Sam Thomas's The Witch Hunter's Tale takes readers back to Puritan England with midwife Bridget Hodgson, hailed by the Cleveland Plain Dealer as "one of the most fascinating detectives in contemporary mystery fiction."
Winter has come to the city of York, and with it the threat of witchcraft. As women and children sicken and die, midwife Bridget Hodgson is pulled against her will into a full-scale witch-hunt that threatens to devour all in its path, guilty and innocent alike. Bridgetaccompanied once again by her deputy Martha Hawkins and her nephew Will Hodgsonfinds herself playing a lethal game of cat and mouse against the most dangerous men in York, as well as her sworn enemy Rebecca Hooke. As the trials begin, and the noose begins to tighten around her neck, Bridget must answer the question: How far will she go to protect the people she loves?
About the Author
SAM THOMAS teaches history at University School near Cleveland, Ohio. He has received research grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Neweberry Library, and the British Academy. He has published academic articles on topics ranging from early modern Britain to colonial Africa. Thomas lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio, with his wife and two children.
Read an Excerpt
The Witch Hunter's Tale
A Midwife Mystery
By Sam Thomas
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Samuel Thomas
All rights reserved.
The crowd cried out for the witch's blood, and the hangman obliged. Hester Jackson was so old and frail, the hangman pulled her up the ladder as if she weighed no more than a sack of grain. With a wave to the crowd, he put the noose around her neck and turned her off into oblivion. Many cheered as she clawed helplessly at the rope that slowly choked the life out of her, and they continued to applaud as her hands dropped and her body began to convulse. One spectator aped her suffering, turning her death into a jerky dance, the devil's own jig. Those around him cheered lustily, and I turned away. Despite the cold and wind, townsmen and -women leaned from the second- and third-story windows for a better view of Hester's death. Even from a distance they joined in the merriment.
I looked to Martha, my maidservant and deputy. She had seen—we both had seen—the aftermath of similar deaths not six months before, and it was not a sight easily forgotten. If a stranger had looked at Martha's face at that moment he would have found it impassive, and he might have been forgiven for thinking that the hanging held no particular interest for her. But I knew her well enough to recognize the horror in her eyes. Martha had been reluctant to come, but Hester had asked us and it was not the sort of request one refused. Hester's legs continued to jerk, and for a moment I feared that she might still be alive. If she'd had family in the city, someone might have bribed the hangman to ensure her death was a quick one, but she was old, poor, and alone. Finally Hester was still.
"Let us go," I murmured to Martha. She nodded, and we turned into the frigid winter wind that cut through our clothes like Satan's razor.
The summer before—already known by the jangling rhyme of "the summer-tide of forty-five"—had been brutally hot, and the farmers especially had given thanks when the rains finally came. But when the rains continued for weeks on end psalms of praise became petitions for mercy. It soon became clear that much of the harvest would rot in the fields, and by fall farmers found themselves up to their knees in mud so thick it defied description. The cold came soon after, and by November the Lord made it known that, in His wisdom, He intended to balance the viciously hot summer with a brutally cold winter.
As we passed the shops, I noticed how spare the shelves and bins were, and how much the prices had risen in the years since King and Parliament had gone to war. I could well remember the time when York's markets overflowed with the nation's bounty, and residents could find anything they desired: fruit from the city's orchards, grain from the countryside, fish and eels from the sea, cloth from France or Holland, even spices from India. Some said London could offer nothing more. But that was then.
Even though the contending armies had left Yorkshire, all manner of goods, from rare silk to common corn, had become harder to find, and the poor had begun to suffer. Indeed, the faces in the crowd were gaunter than in the past, and their bodies were more skin and bones than flesh. Many had the look of rough country folk, come to the city to sell their meager wares. But I saw familiar faces as well, including women whom I had attended when they were with child, and their husbands. Perhaps they had come to the hanging in order to see someone less fortunate than they were. Even in times of shortage, the vendors found goods to sell, and many had taken full advantage of the execution. Grocers sold food and drink to those who had not brought their own, and chapmen hawked penny-pamphlets detailing Hester's crimes and shouting up the wonders, marvels, and omens that the Lord had visited upon England in recent months.
"A monster born to a woman in Surrey!" one chapman cried. "Come read about the sea-monster washed up near Whitby!" He stood on the corner of one of the streets that spilled into the market square, and from there he could hawk his wares as people entered and left. He must have arrived well before dawn to obtain such a prized spot, and I had no doubt the crowd would reward him for his trouble. He had pasted the coversheets from all his pamphlets to a board behind him, tailoring his offerings to the audience and occasion: Most of the titles included some combination of the words Bloody, Strange, Terrible, and Horrid.
I did my best to avoid him, but a boy thrust a sheet in to my hand. A Strange and Wonderful Monster Born shouted the title, and I felt my eyes drawn to the vile image on the front. It showed a headless child, with a gruesomely large face set in the middle of his chest and ears on his shoulders. His hands were on his hips, and he stared impudently from the page, as if daring the reader to doubt the reality of the story inside. A group of women surrounded the child: witches and papists, it seemed, for one woman suckled a rat at her breast and appeared to be casting a spell, while others held rosaries and crucifixes. It was not clear which group had called the monstrous child into being, but perhaps it did not matter. The world was out of order—what difference did it make whether witches or papists were to blame?
The chapman must have seen the look of disgust on my face, for he stepped in front of me and snatched the sheet from my hands, even as he doffed his cap. "Not what you are looking for, my lady?" he asked. "Not to worry, for I've got other news as well." For a man who must have lived much like a vagabond, travelling from town to town, he seemed almost respectable. He kept his clothes clean, knew a gentlewoman when he saw one, and had shaved that morning. He pulled a stack of pamphlets from his pack and with a flourish fanned them out before me. Now, rather than tales of witchcraft and monstrous births, I was confronted with the bloody acts of men, as the titles shouted of recent battles between King and Parliament, including one that had taken place at Marston Moor, not far from York. I started to push them aside when one title caught my eye: God's Terrible Justice in York.
Martha saw it as well.
"Oh, God!" she moaned.
The chapman misread her reaction as one of surprise rather than dismay.
"Oh, you never heard of the murders?" he asked. "You must be a stranger to the city, for all the North knows of the killings." His voice rose in excitement and the words poured out like water through a breached dam. It did not take long before a small crowd had gathered around him, ready to hear a tale they already knew.
"It was a horrid summer indeed!" the chapman cried. "Death himself stalked the city's whores; there were murders upon murders, hangings upon hangings." To my surprise he broke into song, telling the story of Betty MacDonald, a girl who had come to York in search of work, but fell into whoredom and met a dreadful end in the room where she plied her trade. It was close enough to the truth that I could not fault him overmuch.
"The shame of it is," he continued, "how many innocents lost their lives, and how many murderers went free. And the entire story—including the song I just sang—is here." He held up a pamphlet for all to see. "And it can be yours for just a penny." It was a masterful performance. A half dozen people stepped forward, eager to buy the pamphlet. Hester Jackson's hanging had not provided blood enough, it seemed.
Before Martha and I could escape the crowd, the chapman stepped in front of us and held the book before Martha.
"Surely you will buy a copy," he said with a smile.
"We know about the murders," Martha said. "We saw the bodies." Even over the hubbub of the crowd the chapman heard the steel in Martha's voice, and it brought him up short. He looked at us for a moment and then realized who we were.
"You're the midwife," he said to me as he bowed. "You're Lady Hodgson."
"And you must be her deputy," he said to Martha. "You found who killed these women. The two of you are famous, even in London!" I had not known that the news of the murders had spread so far, but it made sense that a man who carried books on his back would be the first to hear. He seemed thrilled to be in our presence, and I could not help wondering what mix of truth and fancy had found its way into his blood-soaked books.
"My lady," he said, nearly in a whisper. "I have a proposal."
Despite myself I leaned toward him, straining to hear his words.
"Have you ever tried your hand at writing?" he asked.
I started to respond, but he held up his hand—he'd not yet finished making the sale.
"I have friends in the Stationers Company, and they would pay handsomely for your account of the killings. It is better to tell your truth than let the vain scribblers tell their lies." He looked expectantly at Martha. "Surely so beautiful a woman as you could use a few shillings for your dowry. All you'd need to do is tell your story. We could go to an inn. I would even pay for the wine. My name is Peter Newcome, by the way." He offered us what he hoped would be a winning smile. I admired his audacity, but I had no desire to revisit the killings.
"It is a generous offer, Mr. Newcome," I said. "But we must decline."
Newcome took the news with good grace, bowing yet again. "In the event you change your mind, my lady, I hope you will search me out."
"I don't think we will," Martha replied for both of us. "We have dwelt long enough on that summer."
"Very well," he replied. "But if you won't tell your story, perhaps you'll buy another man's." He leaned forward again and spoke in a conspiratorial tone. "Have you heard of the witchings and hangings in Suffolk?"
Without meaning to, I shook my head.
"Ah, it's all here," he said. He held out yet another book, this one called The Discovery of Witches. The author was called Matthew Hopkins, and described himself by the unusual title Witch Finder.
"What in God's name is a 'Witch Finder'?" asked Martha.
I shook my head. While we'd heard of the trials and hangings—who in England hadn't?—I'd never heard of such an office.
"For that, you can buy the book," Newcome said with a wolfish grin. "But I'll tell you this—it is said that he strikes such fear in the hearts of witches that when he comes to a town, they search out a Justice and confess of their own free will. They say that hundreds have been executed. After today's hanging I shouldn't be surprised if the same thing happens here."
"Here in York?" Martha asked. "Are you sure?"
"Sure?" Newcome asked. He turned the word over on his tongue as if it were new and entirely unfamiliar. "Who can be sure of anything in such unsettled times? But it is what I have heard. And once the hanging starts ..." His voice trailed off, and I looked toward the gibbet. Hester's body swayed slightly in the wind. I suddenly felt cold in a way that had nothing to do with the winter weather.
I glanced at Martha and saw the concern on her face mirrored my own. I thanked the chapman for his offer, and we resumed our journey home. As we walked away, I could hear Newcome crying out his pamphlets, selling blood to a bloody-minded people.
When we turned onto Stonegate, the street that would take us home, the north wind howled against us, seemingly intent on ripping our cloaks from our backs. I pulled mine more tightly around me, but it made no difference. I gave thanks when we turned out of the wind and onto my own little street. Though I'd lived in my house for nearly ten years I still found wonder in how much had changed in that time.
I'd made the long journey from Hereford to York as a young widow—could I have been just twenty-three years old?—promised in marriage to Phineas Hodgson, a man I'd never met. As it turned out, Phineas was among England's least competent merchants, and from our first day as husband and wife until he died in 1642, I spent most of my waking hours defending my estates from his foolish schemes. My two beautiful children, Birdy and Michael, were the only good that came of the union—God's way of balancing the scales, it seemed. But Michael died soon after he was born, and in the months that followed, death visited my home with terrifying frequency. After Michael, he took Phineas, and a few months later he returned for Birdy. In less than a year, my maidservant Hannah and I found ourselves the only survivors of this dreadful reaping.
It was midwifery that kept me afloat when I feared I might slip beneath the waves of melancholy that battered me so, as I threw myself into that work with what little strength I still had. When a mother was in travail, I could not think about my own lost children, and the friendships I made as a midwife kept my spirit alive. Soon after, Martha appeared at my door begging for a position as a maidservant. I took her in and began to train her in the mysteries of midwifery. A few weeks later, we met an orphaned boy named Tree, and he became a son of sorts. While he still lived at the Castle in the care of one of the jailors, he often came to my house for a meal or to spend the night in a feather bed. Though they did not know it, Martha and Tree, my newfound sister and son, had begun the work of healing my grief-ravaged soul.
When we opened the front door to my home, the newest member of my household raced out of the kitchen and, with masses of red hair streaming behind her, fell into my arms. "Ma," Elizabeth cried. "Hannah has made cakes, and they are almost done!"
Elizabeth's mother had been one of the doxies murdered the previous summer, and Elizabeth had come to live with me in the aftermath. When she first came to my house, she had been entirely unsure of what to call me. Lady Bridget seemed too formal for such a little one, better suited to friends than family. She'd called her own mother Mum, and wouldn't use that name. I had told her that she could call me whatever she liked, and eventually she settled on Ma. I could not have been happier. In her first months with me, Elizabeth kept a safe distance as she mourned her mother and the life she'd lost. But gradually her wounds healed, and while I still found her crying from time to time, such occasions had become far less frequent. Elizabeth took Martha and me by our hands and led us into the kitchen, where Hannah was indeed removing cakes from the oven.
"I thought you would need something sweet after such a day," she said. Hannah had been with me for over twenty years, and she knew me well. I gratefully accepted one of the cakes.
"Can I give one to Sugar?" Elizabeth asked. A small cat had entwined himself around Elizabeth's ankles and was meowing plaintively. Without waiting for an answer, she broke a corner off her cake and offered it to the cat. Sugar sniffed the crumb, concluded it was not to his liking, and stalked off with Elizabeth close behind trying to convince him to try it. Once Elizabeth had left the room, Hannah looked at me expectantly.
"They hanged her," I said. "Just as we knew they would." Hannah nodded and looked away. It was not that I, or any of us for that matter, objected to the hanging of a witch. But having met her in prison, I could no longer convince myself that Hester was one. It is one thing to believe in the reality of witchcraft. It is another to see a neighbor hanged for the crime.
"We heard that a witch-hunt may soon come to the city," Martha said.
"A witch-hunt?" Hannah asked, her face suddenly pale and drawn. She had read the newsbooks about the trials and hangings. "In York?"
"You should know better than to give credence to such chatter," I said, a bit too sharply. "There is enough idle gossip as it is. There is no need to add to it."
Hannah nodded, but I knew that the rumor would soon spread throughout the city with or without her help. Once a chapman knew something, it might as well be shouted from the city's pulpits.
"Has Will come home?" I asked, eager to talk of something other than witchcraft and hangings.
"Not yet," Hannah said. "He's at Mr. Breary's and said he might sleep there tonight."
Will Hodgson was the final member of my household, having come to live with me in circumstances strangely akin to Elizabeth's. Will's father had died a bloody death just a few days after Elizabeth's mother, and this shared history brought them closer together.
Excerpted from The Witch Hunter's Tale by Sam Thomas. Copyright © 2014 Samuel Thomas. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I have read all three of Sam Thomas's books and this is the best one! Sam's description of the people and the city of York are so exceptional that one can feel like you were standing there. The killing of the witches and the torment that Bridget went through trying to decide whether or not to believe the tales made the book hard to put down. I can't wait for #4.