Witchcraft, Black Willie, dead horses and a sacrificial pigeon - the dark past of Greatham

An unfortunate pigeon was used to convict a woman of witchcraft in Hartlepool.

Sunday, 5th June 2022, 4:56 am

The alleged case happened in Greatham and it was the work of a ‘wizard’ which led to a local woman being found to be a witch.

It’s a tale which researcher and historian Graeme Harper has taken up in his latest feature written specially for the Hartlepool Mail.

Witchcraft, dead horses, a sacrificial pigeon, and a man called’ Black Willie,’. They were all part of an amazing tale from Hartlepool’s past.

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The death of a pigeon was used to prove a Hartlepool woman was a witch.

It was originally recounted in the book ‘Notes on the Folklore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders’ by William Henderson in 1866.

The book recounts how, in 1861, the Rev HB Tristram who was the Master of Greatham Hospital ‘and renowned ornithologist, was visited by a distraught

woman. She was horrified to discover that her neighbours were accusing her of witchcraft.

Although witch trials had been banned by an act of Parliament in 1735, it was not good news to be thought of being in league with the devil.

It was William Henderson's book from 1866 which first highlighted the Greatham case.

The accusation arose when a local farmer’s two horses died unexpectedly. The suspicious owner consulted a Hartlepool sage called ‘Black Willie ‘who convinced him that witchcraft – or the ‘evil eye’ – was the cause.

But who was the culprit behind the spell? Black Willie had a foolproof way of finding out.

His suggestion was the family of the dead horses secure their house by closing all windows and blocking the keyholes. Then they had to find a live pigeon and take turns sticking pins into its heart until it was dead. Then, after roasting it, a close watch should be kept at the window.

The first person to pass by would be the guilty party.

Of course, the accused woman did not stand a chance because she was the next door neighbour of the farmer whose horses had died.

According to the book: ’The family were firmly convinced she has exercised the evil eye on the dead horses although she was a comely matron not yet fifty years of age ‘

What happened next is not known. Nor is the identity of the mysterious Black Willie.

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