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5 British Witch Trials

Wikimedia Commons // iStock

The Salem witch trials of 1692 to '93 might be among the most famous in history but they were by no means alone—nor was the paranoia that surrounded the grim witch hunts of the 17th and 18th centuries unique to New England. Witch trials were being carried out all across Europe right through to around 1800. Here are the stories behind five witch trials from across Great Britain.

1. BIDEFORD, DEVON

The Bideford witch trial that took place in Devon in the far southwest of England in 1682 was one of the last in England to lead to an execution. The three women involved were Temperance Lloyd, a local widow (who had already been acquitted of the murder of a man by witchcraft in 1671), and two beggars, Mary Trembles and Susanna Edwards, who had allegedly been spotted conversing and begging for food with Temperance. Together, the three were suspected of causing the illness of a local woman, Grace Thomas, by supernatural means—although the full list of accusations thrown at the trio included a claim that a demonic figure in league with Temperance had transformed himself into a magpie and flown through Grace’s window to peck her while she slept; Grace later reported that she had suffered “sticking and pricking pains, as though pins and awls had been thrust into her body, from the crown of her head to the soles of her feet.”

Despite a great deal of the evidence brought against the women being little more than hearsay, all three were found guilty and executed on August 25 at Heavitree, outside Exeter. A plaque commemorating the women on the wall of Exeter’s Rougemont Castle, where the trials were held, is dedicated to “the hope of an end to persecution and intolerance.”

2. WARBOYS, CAMBRIDGESHIRE

In 1589, a young family named the Throckmortons moved into the manor house beside the church in the tiny rural English village of Warboys, 20 miles north of Cambridge. Soon afterwards, one of the family’s young daughters, Jane, began suffering seizures and fits, which the local doctors found impossible to ease or cure. Then one day the Throckmortons’ neighbors—John and Alice Samuel, and their daughter Agnes—happened to pay the family a visit, but as soon as Alice arrived and took a seat by the fire, Jane’s condition suddenly worsened, and she began to point wildly at Alice, screaming, “Look where the old witch sits!” The mother quickly rebuked Jane and thought nothing more of it. But as more of the children began showing similar symptoms and a respected physician was unable to discover the cause, suspicions returned to the Samuels.

Even Lady Cromwell, the wife of Oliver Cromwell’s grandfather and a close friend of the Throckmortons, once confronted Alice about her apparent crimes; when Lady Cromwell died a little over a year later, her “murder” was added to the list of crimes of which the Samuel family were eventually accused. Imprisoned and tried before the Bishop of Lincoln, Alice, John, and Agnes Samuel were all found guilty of witchcraft and hanged in April 1593.

3. NORTH BERWICK, EAST LOTHIAN

The North Berwick witch trials of the late 16th century are notable not only for the sheer number of people involved (over the two years from 1590 to '92, around a hundred supposed witches and warlocks were implicated in the case), but because the trials were, for much of their duration, personally overseen by the king himself, James VI of Scotland. James was convinced that a local coven of witches had together raised a storm to wreck the ship on which he and his new bride, Anne of Denmark, were returning home from their wedding in Norway. Once suspicions were raised, one of the first to be accused was Geillis “Gelie” Duncan, the young servant of a local chamberlain, who confessed under torture to practicing witchcraft when her apparent gift for healing the sick aroused suspicion. Duncan implicated three further people in her confession, who each implicated several others, who were all then in turn brought in for questioning. One of the accused, Agnes Simpson, a local midwife and healer, was even taken before the king himself for questioning; after confessing to more than 50 crimes brought against her—including relieving the pains of a woman in labor by suffering them herself, and even baptizing a cat—Simpson was executed in January 1591. Another, Euphame MacCalzean, was burned alive without being granted the “mercy” of being hanged first, an astonishingly severe sentence even for the 16th century. In all, a total of six supposed witches were executed.

Eventually, the supposed network of witchcraft James and his court uncovered led him to believe that his cousin Francis Stuart (or Stewart), 5th Earl of Bothwell, had been behind the entire plot, and had worked with the coven to plot to kill the king and secure the throne for himself. In 1593, however, Bothwell staged a short-lived coup in James’s court and took the opportunity to have himself acquitted of the charges against him. After James retook control, Bothwell fled into exile and died in Naples in 1612.

4. PENDLE HILL, LANCASHIRE

The Pendle Hill witch trials of 1612 are amongst the most famous in British history, partly because their events are so well documented, partly because a number of those involved genuinely believed that they had supernatural powers, and partly because so many of the accused were eventually executed: Only one of the dozen individuals implicated in the case, Alice Grey, was found not guilty, and one, Margaret Pearson, was sentenced to being pilloried, but was spared the gallows.

The trials began when a young woman named Alizon Device, from Pendle in Lancashire in northwest England, was accused of cursing a local shopkeeper who soon afterwards suffered a bout of ill health, now believed to have probably been a mild stroke. When news of this reached the authorities, an investigation was started that eventually led to the arrest and trial of several members of Alizon’s family (including her grandmother, Elizabeth Southerns, a notorious practitioner of witchcraft known locally as “Demdike”), as well as members of another local family, the Redfernes, with whom they had reportedly had a long-standing feud. Many of the families’ friends were also implicated in the trial, as were a number of supposed witches from nearby towns who were alleged to have attended a meeting at Elizabeth Southerns’s home on the night of Good Friday 1612.

The first to be tried (in a different but related case) was Jennet Preston, who was found guilty and executed in York on July 29; the last was Alizon Device herself, who, like her grandmother, was reportedly convinced that she indeed had powers of witchcraft and freely admitted her guilt. In all, 10 men and women were hanged as a result of the trials.

5. SAMLESBURY, LANCASHIRE

Following the arrest of Alizon Device in Pendle in 1612, the discovery that witchcraft was being practiced in Lancashire caused a wave of paranoia that swept across the county and eventually implicated three women—Jane Southworth, Jennet Bierley, and her daughter Ellen (or Eileen) Bierley—from the neighboring village of Samlesbury. Tried at the same Lancashire hearing as the Pendle witches, the trio were suspected of witchcraft by Jennet’s 14-year-old granddaughter, and Ellen’s niece, Grace Sowerbutts. Her grim testimonial accused the women of everything from shape-shifting (Jennet had reportedly transformed herself into a dog right before Grace’s eyes), to cavorting with demons (“black things going upright, yet not like men in the face,” as Grace described them), to cannibalism (the three women had supposedly abducted a young baby from a local merchant, Thomas Walshman, and drank blood from its navel; when the baby died a few days later, they were accused of robbing the grave and cooking the remains).

Unlike the trial of the Pendle witches, however, the Samlesbury trial was quickly turned on its head. With the evidence against them concluded, Jane, Jennet and Ellen were finally given the chance to speak and immediately pleaded with the judge not for clemency or mercy, as might have been expected, but to force Grace to tell the court who had coerced her into making the accusations against them. Grace’s immediate look of guilt raised the judge’s suspicions, and he ordered her to be taken from the court and interrogated by two justices of the peace. When they returned, it emerged that the entire grim story had been concocted by a local priest who—at a time of considerable religious upheaval in Britain—had strong-armed Grace into incriminating her Protestant relatives. All three women were acquitted.

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Fabia Mendoza/Guernsey's
Rosa Parks's Former House in Detroit Will Be Sold at Auction
Fabia Mendoza/Guernsey's
Fabia Mendoza/Guernsey's

The humble wooden house that Rosa Parks moved into after fleeing to Detroit in the fallout of her historic Montgomery bus protest will be auctioned off by Guernsey’s next month. The house has been taken apart, reassembled, and displayed in different locations over the years—including destinations as far-flung as Berlin, Germany—and the structure could theoretically be rebuilt anywhere.

The sale of the home will be part of Guernsey’s “African American Historic & Cultural Treasures” auction to be held July 25-26 in New York City, and proceeds from the house will benefit the Rosa McCauley Parks Heritage Foundation.

The fact that the home is still standing is testament to the resilient spirit of Rosa Parks, but it wasn’t always in such great shape. The home, formerly owned by Parks’s brother, fell into disrepair over the years and was slated to be demolished by the city of Detroit.

That’s when Parks’s niece, Rhea McCauley, stepped in. She bought the house for $500 and handed it over to Ryan Mendoza, an artist who promised to preserve the structure as a monument. He took it apart, transported it thousands of miles to Berlin, and rebuilt the house in his yard, where it remained on public display.

“A lot of people did think that that house was not worth saving because there’s so many in Detroit that looks just like that house,” Mendoza told the BBC. “It sort of goes without saying that she’s a national icon and what she did was so important for so many millions of people even if they don’t know it.”

Most recently, the home was displayed as part of a symposium with the Rhode Island School of Design.

After Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955, for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, she lost her job and received a steady stream of death threats. Two years later she and her family decided to move north, and the Detroit home she shared with 17 other relatives represented “a place of love and of peace,” McCauley told the BBC.

Also heading to the auction block is a handwritten account of Rosa Parks’s first meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., in August 1955, about four months before her bus protest. She wrote of her first impression, “I was amazed and astonished at the youthful appearance and the profound and eloquent speech delivered by Rev. M.L.K. Jr. I knew I would never forget him.”

Other notable items up for sale include a Jackson Five recording contract, signed by Joe Jackson; original score sheets of music from The Supremes and The Temptations; and hundreds of movie posters documenting African Americans’ role in film.

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
15 Riveting Facts About Alan Turing
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

More than six decades after his death, Alan Turing’s life remains a point of fascination—even for people who have no interest in his groundbreaking work in computer science. He has been the subject of a play and an opera, and referenced in multiple novels and numerous musical albums. The Benedict Cumberbatch film about his life, The Imitation Game, received eight Oscar nominations. But just who was he in real life? Here are 15 facts you should know about Alan Turing, who was born on this day in 1912.

1. HE’S THE FATHER OF MODERN COMPUTER SCIENCE.

Turing essentially pioneered the idea of computer memory. In 1936, Turing published a seminal paper called “On Computable Numbers” [PDF], which The Washington Post has called “the founding document of the computer age.” In the philosophical article, he hypothesized that one day, we could build machines that could compute any problem that a human could, using 0s and 1s. Turing proposed single-task machines called Turing machines that would be capable of solving just one type of math problem, but a “universal computer” would be able to tackle any kind of problem thrown at it by storing instructional code in the computer’s memory. Turing’s ideas about memory storage and using a single machine to carry out all tasks laid the foundation for what would become the digital computer.

In 1945, while working for the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, he came up with the Automatic Computing Machine, the first digital computer with stored programs. Previous computers didn’t have electric memory storage, and had to be manually rewired to switch between different programs.

2. HE PLAYED A HUGE ROLE IN WINNING WORLD WAR II.

Turing began working at Bletchley Park, Britain’s secret headquarters for its codebreakers during World War II, in 1939. By one estimate, his work there may have cut the war short by up to two years. He’s credited with saving millions of lives.

Turing immediately got to work designing a codebreaking machine called the Bombe (an update of a previous Polish machine) with the help of his colleague Gordon Welchman. The Bombe shortened the steps required in decoding, and 200 of them were built for British use over the course of the war. They allowed codebreakers to decipher up to 4000 messages a day.

His greatest achievement was cracking the Enigma, a mechanical device used by the German army to encode secure messages. It proved nearly impossible to decrypt without the correct cipher, which the German forces changed every day. Turing worked to decipher German naval communications at a point when German U-boats were sinking ships carrying vital supplies across the Atlantic between Allied nations. In 1941, Turing and his team managed to decode the German Enigma messages, helping to steer Allied ships away from the German submarine attacks. In 1942, he traveled to the U.S. to help the Americans with their own codebreaking work.

3. HE BROKE THE RULES TO WRITE TO CHURCHILL.

Early on, Bletchley Park’s operations were hampered by a lack of resources, but pleas for better staffing were ignored by government officials. So, Alan Turing and several other codebreakers at Bletchley Park went over their heads to write directly to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. One of the codebreakers from Bletchley Park delivered the letter by hand in October 1941.

“Our reason for writing to you direct is that for months we have done everything that we possibly can through the normal channels, and that we despair of any early improvement without your intervention,” they wrote to Churchill [PDF]. “No doubt in the long run these particular requirements will be met, but meanwhile still more precious months will have been wasted, and as our needs are continually expanding we see little hope of ever being adequately staffed.”

In response, Churchill immediately fired off a missive to his chief of staff: “Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this had been done.”

4. HE HAD SOME ODD HABITS.

Like many geniuses, Turing was not without his eccentricities. He wore a gas mask while riding his bike to combat his allergies. Instead of fixing his bike’s faulty chain, he learned exactly when to dismount to secure it in place before it slipped off. He was known around Bletchley Park for chaining his tea mug to a radiator to prevent it from being taken by other staffers.

5. HE RODE HIS BIKE 60 MILES TO GET TO THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL.

Though he was considered an average student, Turing was dedicated enough to his schooling that when a general strike prevented him from taking the train to his first day at his new elite boarding school, the 14-year-old rode his bike the 62 miles instead.

6. HE TRIED OUT FOR THE OLYMPICS.

Turing started running as a schoolboy and continued throughout his life, regularly running the 31 miles between Cambridge and Ely while he was a fellow at King’s College. During World War II, he occasionally ran the 40 miles between London and Bletchley Park for meetings.

He almost became an Olympic athlete, too. He came in fifth place at a qualifying marathon for the 1948 Olympics with a 2-hour, 46-minute finish (11 minutes slower than the 1948 Olympic marathon winner). However, a leg injury held back his athletic ambitions that year.

Afterward, he continued running for the Walton Athletic Club, though, and served as its vice president. ”I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard,” he once told the club’s secretary. “It's the only way I can get some release."

7. HE WAS PROSECUTED FOR BEING GAY.

In 1952, Turing was arrested after reporting a burglary in his home. In the course of the investigation, the police discovered Turing’s relationship with another man, Arnold Murray. Homosexual relationships were illegal in the UK at the time, and he was charged with “gross indecency.” He pled guilty on the advice of his lawyer, and opted to undergo chemical castration instead of serving time in jail.

8. THE GOVERNMENT ONLY RECENTLY APOLOGIZED FOR HIS CONVICTION …

In 2009, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a public apology to Turing on behalf of the British government. “Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly,” Brown said. "This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue." Acknowledging Britain’s debt to Turing for his vital contributions to the war effort, he announced, “on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better."

His conviction was not actually pardoned, though, until 2013, when he received a rare royal pardon from the Queen of England.

9. … AND NAMED A LAW AFTER HIM.

Turing was only one of the many men who suffered after being prosecuted for their homosexuality under 19th-century British indecency laws. Homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK in 1967, but the previous convictions were never overturned. Turing’s Law, which went into effect in 2017, posthumously pardoned men who had been convicted for having consensual gay sex before the repeal. According to one of the activists who campaigned for the mass pardons, around 15,000 of the 65,000 gay men convicted under the outdated law are still alive.

10. HE POISONED HIMSELF … MAYBE.

There is still a bit of mystery surrounding Turing’s death at the age of 41. Turing died of cyanide poisoning, in what is widely believed to have been a suicide. Turing’s life had been turned upside down by his arrest. He lost his job and his security clearance. By order of the court, he had to take hormones intended to “cure” his homosexuality, which caused him to grow breasts and made him impotent. But not everyone is convinced that he died by suicide.

In 2012, Jack Copeland, a Turing scholar, argued that the evidence used to declare Turing’s death a suicide in 1954 would not be sufficient to close the case today. The half-eaten apple by his bedside, thought to be the source of his poisoning, was never tested for cyanide. There was still a to-do list on his desk, and his friends told the coroner at the time that he had seemed in good spirits. Turing’s mother, in fact, maintained that he probably accidentally poisoned himself while experimenting with the chemical in his home laboratory. (He was known to taste chemicals while identifying them, and could be careless with safety precautions.)

That line of inquiry is far more tame than some others, including one author’s theory that he was murdered by the FBI to cover up information that would have been damaging to the U.S.

11. HIS FULL GENIUS WASN’T KNOWN IN HIS LIFETIME.

Alan Turing was a well-respected mathematician in his time, but his contemporaries didn’t know the full extent of his contributions to the world. Turing’s work breaking the Enigma machine remained classified long after his death, meaning that his contributions to the war effort and to mathematics were only partially known to the public during his lifetime. It wasn’t until the 1970s that his instrumental role in the Allies' World War II victory became public with the declassification of the Enigma story. The actual techniques Turing used to decrypt the messages weren’t declassified until 2013, when two of his papers from Bletchley Park were released to the British National Archives.

12. THE TURING TEST IS STILL USED TO MEASURE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE …

Can a machine fool a human into thinking they are chatting with another person? That’s the crux of the Turing test, an idea developed by Turing in 1950 regarding how to measure artificial intelligence. Turing argued in his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” [PDF] that the idea of machines “thinking” is not a useful way to evaluate artificial intelligence. Instead, Turing suggests “the imitation game,” a way to assess how successfully a machine can imitate human behavior. The best measure of artificial intelligence, then, is whether or not a computer can convince a person that it is human.

13. … BUT SOME CONSIDER IT TO BE AN OUTDATED IDEA.

As technology has progressed, some feel the Turing test is no longer a useful way to measure artificial intelligence. It’s cool to think about computers being able to talk just like a person, but new technology is opening up avenues for computers to express intelligence in other, more useful ways. A robot’s intelligence isn’t necessarily defined by whether it can fake being human—self-driving cars or programs that can mimic sounds based on images might not pass the Turing test, but they certainly have intelligence.

14. HE CREATED THE FIRST COMPUTER CHESS PROGRAM.

Inspired by the chess champions he worked with at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing created an algorithm for an early version of computer chess—although at that time, there was no computer to try it out on. Created with paper and pencil, the Turochamp program was designed to think two moves ahead, picking out the best moves possible. In 2012, Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov played against Turing’s algorithm, beating it in 16 moves. “I would compare it to an early caryou might laugh at them but it is still an incredible achievement," Kasparov said in a statement after the match-up.

15. THERE IS ALAN TURING MONOPOLY.

In 2012, Monopoly came out with an Alan Turing edition to celebrate the centennial of his birth. Turing had enjoyed playing Monopoly during his life, and the Turing-themed Monopoly edition was designed based on a hand-drawn board created in 1950 by his friend William Newman. Instead of hotels and houses, it featured huts and blocks inspired by Bletchley Park, and included never-before-published photos of Turing. (It’s hard to find, but there are still a few copies of the game on Amazon.)

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