In the mid-19th century William Hicks, the mayor of Bodmin, in Cornwall, hosted a dinner party. As the story goes, rather than entertaining his guests with music or poetry, he chose to prank his guests with a fake seance. He brought in the skeletal remains of a purported witch and encouraged his guests to ask it yes or no questions. In response, the spirit of the witch would supposedly rap its responses with the extra bones placed in front of the witch’s remains. What he didn’t tell them was that the person doing knocking was a friend who was hidden nearby.
Everything that night was going to plan until the host and partygoers encountered actual paranormal activity. According to Cecil Williamson, the founder of The Museum of Witchcraft, the bones used for the rapping were “seized by the poltergeist force on that fateful night of the spoof seance organised by William Hicks and with which the assembled party guests were beaten about the head and shoulders.”
The skeleton used for entertainment that evening supposedly belonged to Joan Wytte, a clairvoyant and witch who lived in Bodmin at the end of the 18th century. There don’t seem to be any records that she lived, but there are records of the Wytte family in the area as early as the 16th century.
The legends of Joan Wytte state that she was born around 1775 in Bodmin. She was known as the “Fighting Fairy Woman” because of her short stature and even shorter fuse. She was infamous for her bad temper and tendency to pick fights. During a particularly nasty fight, she injured a couple people pretty bad and was arrested. She became ill in 1813, while in jail, and died at 38 years-old.
At the time of her death, physicians and medical students were allowed to dissect the bodies of criminals who either died in prison or were executed. This is exactly what happened to Joan’s body. In The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca, paranormal researcher Rosemary Ellen Guiley reports that the surgeon at the Bodmin jail dissected Wytte’s corpse, defleshed her remains, and stored her bones in a jail storeroom. Her bones remained there until Hicks used them for his ill-fated seance – where Joan hopefully had the last laugh.
The skeleton eventually ended up in the hands of Cecil Williamson. Williamson opened the Museum of Witchcraft in 1951 in Boscastle, where he displayed Joan’s skeleton with other magical relics.
Graham King purchased the museum from Williamson in 1996. King claimed that the paranormal activity surrounding the witch’s bones never stopped.
For example, Joan’s remains were sometimes exhibited in an open coffin. At the end of the day, museum workers would close the coffin lid but when they returned the next morning the lid we be found opened.
When poltergeist activity escalated, King decided to give Joan the final resting place she deserved.
He told The Independent, “We decided would take her out of the display and bury her somewhere in the woods.” (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/witches-finally-lay-old-joan-to-rest-1199653.html)
Before her much-deserved funeral, King had the bones examined by an anthropologist. The forensic analysis revealed that the skeleton belonged to a female in her 30’s. Dental wear and chips in her teeth indicated that her diet consisted of stone-ground flour and that she smoked clay pipes.
Joan was buried at an undisclosed location near the Minster Churchyard. Her headstone was engraved with the following message, “Born 1775. Died 1813 in Bodmin Jail. Buried 1998. No longer abused.”
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