TIMES PAST: Cootehill’s brush with witchcraft in 1904

Sunday, 28th October, 2018 8:14am

TIMES PAST: Cootehill’s brush with witchcraft in 1904

The town of Cootehill was outraged at the magical antics of a Ms Bodley just over a century ago.

If you read in the paper about witchcraft in the home, then, like me, you would probably think it very strange. If it didn’t make breaking news, it would surely do the rounds as gossip, no doubt, capturing the imagination of the general public. My recent discovery of an article on witchcraft in Cootehill might sound like a story blown-out of all proportion, but more the opposite it was. Being, almost like a voodoo ritual. Hence the odder.

The happening occurred sometime in October 1904. An account, appeared in New Zealand’s ‘Evening Star’, on November 17, 1904. Luckily, this edition was digitised and made available to me on the New Zealand National Library website. Now a question: did these ghoulish antics prepare the people for an interesting Halloween? Or, did it just plain terrify them?

Rusty pins

The Evening Star announced: ‘on a recent Sunday evening’, striking proof was provided that ‘superstition is not yet extinct in some parts of Ireland.’ That October, the Kerry Sentinel, had in a similar vein, stated: ‘Superstition dies hard. A case which would have delighted the author of The Ingoldsby Legends has just occurred in the town of Cootehill, County Cavan.’
The place from where the dark act was observed, was in the home of Rebecca Bodley, of Church Street. The police had been called-out when neighbours caused a disturbance on hearing of an unreported dead person being waked at Bodley’s home. The Fermanagh Herald painted a vivid picture of the gathering locals, describing, how ‘the house was besieged by an angry crowd that were stubbornly refused admission. When the door was broken in the old woman met the intruders with a fusillade of stones’, as she ‘successfully resisted attempts to capture her dwelling.’
The police got to the house. There, they saw an old lady, seated in a room which had been laid out for a wake. In the bed, they observed ‘a recumbent figure, at the head and foot of which candles were burning’.
The old lady was confirmed as being Rebecca Bodley. She appeared to be reading a portion of scripture. However, on closer inspection, the tranquillity of ‘the scene’ was quickly altered when the police realised that the old woman was ‘going through the 109th Psalm backwards.’
As to the deceased person. Who was he or she? Slightly unnerved, as they were, the police went to the bed to take a closer look. To their astonishment, the corpse ‘turned out to be an uncouth figure of straw, into which pins had been stuck.’
Under the heading, ‘Waking the Sheaf’, the Fermanagh Herald, described the corpse as consisting of ‘a sheaf of straw surrounded by three straw men held together by pins.’ When asked, what she was up to, Rebecca replied, that she was ‘waking’ the sheaf! The scene was enough to cause the average sergeant to scratch his head, or run. The puzzled police officers enquired further. They learned that Bodley was intending to wake ‘the corpse’ till Tuesday.
Since she’d caused no actual crime, the police could do very little. After all, who were they to tell a woman what to do in her own home. So they left her to it. Rebecca continued the wake in to Monday night. The whole affair, with all its superstition was too much for the locals. A determined group of towns people assembled for a second time. With purpose, they set-out to end the ‘evil’ activity.
The Evening Star painted the scene. Describing the return of the ‘indignant towns-people’ to the Bodley home, as they began ‘to break the windows, extinguish the candles, and generally to wreck everything in the house.’ Window frames were torn out and the small straw figures were pulled from the straw corpse and fired in to the kitchen sink. The mob’s excitement began to assume ‘serious proportions.’ The police were summoned once more. Thankfully, order and calm was restored.
So, why did Rebecca Bodley set-out to wake a body of straw? And why did she pierce it with needles? The police were able to get an explanation. The old lady had lost a couple of hens and a sum of money, amounting to 3s. and 6d. Although the sum sounds small, it might just be all that she had. In any case, she seems to have had a fair idea of what ‘person or persons’ had robbed her. The wake itself, a ritual, had been part of her elaborate plan to wreak vengeance on the thieves. She put all her energy into willing the ‘curse.’ She hoped to cause the wrong-doers' bodies to rot away. Once interred in the clay, the rot would cause the straw to disintegrate. As the newspapers put it, they were to be punished by ‘decay from a mysterious wasting malady.’ She wished them to ‘pine away and die’, as each pin rusted.

Magical rites

The Tuesday burial approached. Nothing stopped Rebecca. The neighbours had already stormed the Bodley home, yet, she saved the straw figures. The Kerry Sentinel concluded, stating that the woman ‘duly interred it (the straw dummy) on Tuesday’. It added, that she probably did so ‘with all regard to the magical rites prescribed by tradition in such cases.’ We are not given a burial location, but presumably, it was in her back garden. In later years, Rebecca chose the legal route to obtain justice in a separate case. In 1912, a report in The Anglo-Celt, under ‘Cootehilll Petty Sessions’, tells us that Rebecca Bodley summoned a neighbour ‘for stealing certain articles of clothing from her house.’
The bench heard both sides of the story. Then dismissed the case. One wonders, if she went for the pins?

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