Original article from Kent Live
When we think of witch hunts, a few things usually spring to mind.
From Salem's infamous witch trials and Arthur Miller's play based on those real events, to even perhaps that scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, we all have a rough idea.
We don't, however, usually think of a sleepy village on Kent's east coast, just inland from Dover.
But lo and behold, West Langdon is the location of our last recorded witch hunt, and it very nearly became a horror story.
First we need to do a bit of recapping on witchcraft in England.
Though witchcraft wasn't a capital offence, a crime punishable by death, until 1563, it was deemed heresy by the Catholic Church almost 100 years earlier; the past of mob-violence and witch hunts began from that point forward.
Though laws against witchcraft were repealed in 1737, that did not mean witch hunts stopped, and scattered incidents took place over England and Europe over the next hundred and fifty years – the most recent being the second Salem witch trials of 1878.
Between 1484 to around 1750, it is estimated that 200,000 witches were burned, hanged or tortured across Europe, the majority of which were women, but a handful were men too.
The variety of means through which witch trials were carried out were numerous – from tying victims up and throwing them in to bodies of water, known as being 'swam', to stabbing warts and boils to see if it hurt, or even simply setting them ablaze.
Specifics aside, witch hunts are a fascinating example of how social psychology functions.
The theory states that a group of people whip each other up into a frenzy, usually over a perceived evil they see as essentially or irredeemably different from themselves – and from there, violence often ensues.
So what does all this have to do with the sleepy town of West Langdon?
On the surface, this miniscule settlement in Kent isn't all that special.
In fact, it is so small, that its population stats are only grouped with a few neighbouring villages and hamlets – and even then, the collective total population is only 500.
Home to St Mary's Church, a small Anglican church, a handful of house and very little else, you could be forgiven for assuming that the history of this village is a little pedestrian.
However, back in 1762, nearly thirty years after witchcraft was made no longer a crime, and 80 years since the last execution of a witch, a crowd gathered at the home of John Pritchers.
Pritchers' wife was dragged from their home, about a mile to the home of a thirteen year-old boy whom the crowd believed Mrs Pritchers to have bewitched.
From there, the trial began – the crowd searched for a 'devil's spot', or a part of the skin that looked like a boil or wart, by pricking her with needles and other sharp implements.
Convinced of her guilt, the crowd were on the verge of 'swimming' the accused, a process of tying a witch's thumbs to the opposite big toes, and throwing her into a lake or river.
The theory goes that if she floated, she was a witch, and if she sank, she was innocent – either way, death was a likely outcome of these trials.
Luckily, however, a magistrate intervened, saving the woman's life, whilst the ringleaders were convicted – though West Langdon's history was within an inch of becoming far more grim.
Witchcraft has become a much studied part of our history, especially amongst academics, many of whom have grown to understand witch hunts as a form of misogynistic mob violence.
The hallmarks of a witch, being single or promiscuous, appearing to control people, and even having warts or boils, are connected by the idea that they were an affront to the historic social order, where women were generally subjugated.
Either being too independent, too powerful, or just unattractive, the hallmarks of being a witch, and the torture and violence those suspected of witchcraft face, speaks to the values of those pre-modern communities: that women should be powerless, loyal, and acceptable to men.
Whatever transgression it was that John Pritchers' wife committed, her near-escape from an unpleasant end is both an interesting, and horrifying, slice of Kent's unknown history.