Witch Hunt - By Syd Moore


They told me not to come.

He said ‘Twill do no good. Nay more.’ And he tried to touch my shoulder and bring me back into the court but I was too quick and ran pushing through the crowd. Some saw me and stepped aside, unwilling to be touched, as if they might catch my sin. Others shrieked.

I made off through the side lane.

And then I came here.

I have put on my cap and wrapped a shawl over too. So none may see me.

Though I see all.

And I see them: bound and tethered in a pen.

Like sheep.

Then there are the others, the eager spectators.

So many cluster before me, edging their way forward, craning to get a good view, that I can only catch glimpses through the space between my neighbours’ shoulders. On their faces some have smiles. The girl beside me, only two or three years younger than I, licks her lips and stands up on her toes. Her father, in starched lace and black, pulls her back down and, with a stare, admonishes her excitement. But the woman beside him, whom I saw at a stall selling nuts for the crowd, has a face full of glory. Her eyes are wide in anticipation. In her hands she has a knife and fingers it greedily. She will try to get some hair from the dead for keepsakes to sell on.

A hush falls over the crowd as the first is helped up to the scaffold. I can see from the way she stumbles it is Old Mother Clarke. Her ancient face is creased with lines of age and knots of confusion. Two of the men assisting the execution have taken an arm each to support her, for she cannot stand firm with but one leg. She staggers forward and clutches the man on her right to steady herself as the hangman puts the noose over her head.

A woman at the front of the crowd near the gallows hurls something rotten. It hits Mother Clarke on the chin and she looks about to throw some rebuke back but before she can open her mouth comes the push. Her wizened frame drops and cracks as the noose does its work. Quickly. Thank God. And she is turned off.

Next it is Anne Leech. Younger than Mother Clarke, she wrestles with the hangman as much as she can with her hands and feet bound. There is little way to fight. But she will not go without one. One of the throng of eager spectators, a man with a red beard and broad shoulders, goads her and calls ‘Witch. You will go to the Devil now.’ Anne always had more spirit than others and she spits at him and calls out a curse. The crowd starts to move, excited by the show, laughing as the hangman roughly slips over the noose. But Anne is angry and wild. She begins to bring down a curse on the hangman, but cannot finish: a shove from behind stops her words. But it does not stop her life and she twists and turns on the end of the line like a fish from the brook. The hangman speaks to the man at his side and points to the cross beam. The rope is coming apart. He calls for a ladder but not in time for the rope to unravel and Anne falls with it to the ground, catching the side of the scaffold as she goes down.

The crowd surges forward to watch. She is picked up and shown. To their delight they see she has dashed out an eye and is carried back up to the third noose and hanged once more. A deep red drip from her face darkens her dress yet still the twitching goes on. A girl at the front runs forward to pull on her legs but she is stopped by the broad-shouldered man.

Above Anne the hangman and his men throw up another rope. Elizabeth Clarke is being taken down. I cannot see where they take her corpse.

And there is another witch now on the platform. I do not know her name. She has soiled herself with fear. It is hot and her face is greasy with sweat. As she is brought to Elizabeth’s noose she falls down in a fainting fit and is dragged over to the side. The hangman calls for a pitcher of water to rouse her. She must be awake to see her end.

And then she is there on the scaffold. Her long black