The Montgomery Family
In the parish of Carnmoney (Carn of the Bog) in County Antrim lived a tailor named Alexander Montgomery with his wife Elizabeth and son David aged about 20. Their dwelling was close to Carnmoney Meeting House.
The Bewitched Cow
As was the custom at the time, the family kept a cow to provide milk and butter. Any extra produced, they could sell to supplement their income.
In the summer of 1807 however, the family noticed a problem. Although the cow continued to produce milk, try as they might they could not churn the milk into butter.
Neighbours and friends were consulted during the month of July. Various people tried to churn the milk but to no avail. The general consensus was that the cow had been bewitched. Traditional remedies and charms were used to try to undo the spell or reveal the witch but nothing worked.
“With Roun-tree tied in the cow’s tail,
And vervain gleaned about the ditches,
But a these did nought avail,
Tho’ They blest the cow, and cursed the witches”Ballad of Carnmoney Witches
Mary Butters – The Healer
At this point the Montgomery’s were told about Mary Butters and her magical knowledge. In desperation they sent for the woman. Mary had been born in Carrickfergus around 1770. She was said to have been adept in ‘white magic’ from an early age. Using herbs and charms Mary had a reputation as a healer. She specialised in curing livestock that had been bewitched.
A cow was a very valuable asset in any Irish household in those days. Long held beliefs of bewitching by ‘butterwitches’ were widespread. It is notable here that a report in a local newspaper seems to blame the womenfolk for encouraging such superstitions.
“An opinion, which had been too long entertained by many people in the country, was unfortunately instilled into the mind of Montgomery’s wife, that whenever such circumstances occurred, it was occasioned by the cow having been bewitched. In this opinion she was fortified by the concurring testimony of every old woman in the parish, each of whom contributed her story of what she had seen and known in former times”Belfast Newsletter, 21st August 1807
Belief in Witchcraft
The belief in witchcraft was not native to Ireland but brought over with the Presbyterian planters from Scotland. The parish of Carnmoney was at this time mainly Presbyterian in character. It is likely the Montgomery’s were of this faith, especially as they lived close to the Meeting House. The Scots-Presbyterian heritage had a profound belief in the devil and his servant witches.
“They brought their ideas with them to Ireland. Witch hunting in Scotland was one of the worst in Europe, far worse than England. Some 3,800 people were prosecuted there, and more than three quarters were put to death by strangling or burning”Andrew Sneddon, Witchcraft and Magic in Ireland
When Mary arrived in the country parish of Carnmoney on a Tuesday in August, she consulted with the Montgomerys and their neighbours who had gathered to witness the event.
Mary tried and failed to churn the milk herself.
It is said that several of the bystanders drank the milk afterwards and were violently sick. It was agreed that the cow was the subject of a malevolent spell placed by a witch to cause hardship for the Montgomery family.
Removing the Curse
Mary Butters agreed to perform a spell to revoke the curse. This had to happen after nightfall and as it was mid-summer the family had to wait till after 10.00pm before she could begin.
Alexander Montgomery and a young man named Carnaghan who was present, were instructed to go to the byre. They were told to wear their waistcoats turned inside out. Both men had to stand beside the cow’s head and wait there until called for.
Meanwhile Mary Butters, Mrs Montgomery, David Montgomery and an old local woman called Margaret Lee who was lodging with the family remained in the house. Mary proceeded to close all the windows and doors and seal up every crevice where air could enter. She even blocked up the chimney so that she could cleanse the home.
In a large cooking pot over the fire, she poured some sweetened milk and added some needles, pins and crooked nails. The group huddled around the hearth and waited for the spell to take effect.
When morning broke and Montgomery and Carnaghan had still not been summoned they left the barn and approached the house.
They knocked on the locked door but received no reply. Looking through the window they espied the four occupants lying on the floor. In alarm they broke open the door.
A strong sulphurous smell filled the small cottage. Alexander found his wife and son dead. Margaret Lee was unconscious and passed away shortly after. Only Mary Butters was still breathing.
A group of people gathered at the stricken house. They roughly grabbed Mary and dragged her outdoors. It is said they threw her on a dunghill and manhandled her till she regained consciousness.
“…and Mary Butters being thrown out on a dunghill, where she received some hearty kicks, soon after recovered”Robert M Young, Historical Notices of Old Belfast 1896
John S Crone in his article Witchcraft in Antrim (Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Vol 14 1908), states that Mary only regained consciousness when a mob of incensed locals brought her to the edge of a quarry and threatened to throw her over.
Butters bought herself some time by claiming she could revive the dead folk if she was brought back to their cottage. Instead, Mary Butters was thrown into Carrickfergus jail. In harsh conditions she waited seven months till the sitting of the next Assizes.
An inquest was held on 19th August 1807 in Carnmoney. The coroner was James Stewart. He had examined the bodies and gave his opinion that Elizabeth and David Montgomery and Margaret Lee had died from inhaling the fumes and smoke from the pot over the fire. The jury concurred.
“The jury stated that they came to their death from suffocation, occasioned by a woman named Mary Butters, in her use of some noxious ingredients, in the manner of a charm, to recover a cow, the property of Alexander Montgomery”Samuel McSkimin, History and Antiquities of Carrickfergus
The Verdict of the Court
Mary Butters faced trial at the Spring Assizes in March 1808.
For her defence she asserted that the occupants of the house had been killed by a devil with a huge club. She said that she too had been knocked over by this assailant.
The jury in the courtroom however, were more convinced by the original verdict delivered at the Inquest of death through poisoning/ suffocation.
The deaths in this case were recorded as being accidental. Mary Butters was acquitted by Proclamation. This effectively meant that there was no trial or verdict and the defendant was free to go. However, she could be re-summoned for trial if new evidence came to light.
Mary Butters returned home and subsequently moved to live in the woods on Carnmoney Hill, where she was known as the Carnmoney Witch.
Fortunately for Mary and unusually for the time, she does not seem to have been shunned or ostracized from society. Indeed, it is reported that she was still called upon for her services in treating bewitched cows.
She is also said to have had the power of returning stolen horses to their rightful owners and inflicting punishment on the thieves.
Mary Butters died around 1839, though no grave record has ever been found.
The Ballad of the Witches
The sorceress opens the scene
With magic words of her invention,
To make the foolish people keen
Who did not know her base intention
She drew a circle round the churn,
And washed the staff in south-run water,
And swore the witches she would burn,
But she would have the tailor’s butter.
When sable night her curtain spread
Then she got on a flaming fire;
The tailor stood at the cow’s head
With his turn’d waistcoat in the byre.
The chimney covered with a scraw
An’ every crevice where it smoak’d,
But long before the cock did craw
The people in the house were choak’d.
The muckle pot hung on all night,
As Mary Butters had been brewing
In hopes to fetch some witch or wight,
Whas entrails by her art were stewing.
In this her magic a’ did fail,
Nae witch nor wizard was detected,
Now Mary Butters lies in jail
For the base part that she acted.From the Ballad of the Carnmoney Witches
The last witch trial in Ireland reaching a verdict took place in March 1711 at the Old Courthouse in Carrickfergus.
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