Mention the subject of ‘Witch Trials’ to an historian and almost inevitably the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 comes to their mind. Between February 1692 and May 1693, fourteen women and five men were tried for practicing witchcraft, found guilty and were subsequently executed by hanging in Salem, Massachusetts. But although the Salem Trials are perhaps the most infamous example, it is estimated that tens of thousands of people were convicted of being witches and executed by hanging, burning or drowning during the the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The following account, taken from ‘A Compleat History of Magick, Sorcery, and Witchcraft Vol. II, Sorcery, and Witchcraft’ published in London in 1715, examines the case of the Bargarran Trials of Scotland. Was eleven-year-old Christian Shaw really tormented by witches? Various alternative explanations, proposed by historians and psychologists over the years, appear in the margins.1“List of People Executed for Witchcraft.” – Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed October 30, 2015. http://bit.ly/1ipoOhI.
It was in the parish of Erskine in the County of Renfrew in Scotland at the end of August in the year of our Lord, One Thousand Six hundred and Ninety-six when eleven-year-old Christian Shaw, the daughter of John Shaw, the Laird of Bargarran, told her mother that Catherine Campbell, one of their maids stole some milk. Several witnesses then heard the said Catherine place the Curse of God three times upon the child, saying thrice, ‘The Devil drag your Soul through Hell.’
At sunrise the following Friday, an old and malicious woman by the name of Agnes Naismith came to Bargarran’s house where she met Christian Shaw in the court with her younger sister. The woman, known for threatening others in a malicious way, asked how they were and how old the young sister was and when Christian did not answer, she asked her how old she herself was and Christian replied that she was in her eleventh year.
Symptoms of ergot poisoning, caused by ingesting fungus infected rye and other cereals, include painful seizures and spasms. Could Christian Shaw have ingested tainted grain?
~Ergotism on Wikipedia
On the Saturday night after, the young girl Christian Shaw went to bed in good health but soon after falling asleep, she began to struggle and cry for help and then suddenly got up and flew over the top of the bed where she lay, to the great astonishment of her parents and attendant. Had not the attendant broken her fall, the injury would have been grave. She was carried to another bed where she lay stiff and insensible for a half an hour and for the next two days she cried out from violent pains throughout her body, calling for help.
She was seized by a pain in her left side that caused her to double-over and was unable to speak for the next eight days as the fits came on suddenly and repeatedly, allowing her no quarter. In the middle of September, the fits returned, more violent than ever. During the fits, Christian seemed to be struggling with invisible attackers and she writhed with such force that it took four men to hold her and prevent her from harming herself. When anyone touched her, she cried out in pain but was unable to speak.
In a grand mal epileptic seizure, the patient loses consciousness and usually collapses. The loss of consciousness is followed by generalized body stiffening for 30 to 60 seconds, then by violent jerking for 30 to 60 seconds, after which the patient goes into a deep sleep. During grand-mal seizures, injuries and accidents may occur, such as tongue biting and urinary incontinence. Could Christian have been suffering from epilepsy?
~Types of seizures on Web MD
Her parents summoned the Apothecary John White and afterwards Dr. Johnston who bled her and attempted several treatments with no visible effect. When she was finally able to speak, she cried that Catherine Campbell and Agnes Naismith were cutting her side. Her symptoms continued and after a month or so, she was taken to Glasgow to be treated by Dr. Brisbane, a noted physician and Mr. Henry Marshall, an Apothecary. They prepared medicines for Christian during her ten day stay and she appeared cured. For two weeks after returning home, her behaviour and demeanor were normal but then the fits returned.
The fits came on with a pain in her left side. Her throat would be drawn back towards her breast, her tongue back into her throat and her whole body would become stiff. Sometimes her tongue would protrude and her attendants would have to place something in her mouth to protect her tongue from being bitten.
Pica is the persistent eating of substances such as dirt or paint that have no nutritional value. Individuals with certain mental issues, such as schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder may develop pica as a coping mechanism.
~Pica: Causes, Symptoms & Diagnosis - on Healthline
With the return of the fits, her parents decided to take her to Glasgow once again to be cared for by the doctors. During the journey, they stopped at her grandmother’s house in Northban and while there, Christian began to spit out parcels of hair of different colours – some curled, some braided and others knotted. This continued throughout her journey, and was accompanied by fits every quarter hour. On her arrival at Glasgow on 12 November, she also began spitting out lumps of coal cinders the size of a chestnut, lengths of straw, pins and bones and pieces of candle-fir. 2Candle-fir is a type of fir wood that can be burned like a candle. At other times, she would spit out feathers or a stone and lumps of candle-grease and egg shells.
After recovering from one of her fits, Christian began to pray and talked to Catherine Campbell as though she were in the room:
Thou sits there with a stock in thy hand to put into my mouth, but through God’s strength thou shalt not get leave. Thou art permitted to torment me, but I trust in God, thou shalt never get my life, though it is my life thou designest.A Compleat History of Magick, Sorcery, and Witchcraft
But despite her prayers and her pleas to the imaginary Catherine Campbell, her violent fits continued and it sometimes took four attendants to keep her from injury during them. After some days of repeated fits, Christian declared that four men: Alexander and James Anderson and two others who she could not name were also tormenting her. In early December she returned home from Glasgow, having passed several days without fits but on her return home, she relapsed and the fits returned. After her fits, as she recovered, she would tell her mother and attendants that she was visited during her fits by a crew of tormentors but could not relate what they had said for as soon as she began, she would be seized with another fit.
Her parents, in desperation, brought Agnes Naismith to see Christian. During her visit, Agnes prayed that the Lord God of Heaven and Earth might send Christian her health. From that time forward, Christian no longer saw Agnes as one of her tormentors but thought that she helped to defend her from the others. Catherine Campbell however would not repent or pray for Christian and instead cursed the entire Bargarran family and in particular Christian. The family appealed to the Under Sheriff to imprison Catherine Campbell and for a time while she was in prison, she no longer appeared to Christian as a tormentor.
Dancing mania was a social phenomenon that occurred primarily in mainland Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries. It involved groups of people dancing erratically, sometimes thousands at a time. The mania affected men, women, and children, who danced until they collapsed from exhaustion. Possible explanations for the mania include ergot poisoning, epilepsy or mass hysteria of the psychologically disturbed.
~Dancing mania - on Wikipedia
In January, Christian’s fits changed and she swooned and lay still and then talked mournfully in a low voice repeating stories of her torment, naming her attackers as several of the previously mentioned persons. When her parents attempted to arouse her, she screeched and cried out as though in pain and then afterwards fell to leaping, singing and dancing for an extended time, refusing to be restrained. In mid-January, she sprang from her bed and ran through the chamber and hall down the stairs to the tower-gate. The gate being shut, she did not get through and stopped and allowed her parents to carry her back to her room. In both cases, she blamed her tormentors for her actions, saying they had encouraged it.
In addition to medical treatment, Christian’s parents sought the assistance of the Minister of the parish and he and other good Christians in the neighbourhood joined with the family in regular fasting and prayer. During one such prayer session, Christian became violent in her fits and called out about the Bargarran’s Orchard and spoke of three tormentors by the names of Elizabeth Anderson, James Lindsay and Thomas Lindsay. Later it was found that the three had met in the orchard at around the time of her torment.
Schizophrenia is a mental disorder often characterized by abnormal social behavior and failure to recognize what is real. Common symptoms include false beliefs, unclear or confused thinking, auditory hallucinations, reduced social engagement and emotional expression, and lack of motivation. Symptoms begin typically in young adulthood. Could Christian have suffered from schizophrenia?
~Schizophrenia - on Wikipedia
On one occasion, Christian rose and ran to the cellar and was restrained by her brother and sister until one of the Ministers could come to their assistance. Christian recounted that the crew tormenting her had suggested that the Devil was in the Meal-Chest in the Cellar and that if she went there and put out the candle, she might force him out of it. At other times, she heard voices that suggested that she go to remote places in the house alone, bringing with her some string or cravat. During other fits, she told her attendants that her tormentors wanted to carry her out at the hall window and drown her in the well in the court, and in fact she attempted to get out of the window with such force that those around her could barely restrain her.
When the Ministers around her prayed, she lashed out, talking loudly to drown out their prayers and even physically attacking them in an effort to quiet them. She told of her tormentors encouraging her to kill her sister and become one of them although she continued to resist their demands.
Conversion disorder sometimes appears after a stressful event or trauma, whether it be physical or psychological in nature. Symptoms include weakness and paralysis, tremors or difficulty walking, loss of balance, difficulty with swallowing, seizures and convulsions, unresponsiveness, numbness, speech problems, vision problems and hearing impairment or deafness. Was Christian Shaw suffering from conversion disorder?
~Conversion Disorder - on the Mayo Clinic website
Eventually, the case of the girl and her tormentors was presented to his Majesty’s most Honourable Privy Council, a a commission was granted to a Noble Lord to make an enquiry into the matter. The Commission arrested those that Christian had accused of being her tormentors and they were committed to prison, including even her Grandmother.
On 5 February, a Quorum of the commissioners met at Bargarran and there the accused were confronted as Christian’s tormentors. The Commissioners ordered the prisoners to touch Christian in their presence and witnessed for themselves that the young girl was seized with fits at their very touch. During the enquiry, the young boy named Thomas Lindsay, not yet twelve years old, was one of those taken into custody and accused of witchcraft. He told the Commissioners that the Devil was his Father and that he could turn himself into a crow and fly. He said that he could cause a plough to stand and horses to break their yokes and several other unlikely things. Some of the others were questioned and at first denied their participation in Christian’s torment, but after a lengthy interrogation by Mr. Patrick Simpson, a neighbourhood minister, they ultimately confessed.
The Tryal – Convicted, Hanged and Burned
The Commissioners for the Enquiry met at Bargarran in February 1697. The jury heard testimony on the matter. The Witch’s Advocate cautioned that the prosecution had to rule out any natural explanation before his clients could be convicted, but Dr. Matthew Brisbane, who had examined and treated Christian Shaw in Glasgow gave evidence that he found no such explanation. The prosecutor instructed the jury that, should they acquit the accused defendants, then they would be accessories to the crime of witchcraft, guilty of blasphemy, tortures and seductions. The jury found the seven defendants guilty of having bewitched Christian Shaw.
Seven people – Margaret Lang, John Lindsay, James Lindsay, John Reid, Catherine Campbell, Margaret Fulton, and Agnes Naismith – were sentenced to hang. James Reid hanged himself before he could be executed but the other six were first hanged and then burned on the Gallow Green in Paisley on 10 June 1697.
In 1719, Christian Shaw married the Reverend John Millar, the minister of parish in Kilmaurs, Ayrshire. After his death two years later, she went on to become a successful business woman, manufacturing thread under the Bargarran trademark. In 1737, Christian chose William Livingstone, an affluent businessman from Edinburgh, as her second husband.
Possession of Christian Shaw – Witchcraft OR Medical and Psychological Illness?
What caused the extreme symptoms experienced by Christian Shaw?
Since witchcraft and bewitchment is no longer considered a believable explanation for the events that transpired in the Bargarran home in 1697, many historians and psychologists have proposed alternate theories for the torments of the eleven-year-old Christian Shaw. Explanations suggested include Ergot poisoning, Encephalitis, Lyme disease, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Schizophrenia, Conversion Disorder, Hysteria, Pica disorder, Epilepsy and even Mass Hysteria.