Beatrix (sometimes Beatrice) Leslie (c. 1577 – 3 September 1661) was a Scottish midwife executed in 1661 for causing the collapse of a coal pit by the use of witchcraft, killing two girls.[1] Little is known of her life before that event, although there are reported disputes with neighbours that suggest a quarrelsome attitude.

Beatrix lived in Blackcoat in the parish of Newbattle, Midlothian, where she worked as a midwife. She was married to William Moffat, about whom nothing is known.[2] Her arraignment and subsequent execution stemmed from her role in acting as midwife for William Young and Agnes Acheson. The parties seem then to have fallen out, with William subsequently testifying that he and his wife were terrified of Beatrix, and that he “was awakened out of his sleep, in a great affrightment and sweat, crying out, that she [Beatrix] with a number of catts wer devouring him.”[3] In the words of the historian Anna Cordey,

… the fact that Leslie had been Acheson’s midwife did not make them trust and respect her once the relationship had failed; rather, it caused further unease because they were aware of her abilities.[4]

Trial, confession and execution

Beatrix was accused of killing by the use of witchcraft – maleficiumAct of sorcery, historically usually performed by a witch, intended to cause harm or injury. – by causing the roof of a coal pit to collapse on two girls who had angered her.[5] Probably then aged about 84,[1] widowed and poor,[6] she was subjected to an examination by the witch-pricker John Kincaid, who inflicted two tests to secure her confession, and claimed to find the Devil’s mark on her body. During her ordeal, Beatrix confessed to meeting the Devil twice, once in the shape of a brown dog and once as a young man, agreeing to be his servant and being given the new name Bold Leslie.[1]

Found guilty, Beatrix was strangled and her body burned on 3 September 1661.[7]

Modern interpretation

The nightmares experienced by William Young and his wife may be further evidence of the effect of the frightening symptoms of sleep paralysis in early modern witchcraft:

This leads on to the issue of “charmers” in the sense of people who offered their services as healers and diviners. Charmers were distinct from witches; they were self-professed, whereas witches were labelled by others. For most people, the local healer or charmer offered the only medical attention they could ever hope to receive. Nevertheless, a charmer could sometimes acquire a reputation for witchcraft … In Dalkeith, it is clear that the authorities saw charming as suspicious: scratch the surface and it was likely that something more damning was going on. And charming and midwifery seem to have been linked.[8]