More on ‘Wise Men’, Conjurors and ‘Cunning Women’


“The Witch of the Woodlands”
Illustration from an 18th century chapbook

I have written before about ‘wise men’ (and women): local herbalists, magicians and clairvoyants, who were often those the ordinary people would ask to cure their illnesses, remove supposed curses and instances of being ‘overlooked’ [effected by the evil eye], bring good luck and foretell the future. In the latest book in my Ashmole Foxe series of mysteries, Foxe is helped by just such a ‘wise woman’, who gives him advice and encouragement when both are needed.

I thought I would take a look through the local newspapers of the time to see if I could find out more about the activities of such ‘conjurors’, as they are often termed at the time. (As an aside, I assume this term refers to their supposed use of spells or ‘conjurations’, not any ability to produce rabbits out of hats!) Here is a selection of what I found, beginning with an undoubted, if only partial, success.

A Success

The house of Mr. Cole, farmer, of Ketton, Rutland, having been robbed of property to a considerable amount; a relation of Mr. Cole’s, advised him, if the thief was not found out, nor the property returned in a few days, to apply to a conjuror (or wise man) who would discover the robber, and also oblige them to restore the effects. Mr. Cole promised his friend to make the application at the end of three days, in case he heard nothing of the money. His intent got wind; and had such an influence on those who committed the robbery, that thirty-one guineas, a 20l. [£20] and a 10l. bank of England notes, and a 10l. Stamford bank (being artfully left in the passage) which is within 18l. 4s. [£18 4 shillings] of the whole sum was returned to him.

Norfolk Chronicle – Saturday 16 January 1790

Two Failures

There were failures as well. I love the snide remark on the conjuror’s abilities at the end of the first excerpt.

Oxford, Dec. 7. Thursday morning, between five and six o’clock, the Bath coach was robbed in going up the hill on the other side [of] Bottley, about a mile and a half from this city, by a single highwayman, well mounted, who took from Mr. Jonas, the celebrated conjuror, his watch and about four guineas in money. It seems more than probable, that either the suddenness of the demand, or the bitter imprecations of the highwayman, might so much alarm Mr. Jonas as totally to deprive him of his wonderful art of conveyance, or we can scarce suppose he would have suffered the robber to pocket the watch and money, and carry it off.

Norfolk Chronicle – Saturday 14 December 1776

The report of this last case is somewhat confusing, so I’ll set down the basics. A woman from the Norfolk village of Hetherset had some cheeses stolen and consulted a wise woman to help discover the thief. The wise woman gave an ambiguous answer, stating the thief had a mark on her nose. This was obviously reported around the village and the village shoemaker, Chamberlain, who seems to have been on poor terms with a couple called Bailey, said something that the Baileys took to be an accusation that Mrs Bailey was the thief. Hence the court case claiming slander.

This action was brought to obtain a compensation for the injury sustained by the character of Mrs Bailey from the slander of the defendant. [a Mr. Chamberlain, a shoemaker] —The facts were these: A Mrs. Witten, of Hetherset, having lost seven cheeses, caused an enquiry to be made of a cunning woman to discover the thief. This cunning woman, by the aid of magic, or some other mode of detecting culprits, unknown even in Bow-street, found out that the offending person had a mark on her nose. Now it happened, unfortunately, for Mrs. Bailey that, under this description, her nose betrayed her guilt; the defendant, at least, (who is a shoe-maker, at Hetherset) entertained no doubt on this point, and roundly taxed her with the robbery. He told her that “he knew very well by the subscription that was given of her that she was the woman who had stolen the cheese,” and said, that “the guilt was lodged on her, and she could not get off it.” These words, however, were, by one of the witnesses denied to have been spoken at the time alledged [sic]; and from this witness it appeared, that all which the defendant had said was, “I don’t say who stole the cheeses, but if the d—d old woman will say ’twas a woman with a mark on her nose, I can’t help it.” Some provoking language appeared also have been used by Bailey to the defendant previous to these words being by the latter, and the case being but weakly supported, the Jury, with the recommendation of the Judge, gave verdict for the defendant.

Norfolk Chronicle – Saturday 12 August 1797

It’s interesting that, although the general tenor of these pieces is sceptical, you get the sense that consulting ‘conjurors’ and ‘Cunning Men’ (and women) was not viewed as out of the ordinary. It’s the attempt to discover what’s hidden that is the source of the disbelief. I could find no suggestion that visiting a ‘Cunning Woman’ (or man) for medical help was viewed with suspicion. After all, as the ‘alternative practitioners’ of their day, at a time when ‘conventional’ medicine had almost nothing useful to offer, they probably offered as much assistance as anyone — and at much less cost as well.


About William Savage

Author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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2 Responses to More on ‘Wise Men’, Conjurors and ‘Cunning Women’

  1. noelleg44 says:

    I recently did some research about witches in P)lymouth colony, since the Pilgrims were very superstitious. Turns out there wasn’t a single witch (despite the Salem witch trials in the Massachusetts Bay Colony) until late in the 17th century – and even that wasn’t serious. I am now immersed in herbal medicines and pottery. Never know where the time will take me!


    • Witches, from all I have read, were an invention of the late-mediaeval church, designed to eradicate the last vestiges of folk religion. Both in England and its American colonies, it seems to have taken a specific person or group to produce actual persecution on any scale. There’s plenty of evidence in this area of Norfolk for the use of folk and herbal medicine by the gentry as well as poor people. I have a copy of a book of such remedies, compiled by a wealthy and educated woman in around 1707.


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