A Wall of Names
By Karl Anthony Mercer, Curating for Change Trainee
* Discover more by visiting our Wicked Spirits collection online. *
A wall of names. You may have heard of a few, perhaps they were noteworthy enough to make it into chronicles, local legend or broader narratives. Most of them you do not know. They are victims of suspicion, victims of aggression, victims of a hypocritically superstitious violence. They were not the first and they will not be the last. Human history is littered with persecutions.
These are the names of people local to Essex who were accused of witchcraft, subjected to false imprisonment, torture and abuse. They were not witches. They were not dark spirits in league with the devil wantonly causing misery in their communities. Most of them were probably just outcasts, pariah, people the community disliked because they were odd, different, did not adhere to social norms, many were just Catholics at a time of intense Protestant sentiment.
Part of my role as Curating for Change Trainee is to try to find objects and stories related to disability in Colchester Museums’ collections. I am autistic and so was particularly keen to find relation to autism. The problem is autism is a relatively modern diagnosis. It is already a hidden disability with no obvious physical signatures, but in records of the past it is invisible. I am left feeling around for gossamer-fine threads of relatability and I found it in that wall of names.
The Malleus Maleficarum, one of the earliest, and best known, treatise on witchcraft.
It made me wonder to what extent did the witch trials disproportionately affect disabled people, and neurodivergent people in particular?
It is tough to talk about. In some places and communities autistic people, especially children, are subject to horrific abuses because they are suspected of being possessed or witches. This is not a phenomenon of the past to be mused on with the benefit of historic hindsight.
The Wicked Spirits? exhibition at Colchester Castle looks at the relationship between persecution and superstition in Essex, between the 1500s-1800s. It mostly follows the narrative of the development of superstition about witches, the laws enacted because of it, and stories of those persecuted. Where most may see an exhibition about the history of witchcraft, I saw an exhibition very rooted in the present, in the sense of ‘othering’ and suspicion, which is still sadly too common to this day.
I grew up not knowing I was autistic, always struggling to fit in. I always felt like an outsider, and was often treated as such. My behaviours were not compassionately considered, they were aberrant, weird and to be purged out of me. Sometimes I was a chore, sometimes an embarrassment, but I was always ‘different’, always ‘other’. I suffered for this; abuses physical, mental and emotional were doled out on me for my perceived weirdness.
What would have become of me had I existed at a time when witchcraft was foremost in people’s minds?
A taxidermy mount of a European wildcat. Cats were often believed to be familiars of witches.
Those accused were often isolated. They may have lived alone, may not have had families, children or partners, despite being ‘of age’ – Such are my circumstances. Many of those accused are associated with ‘familiars’, animals acting as avatars of evil forces, or the devil himself. A commonality in autism is a love of animals, with cats a particular favourite, and a common familiar. It is common for autistic people to talk to themselves out loud, sometimes muttering under their breath. This was regularly used to accuse people of curses and incantations. Most of all those accused of witchcraft were not accepted or welcomed, people had a problem with them. This is the day-to-day reality of living with autism in a neurotypical world.
Many signatures of people accused of witchcraft are present in autistics. How many of those names on that wall, in today’s era, would be diagnosed, or self-diagnose, as neurodivergent?
The most heart-breaking case discussed in ‘Wicked Spirits’, for me, is the Sible Hedingham case. An elderly man, believed a deaf-mute, local to the area and making a living as a fortune teller was the subject of a heinous attack by a mob after a local woman believed he had put a curse on her. He was thrown in a brook, in an apparent act of ‘ordeal by water’. He would later die with the coroner concluding it was likely the injuries at the hands of the violent mob that led to his death.
The Sible Hedingham witchcraft display recounts this man’s story
One thing that makes this profoundly powerful is this took place in the 1860s, a long time after the witch-hunting hysteria of the mid 17th Century, and over a century after the passing of the Witchcraft Act 1735, which made it illegal to claim a person was a witch, practised witchcraft or had magical powers. Law had moved on, but superstition and persecution remained.
In reading the details of the case, especially as someone who has situational mutism, I found it especially poignant. While the victim, whose real name is unknown, is described as a deaf mute, the Bury and Norwich Post article on the case, from March 15th 1864, has this to say about him:
“His habits were peculiar and his inability to express himself otherwise than by grotesque gestures and was also very excitable caused him to be regarded by many as possessed of the power of witchcraft.”
And of his reaction days after the events:
“On the morning of the 4th the old man was seen in his hut by Mr Fowke, still in his wet clothes and trembling violently. He was also a good deal bruised and screamed from pain when his clothes were taken off him.”
These passages really affected me. I recognised autistic traits. Perhaps this was a non-verbal autistic man just making his way in the world, violently set upon in his old age by people who had simply taken a disliking to him. His state of shock after the fact seems much like an overwhelmed autistic person in a state of meltdown or burnout. He seems to suffer a total loss of executive function, exhibits idiosyncratic movement, and is uncomfortable with being touched.
Perhaps I am projecting. Maybe he was just a deaf-mute, although co-morbidity of deafness in autistics is high. Perhaps he was in a state of post-traumatic shock, a state similar in symptoms to autistic overwhelm. Perhaps he was uncomfortable being touched because of the pain of his injuries.
Thumbscrews, used to torture people accused of witchcraft. Torture of supposed witches still happens to this day.
But where there is no certain evidence of autism in the past, these relatabilities are all the autistic community has to find themselves in our stories of the past. The tale of a man who, if nothing else, shares some of our behaviours and suffers for them is more than enough to relate to.
This is a case of a disabled man being subject to a horrific act of social violence, set upon by a mob, not because he had done anything, but because he simply was not trusted. Many in the disabled community would argue attitudes have not wholly changed. The presentation of disability in mass media, the language that is used surrounding it by people and politicians and thus the wider consideration of disability by society, many would argue, shows a veneer of care covering up an infrastructure of outright hostility.
People with behavioural or social disabilities are still disproportionately affected by violent crime and anti-social behaviour, as shown in the ONS ‘Disability and Crime’ statistics from 2019.
Superstition and persecution still abound, the witch-hunts never left – we just changed the methods and definitions.
A paper-based artwork, from Superstition Corner. Superstition is not restricted to omens, but can foretell a brighter future.