The Case of Thomas Weir

As far as his Edinburgh neighbours were concerned, Major Thomas Weir had a reputation as a devout Calvinist whose constant preaching earned him the nickname of the "Bowhead Saint".    According to some sources, people would "forty or fifty miles to hae the Happiness to hear him Pray."  With his long military history, which earned him the rank of Major as well as an honorary position in the Town Guard, the venerable Weir lived quietly in the home that he shared with his unmarried sister, Jean (more commonly known as Grizel).   Certainly, he was the last person anyone would guess might be executed for what would be called "one of the most astounding and terrible cases in the whole annals of Scottish Witchcraft."  

Not that there weren't a few irregularities in Weir's past life, mind you.   Born in 1599 in the Scottish Lowlands, Thomas Weir's mother, Jean Somervillle had a reputation for being clairvoyant, even though a touch of "second sight" wasn't so unusual in that part of Scotland.   Thomas had a reputation for religious zeal that led him to have a particular animosity for Catholics and Anglicans.  It was said of him that,"[he] could not so much as endure to look upon an Orthodox [Anglican] Minister; but when he met any of them in the street, he would pull his hat over his eyes in a pharisaical kind of indignation and contempt."    As Commander of the Edinburgh Guard, he gained a reputation for cruelty towards prisoners and openly mocked them as they were being led to execution.    220px-Major_Weir's_House[1]

His open preaching was downright entertaining to watch by all accounts.  Not only did he show such religious ecstasy "that he appeared transported", but he also visited many homes in the community to help reinforce their faith.  Still, since Weir often visited married women "at such times especially as their husbands were from home", it seemed inevitable that allegations of improper behaviour would arise.  His reputation protected him from any fallout though.   When one woman publicly accused him of immoral conduct, she was tried for slander and sentenced to be whipped by the common hangman.    

Aside from these allegations, there were a couple of other disturbing quirks about Thomas Weir which suggested that he wasn't quite as religious as he seemed.  Not only was he given to fits of what Sir Walter Scott later describeed as "melancholic lunacy"  but he also had a walking stick  with a carved human head that he carried with him everywhere.   In fact, he seemed incapable of preaching with the same intensity if the stick wasn't in his hands at the time.   This would become an issue during his later trial.

Thomas Weir's life as the "Bowhead Saint" unravelled after he fell seriously ill when he was seventy years old.   While he was still in his sick-bed, Weir made an incredible confession detailing various "crimes of the most revolting nature".  This included, among other things, incest with his sister, witchcraft, bestiality with a cow and his mare, and other "fornications"  involving a number of other women.  He also accused his sister of witchcraft as well.   Since he was an  unmarried man who lived alone with a sister who  was only a little younger than he was, the confession seemed plausible enough to have him placed in jail.

All of which left Edinburgh's Provost, Lord Abbotshall, in quite a bind about what to do with him.   To give Abbotshall credit, he just assumed at first that Weir had lost is mind and arranged for doctors to examine his mental state.   Unfortuately, the doctors all concluded that their patient was "free of Hypochondriack Distempers and... as Intellectuals as ever."  They also reported that Weir was suffering from a "guilty conscience" and that he was demanding to be punished to the full extent of the law.   Even with this testimony, Abbotshall was still inclined to hide Weir's condition though word leaked out quickly enough.  

To make matters even worse, Grizel Weir supported her brother's story and began confessing to a wide range of crimes as well.  She provided authorities with a description of her own dealings with the "Queen of Faerie" and the Devil, having a familiar, and a bizarre series of sexual offenses as well.   Though she often rambled and contradicted herself in her confession, she also provided advice to her jailers about how to imprison her brother safely.   That included removing Weir's walking staff since, as she said, "if he chanced to get into his hands he would certainly drive them all out of doors, notwithstanding all the resistance they could make."    She said he received the magical staff from the Devil, and did "many wonderful things with it, particularly that he used to lean upon it in his hypocritical prayers."

Her confession became even more bizarre as she told interrogators that she and her brother had made a "Compact with the Devil."   After signing the compact, the Devil then took the Weirs to a distant town and back again in a "Coach and six horses, which seemed all on Fire."    While Thomas Weir got his wondrous magical staff from his deal, Grizel only received "an extraordinary quantity of Yarn" that she could spin for a tidy profit.  Again, the only real evidence for any of this was from Grizel's own testimony.

Since the Provost had little choice but to lay formal charges against Thomas Weir, their trial began soon afterward on April 9, 1670.     Thomas Weir was charged with incest and adultery with various women (all of whom were named in court) as well as bestiality with "Mares and Cows".   Grizel, on the other hand, was charged with "Sorcery and Witchcraft" as well as "conversing with a Familiar spirit."   The main evidence against the Weirs was the confessions they had supplied.  Since these confessions had apparently been made freely without the torture that was often used in interrogating suspected criminals, nobody seemed inclined to doubt them.   While Thomas Weir had not been charged with witchcraft directly, his claim that he had "lain with the Devil in the shape of a Beautiful Woman" certainly helped persuade the jury of this guilt.  As for the incest charge, that had a little more susbstance to it since Margaret Weir, sister to both Thomas and Grizel, testified in court that she had once seen them lying in bed together naked.

Thomas and Grizel Weir were both found guilty by the jury and sentenced to death.   For Thomas, that meant being "Strangl'd at a Stake between Edinburgh and Leith on Monday following the 11th of April and his Body to be Burned to Ashes."   Jane was sentenced to be "Hanged on the Tuesday morning in the Grass market of Edinburgh."   When Thomas was taken to be executed, he was urged to pray for himself to which he replied, "“Let me alone, I will not. I have lived as a beast, and I must die as a beast."    After he was strangled, his body was burned at the stake and the sinister staff was burned along with him.   According to some witness, it burned "abnormally slowly" which seemed in keeping with its magical nature.    As for Grizel, people witnessing her hanging were scandalized when she attempted to take off all of her clothes while on the gallows but the hanging proceeded as scheduled.   The remains of Thomas and his sister were both buried on Shrub Hill where the gallows had stood.

Though both Weirs were dead, nobody dared live in their house afterward until it was purchased cheaply in 1780 by an ex-soldier and his wife.  According to one story, the two of them fled in terror after the first night there and the house remained empty until it was  torn down in 1830.    Ghost stories about the land on which the house once stood being haunted by Weir and his magical staff terrified Edinburgh locals for years afterward and remains part of "Haunted Edinburgh" tours even today.   

But why did Thomas and Grizel Weir make such fantastic confessions, especially in an era that treated witchcraft as a capital offense?   Though there appears to be strong evidence of a sexual relationship between the two of them, as well as Thomas Weir's inappropriate behaviour with other women, the only real evidence against them was what they provided themselves.    Even if Thomas Weir's confession can be explained by insanity, what explanation is there for Grizel's confession?   Torture was still allowed in Scotland to deal with accused witches but there is no evidence that it was used on the Weirs.   Again, while diagnosing people from history is usually impossible, this may be an example of a shared delusion (also known as folie a deux).   If so, the deaths of Thomas and Grizel Weir can be considered a clear case of mental illness leading to wrongful execution.

Thomas Weir's case may be more familiar than you might think.   A 2007 BBC documentary has suggested that Weir's bizarre story may have been one of the inspirations for Robert Louis Stevenson's classic tale, Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde.  Since Stevenson grew up with stories about Thomas Weir (whose house was still the source of local legends), along with other famous Edinburgh villains such as Deacon Brodie and Burke and Hare,  he may have used these stories to create his horror story about the dual nature of good and evil.   This possible connection may be the strangest legacy yet of the man who is still remembered as Edinburgh's most famous witch.

 

 

 

 

           

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