Influence of Lord Chief Justice Sir John Holt, 1689-1710


Legal Scepticism before Holt: Sir George Mackenzie

  • Became concerned with the legitimacy of witchcraft trials after the scottish witch-hunt
  • Published 'Laws and Customs of Scotland in Matters Criminal' in 1687
  • Believed witchcraft was possible but most accused were not witches
  • True witches deserved punishment but blame should be laid on judges who find innocent people guilty
  • Believed in traditional view of witches as people who had been deceived
  • Doubted devil would offer witches
  • Normal legal procedures not followed and torture used to gain confessions
  • Promoted to Lord Advocate in 1677
  • Freed a number of suspected witches
  • Threw out cases involving torture
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John Holt

  • Liked by James and was knighted
  • Helped with negotiations for transition of power between Catholic James II and Protestant William III
  • Career preserved in Francis Hutchinson's 'An Historical Essay Concerning Witchcraft'
  • Saw 11 or 12 trials and resulted each in an aquittal
  • One was the case of Mother Munnings and he refused to accept evidence from a man returning from an alehouse
  • Elizabeth Horner aquitted, accused of possessing three children, with one being seen walking nine feet up a wall
  • Sarah Murdock aquitted and was faced with serious opposition. Holt willing to put accuser on trial for fraudulently claiming witchcraft shows his scepticism
  • Predecessor, Matthew Hale was willing to accept dubious testimonies to secure convictions
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The Last Executions and end of legislation

  • Last witch to be executed was Alice Molland who was hanged
  • One final execution in Scotland was Janet Horne who was burned 
  • 1736 Government repealed the 1604 Witchcraft act
  • Little opposition to the decision
  • Witchcraft act passed aimed at punishing fraudulent cases and also declared magic and witchcraft were not real
  • 1751, Ruth Osborne was attacked by an angry mob who accused her of witchcraft and she was dragged into a pond for the swimming test. She drowned after being thrown in and her husband was beaten to death
  • One ringleader, Thomas Colley was arrested and executed for the murder of Osborne
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