Popular Superstitions - Witchcraft In Cheshire
( Originally Published 1884 )
London, Aug. 30, the following paragraph appear'd in the newspapers.
Middlewich, Aug. 28.
There is risen up in this country a great doctress, an old woman, who is resorted to by people of all ranks and degrees, to be cured of all diseases ; she lives four miles from hence, and has been in this great fame about 2 months; she has several hundreds of patients in a day out of all the country round for 30 miles. I went to see her yesterday out of curiosity, and believe near 600 people were with her. I believe all the country are gone stark mad. The chief thing she cures with is fasting spittle, and " God bless you with faith."
On Sept. 6, this further account was printed in the papers.
Namptwich, Aug. 24.
Old Bridget Bostock fills the country with as much talk as the rebels did. She hath, all her life-time, made it her business to cure her neighbours of sore legs, and other disorders ; but her reputation seems now so wonderfully to increase, that people come to her from far and near. A year ago she had, as I remember, about 40 under her care, which I found afterwards increased to 100 a week, and then to 160. Sunday se'nnight, after dinner, my wife and I went to this doctress's house, and were told by Mr. S, and Tom M who kept the door, and let people in by fives and sixes, that they had, that day, told 600 she had administer'd to, besides her making a cheese. She, at length, grew so very faint (for she never breaks her fast 'till she has done) that, at 6 o'clock, she was obliged to give over, tho' there were then more than 60 persons whom she had not meddled with. Monday last she had 700, and every day now pretty near that number. She cures the blind, the deaf, the lame of all sorts, the rheumatic, king's evil, hysteric fits, falling fits, shortness of breath, dropsy, palsy, leprosy, cancers, and, in short, almost every thing, except the French disease, which she will not meddle with ; and all the means she uses for cure are only stroking with fasting spittle, and praying for them. It is hardly credible to think what cures she daily performs : some people grow well whilst in the house, others on the road home ; and, it is said, none miss : people come 60 miles round. In our lane, where there have not been two coaches seen before these twelve years, now three or four pass in a day ; and the poor come by cart-loads. She is about 70 years of age, and keeps old Bostock's house, who allow'd her 35s. a year wages : and, tho' money is offered her, yet she takes none for her cures. Her dress is very plain ; she wears a flannel waistcoat, a green linsey apron, a pair of clogs, and a plain cap, tied with a half-penny lace. So many people of fashion come now to her, that several of the poor country people make a comfortable subsistence by holding their horses. In short, the poor, the rich, the lame, the blind, and the deaf, all pray for her, and bless her ; but the doctors curse her.
We have received a confirmation of these accounts, as follows :
Sandbach, Sept. 1.
SIR, The old doctress, Bridget Bostock, lives at Coppenhall, between this place and Namptwich, being three miles from each. She is a very plain woman, about 64, and hath followed doctoring for some years to some few people in the neighbourhood. About a quarter of a year ago she came into great fame, for curing of most diseases, by rubbing the place with the fasting spittle of her mouth, and praying for them ; she hath had 600 or 700 of a day, and it hath been so throng'd, that a great many people have come, that have stay'd a day or two before they could get to her. She now speaks to none but those that have been with her afore time, and we hear she will not (till next April) excepting such, and those for deafness. The Rev. Mr. Wm. Harding, minister of Coppenhall, gives her a very great character, and saith, that she is one that is a constant frequenter of his church. A son of his was cured of his lameness by her immediately after he had been with her, when all other doctors could do him no service ; Mrs. Gradwell, of Liverpool, hath wonderfully recover'd her sight, by the assistance of the said doctress. She helps and heals, in a wonderful manner, all persons that come to her, and doth more service to the world than all other doctors besides. Some of this neighbourhood have received great benefits ; but others that have been with her but little.
Over Peover, Sept. 26.
In your Magazine for October, you are desired to insert the following, by
Your constant Reader, G. R.
" Disce : sed ira cadat naso, rugosaque sanna,
Dum veteres avias tibi de pulmone revello."-PERs. [v. 91, 92.]
It has been made a question by some, whether the extraordinary cures, ascribed to the famous Bridget Bostock, of Coppenhall, be natural or supernatural effects. I propose here to inquire, and hope to give such a resolution of the matter, as may satisfy reasonable and considering people.
The means she ordinarily makes use of, are to rub the parts affected with her fasting spittle, and to bless or pray for every one that attends her.
Now, whatever natural efficiency or sanative virtue any person may suppose to be in her hand or her spittle, yet that these are not the means by which any cure is effected, nor even necessary to be applied, I think is undeniably evident from this plain matter of fact. Before she practised this way, she used only to take the names of her patients, and to make a short prayer for every one in particular ; and I have been assured by a near neighbour, and one who has constantly attended her, that she cured with as much certainty and success then, without ever so much as seeing the person, as she has done since. He likewise told me, that of late, when she has been attended by such crowds of people, that she could not possibly administer to all, some were sent away with her blessing only, it being all she was able to give them ; and he believed it intirely sufficient. Nay, in several cases, such as convulsions, hystericks, and falling fits, she never requires more than the patient's name, and her prayer does the business. The only reason given for altering her first method is, because her patients presently became so numerous, that she could not, in her own phrase, think of them all. From hence it appears, that the application of her hand, and her fasting spittle, is a mere ineffectual ceremony, and that all the supposed efficacy lies in her blessing and her prayer, or words, whatever the form may be, which she makes use of. There is then no natural power in the means she uses to produce the effects pretended : for, that there can be such virtue in any form of words, I think, no sensible person will undertake to prove.
Her cures then, if any be performed, must be supernatural or miraculous effects. Now, besides the improbability that God should give any person a power of working miracles, upon common and ordinary occasions, without some very great and important end in view; that her pretended cures have really nothing of one in them, will appear from considering something of the nature and properties of a miracle. A miracle is a conspicuous, instantaneous, a compleat and perfect work. It is conspicuous, and obvious to the senses of every spectator; her pretended cures are not so. It is instantaneous, and as soon as the fiat is given, the effect is evident ; most of her pretended cures advance by time and slow degrees. It is perfect, and needs not a second hand; her pretended cures are so far different, that, to my certain knowledge, several persons have relapsed ; and this is so incontestable, that for these ten days past she has admitted but few, except her old patients.
Besides, there is no instance upon record, and it is indeed absurd to suppose, that any person should be favoured with a power of working miracles, and not know that he is possessed of such a power, nor from whence it is derived, nor for what end it was given : but this, however, is the case of our Copnall doctress. Her wonder-working power she ascribes to the stars, and thinks she can effect any cure, only because she fancies herself born under a lucky planet. So gross is her ignorance.
But some people make Ignorance the mother of Devotion. And why should we not suppose that God may have conferred a peculiar grace upon her, in reward of her devotion, her piety, and her prayers ? St. James seems to give us reason to expect something like this. " Is any sick among you ? Let him call for the elders of the church," etc. He prescribes prayer, and anointing with oil in this case, and the papists have made a sacrament of it; but, I believe, they allow not a woman to administer it. However, I must observe, that it happens a little unluckily for them, as well as St. Bridget, that the sickness here mentioned was some extraordinary disease, inflicted as a punishment, in those days, upon particular people, for some notorious crimes; and that the recovery was likewise extraordinary and miraculous, and peculiar to that age of miracles in which the Apostles lived ; as manifestly appears from the instance of Elias immediately subjoined. This, then, will not serve the turn ; because her cures, as we have seen before, are nothing miraculous. Tho' I must say, from what I have observed in this affair, that I am apt to think, miracles will never cease.
There is a famous instance recorded of Mr. Gretrakes, which perhaps some may allege in favour of B. B. He is said to have cured pains and diseases only by touching ; and the excellent Dr. H. More, who gives a particular account of him, and commends him highly for his piety, virtue, and good qualities, attributes his great success to a certain sanative virtue in his hand; and supposes it might be conferred upon him, as a distinguishing grace, on account of the regenerate and confirm'd state of piety which he seem'd to be in. But, however that matter might be, it can be of no service in the present case, because his cures were supposed to be performed by the touch, and I have proved before that hers are not so.
But, after all, why may we not suppose her endowed with this gift of healing, upon account of preserving her virginity to an advanced age ? There are some persons weak enough to think so. And I re-member a pretty curious receipt for the king's evil in Mr. Scot's " Discovery of Witchcraft," which seems to favour such an opinion. The receipt is : " Let a virgin fasting lay her hand upon the sore, and say, ' Apollo denieth that the heat of the plague can increase, where a naked virgin quencheth it,' and spet three times upon it." But it is observable here, that the virgin is to be naked, and probably younger than our doctress. And yet I can hardly think that virginity has any such virtue annex'd to it : for if that were so, what a rare number of doctresses, both old and young, should we have in every town !
It is now, I hope, sufficiently proved that the cures, said to be wrought by this old woman, are neither natural nor supernatural effects. The consequence, I am afraid, will be that then they are none at all. And I cannot help it : for I never heard of a third sort really distinct from those mentioned. That this, in short, is the truth of the case, I am fully convinced upon good grounds and a careful enquiry; insomuch that I dare challenge her warmest advocates to produce a single instance of a cure, that can be fairly proved to be wrought by her means.