She disguised herself as a man, to hunt and torture other women.
Little is known of Christian Caldwell, until her appearance as a contractor to the county of Moray (then known as Elginshire) in Scotland in March of 1662, under the alias John Dickson. She’d signed a contract with the county for a year, to be paid six shillings a day to hunt out local witches, with a six pound bonus every time one was identified.
The 1650s in England and Scotland saw a resurgence in anti-witch hysteria, a result of the unsettling effects of wars, and political and economic unrest. The countryside was rife with a poor, uneducated and superstitious populace, ready to blame their misfortune on others, particularly the vulnerable single and widowed women in their communities. Although some men were accused of witchcraft, around 80 percent of those charged were women.
One could be accused of being a witch for any number of reasons, all leading to almost certain death, either as a result of the battery of torturous tests used to determine guilt or innocence, or as punishment once found guilty.
When this happened, all property belonging to the ‘witch’ would be seized and shared out among members of the community. Not surprisingly, wealthy widows became the frequent targets of these kinds of accusations, but so too did beggars in the area whom had become a public nuisance to the townsfolk.
Those accused of witchcraft were subjected to any number of harrowing and nonsensical tests. They might be bound and thrown into the water, with those accepted into its depths deserving Christians, while the unbaptised witches would float at the surface, guilty as charged. They could be asked to recite passages from the bible, or The Lord’s Prayer, word perfect. Any stumbling would be held as proof of the Devil’s influence at work. The witch’s home was searched for ‘artifacts’, often common household items or homemade salves that were taken as proof of supernatural activities. These trials were bad enough, but arguably the worst ordeal was that of pricking.
Being a witch pricker was a male-only profession. Initially performed by local villagers, the lure of high wages (and perhaps the on-the-job duties, for some men) lead to the rise of a cottage industry of wandering witch finders, who moved from village to village to flush out any local witches.
Reverend James Fraser recounted what the job entailed:
There came then to Inverness one Mr Paterson who had run over the kingdom for trial of witches, and was ordinarily called the Pricker, because of his way of trial was with a long brass pin. Stripping them naked, he alleged that the spell spot was seen and discovered. After rubbing over the whole body with his palms, he slipt in the pin, and, it seems, with shame and fear being dasht, they felt it not, but he left it in the flesh, deep to the head, and desired them to find and take it out…
Pricking was a standard method at the time used to discern if a person was a witch or not. The accused was examined for the Devil’s Mark; a blemish such as a mole or birthmark that proved that they had made a pact with the devil in return for the power to harm neighbours with nefarious spells. Sometimes no blemish was found, but there would undoubtedly be an area, that — when probed with pins, needles or other sharp objects — would neither bleed, nor produce pain.
The procedure involved stripping the subject naked, shaving their entire body and then subjecting them to the pricking test, continuing until the tell-tale spot was revealed. Often the mark was buried in more covert areas, such as under eyelids, in armpits, or within other body cavities.
The witch pricker carried a kit with various tools that they used to assist their enquiries. The needles used were not the thin dressmaking pins we think of today, but much thicker versions, including bodkins, implements used to make holes in fabric or thread laces through corsets.
There are recounts of women being stripped naked in town squares and publicly subjected to the pricking torture. It can be surmised that many confessed just to end their sexual abuse and humiliation.
These barbaric practices allowed men to not only earn a more-than-decent living cooking up false accusations against vulnerable women, but to gain access to women’s bodies under the guise of the public good.
It’s hard for us to fathom why Christian Caldwell would decide to disguise herself as a man and become a witch pricker (and perhaps, as a single woman, she was insuring herself against the kinds of accusations she dealt in) but it’s likely that she had her eye on the very good money involved.
The six shilling daily salary she contracted was equivalent at the time to four days pay for a skilled tradesman, with the six pound bonus being approximately two months salary for the same. Whatever her motivation, it appears that Caldwell was not above throwing other women under the carriage wheels, so to speak, to further her own interests.
While there were undoubtedly a few witch finders that genuinely believed in the worthiness of the service they provided, a good proportion of the prickers were charlatans, preying on the fears of the people in the communities they visited.
Found items from witch prickers kits shed light on their methods. Some utilised pricking implements with ‘trick’ hollow handles and retractable points, which appeared to pierce the skin without causing bleeding or pain. Needles were fashioned with a sharp and blunt end, which could be alternated to cause pain and bleeding on normal skin, or used without effect on a witch’s mark.
Happy to take money in return for unmasking and condemning vulnerable women within the good townsfolks’ midst, the prickers became the agents of others’ grim agendas: vendettas, spurned advances, professional or personal jealousies.
But only a few months into her contract, Christian Caldwell met the man who would bring about her downfall. In the Scottish Highland burg of Tain, she accused a court messenger named John Hay, who was better educated and connected than her earlier marks. He petitioned the court to order her arrest and succeeded.
According to records, Caldwell was interrogated in Edinburgh at the end of August 1662, charged with “false accusation, torture, and causing death of innocent people in Moray” and her actual gender was revealed. She subsequently made the outlandish statement that she did not catch witches by pricking them, but identified them by looking into their eyes.
Somehow, Caldwell managed to escape the fate of her victims but was banished to a plantation in Barbados where she would no doubt be subjected to hard labor. Ironically, she left Scotland in May 4th, 1663, the same day that her last victim was executed.
Christian Caldwell, witch pricker, had been the instrument of doom for as many as ten victims before she met her downfall.
By the end of the century, the vocation had fallen out of fashion, as the public’s belief in witches ebbed and other prickers were jailed on similar charges or for accepting bribes from friends or enemies of the accused to throw verdicts in their favour.
The Great Britain Witchcraft Act of 1735 abolished the testing and punishment of accused witches, ending a century of horror. But it couldn’t undo the damage that had been wrought by these men, and the one known woman; witch prickers who had roamed the countryside, searching for unholy blemishes on innocent women’s flesh.
More from Gilda: — Kate Warne: Queen of the Pinkertons