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Wanted: The Missing Bones of a Scottish ‘Witch’

Officials in Fife have put out a call for the remains of Lilias Adie, who died in prison in the early 1700s after being accused of witchcraft

A digital reconstruction of Lilias Adie's face (University of Dundee)
smithsonian.com

In the early 1700s, a Scottish woman named Lilias Adie was accused of witchcraft and sentenced to burn at the stake. But before the brutal execution could be carried out, she died in prison, possibly of a suicide. Adie’s body was hastily buried along the shores of the country of Fife, in an ignominious spot. To ensure that the devil did not reanimate his purported collaborator, the grave was covered with a hulking, half-ton slab.

In the following centuries, morbid curio hunters were nevertheless able to access the humble wooden box that served as Adie’s coffin and pilfer her bones. Now, as Nan Spowart reports for the National, officials have put out an appeal for the return of Adie’s remains, in the hopes of finally giving her a respectful memorial.

On Saturday, exactly 315 years after Adie died in custody in the village of Torryburn, Depute Provost of Fife Council Julie Ford laid a wreath at the site of Adie’s grave.

“It’s important to recognize that Lilias Adie and the thousands of other men and women accused of witchcraft in early modern Scotland were not the evil people history has portrayed them to be,” Ford said. “They were the innocent victims of unenlightened time.”

By boosting Adie’s profile, Ford added, perhaps “we can find her missing remains and give them the dignified rest they deserve.”

Starting in the mid-1400s, Europe was gripped by an anti-witch hysteria, leading to the executions of some 80,000 people between 1500 and 1660. Most victims were women, a phenomenon that historian Steven Katz has attributed to “the enduring grotesque fears [women] generate in respect of their putative abilities to control men and thereby coerce, for their own ends, male-dominated Christian society.”

Adie’s story, which is preserved in the minutes from her 1704 trial, reveals the frenzied, tragic pattern of false accusations and false confessions that defined many other witchcraft cases. A woman named Jean Bizet, who “seemed drunk,” according to witnesses, began making accusations against Adie, warning neighbors to “beware lest Lilias Adie come upon you and your child.” Bizet continued to appear “strangely distempered” the next day, crying out, “by God he is going to take me! by Christ he is going to take me! O Lilly with her blew doublet!”

According to Meagan Flynn of the Washington Post, Adie subsequently spent more than a month in prison, where she was interrogated and possibly tortured. Ultimately, she confessed, proffering a wild tale about meeting with the devil “in the harvest, before sunset” and renouncing her baptism. During this “tryst,” she claimed, “the devil lay with her carnally … [H]is skin was cold, and his color black and pale, he had a hat on his head, and his feet was cloven …”

It was widely believed at the time that Satan would resurrect his followers from the dead so they could stalk the pious living. Burning suspected witches at the stake was thought to solve that problem, but in Adie’s case, officials had to find something else to do with her remains—hence the unceremonious grave, topped with a hulking stone. Because most other accused witches were burned, the site of Adie’s burial, identified in 2014, is the only known “witch” grave in Scotland,

“It’s a gut-churningly, sickening story—you can’t help being moved by it,” Fife Council archaeologist Douglas Speirs, who uncovered the grave, tells Spowart of the National. “Poor Lilias was treated so harshly but after her death she became almost a celebrity.”

In 1852, Adie’s grave was exhumed at the direction of the antiquarian Joseph Neil Paton. The wooden box that held her body was turned into walking sticks—the industrialist Andrew Carnegie got one. Paton, a practitioner of phrenology, a pseudo-science that makes inferences about mental faculties and character traits based on the shape of the skull, took particular interest in Adie’s cranium. When he was done with it, he handed it over to the Fife Medical Association, which in turn passed it on to the University of St. Andrews.

The skull was last seen at a 1938 exhibition in Glasgow. Fortunately, pictures were taken of the cranium before it vanished, which, in 2017, allowed experts to produce a reconstruction of Adie’s face.

“There was nothing in Lilias’ story that suggested to me that nowadays she would be considered as anything other than a victim of horrible circumstances,” forensic artist Christopher Rynn told the BBC at the time. “So I saw no reason to pull the face into an unpleasant or mean expression and she ended up having quite a kind face, quite naturally.”

The new campaign may be centered on finding Adie’s lost bones, but Fife officials also hope to use it to raise a broader awareness of the terrible injustices perpetrated against some 3,800 men and women who were accused of witchcraft in Scotland between 1563 to 1736, when the country’s Witchcraft Act was enforced. Speaking to Spowart, Kate Stewart, a councilor for West Fife and Coastal Villages, proposed a “witch trail” that would connect Torryburn with Culross, once a hotbed of witchcraft trials. Stewart also noted that officials want “a memorial not just for [Adie] but for everybody who perished after being accused of being a witch,” adding, “There is no recognition that these people were killed for nothing.’’

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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