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? You might as well ask why a police officer would kill a man for selling cigarettes or taking out his wallet or carrying a cell phone, living in his apartment, or opening his own front door. 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. This century is not so different.
I wrote in Waxwing about Agnes Waterhouse and the ways the criminal justice system that created the circumstances for her trial is not so different from the one we live with now. Because it seems to be easier for some people to understand the role of stereotype threat and implicit bias in the judicial system when I say the wrongful imprisonment and execution happened to a little old white lady, gullible and confused, possibly suffering from dementia, named Agnes.