Article: Christianity And The Witch Hunt Era (9/12)May 4, 2007
* 1711: The infamous trial of Jane Wenham became pivotal in the controversy between opponents of the belief and prosecution of witchcraft, and those who both believed in it and held it should be prosecuted. An elderly woman, twice widowed, Jane Wenham was prosecuted largely on the basis of accusations made by Anne Thorne, a young woman recognised by many to be mentally deranged, and who had a well known grudge against Jane, with whom she had quarrelled, and even fought physically.
It was fortunate that the presiding judge, Sir John Powell, was a man of considerable intelligence and reason, who showed himself to be utterly sceptical of the evidence and witness testimonies presented by the prosecution. His careful evaluation of the case and his obvious sympathy for the accused caused his treatment of the trial to become legendary – it is said that when told that Jane Wenham had been seen flying on a broomstick, Powell commented that there was no English law against flying. The story cannot be verified, but stands as an example of how well known and recognised Powell’s sensible handling of the case became.
Despite the appalling lack of genuine evidence, the obvious prejudice of the witnesses, and all Powell’s urging to the contrary, the jury found Jane Wenham guilty of witchcraft and Powell had no choice but to pass the formal legal sentence, which was death by hanging:
‘A case of witchcraft was tried in 1711, before Lord Chief Justice Powell; in which, however, the jury persisted in a verdict of guilty, though the evidence was of the usual absurd and contradictory character, and the enlightened judge did all in his power to bring them to a right conclusion.’
Charles Mackay, ‘Memoirs of Popular Delusions’, volume 2, section V, 1841
However, immediately after the case Powell petitioned ceaselessly for the judgment to be overturned, and finally succeeded in obtaining a royal pardon for Wenham. The case ignited a pamphlet war between those who believed in witchcraft and those who did not, and was the catalyst for a major shift in English beliefs regarding supernatural evil.