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Falsely accused: Surrey "witch" let off the hook at Bonhams
Chilling account of attempted murder as man found guilty of making false accusation of witchcraft. Photo: Bonhams.

LONDON.- A witchcraft case in which the accuser becomes the accused is up for sale in Law Books: Property of the Los Angeles Law Library, on March 5th in Bonhams Knightsbridge salerooms. The sale of this collection of important European legal books could achieve over £600,000.

A book describing the case, “The Tryal of Richard Hathaway, Upon An Information For being a Cheat and Imposter, For endeavouring to take away The Life of Sarah Morduck, for being a Witch”, published following the 1702 trial, is estimated at £300-400.

Sarah Morduck was brought before the Surrey Assizes in 1701, accused of practicing malevolent witchcraft. When the trial resulted in an acquittal, her accuser, blacksmith’s apprentice Richard Hathaway, was charged with making these false claims to try and secure her demise. Morduck was extremely lucky, in that many of those charged with unnatural practices were found guilty on little or no evidence at all; trials were influenced by a prevailing public hysteria, and defendants faced prejudiced judges and juries.

We cannot know exactly why Hathaway accused Morduck, but human nature being what it is, there is no escaping the fact that some would hurl empty accusations for personal gain- it was a convenient way to get rid of pesky neighbours, business rivals, even one’s own spouse. Having survived a terrifying ordeal- she could have been just one of up to 14,000 executed across Europe, Britain and the Americas- Morduck lived for another eleven years, passing away in early 1713.

Up to the mid-18th century, the “witch hunt” was a legally sanctioned phenomenon throughout Europe, resulting in official witchcraft trials. Anti-witchcraft sentiment gained in popularity in the late 1400s, as powers that had previously been accepted as able to heal and protect were now seen as evidence of a deal with the devil. In England, it was not until Henry VIII’s Witchcraft Act of 1542 that the practice was defined as a felony, punishable by death and the seizure of the convict’s property and assets.

The most notorious of the English witch trials is that of the Pendle Witches, twelve accused men and women from Lancashire charged with murdering ten people by means of witchcraft. Eleven eventually went to trial in 1612; one was acquitted but the remaining ten were condemned and executed.

The North Berwick witch trials, taking place in Scotland in 1590, are noteworthy not only because of the large number of the accused, but also a royal connection. King James VI himself became involved after bad weather resulted in rough seas en route to a royal visit to Denmark, leading the King to believe that witches were trying to kill him. Hearing of the trials in North Berwick, he ordered the more than 70 suspects to be brought to him for questioning.

Historically, belief in witchcraft has been widespread throughout the world, with remarkably similar ideas existing in geographically and culturally separate societies. This has led anthropologists to the conclusion that the belief in magic, and attempts to use it for personal gain (to heal illnesses, gain riches, win love, etc.), are customs universal to human cultures. However, persecution of witches and outbreaks of witch hunts were also not confined to the Western world, as first-hand reports from the great Golden Age explorers of Africa, Asia, and the Americas reveal.

Academic estimates of the total number of people executed for witchcraft through the centuries vary widely, with the generally accepted figures being between 40,000 and 100,000. Throughout Europe, the number of executions for which there are records is approximately 12,000, and up to 2,000 for Britain and North America.

The Los Angeles County Law Library, which is the largest public law library in the United States after the Law Library of Congress, assembled much of its collection of historic European law books in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. The sale, the first major auction of antiquarian law books in the 21st Century, will enable it to concentrate resources on its core purposes of providing public access to practical legal knowledge for the people of Southern California and beyond and to free up space to conserve rare books and documents on American law.

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