The earliest description of Mother Haggy, or the Witch of St. Albans, appears in a “pretty twopenny pamphlet”,[1] written under the name of William Wagstaffe and distributed in 1712. In The Story of the St. Alb-ns Ghost: Or the Apparation of Mother Haggy. Collected from the Best Manuscripts, Wagstaffe records that Mother Haggy was the wife of a yeoman, and lived in good repute for many years until the birth of her daughter, Haggite. During the celebration to mark the child’s birth, Mother Haggy’s high-crowned hat, which had been thrown on the bed, leapt into the air and broke into a thousand pieces.[2]

The event caused consternation in the parish, and raised suspicions of witchcraft. Some years later an unsuccessful petition was made to King James I to have Mother Haggy tried for witchcraft in Scotland. But she had powerful allies among “the Great Ones of the Town”, as she was “Serviceable to them in their Amours”. Specifically, she had developed a salve that could restore the hymen after sexual intercourse, “without any Hindrance of Business, or the Knowledge of anyone about them”. She claimed to have used it so often on her own daughter that “more than Twenty were satisfy’d they had her Virginity before Marriage”.[2]

The popularity of her salve may have made her over-confident, as it was reported that she was often to be seen flying around St. Albans on a broomstickBroomsticks smeared with flying ointment were supposed to give witches the power of flight..[3] It was also claimed that she was able to transform herself into any female animal, but Mother Haggy nevertheless escaped prosecution and died a natural death, leaving behind a son and a daughter, Haggite.[2]

Haggite married Avaro, and the pair became trusted servants of two brothers from a great family. But they abused that trust, and cheated their employers to become even richer than them. Eventually Haggite and Avaro were dismissed, and they decided to call a midnight meeting with their collaborators in crime, to see if anything could be done to prevent their ruin. The ghost of Mother Haggy appeared, flames springing from its nostrils and sulfurous smoke from its mouth, and denounced the conspirators:

I Come, O ye Accomplices in Iniquity, to tell you of your Crimes … and prepare for Punishment that is Certain. I have, as long as I could, assisted you in your Glorious Execrable Attempts, but Time is now no more; the Time is coming when you must be deliver’d up to Justice. As to you, O Son and Daughter, said she, turning to them, ’tis but a few revolving Moons, e’er you must both fall a Sacrifice to your Avarice and Ambition.

Then with a shriek, she disappeared.

Modern interpretations

There was almost certainly no real Mother Haggy, as hinted at by the author early in the story:

The Place of her Birth is disputed by some of the most celebrated Moderns, tho’ they have a Tradition in the Country, that she was never Born at all, and which is most probable.[4]

Although the story is generally attributed to William Wagstaffe, its authorship remains in doubt. Jonathan Swift teasingly wrote in a letter that when he was asked to read the story to Lady Masham “I thought I had writt it myself; so did they, but I did not”. The story has also been attributed to John Arbuthnot, a Scottish physician and satirist who was living in London at the time of the pamphlet’s publication. It is even possible that it was a collaboration between Swift and Arbuthnot, as believed by Sir Walter Scott.[4]

What is certain however, is that by 1712 the use of ghost stories as a vehicle for political satire was well established.[4] A separately published key to the characters in the St. Alb-n’s Ghost, written either by Wagstaffe or Arbuthnot, explicitly identifies Haggite with the Duchess of Marlborough (1660–1744), one of the most powerful women in the country, Mother Haggy with her mother, Mrs Jennings, and Avaro with the Duke of Marlborough;[5] the duchess was probably born at Holywell House in St. Albans.[6]