An Account Of A Horrid And Barbarous Murder

A letter sent by a gentleman to his friend in Edinburgh.

I doubt not of your being exceedingly surprized with this short and just account I give you of a most barbarous murder committed in Pittenweem the 30th of January last. One Peter Morton, a blacksmith in that town, after a long sickness, pretended that witches were tormenting him—that he did see them and know them—and, from time to time, as he declared such and such women to be witches, they were by order of the magistrates and minister of Pittenweem, apprehended as such, to a very considerable number, and put into prison. This man, by his odd postures and fits, which seemed to be very surprizing at first, wrought himself into such a credit with the people of that place, that unless the Earl of Rothes, our sheriff, had discovered his villany, and discouraged that practice, God knows how fatal it might have proved to many honest families of good credit and respect. Sir, however, at first many were deceived, yet now all men of sense are ashamed for giving any credit to such a person; but how hard it is to root out bad principles once espoused by the rabble, and how dangerous a thing it is to be at their mercy, will appear by the tragical account I give you of one of these poor women, Janet Corphat.

After she was committed prisoner to the tolbooth, upon a suspicion of her being a witch, she was well guarded with a number of men, who, by pinching her, and pricking her with pins, kept her from sleep many days and nights, threatening her with present death, unless she would confess herself guilty of witchcraft; which at last she did. This report spreading abroad, made people curious to converse with her upon the subject, who found themselves exceedingly disappointed. The Viscount of Primrose being in Fife occasionally, inclined to satisfy his curiosity in this matter, the Earl of Kellie, my Lord Lyon, the Laird of Scotstarvat, and the Laird of Randerston, were with his Lordship in Pittenweem. Three of the number went to the tolbooth and discoursed with her, to whom she said, that all that she had confessed, either of herself or her neighbours, were lies, and cried out, God forgive the minister, and said, that he had beat her one day with his staff when she was telling him the truth. They asked her how she came to say any thing that was not true; she cryed out, alas, alas, I behoved to say so, to please the minister and baillies; and, in the mean time, she begged for Christ’s sake not to tell that she had said so, else she would be murdered. Another time, when the Laird of Glenagies and Mr Bruce of Kinross, were telling her, she needed not deny what they were asking her, for she had confessed as much as would infallibly burn her; she cried out, God forbid! and to one of the two she said, that from which he might rationally conclude, she insinuate she had assurance from the minister her life should not be taken.

A little before harvest, Mr Ker of Kippilaw, a writer to the signet, being in Pittenweem, Mr Robert Cook, advocate, went with him to prison to see this poor woman; Mr Cook, among other questions, asked her, if she had not renounced her baptism to the devil; she answered, she never renounced her baptism but to the minister. These were her words, what she meant by them I know not. The minister having got account of this from Mr Cook, he sent for her, and in presence of Mr Cook and Mr Ker in the church, he threatened her very severely, and commanded the keeper to put her into some prison by herself under the steeple, least (as he said) she should pervert those who had confessed. The keeper put her into a prison in which was a low window, out of which it was obvious that any body could make an escape; and, accordingly, she made her escape that night.

Next day when they missed her, they made a very slight search for her, and promised ten pound Scots to any body that would bring her back. Mr Gordon, minister at Leuchars, hearing she was in his parish, eight miles distant from Pittenweem, caused apprehend her, and sent her prisoner, under custody of two men, on the 30th of January, to Mr Cowper, minister of Pittenweem, without giving any notice to the magistrates of the place. When she came to Mr Cowper, she asked him if he had any thing to say to her? he answered, No. She could get lodging in no house but with one Nicolas Lawson, one of the women that had been called witches.—Some say a baillie put her there.

The rabble hearing she was in town, went to Mr Cowper, and asked him what they should do with her? he told them he was not concerned, they might do what they pleased with her. They took encouragement from this to fall upon the poor woman, those of the minister’s family going along with them, as I hear; they fell upon the poor creature immediately, and beat her unmercifully, tying her so hard with a rope, that she was almost strangled; they dragged her through the streets, and alongst the shore, by the heels. A baillie, hearing of a rabble near his stair, came out upon them, which made them immediately disappear. But the magistrates, though met together, not taking care to put her into close custody for her safety, the rabble gathered again immediately, and stretched a rope betwixt a ship and the shore, to a great height, to which they tied her fast; after which they swinged her to and fro, from one side to another, in the mean time throwing stones at her from all corners, until they were weary; then they loosed her, and with a mighty swing threw her upon the hard sands, all about being ready in the mean time to receive her with stones and staves, with which they beat her most cruelly. Her daughter, in the time of her mother’s agony, though she knew of it, durst not adventure to appear, lest the rabble had used her after the same manner, being in a house, in great concern and terror, out of natural affection for her mother, (about which the author was misinformed in the first edition.) They laid a heavy door upon her, with which they prest her so sore, that she cried out, to let her up for Christ’s sake, and she would tell the truth. But when they did let her up, what she said could not satisfy them, and therefore, they again laid on the door, and with a heavy weight of stones on it, prest her to death; and to be sure it was so, they called a man with a horse and a sledge, and made him drive over her corpse backward and forward several times. When they were sure she was killed outright, they dragged her miserable carcase to Nicolas Lawson’s house, where they first found her.

There was a motion made to treat Nicolas Lawson after the same manner immediately; but some of them being wearied with three hours sport, as they called it, said it would be better to delay her for another day’s divertisement; and so they all went off.

It is said that Mr Cowper, in a letter to Mr Gordon, gave some rise to all this; and Mr Cowper, to vindicate himself, wrote to Mr Gordon, whose return says, if he were not going to Edinburgh, he would give him a double of his letter. It’s strange he sent him not the principal. In the postscript, he assures him, he shall conceal it to meeting.

‘Tis certain, that Mr Cowper, preaching the Lord’s day immediately after, in Pittenweem, took no notice of the murder, which at least makes him guilty of sinful silence. Neither did Mr Gordon, in his letter to Mr Cowper, make any regret for it; and this some construe to be a justifying of the horrid wickedness in both.

We are perswaded the government will examine this affair to the bottom, and lay little stress upon what the magistrates or minister of Pittenweem will say to smooth over the matter, seeing it’s very well known, that either of them could have quashed the rabble, and prevented that murder, if they had appeared zealous against it.

I am sorry I have no better news to tell you, God deliver us from those principles that tend to such practices.

I am,
Your humble servant.


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