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Image of Molly Leigh's grave by Brian Deegan (Creative Commons licence)

From Folklore to Global Politics: The strange story of Molly Leigh, the Witch of Burslem

Molly Leigh was born in 1685 in a small cottage on the outskirts of Burslem, near Stoke-on-Trent, in central England. She died in 1746, and her grave in Saint John’s churchyard has been the site of a strange little ritual ever since. Because, you see, Molly Leigh was a witch. Or so the story goes…

Molly Leigh, Can’t Catch me!

Molly Leigh, Molly Leigh
Chase me round the apple tree,
Molly Leigh, Molly Leigh,
You can’t catch me,
Molly Leigh, Molly Leigh,
Chase me down all the holes I can see.

Traditional rhyme

This old rhyme is well known in north Stoke-On-Trent, in central England. The verse is supposed to be recited on Halloween while skipping three times around a certain grave in Saint John’s churchyard, in the town of Burslem. The ritual is performed as a kind of dare — a right of passage for brave kids who are ready to prove that they no longer believe in childish things such as magic, or ghosts, or witches. The Molly Leigh rite shares aspects with many invocation “games”, such as the American Bloody Mary folkloric conjuration in which the name is repeated, or chanted, before a mirror by candlelight. The spectre of Bloody Mary is then supposed to appear in the mirror (although exactly why you would want her to remains unclear). Unlike Bloody Mary however, Molly Leigh was a real person and it is her actual grave — aligned north-south, rather than east-west like all the others in the churchyard — around which the children perform their All Hallows Eve ritual.

Molly’s cottage from a vintage postcard from

Molly Leigh was born in 1685 in a small cottage on the outskirts of Burslem. The cottage, which she lived in her whole life, remained there until 1844 but today the site is occupied by a school. Fitting enough given the school-yard nature of the folkloric rite associated with her final resting place, perhaps. Molly was the only child of a dairy farming couple (some say they were well off, others that they were poor as can be), and she inherited their land and livestock after their deaths. Local folklore records that Molly was a strange and advanced child; able to eat solids almost from birth, she’s also said to have shunned her mother’s milk in favour of that of the cow, which she suckled directly from. Some might see these as indicators of Molly having actually been a changeling — a fairy, or troll, infant left in place of a human one — or perhaps, less fantastically, an adopted child, but neither of these notions seems to crop up in the versions of the story I’ve found. Even so, there was something “not right” about Molly, though whether this was a specific physical or mental condition remains unclear.

Molly would walk into town bringing hay, straw, and milk from her farmstead, which she sold on the streets of Burslem. Although people bought the milk, they often complained that it was watered down and by all accounts, it seems there was a general dislike for Molly among the populace. Her only friend, so the story goes, was a blackbird (although sometimes said to have been a jay, or a crow, or a jackdaw) she had tamed which often perched upon her shoulder and lived in a hawthorn bush outside her cottage. The bush never blossomed, people said, and this was taken as some kind of omen. By this time Molly was in her sixties and, although her “familiar” was a blackbird rather than a black cat, she was pretty much a living Fairy Tale character. This fact did not escape the notice of her contemporaries.

The Wrath of Reverend Spencer

In 1746 Burslem’s Reverend Thomas Spencer noted publicly that Molly Leigh did not attend church like a good Christian should. Indeed, she apparently refused to do so. Spencer was a drinker, frequenting a local pub called The Turk’s Head. One day soon after his pronouncement, according to the Reverend who was drinking there at the time, he saw Molly Leigh’s blackbird land on the sign of the pub. The instant it did so all the ale in the place is said to have turned sour, and all the customers struck down with terrible pains in their joints and muscles. Reverend Spencer staggered out of The Turks Head and, drawing a pistol, aimed and shot at the bird which nevertheless flew away unharmed. Spencer was bedridden for weeks afterwards with crippling stomach pains, and from his sick bed, he officially proclaimed what must have been obvious to everyone: Molly Leigh was a witch.

Before she could stand trial, however, the elderly Ms Leigh passed away of her own accord. Having not been convicted of witchcraft, she was laid to rest in Saint John’s churchyard like any good Christian — the size of her monument showing that she must have had more money squirrelled away than most had believed. Reverend Spencer was, by all accounts, unhappy with the situation, but there didn’t seem much he could do about it. That was until one evening, reportedly the worse for drink, the reverend led a party of townsfolk to Molly’s supposedly abandoned cottage. There, sitting by a blazing fire, they claimed to find Molly Leigh herself — risen from the dead.

Joined by parsons from the nearby townships of Stoke, Newcastle-Under-Lyme, and Wolstanton, Spencer opened up Molly’s tomb, driving a stake through her heart and into the graveyard earth to prevent her from rising again. Some versions of the tale say her blackbird familiar was also captured and interred alive with her, the coffin and monument re-aligned to give her a suitably dishonourable “witch’s burial”.

An Image of Molly’s grave from a vintage postcard from

Leigh’s Legacy

Someone who helped to overhaul Leigh’s public image somewhat was a self-proclaimed descendant of hers — Sybil Leek. Sybil was born in 1922 in Normacot, Staffordshire and became a prominent figure in the occult revival of the 1950s and 60s. Growing up in the New Forest area of Hampshire, Sybil learned about nature, animals, the power of herbs, and Eastern philosophies from her father, while her Russian grandmother schooled her in astrology, the psychic arts and divination. The likes of H. G. Wells, T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), and Aleister Crowley were friends of her family, and regular visitors to their home. Leek was a fascinating character who penned more than sixty books in her lifetime (including a biography of Crowley and, perhaps most famously, Diary of a Witch).

Sybil Leek and Mr. Hotfoot Jackson

Sybil Leek’s most obvious connection to her ancestor Molly Leigh, was perhaps her companion. Mr. Hotfoot Jackson was his name and he was a jackdaw; his preferred perch being upon the witch’s shoulder, or sometimes her head. Where Molly was disliked, mistreated, and even feared, just two centuries later her descendant was able to make a rather celebrated and successful career from her own witchcraft. Proclaimed “Britain’s most famous witch” by the BBC, Sybil Leek became a world-renowned astrologer and, having relocated to Florida in the late 1970s, a regular on US TV shows. Sybil became an advisor to President Ronald Reagan, serving as his wife Nancy’s personal astrologer at the same time. It was even rumoured that the Strategic Defense Initiative — the idea to create weapons which orbited the earth which could be deployed to neutralise nuclear weapons before they struck their targets, which Reagan called “Star Wars” — actually came from Sybil herself.

It is difficult to imagine anyone reading or hearing the story of Molly Leigh’s life and death as told today and feeling anything but pity for her. Reverend Spencer seems the obvious villain of the piece, the townsfolk’s prejudice the source of her misery, all of them complicit in her ultimate demise and desecration. Perhaps then the rhyme quoted at the top of this piece isn’t actually as sinister as it might seem at first glance. Could it be a genuine invitation to a game? The kind little Molly never got to share with other kids when she was alive. “Molly Leigh, come play with me”. Wishful thinking perhaps, but it would be nice to think that modern children were reaching out in empathy and friendship rather than continuing to taunt poor Molly nigh on three centuries after her death.


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