Agnes Waterhouse

Kathryn Nuernberger

Agnes Waterhouse, age 64 in the year 1566, was an impoverished woman who had a white cat named Sathan that spoke in a strange hollow voice and would do anything for a drop of blood. She had him kill her pig to prove what he could do, and then had him kill the cows and geese of her neighbors, with whom she had quarreled; neighbors themselves, with whom she had quarreled; her husband, with whom she had quarreled.

Government officials tortured her, of course, to wring out this weird confession, but they wouldn’t necessarily have had to. There is ample research to suggest that a little menace, a little kindness, the promise of approval from someone in authority — this is enough, even today, to make people very confused about what they know to be true.

Her daughter Joan, for instance, was induced to confess she had seen her mother turn that cat into a toad. Why turn your demon cat into a demon toad? There is no explanation that makes sense, based on publicly available facts. You might as well ask instead why Sandra Bland would have hanged herself in that prison cell. The child went on to admit she sold her own soul to that selfsame toad so she could get a bit of bread and cheese from the neighbor girl, Agnes Brown.

Of course the tribunal believed this testimony. People knew the devil to be real, and his magic, his witches, his familiars, his blood spells and poison. Their whole lives they knew the devil was coming for them.

We aren’t so different now. You, for example, might have in mind a mug shot and some blurry footage from a gas station. Where was it you saw him, that archetype of our own trials? Somewhere, surely. Everywhere, you say. He’s all over the place. When he comes, will it be as the officer said in the Grand Jury deposition, that he was “like some sort of superhuman beast bulking up to run through the shots like a demon,” that’s the only way he can describe it, “like a demon,” that’s how angry the now-dead teenager looked? That’s how sure our officer was that he had a gun and that the gun was no plastic toy.

In a witch hunt, a great many of the witches confess. Why would they do that if they weren’t guilty? Well, here’s part of a reason why: The Supreme Court ruled in Frazier v. Cupp that the police may willingly and knowingly use deception in the course of interviewing a suspect, even though misinformation renders people vulnerable to manipulation. Saul M. Kassin, among a great many other researchers in the fields of social science and criminal justice, demonstrates in a report published in Law & Human Behavior that conservatively 4.78% of innocent people confess during interrogation. He reminds us that though we cannot know with certainty how many false confessions there are, we can be certain 25% of post-conviction DNA cases that resulted in exoneration contained confessions as evidence.

Michel Foucault, the great philosopher of discipline and punishment, reminds us the confessional process is always guided by rules that “are necessarily of the master’s side, rules that once again do not focus on the truth of discourse, but on the way in which this discourse of truth is formulated.” In her study, “Stereotype threat in criminal interrogations: Why innocent Black suspects are at risk for confessing falsely,” published in the journal Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, Cynthia Najdowski demonstrates that black people are overrepresented in samples of false confession compared to white people. Among individuals exonerated after wrongful conviction, researchers found that 85% of juvenile false confessions were given by black children. We do not have a breakdown by race for adult rates of false confession, but we do know of the disproportionate incarceration rates for black people, who make up only 13% of the population at large, and we know black prisoners are less likely to be exonerated than white prisoners.

Najdowski does not call these circumstances a witch trial, because she’s not interested in rhetorical flourishes or metaphors. She does not want to convince you of anything that cannot be definitively proven to be true. So instead, she writes, “Blacks are more likely than whites to be targeted erroneously in the first place because of racial bias and subtle influences of stereotypes on investigators’ decision making.” Further, she observes, “innocent Black suspects experience stereotype threat in interrogations … these psychological mechanisms could lead innocent Black suspects to display more nonverbal behaviors associated with deception, and, ironically, increase the likelihood that police investigators might engage in more coercive tactics and exert more pressure to confess on Black suspects than White suspects.”

And none of this accounts for the people shot, choked, tazed, or shot again, who were never given the opportunity to answer questions. Kenya Downs reported for PBS’s Newshour that a 2006 FBI Bulletin detailed the threat and warned of the consequences of white supremacists infiltrating local and state law enforcement. Spoiler alert: the results would be and are more excessive uses of force, more extrajudicial killings, less successful prosecution of hate crimes. Downs also reminds her audience the earliest forms of law enforcement were not well-regulated militias, but slave patrols hunting down people trying to run for freedom.

The neighbor girl wasn’t surprised when little Joan Waterhouse brought over her mother’s demon familiar to scare her in some new horrific form. She was frightened, of course, by the ape face and horns she thought she saw, the violence of the voice when he demanded she give him butter. But also she’d been expecting this would happen ever since everyone started telling her it would.

The past, of course, is never as past as we imagine. Even now we all know Puss-in-Boots, that old story about the power of a witch’s familiar. Maybe you didn’t know that the character of Master Cat, who first appears in the folklore in the 1500s, around the same time Agnes Waterhouse does, is a shout-out to the storytellers’ worst nightmares, but it is. Consider: A poor idiot boy is made king, through no goodness, worth, or cleverness of his own. He does what the cat says and takes what the cat offers, while Puss clicks his fine leather heels, satisfied at what he has wrought, and if anyone objects, he cries “Witch Hunt!” He cries, “Ogres are ogres and they get what they get.”

Did we see the ogre commit any crime? Did we see anything but his fields of gleaming ripe wheat and well-fed people happy to be cutting it into bundles or otherwise going about the business of their day, waiting for a son at the bus stop or grilling a steak in the back yard? Are ogres even real? No matter. Surely the people will be happy enough to cut wheat now for the Puss’s Boy King. And if they are not happy to do so, they will learn what happiness is soon enough.

As she stood at the gallows awaiting the rope, Agnes Waterhouse gave her confession again, repenting and begging forgiveness of God. She swore she’d never stopped praying, but only used Latin because that wretched cat forbade her to pray in English. She swore before the mob of people that even when she’d been stripped by the devil of her right to speak, as the devil might do to any of them, still she’d kept trying to work her way through the system of God’s laws and men’s. I am reminded of Philando Castile, explaining to the officer in the calmest, slowest voice possible that yes, he has a gun and a paper granting him permission to carry it, but he’s only doing exactly what the officer said and pulling out his wallet with his driver’s license and registration.

Perhaps it will be easier for some people to understand the cruel injustice of a summary execution if I say it was a little old white lady, gullible and confused, possibly suffering from dementia, named Agnes, who was pleading, “I never forsook my faith in the laws of God or his Church or His emissaries among this government of His people.” “Please,” she begged, “I never forsook them.”

Her words changed nothing. Neither did the way she held her hands up in the air as we do when we are promising we mean no harm. The people and their government believed not in the testimony of a tearful and trembling mother, but only in the power of a story about some mangy, stray cat she once fed.


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