by Lynne Hand

“Every old woman with a wrinkled face, a furrowed brow, a hairy lip, a gobber tooth, a squint eye, a squeaking voice, or a scolding tongue, having a ragged coate on her back, a skull-cap on her head, a spindle in her hand, and a Dog or Cat by her side, is not only suspected, but pronounced for a witch.”  This is an extract of Discoverie of Witchcraft from 1584.

In England , the last official execution of a witch occurred in 1682, the last conviction for witchcraft took place in 1712, and the law against witchcraft was eventually repealed in 1736. However, in 1745, in the quiet rural district of Tring a chain of events began that was to shock the nation.

It started with an old couple, John Osborne and his wife Ruth. They were both poor, as witches often were, old – past seventy – and obliged to beg from door to door for what, if popular superstition was true, the devil had given them the power to possess. One day they visited a local dairy and begged for some milk, when the dairy man, a Mr Butterfield, rudely sent them away, Ruth muttered that she wished the Pretender would soon come and carry off his cattle.

After this his dairy started to fail. He became convinced that the ill-will of Ruth Osborne was the cause of his misfortune.  Eventually he gave up the dairy and became a publican, thinking that would remove the curse, but soon after his health started to deteriorate too. In desperation he consulted with a renowned wise-woman from Northamptonshire. She confirmed the curse and took measures to remove it, at a cost. She appointed six able men, armed with pitchforks, to guard Butterfield's house night and day; taking care, as a necessary precaution, to hang certain charms round the watchers' necks, to prevent them from being bewitched too.

This all cost a lot, and nothing seemed to improve. A group of Butterfield's customers concocted a plan that would deter the witch, as well as raise custom for Butterfield and other neighbouring publicans. To this end the following notice was read out by town-criers in the adjoining towns of Hemel-Hempstead, Leighton-Buzzard, and Winslow,

'This is to give notice, that on Monday next a man and woman are to be publicly ducked at Tring, in this county, for their wicked crimes.'

On hearing this the parish overseer of Tring, Mr Barton, determined to protect them, and had them lodged in the workhouse. The master of the workhouse, one John Tomkins, suspected violence, from what he had heard, and late on Sunday night he moved them to the vestry of the local parish church, thinking that a church would be the best place to secure them from harm.

However, on Monday, April 22, 1750, a mob, consisting of more than ten thousand people marched on the workhouse, and, demanded that the Osbornes should be delivered up. Tomkins, assured the crowd that they were not there, but the rabble didn't believe him and broke open the doors, smashed all the windows and searched all over the building, looking into drawers, trunks, and even the salt-box, supposing, that a witch and a wizard could conceal themselves in such a small space.

Infuriated, the mob collected a quantity of straw, they lit torches and threatened to murder the master, and burn down the whole town of Tring. Terrified, he told them where the Osbornes were concealed, and then, with yells of fiendish delight, the mob broke open the church-doors, seized their helpless victims, and carried them off.

One of the more popular ways people thought they could discover if someone was a witch was through “floating” or “dunking” - a priest would bless a patch of  water like a pond or river and the accused was thrown in with their hands tied. If they floated the water was rejecting them so they were guilty. If they sank they were innocent. However, there was no pond to be had locally and so the crowd blocked up a local stream in order to flood a field. In a vain attempt to forestall tragedy the obstruction was removed from the stream by a Mr. Nott Gregory, a ‘yeoman farmer' of Wilstone. But, not to be robbed of their sport the old couple were kept for a time in Butterfield's pub, the Half Moon Alehouse, until a suitable pond was found.

Eventually the old couple were stripped naked, and dragged over two miles to their doom. Their hands and feet were bound, the left thumb to the right toe and they were thrown into the Marlston Mere pond.

Ruth Osborne sank like a stone. A local man called Thomas Colley used a stick to push her round the pond for the sport of the crowd and at one point she managed to get her head above water, gasping for air, but Colley pushed her back under. She  was ducked three times, her husband twice. After she was pronounced dead Colley went round the pond collecting money for the sport he had shown them in ducking the old witch, as he called her.  Ruth had died and therefore was declared not a witch, but John Osborne, still breathing, was tied to the dead body of his wife and both were carried back to the Half Moon pub.

Most of the villains who caused the affray, those who took part in the riot in Tring and in the episode by the pond were never caught, having crossed the county boundary, making it difficult for the Parish Constables to apprehend them.

However Colley was taken into custody, and amazingly John Osborne survived his ordeal, he was never able to work again, and was for many years an inmate of Tring Workhouse.  At the trial however he was able to give evidence against Thomas Colley as to the terrible deeds that robbed him of his wife and Colley was convicted, and sentenced to hang.

On August 24, 1751 Colley was led to his death by 108 men and seven officers of the horse guards in a show of force to deter future witch hunters.  He was hung at a place called Gubblecut, near where the offence was committed and his body was hung up in chains on the same gibbet.

Many strange happenings have been reported on this spot, where the Gibbet stood and long after it had fallen into decay and disappeared, the clanking of Colley's chains could be heard, as his skeleton (no longer there) swung in the wind. The spot has been haunted ever since moreover, by the spirit of a great ‘Black Dog'. But that is another story.

The London Morning Penny Post
From Wednesday July 31, to Friday August, 1751

Last Tuesday Evening the Assizes ended at Hertford, when Edward Mead, for a Burglary, and Thomas Colley, for the Murder of Ruth Osborne, at Tring, receiv'd Sentence of Death.

It appeared on the Trial of Colley, which lasted many Hours, that some of the Neighbours thinking the Deceas'd was a Witch, and her Husband John Osborne, a Wizard, they had it cried in three Market-Towns, that they were to be publickly duck'd on Monday the 22d, of April last in Tring, which brought together a Mob of 10000 People, who went to the Workhouse to demand the poor Wretches, and, not finding them there, pull'd down Part of the House, and were going to set Fire to what was standing; but being informed that the Man and Woman were in the Vestry Room adjoining to the Church, they went there, broke it open, seiz'd and stript them, and tied their Thumbs and Great Toes together, then tied them up in two Sheets, and carried them to Marlston Meer, in the Parish of Tring, where the poor old Woman, aged seventy, expired by Suffocation in the Mud and Water, the Meer not being above three Feet deep.

Edward Mead was reprieved before the Judge left the Town, and Thomas Colley is ordered for Execution pursuant to his Sentence.

The Trial of Henry Worster, indicted for being concerned in the said riotous Assembly, and who was also in Custody, was put off till next Assizes.

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