Dr. Andrew Sneddon discovered that American novelist Mark Twain’s ancestor was the ‘witchfinder general’ during the Islandmagee Witch Trial in Belfast in the 18th century.

In his 2013 book, “Possessed by the Devil: The History of the Islandmagee Witches & Ireland’s Only Witchcraft Mass Trial” Sneddon found that witch hunter Edward Clements was the uncle of American author Samuel Clemens, who is better known by his pen name Mark Twain.

During the 1711 witch hunt eight old women in Islandmagee in Ulster were found guilty of bewitching 18-year-old Mary Dunbar, who came to Islandmagee to comfort her cousin after the death of a relative whom local people believed had been bewitched.

People claimed that Dunbar had screaming fits, vomited pins, feathers and cotton, and had angry reactions to prayers. Within a month she accused eight women who tried without defense lawyers. The only evidence offered during their trial was from Dunbar.

Sneddon, who lectures at the University Of Ulster, said about Edward Clement’s role in the trial,  “He was the witchfinder or witch hunter investigator. He was up to his neck in this witchcraft trial.”

The eight women were jailed for a year and were held in the stocks four times on market day where they were pelted with vegetables and fruit. The rest of Dunbar’s story is unknown as many documents were destroyed.

Sneddon believes that Dunbar accused the eight women of witchcraft for sexual attention. He said, “During her fits, she had the young local men in her bedroom- which would never normally have happened back then.” He added, “They were holding her down as she was writhing on the bed . . . maybe she did it for sexual pleasure or sexual attention.”

Sneddon teaches the only history course in Ireland about the great witch hunts in Europe between 1500 and 1800. He says that many people assume that Ireland was not part of the witch hunt.

He told the Carrickfergus Times, “The mass trial of the Islandmagee Witches in Carrickfergus in 1711 demonstrates that fear surrounding witchcraft was indeed present in Ireland.” The events in Islandmagee were the last witch hunt in Ireland.

*Originally published in November 2013, updated in October 2023.