The Last Exorcism

“Lo, Lukins comes, and with him comes a train
Of Parsons famous for a lack of brain ;
With owl-like faces, and with raven coats,
Their solemn step their solemn task denotes,
By exorcising, prayers and rebukings,

To drive seven sturdy devils out of Lukins.”

Bristol, England  is famous for lots of things. Its’ old enough to have accumulated plenty of stories, but the following is claimed to have been the last genuine (?) exorcism in the country. Enjoy!

One of the most disputed events in the history of the city took place on 13 June 1788 when an exorcism was carried out in Temple church. It was led by the vicar of Temple, Rev Easterbrook, a man committed to the welfare of the poor and with a strong sympathy for Wesley’s teachings, and 6 Wesleyan ministers.
George Lukins was from Yatton, Somerset, about 20 miles to the south of the city, and attention had been drawn to him in May by a parishioner of Temple parish whose husband came from Yatton, Mrs Sarah Barber. She had witnessed daily fits, making inhuman sounding noises, cursing and swearing. She and her husband had known him from childhood to have been a cheerful child but had suffered fits for 18 years and become under the care of an eminent surgeon Dr Smith of Wrington and others.  A large number of witness statements were later collected claiming his good character, and his subsequent strange behaviour, which include impersonating various animals, including a dog, and he often walked about on all fours, barking and curling up on he floor to sleep by the fire.

The Lukins family had lived in Yatton for several centuries, several of whom had repaired the local church. George had clearly been having problems for some time, as the parish went to the extraordinary effort of sending him to Saint George’s Hospital in London for treatment, when he was paid 15s. Unfortunately their records are long lost.  But a ‘WRW of Wrington’ claimed he was there for 20 weeks, ie from 3 May 1775 to 8 October before being discharged as incurable.  It later became known that the author of this was Rev Wake, whose late uncle had been vicar of nearby Backwell and had gone to great lengths to help Lukins. He had also been treated by 2 surgeons Mr James of Wrington and Mr Short of Bristol who had declared him to suffer a grievous hypochondriack disorder.” Appaently Mr Whitchurch, surgeon of Backwell had tried treating him with laudanum, but this failed to put either the devils or him to sleep.

Locals increasingly thought Lukins to be bewitched. He claimed to be possessed of 7 devils, so needed 7 clergymen to pray for him, but as these could not be found locally, she asked Rev Easterbrook for help.
As Easterbrook offered to help, but “little expecting that an attention to such a pitiable case would have produced such a torrent of opposition, illiberal abuse upon the parties concerned in his relief”  Easterbrook was too busy to go to Yatton, Lukins came to Bristol on 7 June where he stayed on Redcliffe St where his behaviour horrified locals with swearing, cursing and shouting. Easterbrook approaches several sympathetic local clerics, Rev Symes of St Werburghs, Dr Robins of the Cathedral and Mr Brown of Portishead, all of whom recognised the case as a supernatural affliction but refused to become involved. So he turned to John Wesley, whose teachings he had much sympathy for and who was interested in the supernatural. Wesley declined to become involved, but 6 others agreed.

One of the Wesleyan ministers was Mr John Valton who wrote: “I personally knew him; a youth about 18, short in stature, and meagre in aspect. He had frequent fits or paroxysms, and was sometimes affected like the Pythonesses, or rather like the furies, mentioned often by Herodotus and ancient writers. He was cruelly distorted, and uttered foul language; but was often heard to say,, that he should be delivered, if 7 ministers should pray with him.”

The plan was to have a quiet meeting in the vestry of Temple church, but the event was published in the papers from ‘WRW of Wrington ‘ describing Lukins’ problem, that “he could not hear any virtuous or religious expression used without pain and horror” and that he had become so emaciated and exhausted that he was unable to work. But many people turned up and crowded round the church, overheard much of what went on and reports were soon published and distributed on the streets of Bristol, Bath and London.
Those present were the Wesleyan Ministers Messrs John Broadbent, John Valton, Jeremiah Brettle, Benjamin Rhodes, T MacGeary and William Hunt, and a group of ‘serious persons’ Nathanial Gifford Esq, J Westcote, J Lard, T Delve, T Dewe, Rees, Deverel, Tucker & Gwyer

Interest was so great a pamphlet was produced by Easterbrook recording events. At 11 am Lukins began singing in a high voice, and was agitated in a different way to usual. He spoke in a deep voice which criticised him for being silly and that his scheme would not work. After blaspheming, threats and summoning his servants a female voice was heard with more threats and singing something like a love song. Other voices engaged in a dialogue, then a deeper voice was heard, boasting of his powers and singing something like a hunting song; Lukins became so tormented, laughing and barking that 2 men had to hold him down He continued to summon demons, then sang a Te Deum to the devil, praising him and acknowledging him as supreme governor. The clerics replied with prayers and asked why the devil was tormenting Lukins, the reply was “that I may show my power among men”

At the end of the 2 hour struggle, Lukins normal voice returned, he became calm, praised god for his deliverance and got on his knees to say the Lord’s Prayer. He thanked all present, and never again showed any signs of his problems.

A fierce battle then broke out between Lukins’ numerous friends and supporters, many of whom visited him in Bristol to check on his progress and to vouch for his character, and a local surgeon, Mr Norman. The Rev Thomas McGeary, Principal of the Kingswood School was one of the exorcists and had been cynical of the case from the outset, but when he asked the illiterate Lukins a question in Latin and received a Latin reply, was won over, as ere the others present.

John Latimer records in his famous journal [now virtually a bible for history geeks like me] that Norman accused Lukins of being a clever ventriloquist, who had begun his imposture in 1770 … ‘his latest and most impudent fraud was attributed to a natural fondness for mystification, stimulated by the simplicity of his dupes.  Norman declared he moved to Yatton in 1770 and had the same lodgings as Lukins. He claimed that Lukins had been a good singer and mimic, and in 1769/70 Lukins became drunk whilst out mumming, fell down, and a few days later pretended he was hurt by a dog. His fits soon began, but he retained power of speech, swallowing etc, and other symptoms which indicated his fits were not real. Norman treated him roughly and threatened him, bled him and made him vomit, then saw his symptoms disappear. He claimed that whilst in London, physicians asked to be summoned when he had fits, but a few mild attacks were only witnessed by their house surgeon. none occurred the whole of his stay.

After his return to Yatton, his fits returned, so his brother put him into lodgings. Norman also claims that, no matter how horrific the fits were, he never hurt himself. Though many recorded his emaciated state, Norman claimed he looked well, capable of walking 20-30 miles in 7-8 hours, carrying pitchers of Barm etc and never spilled them. He also managed to sit through church services without attacks, ‘demons are very obliging’. He also questioned if the fits were so bad, why did so many people leave him with children?
“That it is a dishonour to the community of which you ought to be the defender, needs no great ingenuity to point out; for if the Almighty does not willingly afflict, nor chastise the children of men, it is certainly a dishonour to any church for its ministers to countenance the idea, that he permits pretended witches or daemons to torment them at their pleasure. “ He condemns Easterbrook’s Wesleyan colleagues as not having been ordained, “These are the people who, to use the expressions of their followers, have performed the first miracle since the time of our saviour: and these are the people whom, in this pious fraud you countenance ad support –ANTIFANATIC July 9 1788”

There is a tragic irony in an account in William Dyer’s Diary of 30 September 1788 in which he claims one of surgeon Norman’s brothers stabbed the other to death, claiming this to be proof of demonic possession.

Nichols and Taylor, writing about a century later, claimed “…whether Lukins was epileptic, imposter or demoniac, it appears on good authority that from that hour the fits left him, and he led a sober Christian life thenceforth, being, in 1798, a respected member of the Wesleyan society in Bristol.”  John Valton talks of him being employed by Mr R Edwards and others as a bill sticker, which does not sound like full time employment.

Unfortunately this is not quite such a happy ending, as the parish records note a further 10s 6d ‘temporary relief’ in 1788, so he had returned to Yatton. He was promised 9s in future “provided he goes to Mr Say and attends him in any kind of work he can do, but George Lukins has refused to do it, saying he shall go to Bristol and not come back till he is forced and that shall not be till Bedminster parish brings him home with an order.” This seems to be saying he was still causing problems, and had at some time been sent home from Bristol as they were not responsible for his welfare, this being the role of his local parish only.

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6 thoughts on “The Last Exorcism

    • I think 7 is one of those magical numbers that just seem to keep coming up. Strange because I always thought the big one was the trinity. I love this story because I don’t really know what was going on. I’m just impressed by how much effort was put into trying to fix him.

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    • I’m really not sure. there are so many takes on what was going on here. Maybe he had learning difficulties. Maybe he was just loneley and enjoyed the attention this brought him.

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