Jinney, Jinny or Jennie Bingham (c. 1600 – c. 1680) was a fortune teller and healer suspected of witchcraft. She was known as Mother Damnable, Mother Red Cap and the Shrew of Kentish Town.
During her lifetime she had four male lovers or companions; her first, who got her pregnant when she was sixteen, was hanged for sheep rustling, two others died in mysterious circumstances, another simply vanished. Both her parents were convicted of witchcraft then hanged; locals believed she inherited their powers and considered her a witch.
Jinney faced a charge of murder, but was acquitted; later she avoided being tried for causing death by poisoning, as no evidence could be found.
Modern-day academics, folklorists and historians disagree about whether Jinney was a real person, semi-mythical, or a composite narrative based on tales of several individuals.
Firm details of Jinney’s[a] date and year of birth have not been established; born in around 1600, most likely at the beginning of that century, she was the only child of Jacob Bingham, an English brick maker and his Scottish wife. Jinney’s father plied his trade in the area of Kentish Town before joining the army; during his military service he was posted to Scotland, where he met and married a pedlar’s daughter, Jinney’s mother.
When Jacob completed his army enlistment, he returned to his former trade in his local area. As a youngster Jinney accompanied her parents on occasional trips around the country when her father was peddling his merchandise further afield.
Lovers and witchcraft
Jinney became pregnant at sixteen years of age by her boyfriend, “Gypsy” George Coulter. The couple lived in a cottage constructed by her father on a piece of rough land near Kentish Town. Her dalliance with George was short lived; he was arrested and charged with stealing sheep from land at Holloway. After being declared guilty at an Old Bailey trial, he was hanged at Tyburn. Following the demise of Gypsy George, she had an affair with a drunkard named Darby. The relationship was tempestuous, punctuated with violence and arguments. Jinney sought advice from her mother after being subjected to an extremely violent confrontation with Darby. The drunk then promptly disappeared from her life; no one knew what happened to him or where he went, but his abrupt absence was never officially scrutinised.
Shortly after Darby vanished, both Jinney’s parents were brought before the courts charged with witchcraft and causing the death of a young girl by magic. They were found guilty and executed by hanging. Devoid of the company of her parents, Jinney soon found consolation by taking another lover, a man named Pitcher. Like his predecessor, Pitcher suddenly disappeared. However, this time the remains of his charred body were eventually found secreted inside an oven.
Murder charges were brought against Jinney, but after testimony was given stating Pitcher frequently sought refuge in the oven to escape the onslaught of Jinney’s ever-increasing nastiness and foul temper, she was acquitted. It was around this time her vicious tongue gained her the soubriquet “The shrew of Kentish Town”. She was also nicknamed “Mother Red Cap” and “Mother Damnable”.
After Pitcher’s disappearance, Jinney was alone for a long time. Locals were afraid of her and she became a recluse, only venturing from her home at night or when others were not around. No one knew how she supported herself.
Jinney was particularly active around the 1640s, when she was approached by a wealthy man seeking refuge during the English Civil War; he begged her to provide him with shelter and lodgings in her house to enable him to escape from his pursuers. His funds were extensive and he rewarded her handsomely; he stayed with her for many years. Moll Cutpurse, a notorious thief and highway robber, occasionally lodged with them during the Cromwellian era too.[b]
Locals had long held the firm belief that Jinney, like her parents before her, was skilled in the black arts. She was frequently heard having vitriolic arguments with her companion, the unnamed fugitive benefactor. When he died, villagers were convinced she had brought about his death by poison. The claims were investigated but no evidence was detected at the inquest.
Later life and death
Alone except for the company of her reputedly vicious black catThe numerous folk beliefs about black cats, and cats in general, are often contradictory. Superstitions surrounding black cats are almost certainly some of the most prevalent even today, along with the number thirteen and walking under a ladder. , Jinney occupied herself by telling fortunes and offering remedies or cures for ailments. Rumours that Jinney was a witch circulated for the rest of her life; the villagers blamed her for any misfortune or mishaps that they endured. They would gather around her cottage, loudly and sometimes violently, berating her; on any such occasions, she would respond by opening her window, leaning out to screech back at the crowd. If the unruly mob caught sight of her cat on the ledge beside her, which they considered to be her familiar, they would quickly retreat.
At this stage of her life Jinney was a sullen and “ill-favoured creature”. Her usual attire was a large red cap that concealed her bald head yet her black eyebrows were thick, heavy and unkempt; she favoured a patched dark grey shawl that was normally wrapped around her shoulders. Unless observers were standing close to her, the patches on it “resembled flying bats.” Her wide mouth, set under a large nose, had flecks of dribble bubbling at each corner; the deep lines on her leathery cheeks matched those adorning her high forehead.
Her precise date of death is unknown although it is likely to be around 1680. Jinney’s stiff body was found beside her fireplace; a teapot containing a herbal brew was on the fire. Her cat was still alive but two hours after it was given some of the contents of the teapot, its hair fell out then it died.
In 1870, Samuel Palmer included what has become the customary version of the story of Mother Red Cap in History of St Pancras. He supplies the name of Jinney Bingham but, other than a sentence around the midpoint of his narrative when he indicates his account is given in an old pamphlet, no further detail regarding his sources are given. An earlier tract, published in 1843,[c] claims to be a copy of correspondence to Charles Firebrace. Sent by his associate Henry Foxhall from his Whitehall Chambers, the letter, dated 13 September 1666, reports details of an encounter with Mother Red Cap.
Almost a century before Palmer’s publication, in 1794, James Caulfield recorded that Mother Red Cap’s real name was unspecified. He was the first writer to label her as an innkeeper, although if that was correct the likelihood is she would have hosted a far less reputable facility, an establishment more akin to a grog shop. Evidence exists the nickname Mother Red Cap was coined before the seventeenth-century: in 1595 a jestbook was produced incorporating it in its title and a play titled with the sobriquet was performed in 1597.[d] During the 1600s, it was a generic term used to describe an “ale-wife” or a female innkeeper; its conventional usage changed to a jocular reference to a witch by the mid nineteenth-century. The phrase Mother Damnable was introduced later with a spate of examples in the middle of the seventeenth-century: a ballad in 1656 and a broadside from 1676 both use the terminology in their titles.
Museum curator and author Mark Aston[e] poses the question “Did she [Jinney] indeed exist at all as thus described?” Various schools of thought are presented by academics, folklorists and historians: folklorists such as Steve Roud and Jacqueline Simpson consider the narrative is a mixture about two or more – likely fictional – individuals. Historian John Callow adopts a similar stance, pointing out that Mother Redcap was probably a “composite figure” while academic Kirilka Stavreva gives the designation of “semi mythical”. Aston describes the 1843 tract as “Perhaps the most amusing but purely fictitious episode to emerge from Victorian desire to resurrect and re-establish the Mother Red Cap tale”. Alicia Meyer from the University of Pennsylvania contributed an entry on Jinney in A Biographical Encyclopedia of Early Modern Englishwomen, Exemplary Lives and Memorable Acts, 1500–1650 under the classification of ‘Witches’; the book is a compilation of more than eight hundred entries giving short profiles of women who lived in the early modern period.
- sometimes her first name is spelt as Jinny or Jennie.
- Moll Cutpurse was the nickname given to Mary Frith (1584×9–1659).
- Registered at Stationers’ Hall and itemised as received by the Bodleian Library during 1843 in its 1844 catalogue giving it the title Mother Red Cap under the categorisation of “Tales”.
- Academic Diane Purkiss suggests the play may be a reflection of the recent trial of Alice Gooderidge, who was found guilty of the bewitchment of Thomas Darling in 1596.
- Mark Aston, author of Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in Hampstead, Holburn and St Pancras, Islington Museum and Local History Centre Manager.