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David Cowan :: History 229: The Age of the Witch Hunts

David Cowan

Pricking needlesDavid Cowan lived in Prestonpans, Scotland. He worked as a drummer and witch-pricker, particularly from 1678 to 1679. He was involved in at least six known witchcraft cases. In five of these trials he pricked the accused witches to check for devil’s marks, and in the sixth trial he served as an investigator.

According to Scottish law, torture could only be used if local authorities obtained special permission from the Privy Council. However, torture was still commonly used illegally and was not heavily regulated. Although pricking for a devil’s mark was considered part of the process to identify a witch, the process was extremely painful and traumatic. Following the 1661-62 witch-hunt, the Privy Council attempted to more strictly regulate the use of torture and other harrowing activities in witchcraft trials. This led to an increasing amount of torturers being punished. Cowan was arrested for his brutal work in the case of Katharine Liddell in 1678.

There is not much information on why Liddell was arrested, but it is clear that she was taken prisoner and extensively tortured by a group of men. She and the men were all from Haddington, Scotland. Cowan pricked Liddell without the State’s approval, and an outcry among locals followed. Eventually, the Privy Council ordered the men to release Liddell. Cowan was arrested and ordered not to search for marks again without approval from the Privy Council.

Levack, Brian P. Witch-Hunting in Scotland: Law, Politics, and Religion. New York: Routledge, 2008.

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