swimming ordeal


swimming ordeal
   One way of testing people suspected of *witchcraft was to throw them into water with their hands tied to their feet. Those who sank were thought innocent, and hauled back to land; to float proved guilt, because water, the holy element of baptism, would reject a witch. This form of ordeal originated on the Continent; from the early 17th century it was widely but unofficially used in England, though it had no legal standing and most judges disapproved of it (Davies, 1999a: 86-100).
   After 1736, when witchcraft was no longer a crime, 'swimming' persisted as a form of lynching, in which the old ordeal was confused with ducking as punishment, often to the point where life was endangered. Over a dozen cases are recorded from the 18th century, including one at Tring (Hertfordshire) in 1751 where the leader of a mob was hanged for drowning a woman; public sympathy was on his side, and his wife and daughter assured him he was dying in a good cause (Hone, 1827: i. 1045-8; Sharpe, 1996: 1-5). Even in the 19th century there are long reports in The Times of 24 September 1863 and 10 March 1864 of a prosecution arising from the death by pneumonia of a *deaf-and-dumb old *fortune-teller at Sible Hedingham (Essex), who was repeatedly ducked in a river after a woman claimed he bewitched her (summarized in FLS News 25 (1997), 15-16; 26 (1997), 4-5).

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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