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Gallowgate and The Witch Pricker

This article was written and researched by my daughter Martha Ashburn

Did you know that Newcastle was home to one of the largest witch trials in English history?

On August 21st, 1650, 15 people were hanged on the Town Moor. Our location next to St Andrew’s church places us just metres away from where the bodies were buried – in the graveyard in unmarked graves. This story fascinated me and prompted our ‘Witch’ room which opened in autumn 2018. Read on to discover the tragic story...

17th century England was a very different place from today. In a deeply religious puritanical society, women held a virtually powerless position. It was firmly believed that the role of women was to have children, raise them, manage the household and be a model of Christian subservience; any deviation from this prescribed role was regarded with intense suspicion. The existence of witches was an unquestioned fact – King James I had even written a book about it. In the 1650s, a witch was defined as someone who had made a pact with the devil – in return the devil would pass on certain powers to the witch to carry out evil. Recalling Eve and the sinful apple, puritans also believed that women were more likely to be tempted by the devil, and therefore more likely to be accused of witchcraft. So, with men in the positions of power it was no surprise that women were enormously over-represented in witch trials – in Newcastle, 14 out of 15 of the victims were female. And, with often no income or independence it was even more difficult for women to escape an accusation.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, widespread paranoia and suspicion swept the country and in 1650 it caused Newcastle’s puritan Corporation to call on the services of a Scottish witchfinder whose name has never been identified. He was paid 20 shillings (approximately £100 in today's money) for each ‘witch’ he discovered. If you have ever played our witch escape room, you will be familiar with the idea of the retractable bodkin – the ‘witchpricker’ rounded up 28 witches and with slight of hand using a retractable pin would show the accused did not bleed and therefore prove them to be a witch. The accused were then locked up in the old Newgate prison and the Castle Keep where they awaited their fate. Although around half were freed, 14 women and a man (accused of being a wizard) were publicly executed on gallows erected on Newcastle’s town moor not long after.

In England virtually all witches were hanged, burning was used in Scotland and across Europe

It is shocking to think that at the time, people genuinely believed that so many innocent women were in fact witches. Anything could instigate the fateful accusation – from owning a pet to having a birthmark or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Any misfortune, say a cow that stopped producing milk might be attributed to witch craft. Midwives, who were involved in healing remedies could easily be blamed for a still birth or the mother’s death, were also frequently accused.

Sadly, the cruel exploitation of the persistent fear of witchcraft is not only an archaic tradition – the belief in witchcraft still persists in some societies to this day. In Africa some Pentecostal pastors have incorporated African witchcraft beliefs into their brand of Christianity, which has resulted in children and babies branded as evil, abused, abandoned and even murdered. The preachers make money out of the fear, providing costly exorcism services for their parents and their communities. One source estimates that 15,000 children in the Niger Delta alone have been forced on the streets by witchcraft accusations.

Still, if there is to be a happier note to end on – karma eventually caught up with the witchfinder responsible for the Newcastle executions in 1650. He found himself arrested in Northumberland and was later hanged after confessing to causing the deaths of 220 English and Scottish women.

Nearly 400 years on, we welcome you to experience our version of the story in our Witch room which overlooks the resting place of those unfortunate souls. After undergoing a ‘pricking ceremony’ at least one of you will be found guilty and imprisoned. Have your team got the skills to save the falsely accused from execution at the hands of the hangman? You can book Witch or one of our other escape rooms inspired by Newcastle’s history visit on our website.

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