Butters, Mary (c.1770–c.1850), witch, was born in Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim, the scene of the infamous Magee Island witch trial of the previous century. At an early age she became a practitioner of ‘white’ magic, using herbal and superstitious remedies to cure various ailments. Her specialised area was curing cows that were suspected of being bewitched. Because of the importance of cows in Irish agriculture, their vulnerability to witchcraft was feared: it was believed that malevolent ‘butterwitches’ could cast spells on cows to prevent it being possible to churn butter out of their milk.
One such case brought Butters to Carnmoney, near Carrickfergus, on a Tuesday evening in early August 1807. Elizabeth Montgomery, wife of Alexander Montgomery, a tailor, sent for her to advise on a cow that was believed to have been bewitched by some Carrick Town women. First, Butters attempted to churn some butter with the milk, but was unable to, and some people who drank the milk vomited. At ten o'clock she sent Alexander and a young man called Carnaghan out to the cow-house, and ordered them to turn their waistcoats inside out, and stand by the head of the cow till called.
Butters remained inside the Montgomery house, with Elizabeth, their son David, and an elderly woman, Margaret Lee. There she applied some traditional witchcraft cures, including putting pins and needles in a pot of sweet milk on the fire. The house was sealed, with all exits blocked, so that the smoke would cleanse the enchantment. At daybreak, having heard no word, Montgomery went to the house to investigate. Breaking in the door, he found the four inhabitants lying prone on the floor. Elizabeth and David were dead, with Butters and Lee barely breathing. Lee died a few minutes later, but Butters recovered after being thrown on a dung-heap, and kicked repeatedly by the furious husband.
An inquest was held on 19 August, and the coroner, James Stewart, presented detailed evidence against Butters, leading the jury to decide that death had resulted from suffocation, caused by a sulphurous brew she had prepared to cure the sick cow. Butters was brought before the spring assizes in 1808 but the charges against her were dismissed by proclamation. Butters claimed that a black man (witchcraft terminology for the devil) had appeared in the house and had attacked the inhabitants with a large club.
Perhaps unusually, the story created no fear or hostility in the area, and the ‘Carnmoney witch’, as Butters became known, did not suffer from her involvement in the episode. A humorous, and cynical, ballad about the incident was written contemporaneously, and it is believed to be the only poem on Irish witchcraft extant. Butters moved to the Carnmoney area and continued to practice her arts for a number of decades afterwards, with locals still coming to her to cure bewitched cows. She was also popular with victims of horse-theft; once told the name of the person responsible, she was believed to be able to concoct some arcane punishment. The witchcraft act was repealed in 1821.