Friday, September 2, 2011

The case of the surfing witch

© 2011 Christy K Robinson

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This story illustrates the common attitude toward 17th-century women who were unusual or stood out from the crowd. Mary Dyer was never publicly or officially accused of being a witch, but because of the times, and because of their beliefs and independent actions, there were rumors that she and Anne Hutchinson were witches. This was a danger every woman faced in the 17th century if she didn't have the strength and protection of her husband's wealth and status. 

In 1643, William Hutchinson had recently died and Anne Hutchinson and her younger children had moved away from Rhode Island to Dutch territory (near the Bronx) where they expected to be safe from the Massachusetts Puritans who were hounding her to recant, and attempting to annex Rhode Island to regain control over the very people they'd expelled for heresy in 1638! William Dyer, John Clarke, Roger Williams, and others were working diligently (and successfully) to obtain the first patent for Rhode Island from England. It defined their boundaries to prevent annexation and it allowed separation of civil and religious powers.  

The first paragraph of the pamphlet's text speaks of the outrage of women aspiring to education and learning. Both Mary Dyer and Anne Hutchinson were learned women with keen minds and quick wits.

Now that the American scene is set, please think about their families, friends, and colleagues back in England--people they'd left only three to eight years before. The following is a pamphlet that was published in 1643 England, during witch hunts by Matthew Hopkins. The story tells how during the English Civil War, soldiers found a woman surfing (like kids go boogie-boarding at the beach) on the River Newbury and killed her.
Hobie Mirage Eclipse watercraft.
Compare with 1643 woodcut image.


No doubt the soldiers were ogling the surfing woman in her wet, clingy dress. These were the Puritan (Parliamentarian) forces of Oliver Cromwell, the Ironsides regiment, and the woman's sarcastic wish for the Puritan Earl of Essex to "win the field"  against the royalists was the last straw. Looking back from the 21st century, she probably wasn't even considered a witch until after she was killed--this story was a cover-up invention to justify the soldiers' mob mentality and murderous actions.

Certain, Strange, and true Discovery of a
Being taken by some of the Parliamentary Forces, as she was sliding 
On a small planck board and sayling on it over the River at Newbery, 
Together with the strange and true manner of her death, 
with the propheticall Words and Speeches she used at the same time.
Printed by John Hammond 1643.

"Many are in the belief that this silly sex of Woman can by no meanes attaine to that so vile and dammed a practice of sorcery and Witchcraft in regard to their Uleterateness [illiterateness] and want of learning, which many Men of greate learning have become. Adam by temptatation toucht and tasted the deceiving apple so some high learn'd and read, by the same Tempter that deceived him hath bin ensnared to contract with the Devil as for example in the instancing a few English, Bacon of Oxford, Vandermast of Hollande, Bungy of Germany, Fostus of the Bame place, Franciscus the English monke of Bery, Doctor Blackleach and divars, others that were tedious to relate of, but how weake Woman should attain unto it many are incredible of the same and many too are opposite of opinion gainst the same, that giving a possibility to their doubtings that the malice and inveterate malice of a woman entirely devoted to her revengefull wrath frequenting desolate and desart places and giving way unto their wicked temptation may have commune with that world roaring Lion and covenant and contract upon condition, the like hath in divars places and tymes been tried at the assises of Lancaster, Carlile, Buckingham and elsewhere, but to come to the intended relation of this Witch's and Sorceresse's doings as is manifestly and credibly related by Gentlemen, Commanders and Captaines of the Earle of Essex his Army.

A part of the Army marching thro' Newbery some of the Souldiers being scattered by reason of theyre loytering by the way in gathering Nuts, Apples, Plummes, Black berries and the like, one of them by chance in climbing up a Tree being pursued by his fellows or Comrade in Waggish Merriment jesting one with another espied on the river being there adjacent a tall lean slender Woman as he supposed to his amasement and great terrour treading of the water with her feete with as much ease and firmnesse as if one should walk or trample on the earth, wherewith he softly calls and beck'ned to his fellows to behold it and with all possible speed that could be to obscure them from her sight, who as conveniently as they could they did observe, this could be no little amasement unto them you may think to see a Woman dance upon the water, nor could all their sights be deluded, though perhaps one might, but arriving nearer to the Shore they could perceive there was a planck or deale overshadowed with a little shallow water that she stood upon which did beare her up, anon rode by some of the Commanders who were eye-witnesses as much as they and were as much astonished as they could be, still too and fro she fleeted on the water, the boord standing firm about upright, indeed I have both heerd and read of many that in tempests and on Rivers by casualty have become ship-wrack'd or cast over-boord where catch'g empty Barrells, rudders, boords or plancks have made good shift by the assisting providence of God to get on shore, but not in this woman kind, when as little thinking who perceived her tricks, or that she did imagine that they were the last she should ever show, as we have heard the Swan sings before her death, at last having been sufficiently upon the water he that deceived her alway, did so then, blinding her that she could not see at her landing the ambush that was laid for her,  coming upon the shore she gave the boord a push, which they plainly perceived and crossed the river, they searched after her, but could not find her she being landed. The Commanders beholding her gave orders to lay hold on her and bring her to them straight, the which some were feerfull, but some being more valorous than other some, boldly went to her and siesed upon her by the armes demanding what she was, but the woman no whit replying any words unto them they brought her to the Commanders to whom, tho' mightily she was urged she did reply as little, so consulting with themselves what should be done to her, it being so apparently appear'd she was a Witch, being lothe to let her goe and as loth to carry her with them, so they resolved with themselves to make a shot at her, and gave orders to a couple of their Souldiers that were approv'd good marksmen to charge and shoot her strait, which they purposed to doe, so setting her strait again a Mud Banke or wall two of the Souldiers according to their command made ready when having taken aime, gave fire and shot at her, as thinking sure they had sped her, but with a deriding and loud laughter at them she caught theyre bullets in her hands and shewed them, which was stronger testimony than the water that she was the same that their imagination thought her so to be, so resolving with themselves if either fire or sword or halter were sufficient to make an end of her, one let his Carbine close to her breast, where discharging, the bullett back rebound'd like a ball and narrowly it missed his face that was the shooter, this so inraged the Gentlemen that one drew out his sword and manfully ran at her with all the force his strength had power to make, but it prevayled no more than did the shot, the Woman still, tho' speechless, yet in a most contemptible way of scorn still laughing at them, which did the more exhauste their furie against her life, yet one amongst them had heerd that piercing the temples of the head it would prevayl against the strongest sorcery and quell the force of Withcraft, which was allowyd for trial, the Woman hearing this knew that the Devil had left her and her power was gone, whereupon she began aloud to cry and roare, tearing her haire and making piteous moan, which in these words expressed were, And is it come to passe that I must dye indeed, why then his Excellencie the Earle of Essex shall be fortunate and win the field, after which no more words could be got from her, wherewith they immediately discharged a Pistoll underneathe her eare at which she strait sunk downe and dyed, leaving her legacy of a detested carcasse to the wormes, her soule we ought not to judge of, though the evills of her wicked life can scape no censure. FINIS."  

What do you think about this story? Leave a comment below!

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Christy K Robinson is author of these sites:  

and of these books:

·          We Shall Be Changed (2010)
·          Mary Dyer Illuminated (2013)
·          Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This (2014)
·          The Dyers of London, Boston, & Newport (2014)
·          Effigy Hunter (2015)
·          Anne Marbury Hutchinson: American Founding Mother (2018)


  1. From Facebook:
    Carolina said...
    Was mighty interesting! I wonder, tho, if there really was a woman surfing on a plank...or if that part was made up, to be part of the explanation and/or was just an excuse to kill her?

    Christy K Robinson replied...
    It sounds like boogie-boarding for fun. The big battle was in September, so maybe it was a hot day and she was playing around. And yes, the witch accusation seems like an attempt to cover up for some cruel and rash behavior of ignorant soldiers. How ironic that the piece starts out with criticism of women's learning, and ends with stupidity of ignorant and superstitious murderers.

  2. Interesting how the men embellished their report, probably to justify their bad marksmanship and their consternation at a woman doing something they could not even think of doing.

  3. I have read several of your articles and found them very interesting. This story titled, "A MOST Certain, Strange, and true Discovery of a WITCH", was no exception. But is it true? It seems so fanciful to me, perhaps it's a work of fiction, thought up by the author as some some kind of proof that witches really do, (did exist). As I read the account it brought to mind another tail about seeing a merman swimming near Harpswell Island in Casco Bay, Maine, and that when wounded creature's blood turned the water purple. However, unlike the the merman story which is so unreal that one knows that it is a 'tall tail'. But I really don't know how to take this story, in other words I know that witches are not real, and that no one can do the things that have been reported in this story, but in the minds of the early planters, they all seem to have a belief in supernatural things such as Witches. Did they actually see and witness these things, or simply make up a story, perhaps to cover some other crime. Maybe they killed her accidentally or perhaps they all or some of them took some unspeakable liberties with her and they all conspired together to cover up their own crime against her. We will never know I supose. Do you know if she was a living person and what her name was?

    1. Thank you for your compliment on this blogsite. You would not believe the thousands of hours of research and writing behind its 150 articles (so far).

      The murder of a woman by ignorant soldiers in the English Civil War is real. The story appeared in 1643 in an English broadsheet (a tabloid), and there are copies of it in archives, which is how historians have have images of it. What we don't know is exactly how it happened. At that time, witches and spells, and unorthodox behavior (like boogie-boarding on a river), but ESPECIALLY a woman speaking disrespectfully to a man, was reason enough in their minds to kill a woman. In our 21st-century minds, we figure that the soldiers killed her first, and made up the magic and witch bits afterward because that was a way to deflect blame and not be called to trial and execution themselves.

  4. The story takes place in the Marsh, now called Victoria Park, Newbury, Berkshire, UK. I am local historian and can tell you at the time much of the are would have been marsh land, hence the name. The woman was most likely using planks on here feet to walk over the marsh without sinking. A simple explanation, however for many of the soldiers most likely wouldn't have seen anything like this before, thus appearing like witchcraft.


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