Jennet Device was just nine-years-old when she took the witness stand and accused her mother, grandmother, and ten other people of witchcraft, sending them to their deaths.
A time of change and superstition
The year was 1612 and it was a time of change in England. King James reigned over England, Ireland, and Scotland. He was a Protestant, though his wife was a Catholic. He was also a scholar, having written several books, most notably Daemonologie in 1597. The book addresses witches and other supernatural beings including werewolves and vampires. Like the Malleus Maleficarum before it, Daemonologie was written by people who legitimately thought that witches and other supernatural beings walk among us and wish us harm.
A group of cunning women
This was the environment that Jennet, the youngest child in the Device family, grew up in. She lived with her mother Elizabeth, her grandmother, Demdike, and her siblings, Alizon and James in a small home near Pendle Hill in Lancashire. They were poor, each of the Device children spending their time as beggars while Demdike was what was known as a “cunning woman.” At this time, a cunning woman was somewhat of a Jane of all trades – she served as counselor, doctor, and healer. Despite this, the Devices and other residents of Lancashire were considered “trouble-makers and subversives.”
An unfortunate curse
The fate of the Devices turned one day in March 1612. While walking along a road and begging passersby, Alizon asked a pedlar for money. When he walked passed her she cursed him, and the man immediately fell to the ground. Now, modern medicine points to the pedlar having had a stroke, but in the 17th century, there could have been no other explanation than witchcraft. The pedlar’s son reported Alizon to Roger Nowell, the local magistrate. He interviewed her and Alizon confessed to the deed, but not before she named-dropped her neighbors, Anne “Chattox” Whittle and her daughter Anne Redferne. The women had a feud with the Devices, so Chattox and her daughter pointed the finger right back at them, especially Demdike.
It didn’t help that those who lived near Pendle hill were poor and considered trouble-makers. It especially didn’t help that Elizabeth hosted a party on Good Friday, at a time where everyone should have been in church. The magistrate heard of this and arrested all those present, including Alice Nutter, the daughter of a respected land-owner.
A child used as a pawn
With the guidance of the Malleus Maleficarum and King James’ Daemonologie, those looking to persecute witches had all the supplemental material they needed. For the magistrate, there was one passage that seemingly justified his decision to leverage Jennett as a witness: “Children, women and liars can be witnesses over high treason against God.”
When Elizabeth saw her nine-year-old daughter enter the courtroom, she screamed for her removal. Jennett did the same for her mother but shortly after accused her of being a witch.
“My mother is a witch and that I know to be true. I have seen her spirit in the likeness of a brown dog, which she called Ball. The dog did ask what she would have him do and she answered that she would have him help her to kill. At 12 noon about 20 people came to our house – my mother told me they were all witches.”
She pointed to several others in addition to her mother and her brother James. Two days later, the entire group was found guilty, and the next day they were hung at Gallows Hill.
The case of Jennett Device and her family became a use-case for how to use children as witnesses in a trial, particularly where there are witches involved. Before Jennett took the stand, children under the age of 14 were not allowed to be witnesses or take the stand in a court case. After her testimony, the rules changed to where the deciding factor of whether or not to feature a child as a witness is whether they could understand the questions being asked of them.
Unfortunately, Jennett Device shared nearly the same fate as her family. In 1633, a 10-year-old boy named Edmund Robinson accused her of witchcraft, along with 16 others. Though they were found guilty, England was under the rule of a new king, one who was a lot more skeptical of witchcraft. The boy admitted that he had lied and that it was the very tales of the Pendle witch case that he drew from. She was acquitted, but at that time prisoners had to pay for their time in jail. It is likely that Jennett Device, though an innocent woman, languished in prison for years if not for the rest of her days.
The last known record of her was in 1636.