I’ll take any excuse to write a suitably seasonal blog post, and a recent enquiry concerning a paper about witchcraft in our Robert Boyle collection prompted me to see if we had any other eerie archives or ghoulish grimoires. As you might expect, early Fellows of the Royal Society appear to have been just as interested in these matters as they were in everything else. Various papers about suitably spooky subjects were also published in the Royal Society’s journals, particularly Egyptian mummies, as GrrlScientist has identified in her recent piece for the Guardian.

In addition to the prevalence of preserved people in our publishing, witchcraft makes a number of appearances in the Royal Society’s archives. One of Henry Oldenburg’s many correspondents sent him an account of some witches living in Rouen in 1671 (EL/B2/12), whilst Robert Boyle’s papers contain a neatly transcribed extract from Sir James Melville’s Memoirs(published in 1683) detailing a group of witches in Lothian who were allegedly involved in a plot against King James. In the usual way of such trials things did not end well for the accused and they were burnt. Adding verisimilitude to the verdict, the account contains some wonderful descriptions of the Devil, who features as a co-conspirator in the plot: apparently “his face was terrible, his nose like the beak of an eagle, great burning eyes, his hands and his legs were hoary with claws upon his hands and feet like the gryphon” (BP/37/103).

Letter describing witchcraft

Click image for a larger copy (pdf)

Another letter to Oldenburg (pictured above) describes a Cornish family who were beset by what sounds like a poltergeist, suffering nightly from an “extraordinary and violent whirling of clotts of plaisterings, and great stones from an invisible hand in the house”. This distressing activity ceased when the maid-servant was away from the house, and they solved the problem by dismissing her, although the suspected source of the disturbances was an old woman (suspected of being a witch) who had died some two months previously following a falling-out with the beleaguered family which had been caused by some injudicious comments passed on by the maid (EL/C1/20).

In addition to ill-advised diabolical entanglements and disturbances initiated from beyond the grave, accusations of witchcraft were also based on what we would consider to be rather more mundane concerns, as the following cautionary extract from the first Journal Book demonstrates:

Dr Wilkins put the Company in mind to improve their former consideration of making a History of the weather, in order to build thereupon an art of prognosticating the changes thereof : And he suggested that to some of the Members of the Society it might be recommended to make constant observation , at least of the most considerable changes of weather ; in order whereunto, Mr Hooke was desired to engage herein, which he did : and Dr Wilkins undertook to recommend the same to Dr Power. It was also thought fit that Dr Wren should be written to, to send to the Society a scheme of his weather–engine formerly proposed, to see whether it needed any addition or not.

Sir Kenelm Digby related that Dr Dee, by a diligent observation of the weather for 7 years together acquired such a prognosticating skill of weathers, that he was therefore counted a witch (JBO/1/146).

This fascination with witchcraft was recognised by C.R. Weld in his book “A History of the Royal Society“, published in 1848, which includes a rather fine engraving of Matthew Hopkins, the Witch Finder General. Weld applauded the fact that the founding of the Society heralded a move into more rational times, and criticised the earlier superstitions which gave rise to accusations of witchcraft.

Engraving of Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General

The archives also contain at least one ghost story, recounted in a letter from Cave Beck in 1668, in which a shape-shifting spectre appears before a ship-board audience before disappearing into neighbouring woods (EL/B1/137).

Sadly the book collection is more than a little disappointing in this respect, although we do have lots of works on alchemy, including one about the Philosopher’s stone. I did, however, manage to track down An essay on apparitions, written by Sir James McGrigor FRS and published in 1823. This takes a much more scientific approach to its subject matter, as is set out in the introduction:

The following Essay was written originally for a Literary Society to prove the reality of Ghosts, and by accounting for their appearance from natural causes, to remove those impressions of terror which are made upon the minds of youth, when apparitions are supposed to be preternatural.

This subject was illustrated by a number of cases, drawn from the author’s own experience, and which cases were all of them capable of being authenticated at the time by members of the Society.

Moving into the rather more recent past, and turning to “the minds of youth”, our extensive collection of Howard Florey’s papers and correspondence contains a charming Halloween letter (pdf) from his 8 year old son, Charles. Written on 31 October 1942, Charles describes the hybrid dwarf/clown/monkey outfit he plans to wear for Halloween, and mentions a school party involving cookies and candy. No “impressions of terror” there.

At least one current Fellow has taken an interest in this sort of thing too: David Dolphin put forward an interesting theory about vampires, published in New Scientist in 1988.

With the nights getting longer and darker as winter approaches, and as wind and rain fill the black hours with unfamiliar and unexpected sounds, it is perhaps little wonder that even the most cynical amongst us might experience an occasional frisson of unease at this time of year. In the words of one of my favourite poems:

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me – filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before.

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