The Enduring Legend of the Changeling |

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The Enduring Legend of the Changeling


Stuart Vyse is a psychologist and author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, which won the William James Book Award of the American Psychological Association. He is a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

In March 1863, a New York City coroner held an inquest on the death of a three-year-old child living on Eighty-Third Street between Eleventh and Twelfth Avenues. As reported in the New York Times, Mary Nell, the child’s mother, had been told by a previous tenant that there were fairies about in the house where she lived, and growing up in Ireland she had learned this was a sign that a child in the household had been exchanged for a fairy child.1 The prescribed test for a suspected changeling was to heat the blade of a shovel until it was red hot and have the child sit on it. If a fairy child had been substituted for the true child, it would fly away. Mary Nell performed this test on her child (gender not specified) without her husband’s knowledge, and the resulting burns were so severe that the child died a week later. Mr. Nell testified that “for some time past he had occasionally thought his wife was insane, she acted so strangely.” The coroner decided to hold the mother in custody until the question of her sanity could be determined.

The devil steals a baby and leaves a changeling behind. Detail of The Legend of St. Stephen by Martino di Bartolomeo, early fifteenth century.

There are few events in life more anxiously anticipated than the birth of a child. The arrival of a healthy baby brings the prospect of happy years ahead and the fulfillment of many parental dreams. But childbirth has never been an easy passage. Prior to the twentieth century, both maternal and infant death were common, and after they arrived, children frequently succumbed to disease. Half of Martha Washington’s four children lived to the age of five, and only one of Mary Todd Lincoln’s four children achieved the age of twenty. Although in much of the world today maternal and infant mortality are less of a problem than they once were, many children continue to be born with abnormalities and developmental problems that profoundly alter their parents’ expectations.

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