In St John’s graveyard, Burslem, can be found the last resting place of Molly Leigh, a local woman accused of being a witch but dying before she could be brought to trial. Her body is the only one positioned North to South, putting it at a right angle to every other grave in the cemetery. The story of Molly Leigh is a mixture of fact and folklore that has grown over the years.
Margaret (Molly or Peggy) Leigh was born near Burslem in 1685. She lived on the outskirts of the moor surrounding Burslem and would visit the town regularly delivering milk. She lived a lonely existence as her parents died whilst she was young and according to tradition she was seen as being odd which made it hard for her to developed friendships with the townsfolk.
Her appearance was considered to be really quite ugly, she had a renowned vicious temper and her teeth where bad. It was said she had adult abilities within hours of being born and could chew upon hard stale bread immediately. It is also suggested that she suckled off farm animals. She kept cows from which she sold milk and when she would visit Burslem to sell her produce she would apparently have a blackbird perched on her shoulder.
Molly rarely attended church which angered the local minister, Reverend Spencer. One day Spencer was apparently in The Turks Head, a local pub, when a blackbird came and either sat on the window ledge or upon the pubs sign. As the bird landed, all the beer within the pub soured immediately and those people inside began to suffer from rheumatism. Spencer thought that the bird had been sent by Molly to spy upon him and taking his gun he shot at it, though his shot went wide and the blackbird flew away. The hawthorn bush by her cottage where her blackbird would perch was said never to bloom and the locals started to think that the bird was a witches familiar.
Molly was odd, she was ugly and led a lonely eccentric lifestyle. She did not attend church and the local minister did not like her. She had no friends to defend to her and when rumors of witchcraft started to spread about her, they were eagerly accepted. Any accident of misfortune befalling the townsfolk of Burslem was blamed on Molly and she was shunned by everyone, including her customers. Forced from the town she spent the remaining years of her life truly alone in her cottage. She died in either 1748 or 1746.
Supposedly, Reverend Spencer and a band of local parishioners decided to visit the cottage of Molly Leigh after she had been buried. Her cottage was at Jack-field (now Hamil Grange) in a forested area. He was intent on finding and killing her blackbird and preventing any more sorcery. When he arrived they discovered Molly, sat in a rocking chair by the fire muttering “Weight and measure sold I never, Milk and water sold I never”. This is actually very similar to a phrase that is meant to be said by the ghost of a milk maid in Shrewsbury, Shropshire.
Fear gripped Burslem as they feared Molly had cheated death and may be seeking revenge for how the townsfolk had treated her, especially as her blackbird was a common site around the town. One April night Reverend Spencer and some fellow priests visited the grave of Molly at St Johns with her bird captured in a sack. They opened Molly’s grave, staked her corpse through the heart and reburied her with the still living blackbird.
In one version of the story, after Reverend Spencer opened the grave he repositioned her body, making the grave lie North South in a way of settling her wandering spirit which had been haunting Burslem. Another version of the story has the grave re-orientating itself away from the usual way of Christian burials, East West.
In ‘Shropshire Folklore’ by Charlotte Burne and Georgina Jackson (1883), the ghost of Molly haunting Burslem in day and night brought six priests to her grave to lay her soul to rest. They brought a pigs trough in which to capture her spirit and positioning it in the graveyard they started to pray. Eventually Molly came and hovered above the church roof. Their prays drew her spirit down toward the trough, eventually trapping her inside it. They then placed the trough in the grave. According to this tale, three of the priests died during this ritual.
In yet another version of the burial, the day after she as laid to rest her spirit was seen knelt by her grave crying, saying she could not rest unless her grave was ‘side erts on’. The grave was opened and examined but closed again without alteration. Molly was then seen again pleading for the body to be turned so she could rest. Hence her grave was re-aligned and her spirit was quiet.
Her cottage was demolished in 1894.
There is a tradition that if you dance around the grave singing “Molly Leigh, Molly Leigh, you can’t catch me” her ghostly apparition will appear. Another such rhyme is Molly Leigh, Molly Leigh, follow me into all the holes that I see.
Staffordshire born Sybil Leek (born 22 Feb 1917 – died 26 October 1982), famous witch, friend of Aleister Crowley and prolific occult author claimed to be a descendent of Molly, though Molly never married.