A skinned Bible tells a story of witches

Does a 1613 King James Bible support a supposedly fictional account of the Northamptonshire witch trial? Photo: Mary Phillips' skinned Bible

VANCOUVER, Wa., August 4, 2012 — My quest to discover the solution to a 400-year old text puzzle led me to call on another rare Bible collector, Michael Morgan. His copies of the 1611 and 1613 King James Bibles would help me solve the puzzle.

Michael enthusiastically fulfilled my request, and in his reply included a bit of history attached to one of the Bibles.

Michael’s 1613 octavo has a very interesting provenance, which was verified by Charles Byrne, a bookseller in Galway, Ireland. Abandoning the text puzzle, I became fascinated with the story attached to the Bible.

On the verso (back side) of the engraved New Testament title is a manuscript presentation inscription: “Mary Phillips, her book. Witness, Sarah Benskin, October ye 13, 1689,” and in a different hand, “God give her grace to practis it,” dated October 13, 1689, as a gift from Sarah Benskin and Mary Mill.

Sarah Benskin was baptized on 10 January 1605 (infant baptism) at Hartshorne, St. Peter, Derbyshire, making her an 84-year-old woman, when the Bible was given to Mary Phillips. Mary is supposedly the same “Mary Phillips” who was one of two women burned as witches in Northamptonshire in 1705.

The note, “God give her grace to practis it,” is presumably a prayer for Mary that she would mend her ways. In 1705 Mary Phillips was one of the last two women in England to be burned as a witch. Tradition has it that her response to the gift of the Bible was to peel off the leather, saying that the Bible meant no more to her than a dead animal to be skinned and cast aside. The stitching in this Bible is still intact, but every millimeter of the leather has been stripped off.

A pamphlet published in 1705 reflects on Mary Phillip’s alleged crimes and her insane behavior on the day of her execution. Its lengthy title: An Account of the Tryals, Examination and Condemnation, of Elinor Shaw, and Mary Phillips (Two Notorious Witches), at Northampton Assizes on Wednesday the 7th of March 1705, for Bewitching a Woman, and Two Children, Tormenting Them in a Sad and Lamentable Manner Till They Dyed. With an Account of Their Strange Confessions, about Their Familiarity with the Devil, and How They Made a Wicked Contract with Him, to be Revenged on Several Persons, by Bewitching Their Cattel to Death, etc., and Several Other Strange and Amazing Particulars. London: F. Thorn, 1705. Reprinted: Northampton: J. Taylor and Son, 1866

In the Pamphlet, the following charge is laid out: “That living in one house together they contracted with the Devil about a year ago, to sell their souls to him, upon condition, he would enable them to do what mischief they desired, against whom they pleased, either in body, goods or children; upon which the same night, they had each of them three imps sent as they were going to bed, and at the same instant the Devil appeared to them in the shape of a tall black man, and told them that these imps would always be at their services, either to kill man, woman,  child, hog, cow, sheep, or any other creature, when they pleased to command them, …”

The pamphlet continues by describing hope for repentance: “The day before the execution was due to take place they were visited by the local minister, Mr. Danks, in the hope they would show some degree of repentance. However, this was not to be the case. The minister, in the hope of understanding, then asked them to explain their dealings with the Devil. After conferring, Elinor told him that the Devil had appeared several times to them, always in the guise of a tall dark man, and on each occasion presenting them with new imps [evil spirits/ little demons] of different colours varying from red to black….”

An eyewitness account taken from Executions in Northampton by an anonymous author says: “They were hardened in their wickedness that they publicly boasted that their master (meaning the Devil) would not suffer them to be executed, but they found him a liar, for on Saturday morning, being the 17th inst., they were carried to the gallows on the north side of town, whither numerous crowds of people went to see them die, and being come to the place of execution the minister repeated his former pious endeavours. To bring them to sense of their sins, but to as little purpose as before; for instead of calling upon God for mercy, nothing was heard of them but damning and cursing; however, a little before they tied up, at the request of the minister, Elinor Shaw confessed not only the crime for which she died but openly declared before them all how she first became a witch, as did also Mary Phillips; and being desired to them in such a blasphemous manner as is not fit to mention; so that the sheriff seeing their presumptuous impenitence, caused them to be executed with all the expedition possible … So they resolutely died in his service to the terror of all the people who were eye witnesses to their dreadful and amazing exits. So that being hanged till they were almost dead, the fire was put to the straw, faggots, and other combustible matter, till they were burnt to ashes. Thus lived and thus died two of the most notorious and presumptuous witches that ever were known in this age.”

Did this all happen as recorded? Modern scholars believe that the 1705 pamphlet is a fictitious narrative. Many suggest the trial did not take place, while others continue to quote it as authoritative. The actual letter, the basis for the pamphlet by Ralph Davis, has not been found. On the other hand, it certainly has never been completely disproved. Is it possible that the inscription in this Bible sheds some light on Mary’s participation in witchcraft, her trial, and execution?

 



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Donald L. Brake, Sr.

Donald L. Brake, Ph.D., is Dean Emeritus of Multnomah Biblical Seminary, past president of Jerusalem University College, Israel; author of A Visual History of the English Bible: The Tumultuous Tale of The World’s Bestselling Book; Baker Books, 2008 (a 2009 ECPA Christian Book Award finalist), A Visual History of the King James Bible: The Dramatic Tale of the World’s Best-Known Translation, Baker Books, 2011, A Royal Monument of English Literature: The King James Bible 1611, Credo House Publishers, 2011; and antiquarian collector with his extensive collection of rare and significant Bibles and artifacts currently at the Dunham Bible Museum, Houston Baptist University, Houston, Texas.

www.credocommunications.net/kjv

Contact Donald L. Brake, Sr.

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