It wasn’t all that unusual in the 17th century and earlier, for elderly widows or single women who didn’t ‘fit in’, to be accused of witchcraft, and if they happened to be around when something dire happened, immediately became suspect.
Superstition was rife — Shakespeare’s plays are full of it, with omens of doom in the shape of eagles, the abnormal entrails of animals, shooting stars, and much more, in fact anything out of the ordinary bred fear.In 1682, three Bideford women, Mary Trembles, Temperance Lloyd and Susannah Edwards, were convicted of witchcraft at the Exeter Assizes. Temperance Lloyd was accused by Grace Thomas that she “hath been an instrument of doing much hurt and harm unto her body, by pricking and tormenting of her…” It seems that Grace had been suffering from internal pains, but had begun to recover. She met Temperance Lloyd in the High Street, who asked after her health, and was pleased to hear she was better. That night Grace’s pains increased so that she “thought she would die”, and suspected the meeting with Lloyd as the cause.
At the Assizes Temperance was accused of making a wax image of Grace and pricking it with pins, and Grace foolishly admitted that she had pricked a piece of leather nine times. To make things worse, a magpie had settled on Grace’s window ledge — obviously the Devil in disguise, sent by a witch. The Devil is supposed to have appeared in various forms to these three women, and somehow they admitted it might have been so.
The awesome situation they found themselves in perhaps petrified their wits, as they seemed unable to defend themselves, helpless against spite, ignorance and credulity.
John Watkins in his book of Bideford tells at great length the trial of all three women, who may or may not have acted strangely, or may just have been victimised because they lived alone and had acquired certain mannerisms. They were all three executed for witchcraft and were the last in England to suffer this fate. As John Watkins concluded in 1792 “…there was always some poor devil, either on account of an unlucky visage, sour temper, or wretched poverty, set up as the object of terror and universal hatred…”