SORCERY, TRADE SECRETS, AND ENTERPRISE: THE CASE OF WILLIAM WHEELER
“They hang people for poisoning your body, but no law can touch them when they inject poison in your mind.”
-from Witchcraft: its Power in the World Today by William Seabrook (1941).
Sorcery, it’s been argued, is both a composite art and an acquired taste. In all ages, the prototypical sorcerer or witch has been stigmatised as a wilful vector and dispenser of maleficia, a being who cavorts with devilkins and metes out justice through diablerie. Relying neither on hierophants nor magistrates, these mages specialised in what were often illicit or extralegal activities and acquired infamy for their apparent mastery over or collusion with supramundane forces.
The lair from which these magi devised such diverse projects as world domination rituals and speed-learning manuals (i.e. the Ars Notoria), was in most cases a solitary antrum, separate (but never too far out of reach) from the secular world. Dramatists and chroniclers, for obvious reasons, tended to picture them as labouring in the most romantic of conditions, such as a cloistered laboratory or secluded cottage. These highly evocative settings were the perfect office spaces for magicians to assemble with their multifaceted team of human apprentices, pocket-imps, Ariel-like sylphs, and perhaps a gnome or two. It wasn’t all work either. Sometimes outings were organised—events like dinner dates with fairies and cost-free transcontinental flights (via broomstick) to the Brocken or the Holy See.
In looking past these time-honoured stereotypes (some of which have become ubiquitous tropes in modern fantasy literature) however, one could speak of a grittier, more mundane sorcery, a set of actions utilised both by avowed magical practitioners and by ordinary people. Forms of it do, of course, appear in the literary record, but for the most part the dark arts as a subject of non-fiction has remained a taboo topic, treated sparingly or not at all. These arts consist of a matrix of coercive and violent techniques, hardly dissimilar from the stratagems employed by contemporary paramilitary operatives, racketeers, and agents provocateurs.
Whether sorcerers or merely “sorcerous”, these people, in accordance with the directives of a sovereign, minister, or capo, were engaged to contaminate the consciousness of a microcosm—an individual’s spirit (i.e. the fragile harmony of mind and body). Ergo, their modus operandi was generally by influencing the imagination (either remotely via propaganda or intimately through suggestion, intimidation, and gaslighting), or by injuring the body (with torture or poisoning). These arts, if astutely applied, gave the operator a great deal of control over his victim’s thinking processes and perception of reality. Such practices, most of which weaponised hysteria and superstition, factored into the cryptic but pervasive policies of early modern inquisitors, spies, and assassins. To this day, they continue to be used as sub rosa instruments of governance.
The present tale is an account of the purported sufferings of a travelling engineer and inventor named William Wheeler. Wheeler lived and worked in seventeenth-century Holland and England, and apparently became the victim of a sorcerous conspiracy aimed at relieving him of his intellectual property avant la lettre, his various trade secrets and mechanical schematics. According to the narrative ( which was ghostwritten by English propagandist Henry Parker), Wheeler, who in 1639 had been awarded several contracts to develop a number of hydraulic contraptions, fell afoul of his upper-class patrons sometime after his patents were renewed in 1641.
In Wheeler’s mind, his main antagonists were Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange, Sir William Boswell, ambassador to the Hague, and Sir Robert Honywood. Wheeler felt that his expertise in waterworks, profitability, and fact that he “found offices of friendship from many” made him a target for sabotage. At first, he was forced to undergo what one might expect any independent competitor to experience in a mob-run construction business. Initially, Wheeler and a friend were beaten to a pulp by a gang of twenty ruffians, two of which were servants of the Prince of Orange. On another occasion, Sir Robert Honywood whose “business” was to make Wheeler unpopular at court, commanded two Irish halberdiers to assault him. Not long after that, Wheeler had to dash into a moat to avoid another attack on his person by ten men led by the Prince of Orange’s fisherman. Wheeler thought that they were the same criminals who had earlier stolen his machinery and broken them to pieces in the street.
Unfortunately, for Wheeler, who afterwards took refuge in the house of his manservant Robinson—the worst was yet to come. Following an encounter with what could have been papist intriguers (Wheeler calls them “members of the Queen of Englands Trayne”) who attempted to get him to change his religion and fight against Parliament, Wheeler was drugged and thrown into a secret prison:
“I found cause to suspect that the cups wherin I had drunk in their company had been secretly mixed with some veneficall or magicall ingredients, for I found my self strangely driven into fits of Lunacie, and not onely distempered, but also tortured both in body, and mind…but suspecting no plot or treachery…was led into a Dulhouse or Bedlam. As soon as I had entred the chamber Robinson and the other stept suddenly out, and the doore was lockt, and bolted upon me, and I was there left alone inclosed to be treated as a man utterly mad, and raving. The place was solitary, and far from resort of people, and as I had no hopes of any help but by calling out aloud, so my loud calling or hollowing was interpreted as the symptome of my distraction.”
While imprisoned, Wheeler allegedly was psychologically manipulated and physically molested by his own servants as well as by William Boswell’s men. They beat him savagely with “clubs and staves” until he agreed to drink their mind-altering potions. These potions apparently turned Wheeler into a kind of zombie:
“After I had drunk their compositions I was possest after an unheard of manner, but these reasons make me think that what I did and suffered in my fits were not the effects of meer phrenzie, but some diabolicall art, and sorcerie: for first, My senses remained so with me, that I my self sensibly condoled my own condition: and held my self as a slave under those commands, which I would fain have disobeyed, but could not. Secondly, I was never subject to the like ravings before that time, or since. Thirdly, my yard did begin to be drawn up into my belly, my hands, limbes, and whole body was contracted, or benummed, or some way tortured, till I did act, and speak according to the commands which were upon me: the force thereof broke out of my flesh, brought my nails from my fingers, and almost my eyes out of my head…”
He was also subjected to a curious hallucination of a dancing cat, which haunted him until he carried out certain duties:
Throughout Wheeler’s nightmarish imprisonment, during which he was sometimes “forced to eat” his own excrement, his jailers tried unsuccessfully to steal and duplicate his plans. Bizarrely, he was released after nine months, but by that time he had been effectively ruined with significant debts and loss of business. Thus, his testament, which was published in 1644 after Wheeler had returned to England, is a plea for reparations. He was apparently still in business in the 1650s, as evidenced by his letters and a text published in 1651 which lists his skillset.
In fine, Wheeler’s ordeal appears to have involved all the brutal and gory elements of the kind of dark sorcery mentioned above. Nevertheless, it would prove difficult to corroborate his allegations. Wheeler’s case, like the cases of countless individuals and conspiracy theorists who have tried to outdo the so-called elite “powers that be” seems destined to remain little more than a fable. At the very least, it is a reminder that competitors in business may very well have sorcerous intentions.