October 2016: Witchcraft and maybe murder in Carnmoney

PRONI's Document of the Month for October has a special Halloween theme.


Stephen Scarth, Head of Public Services at PRONI, said:

I selected this document for Halloween because it is a report of an unsuccessful try at witchcraft performed in Carnmoney on 21 August 1807. This was a notorious murder trial and one of a very small number of local court cases that involved the practice of witchcraft.

The events took place at the home of a farmer called Alexander Montgomery in Carnmoney just outside Belfast. Farmer Montgomery had a cow which continued to give milk as usual but no butter could be produced from the milk, a circumstance which led Montgomery's wife to believe the cow had been bewitched.

Twelve local women were brought to the house, who, after certain essential ceremonies, proceeded in a solemn way to bless the cow. This however failed to and the cow was no better.

The family were then informed of a woman called Mary Butler, who lived at Carrickfergus, described as “A witch that for sma' price, could cast her centrips and gie them advice.” Mary’s first try at curing the cow failed, so she told the family that after nightfall she would do another spell which could not fail.

After 10 o'clock that night, Mary gave orders to Montgomery and a young man who was accidentally there to go to the Cow House and turn their waistcoats inside out, and stand close by the head of the cow until they heard from her. Montgomery's wife, his son and an old woman remained in the house to witness the witch at work. She then caused the door to be shut, the chimney blocked and every crevice that would admit air to be carefully closed up.

Montgomery and the young man waited in the Cow House until daylight when the young man then went to the house, knocked at the door, but, not receiving any answer, looked through a window and saw the four people inside stretched out on the floor. He and Montgomery immediately broke open the door and found the mother and the son both dead and the other two nearly so. The second woman died a few hours later, but Mary Butler, the sorceress, recovered, and has been committed to jail.

Butters was later accused of murdering the three with a herbal potion. The report claims that a pot on the fire contained needles, large pins, and crooked nails with a quantity of milk. It states there was little doubt that she had also been burning sulphur and that the vapour had proved fatal to the three deceased.

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The case went to trial in March 1808 but somehow the court found Butters not guilty of murder. Mary claimed that a man had appeared in the house armed with a huge club with which he stunned her and killed the three women.  The report of the trial concluded: 'This is a very curious report. These people are all Presbyterians and a most gross absurdity was never known among the most unenlightened people on the face of the Earth.'

  • The account of the Carnmoney Witch can be found in PRONI document, D3113/7/237 which is part of the papers of George Benn, Belfast historian 1801-82 and his brother Edward Benn, antiquarian and philanthropist, 1798-1874. 

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