It looked like your average everyday old wine bottle, it was stouts at the bottom with the stubby neck, and amazingly, it was still corked and sealed, but there was no label on it, which is why the owner had brought it to a local filming of the Antiques Roadshow.
Back in 2016, the owner set it down in front of a glass, experts hoping to get an idea as to what might be inside. The easy conclusion was that it dated from the eighteen hundreds, making it at least 150 years old. But the contents were anyone's guess. So eager to learn more, this glass expert took a syringe and drew out a small sample of the liquid after placing it in a glass and tasting it. The expert wrestled with his experience.
It could be an old bottle of port, but there was something else. He swore he could taste rust. But without opening the bottle, it was impossible to say. Fast forward three years, and that bottle has been studied by scientists revealing an answer to the mystery that was entirely unexpected. Inside was a collection of old brass pins, human hair, a small amount of alcohol and urine. And when the ingredients of the solution were lined up with the date they were made and the location the bottle was found, the true answer suddenly floated to the surface.
It was a witch bottle. Now, honestly, which bottles are a thing of legend? They represented an acceptable form of magic known as counterspell, used by fearful townfolk to ward off the evil influence of the witches who threatened their existence. They were buried near homes or beneath doorways, all in an effort to keep the forces of darkness out. That adventurous glass expert had made a risky assumption that inside a bottle was something as innocuous as wine, but his preconceived notions met an unexpected reality.
And the same can be said for anyone who makes a guess without all the information. Assumption, after all, is akin to firing a weapon at a target while blindfolded and this man missed. Sometimes our guesswork prevents us from seeing the truth. We think we know something, but if we are given a chance to explore the true details, we could find ourselves surprised by what we discover. The lens through which we view our world is far from clear, so let's spend some time trying to clean it up a bit.
But be warned because sometimes what lies within. Is entirely unexpected. I'm Aaron Manque, and this is Laura. In a lot of ways, it looks like so many other tiny English towns, the village of Canoodled in Essex County, barely has more than a thousand people living there, but they have a rich heritage that dates back centuries and includes a few powerful stories as well. Back in the 1950s, a writer named Eric M'appelle discovered something about his home county, he'd actually grown up in Essex down in the southeast of England and thought he knew all there was to know about the place.
But as an adult, he discovered something fascinating. Essex County was which country? Now, we've all heard a few witch stories here before, if I asked you to invent your own using all the various tales you've heard here, you would tell me about a fearful town who arrests the least powerful and least acceptable among them. After a sham trial, they would be executed and somehow life was then supposed to move on. But the world of English witchcraft in Essex County is unlike anything you've ever bumped into before, and I want to explore it with you.
Why? Because assumption only gets us so far. And learning about the exceptions to the rule doesn't just broaden our world view. It makes for great entertainment. Now, most of the buildings in canoodled are small and low, which is what makes one structure in particular stand so tall above them literally an ancient 14th century church tower. But what canoodled lacks in infrastructure is more than makes up for through reputation. You see, for a very long time, canoodled has been rumored to be the home of witches.
There are historical reasons why, of course. Back in 1980, a local woman named Rose Pae was accused of killing a neighbor's infant but managed to be acquitted at her trial. A few years later, another woman, Cecily Makan, was charged with witchcraft. But instead of hanging her, they gave her five years to change her ways. And it's stories like those that have led some to believe that canoodled was home to more than just a couple of witches.
Local legend actually declares that there are always six witches alive and in power at any given moment. It said that half of them are from poor families, while the other three are born into wealth. And as long as the tower stands, those witches will be around. Some versions of the legend get more specific to one which will always be the wife of the butcher and another the parson's wife, another legend claims that if you dance around the church tower at midnight, those six witches will be compelled to join you.
Honestly, the list of stories is long and entertaining, and I wish I could share all of them with you. But the most important thing to point out is just how prevalent the idea of witchcraft was for many centuries in Newton. In fact, it was so commonly accepted that just about everyone in town practiced it, yes, there were rumors of real traditional witches who killed livestock and caused illness in the families of their neighbors. But the vast majority of the people there saw themselves as a sort of supernatural police force and armed themselves against those evil witches with powerful magic of their own.
Rather than being black magic meant to harm the innocent. This tradition was known as counter magic. For example, it was common to place a pair of scissors or a sharp knife under the front door mat because it would prevent a witch from entering the house. And even in the 1950s, there were people still alive in town who clearly remembered a suspected witch being asked to sit on a pair of scissors to test her. There were other traditions to horseshoes replaced over doorways and small symbols might be drawn on window frames or interior walls, all in an effort to ward off evil witches.
But at the end of the day, one of the most common was the type of item I mentioned earlier, the witch bottle. The typical ingredient list included a lot of the same items found in the bottle from the beginning of this episode Pin's nails, alcohol, human hair, fingernail clippings and urine, not something anyone would ever drink, at least not knowingly. And the idea behind these bizarre objects was that they repelled witches. But they were also used to attract them and to harm them, local stories tell of particular people in town who are gifted at crafting powerful witch bottles.
One of the ceremonies that employed them involved placing a witch bottle over a fire and slowly heating it up. One woman in the 1950s recalled how this was done years before and when the bottle became hot enough, the sound of someone clawing at the door could clearly be heard. During his time in Canada in the 1950s, Eric M'appelle recorded one story that perfectly illustrates the power of counter magic. According to him, one local woman claimed that when she was a young girl, she was haunted each night by the vision of a ghostly woman in a bonnet who hovered beside her bed.
And after each of these visitations, the woman said she felt physically ill. These visits repeated night after night, sometimes lasting only a moment, while other times including actual conversation with the spectral image. And then after many appearances, the ghostly woman told the girl that this would be her final visit, that she would be leaving soon. The next night, this prediction seemed to come true. That night, the spectral woman appeared as usual, but she seemed to be in pain just as she opened her mouth to speak to the young girl, though the bedroom filled with the sharp sound of breaking glass and the image of the woman immediately vanished somewhere in town, it was believed.
Someone had shattered a witch bottle. The type of soil determines what grows there and for canoed in that soil is rich and old, but also laced with the liberal amount of witchcraft. And if you know the larger story, it's easy to understand why. In fact, Essex County seems to be a hotbed of English witchcraft. Close to 100 victims, mostly women, were hanged in the century leading up to the 16th 40s. And then Matthew Hopkins arrived.
He was the infamous witch hunter who went on a rampage across parts of the south of England in Essex alone. He tried and executed at least 60 people. And one of the biggest fixations that Hopkins had was his interest in familiars. These were the helpers that served a witch either as agents of the devil who helped them use their power or as bewitched creatures that simply carried out difficult tasks for them. And a common theme through a lot of the witch accusations in Essex County was, in fact, about familias.
But in Canada, that idea was given a bizarre spin, according to the research that Eric M'appelle did in the village. It seems that all of the known familiars took the same unusual shape. White mice, even their very function, was unique. Here's how Mabel described the system. They used. The imp or familiar, often in the form of a white mouse, was regarded in Southeast Asia as a main source of which power in canoodled. Such mice were kept by their owner in a box and were handed on before death to a relative who then inherited the witch power.
He goes on to record a number of stories from the locals in Canada that illustrate all the different ways these mice were used or incorporated into village life in one, as an elderly woman was dying, she asked her family to bring her a small box she kept in the closet. After handing it to the dying woman, she opened the lid to reveal that it was empty and then proceeded to whistle. A moment later, a group of small white mice appeared and marched straight into the box.
A common deathbed story was the handing down of the mice, many of these tales show an elderly person insisting that a relative take ownership of the mice. And only when that deal has been struck can the person finally pass away. And if this handoff isn't completed properly or, heaven forbid, passed to the wrong person, horrible things could happen. In one story, a woman passed away before gifting her mice to another when her neighbors found her body in bed, the mice were there as well and refused to be chased away.
A priest was called in to conduct an exorcism, but that failed to get rid of them. In the end, the townsfolk simply had to bury the woman with her mice at her side. It was common for people there to invoke the white mice in normal, everyday conversation, if a bad mistake was made, one might mutter the phrase white mice instead of swearing. The mice were used as threats upon occasion. And if someone experienced a run of bad luck, their friends might casually mention how the white mice are about as if that was enough to explain it.
It's almost like the tradition of familias arrived in Canada centuries ago and then experienced the Galapagos moments evolving in a way that was unique to much of the rest of the surrounding area. No matter what the more common beliefs were regarding witchcraft and magic, this little village became a pocket of something different, something special. One last story in the 1950s, there was a family in the village that was practically legendary for their powers at the center of this household where a husband and wife team who seemed to be extraordinarily gifted in combating the forces of darkness with their own blend of white magic, and that caused the people around them to feel both safe and afraid all at the same time.
Among their talents was the ability to predict death in the community and their great skill at craft in which bottles for others to use, the wife in particular was known to be fearless, almost like a soldier defending her village from the powers of the evil witches. But her husband had his own reputation, and it centered around those little white mice. According to the stories told by locals, this man had a bit of a temper, if anyone crossed him or made him angry, he would promise to pass his white mice to them after his death.
And with all the other background have explained to you, it's easy to see how this could be seen as a threat. Amazingly, though, this power couple weren't the most feared and respected witches in the long history of connoted know that honor falls to yet another individual, one who seemed to embody the very essence of 16th century witchcraft and folk magic. And his story is made all the more powerful by when it took place. This one you see passed away just one century ago.
There was always a light side and a dark side. I'm not talking about Jedi, although that's certainly true. No, this wasn't a bit of fiction. It was the way things always were in the world of witchcraft. It all came down to the skills the individual performed. There were the usual suspects who were said to curse livestock with illness, kill their neighbor's children and meet with the devil for a witch's Sabbath to plan out things like droughts and harsh winters.
Those were witches, and by tradition, they were typically assumed to be women. Then there were the rest, these people performed useful tasks that still seemed like magic, they help people find lost objects or money. They brought healing to sick homes. They offered advice on relationships and marriage, and they acted as defenders against witches. They were known as cunning folk and were typically assumed to be men. So a light side and a dark side, the cunning folk and the witches all vying for power and control over their community and in Canut in that battle was a bit more real and out in the open.
But the village also had one other thing. They had the legend. Remember, as long as the church tower stood tall, there would be six witches in Newton, but the legend said something else. It claimed that there was someone who could control them, a master of witches, so to speak. And this master was a man and therefore a practitioner of cunning magic. George Picking Gill was born around 18 16, although he wasn't born inside the boundaries of Canut and both of his parents hailed from that little village.
And after a number of years of following work from town to town, he finally returned, where he set up shop in a cottage and worked as a farmer. But that's not all George picking Gil did with his time. It seems he was also one of the most powerful, cunning men to ever live in the village, for example, villagers who knew him said that each harvest season, George would wander through the farms around town. And when he encountered the men working in those fields, he would threaten to hex their horses or machines unless they gave him a beer.
Another villager described how George once bragged to a farmer that he could work the field faster than anyone else, according to the story, the old man accomplished his task all while sitting comfortably at the side of the field smoking his pipe. His solution to have his magical familiars do it all for him. George picking Gill was very open about his cunning magic, and neighbors frequently knocked on his door to seek his help. He was skilled at helping people find lost items or recover things that were stolen.
They say he could even control animals with his words or a mysterious gesture. But he did everything on his own terms, which didn't always sit well with the locals once. After being asked to cure a woman of painful, ongoing arthritis, he did exactly that, but he didn't make it go away. Now it's said that he just transferred the illness to the woman's elderly father. Clearly, old George was a bit of a trickster. The reputation of his powers traveled a lot farther than the borders of Canada and to villagers claim that George receive visitors from all over England.
They came looking for advice, for healing and for a glimpse of his infamous skills and all. George gave them what they were looking for time and time again. And he did so well into his 90s. Over the years since rumors have flooded in to fill in the gaps, that commentary falls into two camps. Some believe that George was more than just a cunning man. They believe he was the founder of a whole slew of which governs all throughout Essex County and that he was the world's preeminent expert on witchcraft.
Others have taken the opposite approach, actually downplaying the stories about him as nothing more than fiction. What is clear, though, is that George picking Gill left behind a powerful legacy in a community already rich with legend and story. When he passed away in 1989 at the age of 93, he did so at the top of his game, taking the secrets to his power over the natural world. With him, his cottage became a pilgrimage destination for years to come, but apparently old George didn't go quietly.
According to people who knew him, he promised to demonstrate his powers one last time at his own funeral. Local legend says that he did just that because when the horse drawn hearse was driven up to the church doors, the horses stepped from their shafts at the site of his coffin. Oh, and one last thing, one woman's still alive in the 1950s claimed that she actually visited George picking Gill on his deathbed, old age and illness, had robbed the man of his ability to take care of himself.
But even on death's doorstep, he was still caring for one group of individuals in particular. There, she claimed, lying in the bed with him, where the familiar shapes of his closest companions shapes that would have seemed out of place in any other community in the world. The shapes. Of little white mice. We view our world through a dark tinted lens. We see parts of the world around us, but miss other details completely. And in the end, one of our biggest failings just might be our tendency to assume.
I can't help but think of the glass experts who took one look at an antique bottle and let his preconceptions convince him there was wine inside. How often do we do that in our own lives, making a judgment at the drop of a hat or failing to notice the nuance details in a sensational story? We are very good at missing things and we have been for a very long time. Back in the days of Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General, who was active during the 16 Forty's Protestants, found themselves struggling to fight that nuance.
For centuries, there had been two sides to the witch coin, the dark evil ones who harmed everyone around them and their opposites, the protective and helpful cunning folk.
To the vast majority of people, the distinctions were clear, but in their mission to purge England of witchcraft, those early Protestants invented a new term, the White, which it was meant to target those more helpful cunning folk and brand them as just one more group of people painted with the same broad brush. Of course, that didn't put an end to the traditions that were common in places like Canada and to this day, historians and archaeologists are still uncovering signs of counter magic all over England from carved symbols to objects of power.
And they found a good number of which bottles, too, although thankfully no one else seems to be willing to drink from them. A little known fact is that those which bottles don't always contain the same things. Yes, urine and nails are common ingredients, but others have been found that contain nothing but a charm written on a piece of parchment.
One which bottle discovered in Cornwall contained tiny wooden carvings that represented the instruments of the crucifixion of Jesus. It seems impossible to predict what each new bottle will contain. And then there was the discovery made in nineteen seventy six. While working to uncover the remains of a mid 17th century house, researchers found a bottle outside the walls of the original structure. The dark green glass bottle was found buried upside down, along with a bone from a bird and a large fragment of pottery.
A small collection of pins was still inside the bottle, and, as one might expect, it also contained traces of human urine. These are all details that seem like they belong right at home in canoodled, but this which bottle was actually found that a site on Tillicum Island along the Delaware River near Philadelphia, it was one of only eight that have ever been discovered in America. But that's unusual. Location only proves a larger truth. The fears those beliefs tapped into were never isolated to one specific place.
They can be found just about everywhere. All thanks to the vessels that contain them. Most of what we hear about, which is centers around the darker stuff, the suspicious neighbors, the innocent victims and of course, the brutal executions, but every now and then it's possible to stumble upon the lighter side of a topic. And so I hope you enjoyed my attempt today to peel back those shadows.
Still, Canoodled has a long history with cunning folk and white witches. And if you know where to look, there's always another story to tell. Stick around after this brief sponsor break to hear about one last amazing character. This episode was made possible by Stamps.com this holiday season, more people will be mailing stuff than ever, and that means the post office is going to be busy. You don't have time for that. Stamps.com brings the post office and now UPS shipping right to your computer, mail and ship anything from the convenience of your home or office.
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Either way, they're a character. In canoodled, finding that one single character was tricky because so many of the figures from its past seem to meet a lot of that criteria. That woman who was so good at making witch bottles, she apparently spotted a ghost inside the village church once and then knelt beside it and waited for it to leave. And of course, old George Pechanga was quite the character to hexing far machines in exchange for beer. But a century before old George, there was another cunning man in the area who seems to have set the bar a little higher than the rest.
And if the stories about him are true, he might also be one of the more powerful witches to have lived there. So kick back because I'd like to introduce you to him. And his name was James Merill. James lived in the town of Hadley about seven miles to the south of Connington, it was still which country and a similar farming community, like most of the others around it. And it was where James Morrel was born in 1780, but he didn't always live there after finishing his early education.
James left Hadley in search of glory or at least in search of a good job. He spent time working for a surveyor before moving to London and taking a job in the backroom of a chemist shop, sort of an early version of a modern pharmacy. After that, he learned the shoemaking trade before finally returning to Hadlee around 1810 at the age of 30. But I promised you a character that and I and, boy, did James Morrell tick all the boxes, they said his typical outfit consisted of a short tailcoat, a hard hat and a pair of iron goggles over his eyes, which must have been quite the sight.
He also never left the house without his whalebone umbrella and a telescope in his pocket that he claimed was magical. Honestly, I picture Morrell as sort of a cross between back to the Future is Doc Brown and Seinfeld's Kramer with a dash of mad eye moody thrown in for good measure, and his reputation backed it up too, from his return to Hadley in 1810 until his death. 50 years later, he became the preeminent cuneen man in town. If you ask just about anyone, he was practically a wizard.
Some of that reputation came from his own behavior. He tended to keep to himself doing most of his traveling and work at night, and then there were the books. Apparently, Morrell was one of the best read people in town. Even the local priest respected him for that and claimed that numerous theological debates had convinced him that moral quite possibly knew the Bible better than he himself did, along with the books that filled his cottage. There were also the ERBs.
Morrel spent a good amount of his time wandering the fields at night picking them, and they hung by the bundle from the ceiling of his home. It must have smelled extraordinary in there between the old books and the dry herbs. But his most famous power of all was the crafting of effective witch bottles. One story illustrates this perfectly. Apparently, a young woman in town discovered that an older woman was living in her barn. She was a wanderer, most likely poor and living on the outskirts of accepted society.
So, of course, the younger woman decided that she must be a witch. And after ordering the old woman off of her property, this witch cursed her, which caused her to behave like an animal. And then the witch ran off into the countryside. James Morrell was immediately summoned to the home and he arrived with all the tools necessary. He collected hair and fingernail clippings from the afflicted younger woman, placing them into a witch bottle. He had made specifically for moments like this, and then he sealed it and placed it over a fire.
As the bottle heated up, a knockin could be heard at the door a moment later, the knocking became pounding and a woman's voice cried out as if from a great distance, begging for morale to stop the fire she claimed was causing her immense pain. A moment later, the bottle burst and with it the spell over the younger woman. The following morning, a charred corpse was found on a road outside of town. It was the old witch. There were more demonstrations like this over the five decades that James Morrell served the people of Hadley and each of them were terrifying and full of magic.
But even cunning men eventually pass away. In 1860, he took his last breath and left the town forever. He had family, at least one son that I can tell, but apparently left no will behind to help take care of matters after his death. Instead, the landlord of his rented cottage gathered up his belongings and disposed of them. Many of his books, especially the old ones on astrology, were buried in a chest in the side yard.
But his son did manage to get two things. The last remaining which bottle in the house and that old magic telescope. That son eventually put the which bottle on a fire one day to see what would happen, no, which is burned as far as anyone could tell, but he left it on the fire so long that the bottle exploded, taking out one of the cottage walls in the process. As for the telescope, James had actually promised that to his son, but had specifically told him never to sell it.
Of course, that son never listened. And when a local gentleman offered him a gold half guinea coin, the equivalent of about 30 dollars in modern cash, he gladly parted with it. They say that every owner of that telescope experienced bad luck and many attribute that to a curse put on it by Morrel himself. But if the rumors were true, it was the first buyer who took the brunt of that dangerous magic. A short while after buying the telescope from Morelle son, he was found dead at his home, the victim of a choking accident.
And lodged in his throat was the item that killed him. A golden Afghani coin. This episode of law was written and produced by me, Aaron Manqué, with research by Karl Nilus and music by Chad Lawson Moore is much more than just a podcast. There's a book series available in bookstores and online and two seasons of the television show on Amazon Prime video. Check them both out if you want more law in your life. I also make an executive produce a whole bunch of other podcasts, including Aaron Mancos, Cabinets of Curiosities and unobscured, all of which I think you'd enjoy.
My production company, Grim and Mild, specializes in shows that sit at the intersection of the dark and the historical. You can learn more about all of those shows and everything else going on over in one central place, grim and mild dotcom. And you can also follow the show on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Just search for our podcast, all one word and then click the follow button when you do say hi. I like it when people say hi.
And as always, thanks for listening.