ in Mary Ann Gialanella Valiulis (ed.), Gender and Power in Irish History (Dublin, 2009), pp 39–58.

[5] For more on Carrickfergus grocer, antiquarian and historian, Samuel McSkimin and his work on the Islandmagee witch trials: Sneddon, Representing Magic, pp 31, 35-38.

[6] Samuel McSkimin (ed.), THE ISLANDMAGEE WITCHES, A NARRATIVE of the Sufferings of a Young Girl called MARY DUNBAR, Who was strangely molested by Spirits and Witches, at Mr. James Hattridge’s house, ISLANDMAGEE, NEAR CARRICKFERGUS, In the County of Antrim and Province of Ulster in Ireland, and in some other places to which she was removed during the time of her disorder, as also of the aforesaid Mr. Hattridge’s house being Haunted with Spirits in the latter end of 1710 and the beginning of 1711 (Belfast, 1st ed., 1822).

[7] J.R.R Adams, ‘The Belfast Almanacs and Directories of Joseph Smyth’, The Linen Hall Review, 8:1 (Spring, 1991), p. 14.

[8] Thanks to Dr Shannon Devlin for tracking down this copy of the first edition. Unfortunately, four pages have been lost (43, 44. 45, 46), which represent about half of the appended Tisdall letter. See below for more on this document.

[9] Sneddon, Representing Magic, p. 39

[10] For this correspondence see, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Benn Papers: D3113/6/92; D3113/7, 100, 151, 152, 155, 199. Benn must have given Porter the McSkimin pamphlet before 1868 because in March of that year Porter lent his copy to William Pinkerton: William Pinkerton to George Benn, 16 March 1868 (Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Belfast [PRONI], Benn Papers, D3113/7/149).

[11] Classon Porter, Witches, Warlocks and Ghosts (Belfast, 1885), p. 2.

[12] For William Tisdall: Sneddon, Possessed by the Devil, pp 145-7.

[13] William Tisdall, ‘Account of the Trial of Eight Reputed Witches, 4 April 1711’ in Hibernian Magazine (1775), pp 47-51.

[14] The publication date is inferred from the type of paper and font used, and its private publication from the fact that no publisher name or place of publication was given. Thanks to staff at Belfast Central Library for their help in establishing a probable/possible publication date.

[15] R.M. Young (ed.), Historical Notices of Old Belfast and its Vicinity … (Belfast, 1896), pp. 161–4.

[16] Pinkerton to Benn, 16 March 1868 (PRONI, D3113/7/149).

[17] ‘Examinations and Depositions taken in the County Antrim Respecting Witches’, March 1711 (TCD, Dublin Philosophical Society Papers, Ms 883/2, pp. 273–85).

[18] For more on the trial: Sneddon, Possessed by the Devil, pp 16-18, 85-96, 141-152. For the best study of the legal landscape of early eighteenth-century Ireland: Neal Garnham, Courts, Crime and the Criminal Law in Ireland, 1692-1760 (Dublin, 1996).

[19] For more on this practice: Stephen Timmons, ‘Witchcraft and Rebellion in Late Seventeenth-century Devon’, Journal of Early Modern History, 10:4 (2006), p. 320.

[20] However, a manuscript of sworn evidence given by witnesses on the day of Florence Newton’s trial in 1661 does survive and is held in the archives of the Royal Society in London. For a transcription of this document: Sneddon, ‘Florence Newton’s Trial for Witchcraft, 1661’, pp 298-319.