The devil's Mr. Gideon

Torphichen Preceptory, where Henry Livingston was preceptor in 1449. Photo courtesy of Kim Traynor

The Livingston family genealogist devoted two large volumes to a painstaking account of the Livingstons in Scotland and America.[1] His volume on the Livingstons of Livingston Manor, in introducing the Scottish ancestry of the American immigrants, glides right by the siblings of “Worthy famous Mr. John Livingston” – father and grandfather of two Robert Livingstons – remarking that John was the “only child [of his parents] we need take any notice of.”[2]

Brave words! As it happens, though, a series of biographical volumes on Scottish ministers fills in the names of the children of the Rev. William Livingston and two of his three wives, and in the biographies of the ministers who married John Livingston’s sisters there are indeed stories on which to linger.[3] John Livingston’s sister Anna married the Rev. Thomas Vassie (or Wassie), later of Torphichen, in 1627; their half-sister, Jean, married the Rev. Gideon Penman, a widower, in 1651.[4] Both the Vassies and the Penmans figure in questions of witchcraft – even as the three brother ministers were involved in the religious and political ferment of the period.

Thomas Vassie received an M.A. from St. Andrews University in 1616; with his brother-in-law, John Livingston, he was a member of the Commissions of Assembly in 1648-49; he was also a visitor (a supervisory role) at the College of Edinburgh in 1649. Thus far, Hew Scott’s account, but turning to a history of the parish, one finds hints of a more turbulent life: “It has been said,” Hardy Bartram McCall writes, “that the ‘Calder Witches’ were at one time as proverbial in this country as the Lancashire witches in England…”[5]

“It has been said that the ‘Calder Witches’ were at one time as proverbial in this country as the Lancashire witches in England…"

Among the witches named in the parish records, tantalizingly oblique, is a Vassie, one of three identified by “James Wallace, elder,” who declared in November 1644 that “Agnis Vassie, Agnes Bischop, and Marion Gibsoune[,] all thrie confessing and suffering witches,” named a fourth (Margaret Thomson) as having been in attendance with them at various “meitingis.”[6] Agnes Bishop, whose travails as an accused witch dated back to at least 1618, was “‘sufficientlie cleirit to be ane commone charmer and ane hynous and notorious witch,’ and was in consequence condemned to be executed according to law.”[7] While not explicitly stated, Agnes Vassie and Marion Gibson probably shared her fate.

So who was Agnes Vassie? If she were the wife or the daughter of the minister of Torphichen – Anna Livingston was the daughter of William Livingston and his wife (and cousin) Agnes Livingston; Agnes Vassie might be named for her grandmother; in this period Anna and Agnes were used interchangeably – then how were the Vassie and Livingston families affected, especially given that, at the time, most religious people believed in the existence of witches?

I should add that Hew Scott’s biography of Thomas Vassie, which names his three wives, does not clearly assign any children to his first marriage.[8]

The Rev. Gideon Penman of Crichton was the son of the Rev. William Penman and Marion Wilkie; he received the M.A. from Edinburgh University in 1636. By the time he married Jean Livingston in 1651, her half-brother John was a prominent and controversial figure, recently appointed to the parish at Ancrum. Hew Scott drops hints about Penman’s complicated private and public life, noting Gideon was “[d]eposed for adultery, 4th March 1675.” Three years later, “He was ordered to be apprehended for witchcraft, 4 Aug. 1678, and imprisoned for the same, 3rd Oct. 1678.”[9]

One turns from this dry accounting to something rather more breathless: “Mr. Gideon Penman, curat at Creighton, was well known to be a witch. Divers eye-witnesses deponed that they had many times seen him at the witches’ meetings, and that the devil called him ordinarily, ‘Penman, my chaplain.’” This reputation caught up with him in May 1678, when a group of witches (almost all “poor, miserable like women”) named him one of their number, and “for sundry acts of uncleanness and other crimes [he] was deprived [of his benefice]. Two or three of the witches constantly affirmed that he was present at their meetings with the devil, and that when the devil called for him, he asked ‘Where is Mr. Gideon, my chaplain?’ and that ordinarily Mr. Gideon was in the rear of all their dances, and beat up these that were slow. He denied all, and was liberate on caution.”[10]

"Two or three of the witches constantly affirmed that he was present at their meetings with the devil, and that when the devil called for him, he asked ‘Where is Mr. Gideon, my chaplain?’"

That Penman remained on good terms with the Livingston family through all this is suggested by a note in the published edition of Andrew Hay’s diary: the editor writes that, following the loss of his parish, the “warlock minister” was supported by none other than “William Livingston, merchant [of] Edinburgh, probably a relative of his wife, Jean Livingston.”[11]

As William Livingston, the youngest son of the Rev. William Livingston and Agnes Livingston, and the half-brother of Jean (Livingston) Penman, was apprenticed to James Nairn, an Edinburgh merchant, on 21 July 1630,[12] this might be yet another one of “Worthy famous” John Livingston’s siblings, still alive at an advanced age when one of his nephews, Robert Livingston, was already settled in Albany, New York.[13]


[1] Edwin Brockholst Livingston, The Livingstons of Livingston Manor: Being the History of that Branch of the Scottish House of Callendar which settled in the English Province of New York during the reign of Charles the Second; and also including an Account of Robert Livingston of Albany, “The Nephew,” A Settler in the same Province, and his Principal Descendants (New York: The Knickerbocker Press, 1910); Edwin Brockholst Livingston, The Livingstons of Callendar and Their Principal Cadets: The History of an Old Stirlingshire Family (Edinburgh: Printed at the University Press by T. and A. Constable for the author, 1920).

[2] Livingston, The Livingstons of Livingston Manor, 20.

[3] Hew Scott, Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae: The Succession of Ministers in the Church of Scotland from the Reformation, 7 vols. (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1915-28).

[4] Scott, Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae, 3: 478-79, 1: 230, 312.

[5] Ibid., 1: 230, 2: 99; Hardy Bertram McCall, The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Mid-Calder, with some account of the Religious House of Torphichen, founded upon record (Edinburgh: Richard Cameron, 1894), 31. Thomas had had other ideas for a career, as he was the "[Vessie,] Thomas, son to William V., merchant of Lanark, [apprenticed] with John Carmichaell, merchant [of Edinburgh]” 20 January 1613 (Francis J. Grant, ed., The Register of Apprentices of the City of Edinburgh, 1583-1666, in Scottish Record Society 28 [1906]: 190).

[6] McCall, The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Mid-Calder, 32.

[7] Ibid., 31-32.

[8] Scott, Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae, 1: 230.

[9] Ibid., 312.

[10] Rev. Robert Wodrow, The History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland from the Restoration to the Revolution, 4 vols. (Glasgow: Blackie, Fullarton & Co., 1828), 1: 334.

[11] Livingston became responsible for the reversion of Penman’s property on 13 December 1677. Alexander George Reid, ed., The Diary of Andrew Hay of Craignethan, 1659-1660, in Publications of the Scottish History Society 39 [1901]: 2.

[12] Scott, Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae, 3: 307.

[13] William Livingston of Edinburgh might also be the Rev. John Livingston’s son William (1638-1700), the elder brother of Robert Livingston of Livingston Manor. Livingston, The Livingstons of Callendar, 448-49.

Scott C. Steward

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward has been NEHGS’ Editor-in-Chief since 2013. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.View all posts by Scott C. Steward