Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

Mark Twain’s ancestor was ‘witchfinder general’ during Islandmagee Witch Trial

US author Mark Twain’s connection to real life witchcraft trial

Mark Twain’s uncle was 'witchfinder general' in Northern Ireland
Mark Twain’s uncle was 'witchfinder general' in Northern Ireland

Witchcraft ‘detective’ Dr Andrew Sneddon has unearthed evidence that one of Mark Twain’s ancestors was the ‘witchfinder general’ in the infamous 18th century Islandmagee Witch Trial.

With echoes of horror actor Vincent Price’s malevolent and gory role in the cult classic movie Witchfinder General, Dr Sneddon discovered that Edward Clements was Ulster’s own main witch hunter during the 1711 Islandmagee trial.

In Possessed by the Devil: The History of the Islandmagee Witches & Ireland’s Only Witchcraft Mass Trial, Dr Sneddon digs deep beneath the accepted facts about the case of eight innocent old women found guilty of bewitching 18-year-old Mary Dunbar.

The Castlereagh-born young woman from a minister’s family travelled to Islandmagee to comfort her cousin after the death of a relative who local people believe had been bewitched.

Within hours of her arrival, Mary said that she had found a strange knotted apron lying on the parlour floor — triggering a series of supernatural disturbances.

People claimed that the refined teenager had screaming fits; reacted with fury to prayers and vomited pins, feathers and cotton.

Within one month, Mary had accused eight local old women of summoning up demons and using witchcraft to possess her.

The only evidence offered was from Mary Dunbar herself with the innocent ladies tried without defence lawyers.

They were jailed for a year and also sentenced to four appearances in the stocks on market day where they were pelted with vegetables and fruit.

Dr Sneddon revealed that the man who pursued Mary Dunbar’s wild claims was Mark Twain’s uncle. “He was the witchfinder or witch hunter investigator. He was up to his neck in this witchcraft trial,” said Dr Sneddon.

Whatever happened to Mary Dunbar, whose witch accusations bear similarities to Winona Ryder’s character in the Salem witch trial movie The Crucible, may never be known though as many documents were destroyed.

The University of Ulster lecturer has his own theory about why she made the claims, explaining: “There is a sexual element to Mary Dunbar.

“During her fits, she had the young local men in her bedroom — which would never normally have happened back then.

“They were holding her down as she was writhing on the bed...maybe she did it for sexual pleasure or sexual attention.”

  • Possessed by the Devil: The Real History of the Islandmagee Witches & Ireland’s Only Witchcraft Mass Trial is available online and from bookshops, price £12.99.

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