Famous Accused Witch: Petronella de Meath

Petronella de Meath was the first woman in Ireland to be burned for heresy in 1324.

She was the hand-maiden of Dame Alice Kyteler, the famous witch of Kilkenny. Dame Alice was married four times, and each husband died. On the death of her last husband, Sir John le Poer, Alice’s children accused her of using poison and sorcery to kill him. They brought their case before the Bishop of Ossory, Richard de Ledrede, in 1324 in the hope that their mother would be arrested and they would gain her fortune. It was ordered that Alice be burned at the stake.

Unfortunately for Petronella, Alice fled. This left a large, baying crowd standing outside Kilkenny City’s Tholsel. To satisfy the crowd, Petronella was made to take Alice’s place. She was burned alive and that would be the end of Petronella de Meath, the first woman in Ireland burned for heresy, a claim that should have fell to Dame Alice.


Famous Accused Witch: Helen Duncan, Britain’s Last Witch

In 1944, Helen Duncan became Britain’s last witch, jailed under the archaic Witchcraft Act 1735.

Duncan was a medium who had been obsessed with the spirit world from childhood. Even as a young girl she claimed to be able to communicate with ghosts and dead people, earning her the nickname “Hellish Nell.”

She was not your average medium. Her “powers” meant she could summon dead relatives by producing ectoplasm from her mouth. This ectoplasm would then mould into physical beings of the spirits who would then be able to touch and communicate with their families and friends. Word soon spread of Helen’s amazing gift and, by the 1930s and 1940s, she was travelling the length and breadth of Britain, hosting séances and bringing comfort to grieving families who could speak to their dead loved ones in the spirit world.

Not everyone shared her devotees’ faith in her supernatural powers. In 1928, she agreed to be photographed by Harvey Metcalfe. His pictures revealed the so-called ghosts to be dolls and paper cuttings. It was then that the London Spiritualist Alliance decided to test the “ectoplasm” that Duncan produced from her mouth—it was found to be nothing more than a mixture of cheesecloth, egg white and paper.

In 1941, she claimed during a séance that the spirit of a sailor told her that HMS Barham had been sunk. She said she knew it was HMS Barham because of the band on the sailor’s hat. But the sinking of the ship had only been revealed in strictest confidence to the families of those lost, and was not announced to the public until January 1942. It was these revelations that prompted the authorities to take a closer interest in her activities.

Undercover policemen arrested Duncan at a séance when a white-shrouded figure appeared and was found to be Duncan herself in a white cloth.

It was later proven that there had been a leak concerning HMS Barham, so Duncan could have easily found out about the tragedy. She was initially arrested under the Vagrancy Act 1824, but the authorities regarded the case as more serious and eventually discovered section 4 of the Witchcraft Act that covered fraudulent spiritual activity. She was convicted on one of seven charges and was sent to Holloway Prison for nine months.

After the verdict, Winston Churchill wrote to the Home Secretary questioning the use of the Witchcraft Act in prosecuting Duncan. On her release in 1945, Duncan vowed not to conduct any more séances, but she was arrested during another one in 1956. She died at home in Edinburgh a short time later.

As a result of Helen Duncan’s case, the Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1951 and spiritualism was recognized as a religion three years later.

From the Irish Mirror: She could summon dead relatives by producing ectoplasm from her mouth, the story of Britain’s last witch

Famous Accused Witch: Tituba

“It is likely you have heard this name from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, but like many other characters in the play, Tituba was inspired by a real person. Although it’s unclear which South American country she originated from, Tituba was brought to the American colonies as a slave to Samuel Parris. During the 1692 Salem witch trials, Tituba was the first person accused of witchcraft by Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams.

“Initially, Tituba denied any involvement, but like so many of the accused, her will was quickly broken. Tituba admitted to the participation of an occult ritual, saying that she had baked a witchcake in an attempt to help her mistress, Elizabeth Parris. Tituba embellished her confession by adding details about her service to the devil, riding on sticks, and being told by a black dog to harm the children. Her testimony was both bizarre and frightening, as Tituba stated that she pinched the girls and had signed a devil’s book. Tituba, along with many others, was imprisoned for nearly a year, but managed not to be one of the women hanged for witchcraft.

“Tituba languished in prison for a year, as her [slave owner] would not pay her jail fees. Eventually, in 1693, an unknown individual purchased Tituba from the prison for the price of her jail fees. After this, the woman’s path disappeared from history.”

From 9 Famous Witches Throughout History

Famous Witch: Baba Yaga

Baba Yaga is one of the most famous characters in Slavic mythology. The old crooked-nosed hag is as evil as she looks. She is both a force of nature and a cruel old woman who eats people who dwell into the deep forest. Her name comes from the Slavic word for grandmother “Baba.” The meaning of the word “Yaga” is not certain but some think it means “wicked.”

Baba Yaga

In some myths, Baba Yaga gives tasks to her victims and, depending on the successful completion of their mission, they are either eaten or rewarded. She is not only an evil villain but, in many cases, she could even help them, like in the Russian story of “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” where Baba Yaga gives Vasilisa tasks to accomplish in trade for help.

Vasilisa outside of Baba Yaga’s hut.

Read more about Baba Yaga at Baba Yaga – The Mythical Forest Witch from Slavic Folk Tales.

Famous Witch: Catherine Monvoisin, aka La Voisin

(Paris vers 1640-Paris 1680).

Fille de M. Deshayes et épouse d’Antoine Monvoisin, elle était à la fois sage-femme, avorteuse, devineresse et sorcière. Consultée par des personnes de haut rang, elle fut compromise dans l’affaire des Poisons, condamnée par la Chambre ardente et brûlée vive (22 février 1680).

– from Larousse

Catherine Monvoisin (maiden name Catherine Deshayes, and popularly known as “La Voisin”), was a French sorceress, who was one of the chief personages in the infamous “affaire des poisons” which disgraced the reign of Louis XIV.

Her husband, Monvoisin, was an unsuccessful jeweller, and she took to practising divination techniques such as chiromancy and face-reading in order to retrieve her and her husband’s fortunes. She gradually added the practice of witchcraft, in which she had the help of a renegade priest, Etienne Guibourg, whose part was the celebration of the “black mass,” a parody of the Christian mass.

La Voisin was eventually caught up in the Poison Affair (“L’affaire des poisons”), a murder scandal in France during the reign of King Louis XIV which launched a period of hysterical pursuit of murder suspects, during which a number of prominent people and members of the aristocracy were implicated and sentenced for poisoning and witchcraft.

The furor began in 1675 after the trial of Marie-Madeleine-Marguerite d’Aubray, the Marquise de Brinvilliers, who was forced to confess to poisoning her father and siblings. She was sentenced to death and, after torture with the water cure (being forced to drink sixteen pints of water), was beheaded and burned at the stake. This case drew attention to a number of other mysterious deaths, and many fortune-tellers and alchemists suspected of selling not only divinations, séances and aphrodisiacs, but also “inheritance powders” (i.e. poison), were rounded up and tried.

La Voisin’s testimony implicated a number of important individuals in the French court, particularly the king’s mistress, the Marquise de Montespan, who she claimed had bought aphrodisiacs and performed black masses with her in order to gain the king’s favour. La Voisin was convicted of witchcraft and poisoning and was burned in public on the Place de Grève in the centre of Paris in 1680.

– from Witchcraft and Witches


Famous Witch: Biddy Early

I’ve been feeling sentimental lately about being Irish, so I looked up a famous Irish witch. I found a lyrical article about Biddy Early, an 18th-century seer and healer. She was exactly the kind of witch I’d be: resourceful, generous and wise. Her magic came from her relationship with the fairies, which is also quite appropriate for me, being a fairy myself. Wink, wink.

I have to admit that it is easy to forget one’s magic when caught up in a world largely made up of unfeeling narcissists. I’m fortunate to have many close, wise and magical friends, but dealing with the day-to-day corporate drones can wear away at one’s soul. Reading up on Biddy Early reminded me that me being Irish means that my blood is full of magic passed down to me from generations of Celts.

Read up on Irish fairy lore and the story of Biddy Early in the article The Story of Biddy Early: Ireland’s Most Famous Witch and Faery Friend.



Famous Accused Witch: Joan of Arc

joan of arc

Until grade 8, I attended Catholic school. When we studied the saints, I always wanted to choose Joan of Arc (link in French). The images of her burning at the stake were commonplace and they told a story of rebellion, faith, perseverance and a healthy touch of mysticism, or in my more cynical moments, insanity.

As a preteen, I loved nothing more than to read about how she heard voices and saw visions, and how she changed her culture’s history by listening to them. Paintings depicting her death at the stake spoke to her righteousness and strength despite her weakness of being eaten up by the flames at the hands of her enemies. (Narrative tension like that is my favourite kind of storytelling!)

I used to imagine fighting under Joan of Arc’s command, picturing her inspiring armies of soldiers to rally in a war. She was so opposite of a typical 15th-century woman, she reminded me that weird people have always existed, and have been celebrated. As a very weird kid myself, I saw her as a ray of light in my sometimes bleak childhood.

joan of arc 2


Famous Witch: Isobel Goudie

17th century witch trial

Isobel Goudie is a 17th-century Scottish woman famous for having been recorded as confessing to be a witch—to describing a shape-shifting spell and consorting with the devil. Reading about her confession on the Spooky Isles blog, it’s hard for me to believe in its authenticity. To me, her confession reads more like a propaganda pamphlet, which were wildly popular in the nearby London at that same time. True crime stories were particularly popular, and Isobel’s confession reads like a sensational pamphlet. It would be interesting to learn more about this case to see if the origins of the document have been verified as being legal.

Famous Witch: From the Bible

I love discovering dark things in unexpected places. I found a reference to a witch in the Old Testament. Having been raised Catholic, I never considered I would find a witch in the Bible. Her name is the Witch of Endor, and she called up the ghost of the prophet Samuel for King Saul in Samuel 1, 28: 3-25. The Witchcraft and Witches website describes the story and comments:

The Biblical passages have been subject to much discussion and interpretation as, read literally, they appear to affirm that it is (or at least was) possible for humans to summon the spirits of the blessed dead by magic. Dissatisfied with this interpretation, many medieval glosses suggested that what the witch actually summoned was not the ghost of Samuel, but a demon taking his shape, or that, if Samuel did in fact appear before Saul and the witch, then it was by a sovereign act of God himself. Either way, the passages seem to satirize Saul, the once righteous king who upheld God’s law by his sword, reduced to participating in forbidden rituals.

witch of endor 17th C Flemish
Witch of Endor, 17th Century, Flemish