Working on assize service in the late seventeenth century in Taunton Deane, England, Sir Francis North oversaw the trial of an old man charged with bewitching a thirteen-year-old girl. Sir Francis's brother Roger accompanied him and later recalled that "whenever the man was brought near [the girl], she fell in her fits, and spit forth straight pins." For Sir Francis, the pins were the first sign that something was not right; in cases of diabolical possession the expulsion of straightpins (rather than crooked) was particularly unusual. Sir Francis therefore carefully examined the old man and his witnesses, each of whom confidently testified that the charge was false and born out of malice. The case had to be handled carefully, for as Roger North explains, popular hostility toward witches could mean that if Sir Francis "did not tread upon eggs, [the jury] would conclude sinistrously, and be apt to find against his opinion." Reluctant to conclude the trial, Sir Francis continued to question various witnesses in hopes of revealing proof of deceit, finally turning to the local Justice of the Peace who had made the initial examinations and asking him if he had anything to add. The Justice of the Peace initially expressed surprise that he was being called upon to testify after having already examined and jailed the old man, but upon reflection reported that "I think the girl doubling herself in her fit, as being convulsed, bent her head down close to her stomacher, and, with her mouth, took pins out of the edge of that, and then, righting herself a little, spit them into some bystanders hands." This explanation "cast an universal satisfaction upon the minds of the whole audience, and the man was acquitted." Sir Roger North further recalled:
"As the Judge went down the Stairs, out of the Court, an hideous old woman cried God bless your Lordship. 'What's the matter, good woman?' said the Judge. 'My lord,' said she, 'forty years ago, they would have hang'd me for a witch, and they could not; and, now, they would have hang'd my poor son."
Butler, Todd Wayne
"Bedeviling Spectacle: Law, Literature, and Early Modern Witchcraft,"
Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities: Vol. 20
, Article 1.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yjlh/vol20/iss2/1