The Economics of Burning a Witch

Estimates for the number of witches executed in Scotland from the early 16th through the early 18th centuries range from an unlikely low of 1,500 to a staggering 17,000, termed “simply preposterous” by George F. Black. In A Calendar of Witch Trials in Scotland Black, who served a term as Assistant-keeper of the Nationals Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh, names 1,800 people apprehended for witchcraft, not all of which resulted in execution, and maintains that it is impossible to give anything like an exact number due to poor local records-keeping, with that due largely to burnings having become commonplace and apparently unimportant to the country. He does tend to favor Legge’s 3,400 for the period between 1590 and 1680, with an additional 1,000 based on his own studies, which were extensive. Records for gender and age statistics are faulty at best. The vast majority of accused witches were women, although about ten percent were men, and a few were children. “The more women the more witches.”

The Scots method of execution generally was strangulation, occasionally hanging. The body was then burned to destroy the possessing demon or demons. Accused witches were expected to name others they had seen at their sabbats, and ample space was left in dockets for their insertion. Those named would themselves be expected to name others. Once an accusation of witchcraft was made, it as almost impossible to disprove it. Small wonder there were so many executions.

In 1657 the Treasurer of Dumfries recorded the following “entries of expenses for the execution of two women condemned as witches.”

For 38 loads of petits to burn the twa women, £ 3 .12s.

Mair given to William Edgar for ane tar barrell, .12s.

for ane herring barrrell, .14s.

Given to John Shotrick, for carrying the twa

barrels to the pledge [house], .06s.

Mair, given to the four officers that day that

the witches was brunt at the provest and

bayillis command, .24s.

Given to Thomas Anderson for the two stoups

and two staves [to which the women were tied], .30s.

£ 7 .18s.

Another set of figures from 1678 presents the bill for executing four witches in Peaston.

Item, to the damster, 2 lib; to the hangman,

13s 4d.; more to him to give back their plaids,

6s; to the officers 1 lb £3:19:4

Item, for 8 cairtfulls of coals at 14s. the cart; is ……….. 5:12:6

Item, for trees and naills to the gallous

and scaffold 2:05:6

Item, for 4 tar barrells 2:09:4

Item, to the wright and his men for building

the gallows and scaffold 1:10:0

Item, for the hangman’s wadges, and the

expenses at Haddingtoun tuo severall tymes

before he cam out and at the sending of him

back, with a merk to him to buy toues, in all 22:07:4


Summa is £38: 03:0

Divyde 38 lib. 3s in four pairts, ilk fourt

pairt will be £9:10:9

One pound Scots in the 17th century was valued at approximately eight percent of the English pound.

It might be possible to arrive at some crude estimate of the total cost of all witches executed in Scotland by using a “Peaston formula” for “ilk pairt” in combination with the cost of burning the two women in Dumfries, along with reckonings for several other dates.

The complexity of differing estimates for total witches executed is compounded by the fact that some witches were executed alone, while others were burned together in varying numbers.

The cost incurred by “pricking” the accused in the “discovery” of a witch is not generally reflected. The “pricker” inserted a pin or a knife into the skin of the accused, who was no doubt blindfolded at the time, in order to determine the presence of a “devil’s mark” – made by Auld Cloven Cootie himself.

The Devil was commonly believed to suck blood from new converts. He would then sprinkle the blood over the initiates while they renounced their faith in a baptism that made them his own. If the accused felt no pain when the supposedly resulting mark was pricked, or did not cry out, indictment for witchcraft clearly was in order.

Gareth J. Medway in Lure of the Sinister: The Unnatural History of Satanism, points out that it was in the interests of professional witch-hunters “to keep finding witches in order to earn a decent living.”

To ensure themselves of such continuing gainful employment, retractable blades were commonly used.

Mr. Paterson, in the church of Wardlaw at Inverness, pricked 18 women and one man. (Chronology of the Frasers) Several of them died in prison, never brought to confession (by which one may reasonably infer they died as a result of torture, the standard means of eliciting a confession). “This villain gaind a great deal of mony, having two servants.”

Mr. Paterson was eventually discovered to be a woman disguised in man’s clothing.

Paterson’s exploits are greatly overshadowed by the most infamous “common pricker” of all, one Thomas Kincaid who was personally responsible for the finding, and most likely execution, of 220 accused witches. He was paid 20 shillings for each witch he “discovered.”

The authorities ultimately got wise to Kincaid’s propensity toward falsely accusing people of being witches and, appalled by his inhumanity, jailed him.

In an ironic twist of justice, if not a travesty of it, Kincaid petitioned for his freedom on grounds that he was elderly and would be unable to survive imprisonment. His freedom was granted.

Size of the local community seems also to have had a bearing on matters, and local authorities frequently attempted to cut expenses by sending accused witches to Edinburgh to stand trial.

Requests to do so were not always granted, and Culross seems to have had restricted ability to keep an eye on Elspeth Craiche, apprehended in 1656 as a witch. They were further concerned about the expense to them for “interteaning her in bread and drink and vther necessaris.” When the authorities in Edinburgh refused a commission for Craiche’s trial, the local solution was to banish her from the vicinity.

The woman herself must have just as impecunious as the town, since she didn’t seem to get very far. She was imprisoned once again for witchcraft in 1662 – yes, in Culross. This time, “2 honest men” were ordained to watch her – giving rise to speculation why it may have been difficult to do so in the earlier situation.

In Auchtermuchty, on May 19, 1662, supplication was made that Isobell Blyth, apprehended and imprisoned for witchcraft, be removed to Edinburgh for trial “as they are unable to maintain her.” (Reg of the Privy Council 3, series , v. 1, p. 209-210)

Prickers were not the only ones who benefited financially by the finding and/or execution of witches. Local authorities believed in replenishing their coffers; they found ways to enhance them as well.

A common practice was to charge the surviving spouse, or a family member for the cost of an execution. Accounts for Pittenweem in 1643 are illuminating here:

November 3. John Dawson was ordered to pay £40 expenses for the execution of his wife.

December 18. Thomas Cook was ordered to pay £60 for the execution of his mother for witchcraft.

December 21. John Crombie was ordered to pay £80 for the execution of his wife for witchcraft.

Inflation seems to have been rampant. Or was it greed? Probably a combination of the two.

Even freedom seems to have had its price.

Margaret Young of Dysart, in prison on a charge of witchcraft, complained in October 1644 that she had been “lyin’ most miserablie ther ten weekes bygane albeit she is ane honest young woman of good reputation.” Dysart was “liberated on her husband giving security to the extent of 500 merks to exhibit her whenever he shall be required.” (Chambers v2, p 153-154)

A morbid sense of financial gain certainly was often the motive for accusation, and a surprisingly large number of persons accused of practicing witchcraft turned out to be owners of several houses. Some appeared to see in it an opportunity to improve their own housing situation.

Mr. James Gillespie, the local minister, at Rhynd, along with some other fools – appropriately enough on April 1, 1662 – was ordered “to appear before the council for unwarrantably apprehending and imprisoning [4 women] as suspect guiltie of witchcraft, and by pricking, watching, keeping them from sleep and othr tortur hae extorted from the said persons ane confession of their guilt…and thereupon having procured ane commisssion…for putting them to…tryal have caused execute the esentence of death upon the saids persons, whereby it may be feared that they, at least one, or other of them, have sufffered unjustlie.”

Gillespie and cohorts were also charged with the illegal apprehension, pricking, torturing and abuse of another five persons.

The generally accepted date for the last execution of a witch in Scotland is that of Janet Horne in 1722. However, Burt’s Letters from the north of Scotland gives the last “legal trial for witchcraft in Scotland” as June, 1727 in Dornoch. An elderly woman and her daughter were tried and condemned.

Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe’s A historical account of the belief in witchraft in Scotland (pg 199-200) records one of the old woman’s crimes as “having ridden upon her own daughter, transformed into a pony and shod by the devil, which made the girl ever after lame both in hands and feet.”

Such infirmities apparently did not interfere with the younger woman escaping prison, although her mother must have had her legs crushed during torture, for she “suffered that cruel death in a pitch barrel.”

Later expense records for witch-executions do not vary greatly from the earlier versions, save that a more casual (jaded might be more accurate) approach may be discerned by the frequent inclusion of the cost of ale drunk by the executioner. Thirsty work.

Copyright 2010 Michael McGrinder

Sidebar 1

A “Peaston Formula”

£ 7 .18 .00

38 .03 .00

£46 .01 .00

6 / £46.01.00 = £7. 13s. 06d (per witch

Now add in the common pricker’s fee. I am using Kincaid’s

20-shillings (£1) per discovery rate of payment, since it is the

only one recorded.

£8. 13s .06d Grand Total per Witch

Clearly it was more cost-effective to conduct an auto-da-fe than to burn witches alone or in small groups.

Sidebar 2

Scots Glossary

petits = faggots, or straw

ane = one

twa = two

mair = more

ilk = each

£ = pound

s. = shilling

d. = pence

shilling = 12 pence

pound = 20 shillings

merk = two-thirds of one pound, approx 13s .04d

plaid = (in this instance) a blanket or shawl

stoup = a post or pillar; alternately steps (to the gallows)

toues = ropes (this may be debatable)

© 2015 Michael McGrinder

This essay was written upon the completion of my play The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie /MM

Published on October 30, 2010 at 8:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

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