IN the middle of the seventeenth century, in Worcestershire, a woman could be accused of witchcraft after leaping out from behind a bush and shouting "boo" at a small child.

A woman could also be accused of witchcraft if an acquaintance should happen to come down with an embarrassing urinary complaint.

Circumstance, it seems, was everything when it came to pointing the quivering finger of blame.

On February 12, at The Swan Theatre in Worcester, witchcraft expert Dr Darren Oldridge will give a talk called, "Hang the Witch".

This will be followed by a screening of the infamous 1968 horror film, "Witchfinder General", which is based on fact.

The film, now considered a disturbing classic of the horror genre, starred Vincent Price in the starring role Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General.

Hopkins was a real-life, sadistic nightmare, and he is 'credited' with the deaths of around 300 women, mainly in the East Anglia area, between 1644 and 1646.

Mercifully, there seems to be little evidence that Hopkins plied his murderous trade in Worcestershire. But there is plenty of evidence that local people believed as firmly in the existence of witchcraft as he did.

In fact, it is probably fair to say that disbelief in witches was very rare; after all, in an intensely religious age, there was a stern injunction from the Bible to consider, Exodus 22:18.

The infamous line,"Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live", must have caused thousands of deaths over the years.

There, in a stroke, is revealed the root of a witch-hunting craze. Everyone believed the Bible to be the literal word of God; witches were mentioned in the Bible, and the instruction was to kill them.

Slightly later on in time, across the Atlantic in Salem, the greed of neighbours for someone else's property may have been one motive for the murderous accusations of witchcraft.

But in Worcestershire, accusations of witchcraft seemed to arise from arguments and common grievances, and this brings us back nicely to the old lady in the bush.

The writer Matthew Hale, in his 1693 work, "A Collection of Modern Relations of Matter of Fact Concerning Witches & Witchcraft", tells us how "an old woman in Droitwich in the Country of Worcester startled a boy who was tending his mother's cows, by yelling 'boo' from behind some bushes".

Hale goes on: "Bewitchment was suspected as the boy could no longer speak".

It is a wonder that the old lady could speak, given that the child flung a dish of "hot pottage" in her face.

The child seemed to display "inarticulate rage" and so the old lady, suspected of bewitching him, was carted off to prison.

In prison, the gaoler made the woman "say the Lord's prayer and bless the lad".

This seems to have worked, for the child could speak again afterwards; or perhaps he was pretending all along?

We don't know the old woman's name, so we cannot know her fate; but it is more than likely that she was hanged. In England, unlike in France and elsewhere, burning at the stake as a punishment for witchcraft was rare.

In Worcestershire, over three hundred years ago, it could also be risky if someone you had argued with fell ill shortly afterwards.

This brings us to the case of Mary Ellins's kidney stones.

This account, from Evesham, appears in the 1691 work, by Richard Baxter, called " The Certainty of the Worlds of Spirits and, Consequently, of the Immortality of Souls".

Mary's compliant seems very much to have been a flesh and blood matter, as she was "voiding "stones through her urinary passages".

She also voided "much blackish and muddy sand," but then was "perfectly recovered".

She survived her alarming medical emergency to end up married with seven children.

But the woman she threw stones at was probably not so fortunate.

Mary, it seems, voided a grand total of eighty stones, "some plain pebbles, some plain flints, some very small, and some about an ounce weight".

Mary, who was only about ten when her ordeal began, denied throwing pebbles at a 40 year old unmarried woman, called Catherine Huxley; but she admitted to calling Miss Huxley a witch.

Sharp words were exchanged, and it seems that Miss Huxley cursed the child, or so the witnesses said.

Mary was one of a number of children who were insulting the woman that day, and the other witnesses were children.

In both cases, then, it seems the improbable, even malicious accusations of the very young were enough to send someone to prison and, most probably, to the gallows.

The belief in witches and witchcraft, across all classes and all ages, was so powerful.

Tickets for "Hang the Witch" are available on, 01905 611427.