Guest writer MO KEOHAN reveals how science revealed the real identity of an ‘Essex witch’ skeleton
Once upon a time there was a witch called Ursula Kempe, who suffered a terrible injustice put upon her in the 1582 Witch Trials of Essex.
As it is, the history books will rightfully continue to tell her story through the years BUT once upon a time also, in the same time frame, there was a man, a hardworking young man, who is still remembered to this day by many, as being someone he never was! And so it begins:
Ursula lived her life in St Osyth Village, Essex, with her eight year old son Thomas, until being accused of witchcraft by the local magistrate Brian D’arcy. Along with 13 other woman, she was imprisoned in the local Lockup, the Cage, before being transferred to Colchester Gaol and her subsequent trial.
Found guilty and hanged with one other lady in Chelmsford, you would think the story of this wronged woman would end there.
Skeleton unearthed in Mill Street, St Osyth
But in 1921 in Mill Street, St Osyth, a skeleton was unearthed in the back garden of a Mr Charlie Brooker. Buried in a north/south direction, the tale of Ursula Kempe was about to be born again!
It was promptly claimed by many to be the skeleton of the infamous St Osyth resident, and so many paid a few pennies to her in her pitiful resting place of 37 Mill Street! This went on for over 10 years until the house of Mr Brooker mysteriously burned down and the skeleton was covered up again.
Maybe a discarded cigarette left unattended burned down his house? A faulty house appliance? Some deeper thinking people would say its poetic karma for disturbing the dead in more ways than one!
In 1963, the skeleton was uncovered yet again because Mr Brooker’s son-in-law wanted to apparently build on the location. And so comes along a Mr Cecil Williamson, who owning the Boscastle Museum at the time, expressed an interest to buy the skeleton and display her in the museum, still believing, like many, that this was Ursula Kempe.
The skeleton heads to Boscastle
After a lengthy delay ‘she’ was eventually transported to Boscastle in Cornwall, where she stayed until ill health forced Mr Williamson to sell her on and she was bought by the famous artist Robert Lenkiewicz and transported to Plymouth in 1999.
Mr Lenkiewicz died in 2002 and this is where the story of the skeleton gets told correctly, because, upon request, the skeleton was eventually transported to a Mr John Worland, back in Essex.
It was decided that the skeleton was to be extensively examined by an archaeologist and through her findings, it was revealed the skeleton was not in fact Ursula Kempe, but a man!
Skeleton of St Osyth was a man, not a woman!
A man of heavy build, height was estimated at 5ft 8in, a hardworking individual whose age was put into the early 20s. During the time of these findings, it was also revealed and mentioned in newspaper reports that iron spikes found in the skeleton’s bones were deliberately put there after it was unearthed. This was intended to enlarge the story that it was the skeleton of Ursula Kempe adding to the hype of the day.
It was also revealed by the archaeologist that staining found on the upper part of the skeleton indicated that he wore a bronze medallion when he was buried in Mill Street. This had disappeared after he was unearthed.
Through all the upheaval and drama of being branded one of the most famous witches in Essex, the male skeleton was finally laid to rest with dignity, in a local St Osyth Cemetery, albeit in a north/south direction as he was originally buried.
It amuses me to this day, even with evidence to the contrary, that there are still people that consider this skeleton to be Ursula Kempe. It brings up that saying, research and research some more. Sometimes the truth is hidden waiting to be unearthed.
MO KEOHAN is Hertfordshire native with a healthy interest in the paranormal. She enjoys researching haunted places, including Cold Christmas, Minsden Chapel, High Beach Church and her family home in Ireland which has a ghostly past. Besides her paranormal work, Mo enjoys studying and running an online business. Visit her D.A.S.K. Paranormal Facebook group here.