Papua New Guinea 'witch' murder is a reminder of our gruesome past

By Richard Sugg : The Guardian
Kepari Leniata burned to death
Bystanders watch as 20-year-old Kepari Leniata, accused of witchcraft, is burned alive in Papua New Guinea after being tortured. Photograph: AP
The killing of Kepari Leniata recalls a history in Europe and North America of scapegoating women for witchcraft
Earlier this week, police charged two people from Mount Hagen, in the western highlands of Papua New Guinea, with the murder of Kepari Leniata, a 20-year-old woman and mother. Accused of bewitching a six-year old boy who had recently died in hospital, Leniata was stripped, tortured with a hot iron rod, doused in petrol, and burned on a pile of rubbish and car tyres.

Anyone with a reasonable knowledge of history will quickly think of the legalised witch killings of Europe and North America as comparisons. These offer a sobering broader perspective. In Germany, Switzerland, Britain and New England, perhaps 50,000 alleged witches were tortured and killed by the most educated and powerful men in society. By definition, most of their supposed crimes were sheer impossibilities. But the forgotten history of witch attacks is perhaps more surprising still.

In England, the Witchcraft Act of 1736 outlawed any further prosecutions for witchcraft. Yet in the sleepy Hertfordshire village of Long Marston in 1751, the law did not protect 69-year-old Ruth Osborne. Accused of bewitching cattle, she was watched by a large crowd at the village pond that April, where a man named Thomas Colley ducked and drowned her. Though Colley would hang, many stayed away from the execution in sympathy – but the witch attacks were far from over.

With a present-day population of around 800 and a late-Saxon church, Great Paxton in Huntingdonshire now looks charmingly picturesque. Its past is rather darker. One Sunday in April 1808 the church's minister, Isaac Nicholson, could be heard attempting to talk his parishioners out of their belief that Ann Izzard had bewitched several locals, including three girls who had fallen sick. As Stephen A Mitchell notes, Nicholson was right to fear he had scarcely dented the prevailing superstitions. One night that May a mob dragged Ann, naked, from her bed into the yard outside her house. They scratched her arms with pins and beat her face, stomach and chest with a stick.

When Leniata was burned in Papua New Guinea, a surprising number of onlookers, including police, failed to save her. Though Izzard survived, her vicar had been powerless to help. That night, when she managed to dress and drag herself to the local constable, he too refused to protect her.

If this is a rather startling view of Jane Austen's England, matters were no better in Scotland. Near the church of Kirkpatrick Fleming in Dumfriesshire, a mill and a cottage faced one another beside Bettermont bridge, over the River Kirtle. One night, around 1820, the local minister, Mr Monilaws, was urgently called to Bettermont. In the cottage he found an old woman – the skin of her forehead had been cut and was hanging down over her eyes. The culprit was the miller, convinced that his uncanny neighbour had bewitched his pigs, recently drowned in the river.

His attack was not necessarily angry: he believed that he was "disinfecting" the supposed witch. The same thing was performed in Annan, Scotland, in 1826; and in Dorset around 1915 a woman had 22 wounds stitched by the local doctor for this reason. The old woman at Bettermont had more rudimentary attention; she was sewed up the vicar and his son. As far as we know, the miller was never prosecuted.

It was by a very slight chance that this story survived at all – and many others, if unprosecuted, must now have vanished. Yet similar accounts are all too plentiful. Over in Texas in 1860, a gang rode up to Antonia Alanis, and "lassooed her and dragged her on the ground" before taking her across the border to Camargo in Mexico. Here she was beaten and severely tortured for two weeks. Finally, convinced that her witchcraft still prevailed, her attackers tied her up and had "corn shucks lighted under her feet". She died soon afterwards of her burns. The culprit was a wealthy man named Ramirez, and the cause, yet again, was his sick, supposedly bewitched son Ambroso.

These are just a handful of those who suffered for superstition long after the law had sought to end attacks on "witches". Around 1880 an old Indian woman was stoned to death in Pine Nut Valley, Nevada, as a witch, and in about 1885 two men in southwest England were jailed for killing a woman thought to have bewitched their cattle. Nor were such attacks purely rural affairs. On Sunday 24 June, 1827, a crowd of over 300 people rushed down Marlborough Street in Dublin, literally throwing around a woman amid cries of: "A witch! A witch! Burn the witch!." The victim was narrowly rescued by one brave young man and dragged into a nearby police station.

Come the 20th century, there were witch murders or attacks in Arizona in 1952, Switzerland in 1959, and Bavaria in 1963. At times witch attacks may have involved personal grudges, and at times victims may have been singled out because they looked different (the Dublin woman was said to be "dwarfish and deformed"). But time and again the chief factor, amid the sick children, cattle, or failing crops was still more basic – a problem which needed someone to blame it on. If there is one wider moral of all these tragic events, it is this: those who seek scapegoats – whether witches, outsiders or immigrants – usually hit the wrong target.

The Guardian 
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