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Old women talk about old things: history, myth, magic and their
checkered pasts, about what changes and what does not.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Witch Trials and Rape

"It is true that rape is a most detestable crime, and therefore ought severely and impartially to be punished with death; but it must be remembered, that it is an accusation easily to be made, hard to be proved, but harder to be defended by the party accused, tho innocent."

Sir Matthew Hale, The History of the Pleas of the Crown (1736)

No words have severely affected modern women more than Sir Matthew Hale's seventeenth-century declaration, which was first published fifty years after his death. Even though the crime of rape has been shown to have no more false accusations than any other crime, Hale's statement, warning jurors that women are liars, has been repeated throughout courtrooms for centuries. In the U.S., the words weren't stricken from the courts until the 1970s.

In the seventeenth century, a woman who brought the charge of rape against a man was automatically regarded with suspicion. A girl's sexuality was controlled by her father, and once she was married that power shifted to her husband. If a woman had been raped, her "protector" would bring the charges to the authorities. Women with no male protector were often looked upon as being unchaste and thought to readily consent their virtues to any man.

By now, I'm sure you're wondering what the crime of rape has to do with witch trials. While researching for my nonfiction title I Had Rather Die: Rape in the Civil War, I discovered an ominous connection. In 1664, Hale presided as a judge in a witch trial of two elderly women, Amy Duny and Rose Cullender. Dorothy Durent accused that Duny had caused her children to have "fits." In one instance, Duny had prophesied that Durent would see some of her children dead and end up on crutches herself. When Durent's daughter became sick, Duny foretold that she hadn't long to live. The girl died two days later. Shortly after her daughter's death, Durent went lame only to be cured upon Duny's conviction.

Duny was also accused of bewitching the Pacey children. In 1663, Deborah Pacey went lame. Soon after, she had "fits" and great stomach pain. She told the doctor that Amy Duny had appeared to her and frightened her. Duny was put in stocks for the crime. Two days later, the other Pacey child began to have fits that included lameness, deafness, loss of speech, fainting, and coughing up pins. Both children claimed that Amy Duny and Rose Cullender had come to them. The children were also thought to be possessed by the devil.

Two more children from different families had similar fits. In body searches of the accused women, Rose Cullender was found to have "something like a teat about an inch long" in the abdominal region.

During court, three of the children fell into violent screaming fits. In a test, the girls were blindfolded and touched by strangers. Tricked into thinking the touches had come from the accused women, the girls had a "bewitched" reaction. The father of one of the girls stated that sorcery was the cause for their mistake.

Sir Matthew Hale refused to allow the evidence to come before the jury and failed to give a similar speech that he normally delivered to rape jurors about how difficult the crime was to prove. In fact, he offered the exact opposite explanation and lectured the jury about the evils of witchcraft. After half an hour, the jury delivered a guilty verdict for thirteen counts of witchcraft and sorcery. With the conviction, the children were restored to good health and walked out of the courtroom completely healed.

Duny and Cullender denied any wrongdoing and were hanged on March 17, 1664.

Like rape trials, the female victims in witch trials were mocked and believed to be corrupt. Hale and those who thought like him had ways of keeping women in their places through intimidation and fear. His infamous words may have been stricken from the courtrooms, but his legacy lives on when the modern justice system fails to take rape complaints seriously.
Kim Murphy


  1. Thanks, Kim, for this interesting piece of history and how this attitude still continues to affect modern attitudes toward the victims of rape. Looking forward to your non-fiction Civil War analysis.

  2. Sad, isn't it? You would think we would have progressed more after 350 years.