This Month in History

Elizabeth Sawyer, witch

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Mother Sawyer indicted and executed for Witchcraft

14-19 April 1621

On Saturday, April 14, 1621, Elizabeth Sawyer was charged with witchcraft at the Old Bailey in London. Before her execution, she was interviewed by Henry Goodcole (the Newgate Prison Chaplain), who published her confession in his pamphlet, The Wonderful Discoverie of Elizabeth Sawyer a Witch (1621). Sawyer was accused, amongst other things, of the death of Agnes Ratcleife, whom she was said to have bewitched in revenge for the striking of her pig, which Ratcleife had caught licking up soap. During the trial, it was shown that Sawyer had a ‘private and strange’ mark on her body, which was seen as damning proof of her involvement with the Devil, who was said to come to her in the shape of a dog.

The case of Elizabeth Sawyer was dramatized in the play The Witch of Edmonton, collaboratively written by Thomas Dekker, William Rowley, and John Ford. Mother Sawyer (as she is referred to in the play) is an old woman who is shunned and abused by her neighbours before deciding to seek revenge by selling her soul to the Devil – who appears in the shape of a black dog called Tom – in return for supernatural powers. The play was performed for the first time by Prince Charles's Men in 1621, only months after the real Sawyer’s execution.

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