In: Ninth Report of the Committee on Devonshire Folk-Lore

Trans. Devon Assoc., vol. XVIII, (1886), pp. 104-105.


G. Doe

Prepared by Michael Steer

The extraordinary court case reported here is reviewed in Owen Davies, “Witchcraft, Magic and Culture, 1736-1951”, Manchester University Press, 1999, p.42. It is of scholarly interest as an example of medical and legal debate over the link between insanity and belief in witchcraft arising in this instance from a dispute over a contested will. The article, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.

The Devonshire Belief in Witchcraft. - "In the Probate and Divorce Division of the High Court of Justice on Thursday, the case of Westren v, Westren and others came before the Right Hon. the President, Sir James Hannen, and had reference to the testamentary dispositions of the late Thomas Westren, who died on the 1st of last December at Barnstaple, possessed of property to the amount of about £700. The plaintiff, Mary Westren, widow of the deceased, propounded the will, bearing date 11th January, 1884, probate of which was opposed by the defendants, the deceased's family, on the usual grounds, including that of the alleged undue influence of the executrix- The will was substantially in favour of the widow, to whom deceased left everything, until her decease or upon her second marriage, when it would revert to his own next-of-kin. Mr. Pitt-Lewis, Q.C, M.P., in opening the case, stated that the two attesting witnesses were Dr. Harper, and the deceased's own solicitor, Mr. Bencraft, both of whom had had business relations with him for many years, and would give undeniable proof that deceased was of sound disposing mind. The deceased on the 7th December, 1883, executed a will on all fours with that propounded, the only difference being that it did not contain the restraining marriage clause, upon discovery of which the deceased executed the one in question. The marriage took place on the 4th March, 1882, the wife being a lady of mature years, and was in every respect a suitable match. Deceased unquestionably possessed a peculiarity common to many aged Devonshire people - that of believing in witchcraft, and when he became afflicted with a troublesome skin disease he believed himself to have been 'overlooked,' and actually resorted to the ‘White Witch' with a view to its cure. He was, however, satisfactorily treated by his medical man, and there the matter ended. Mr. Bencraft and Dr. Harper were called, and spoke to the disposing mind of the deceased, the latter stating that deceased told him that he had advanced £2,900 to his children, and would do nothing more for them, but would leave all to his wife. Mrs. Westren, who said she was 68 years of age, denied having ever heard deceased say he was ‘witched' by his own children. Mr. Inderwick, Q.C, withdrew the charge of undue influence, but relied on the statement that deceased considered himself 'witched.' Witnesses were then called who swore that the deceased considered his children had ‘witched' him, and that he had consulted the ‘White Witch' at Exeter. The Court then adjourned for luncheon, the Judge intimating that some arrangement should be come to between the parties. After the adjournment Mr. Pitt-Lewis said that Mr. Inderwick and himself had discussed the matter, and they would ask his Lordship to pronounce for the will on terms to which all parties were willing to assent. His Lordship acceded to the request, remarking that it was very difficult to say that to believe in witchcraft meant insanity."  - Bideford Weekly Gazette, June 1st, 1886. G. D.