Pittenweem is a fishing village in the East Neuk of Fife. An apprentice blacksmith called Patrick Morton lived in the village in 1704. He fell foul of the temper of a lady called Beatrix Laing.
She'd asked him to make some nails for her. Unfortunately, he couldn't make them immediately. Beatrix took umbrage at his refusal and left, mumbling under her breath. This unnerved Patrick and led to him believing that she was cursing him. Shortly after his refusal, he watched her tipping hot embers into a bucket of water. He again believed she was cursing him.
Days later, he fell ill, struck down by an inexplicable weakness which was followed by fitting and paralysis. His body became swollen, he had difficulty breathing and his head turned to an awkward angle. Throughout his illlness, Patrick held fast to the belief that it was all due to Beatrix's curse. He soon confided in the local minister, Patrick Cowper. Not only did he accuse Beatrix, he accused another lady called Janet Cornfoot.
Beatrix was the wife of the town burgess and council treasurer. Her high position though did little to protect her against Patrick's accusations. She was soon taken into custody for interrogation.
Cowper proved to be a tormentor and denied Beatrix sleep for over five days. He subjected her to torture in order to force her admission of guilt. Beatrix succumbed under the torture and started naming other people - Janet Cornfoot, Nicol Adam, and Isobel Brown.
However, when the torture ended, she withdrew her confession as she protested that it was gained under duress. It didn't lead to the freedom she sought. Instead, she was subjected to further torture and thrown into a dungeon for five months. During this time, Cowper made an application to have her and her co-accused tried in Edinburgh. But the trial never transpired as the Privy Council dismissed the application. Beatrix was ordered to pay a fine and was released.
Cowper was dismayed at the result and increased his efforts against her. He gathered an angry mob to chase her out of town. Isobel Adam's path ran the same as Beatrix's. She had confessed under torture, only to retract it when it ceased. She paid her fine and her fate is then unknown. It's believed she suffered the same fate as Beatrix and found herself banished from the community.
Isobel Adam named a man called Thomas Brown in her forced confession. He is known to have died in prison in Pittenweem, most likely due to his rough treatment.
But Janet Cornfoot suffered most at the hands of Cowper. She was arrested, tortured and detained for trial. Her case in Edinburgh led to her immediate release. She no sooner arrived back at Pittenweem when she was taken back into custody. Cowper would not let her go and determined to have her re-tried and found guilty. So determined was he that he inflicted the torture himself by brutally flogging her to forced a confession.
Janet escaped from prison but was no sooner free until a search began to recapture her. She was found and dragged down to the shore by the baying mob. Her hands and feet were tied. She was strung onto a rope and her body swung from side to side and as the mob hurled stones at her, bruising her badly. They untied her and dumped her on the shore before placing a heavy door on top of her. Boulder upon heavy boulder was thrown on to the door until she succumbed under the pressure. Cowper and the lawmen did nothing to stop the killing.
In thirty years time, the crimes used to condemn Beatrix Laing and Janet Cornfoot would no longer be recognised in law.