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Illustration by Corey Brickley

I Bought a Witches’ Prison

In 2005, Vanessa Mitchell moved into her dream home, a former medieval jail where England’s witches waited to hang and burn. When paranormal phenomena forced her to flee, she became convinced it was possessed by evil spirits. This is her true story.

St. Osyth is a cursèd little village in the county of Essex, 83 miles east of London, at the edge of the North Sea. The town’s 4,600 souls live in medieval cottages arranged around a 12th Century monastery, and in cheap mobile homes that the British call caravans. St. Osyth’s exact origins remain a mystery, and over the centuries its townsfolk have survived floods, invasions, and monsters both imagined and real. In fact, every page of its wretched history is soused in the supernatural.

The village is named after the granddaughter of England’s last Pagan king. According to legend, Osyth was beheaded by Danish Vikings but managed to walk to the nunnery carrying her severed skull in her hands. In 1171, the village was burned down by a fire-breathing dragon. Then came the witches. During a Satanic panic in 1582, 13 local women stood trial for witchcraft and two swung from the gallows.

In the more peaceful era of 2005, 30-year-old sales executive Vanessa Mitchell arrived in St. Osyth to view a house for sale. Number 14 Colchester Road is a former medieval jail known as “the Cage.” It famously housed the 13 St. Osyth witches, including Ursula Kemp, who was hanged for murdering her neighbors with black magic. “I remembered seeing the plaque outside,” Mitchell told me on a Skype call. “I don’t remember being scared of it.” She had grown up in the village and used to walk past the mustard-colored building on her way to school. “My earliest memories are just being fascinated by the house. I remember being drawn to it,” she said.

Vanessa Mitchell in the Cage. Credit: Peter Lawson, East News

Dark-haired Mitchell, who was single and free-spirited, didn’t want to live in a boring apartment like everyone else. The Cage was different: It had stories to tell. During the 1800s it had been rebuilt in brick and remained a jail until 1908, holding local scofflaws before their trial. In the 1970s a developer turned the cells into a living room and added two bedrooms upstairs with enviable views over the monastery grounds. It was just the kind of quirky home Mitchell desired — and a historical gem. She decided: “I’ve got to buy the house!”

Despite being one of only seven medieval cages left in Britain, the St. Osyth Cage had languished on the market for several months. The owner jumped at Mitchell’s offer of £147,000 ($191,765). “I could see myself living there and one day meeting someone and getting married,” she recalled. “Just like everyone else when they get a new start.”

Mitchell had returned to St. Osyth after 12 years working in the cutthroat timeshare business, selling vacation homes in Tenerife and Scotland. Working abroad had made her fiercely independent but also insulated her from rumors that swirled about the Cage. A middle-aged couple claimed that books flew off their shelves. Tenants broke their leases and fled. Ambulances often idled outside, their blue lights illuminating the ancient pub next door. Inside the King’s Head, drinkers gossiped about a previous owner who had recently hanged himself.

Mitchell heard about the suicide, but was not afraid of spirits. “My Dad never believed in ghosts. End of subject,” Mitchell said, curtly. She had grown up in another ancient house in St. Osyth with abandoned servants’ quarters and floors that groaned in the night. Hidden in the basement were ‘priest holes,’ she claimed, for when the monastery was raided “and the monks would need to escape.” Blood-curdling screams often rang out in the night, but they weren’t evil spirits: Mitchell’s mother was a foster parent who cared for the addicted babies of heroin and crack users.

“I didn’t know about the history of the witches,” Mitchell admitted. She did know that a skeleton believed to be Ursula Kemp had been discovered in unconsecrated land nearby, with iron stakes driven through its arms and legs to prevent the witch from rising and wreaking havoc on the villagers. She also knew that the alleyway behind the Cage was called Coffin Alley, because that was how dead bodies were carried from the jail to their burial sites. For many homebuyers, termites or faulty wiring can be deal-breakers, yet Mitchell seemed to mistake these morbid red flags for quirky historical details that added value to her home. “I was completely unprepared for what was to come,” she said.

Less than four years into her residence, Mitchell claimed her life was destroyed by paranormal activity that confounded investigators, police officers, and the church. She saw objects fly around the kitchen. She was punched, bitten, and thrown to the floor. Mysterious figures floated through her home and attacked her guests. During Mitchell’s ownership, the Cage became “the most talked about active haunting in the country,” according to John Fraser of The Society for Psychical Research. After an investigation, Fraser compared it to 112 Ocean Avenue in New York — the demonic family home in the Amityville Horror.

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“The Cage” at 14 Colchester Road. Credit: Florent Lambert, Home Domus 360

Mitchell couldn’t wait to move in. One afternoon in mid-2005, she and her roommate, Nicole Kirtly, 27, carried boxes up the creaking wooden stairs. They had grown up together in St. Osyth, and were polar opposites: Mitchell was iron-willed and outspoken, while Kirtly describes herself as a blonde ditz. Kirtly was recuperating from cancer treatments and worked casual shifts behind the bar in the King’s Arms. She’d heard all the rumors about the Cage: “There was one family that lived there while I worked in the pub,” Kirtly told me. “And the son kept setting fire to his bedroom. Someone said it was because he was possessed.”

While Kirtly unpacked her belongings, Mitchell plugged in her electric kettle to brew a celebratory cup of tea in her old-world kitchen. As the real estate agent’s listing described, the house retained its old-fashioned charm, with original wooden beams that criss-crossed the walls. When she heard footsteps, Mitchell turned, expecting to find Kirtly. Instead she saw an ominous “black fog” drifting through a door. Mitchell was aghast. She had broken out in a cold sweat. When she peered out the window into Coffin Alley, she watched Kirtly lift another box from the car, and vowed to keep the incident a secret from her sick friend — and paying tenant.

Mitchell showed Kirtly around their new home. Downstairs, the former prison room and ominous wooden cage door were considered original. In the fireplace, Mitchell found an iron chain with a large hook that appeared to be a relic from the building’s prison days. During a spring cleaning, Mitchell sifted through decades of creepy old photographs and documents left behind by tenants.

“I was able to get my hands on the house deed records that go back many generations,” she later wrote in a memoir, Spirits of the Cage. “I discovered that the house has changed hands on average every three-and-a-half years since it was built, with the exception of only two cases. One example being a man who purchased the property for £150 and sold it only a matter of weeks later, for just £100.” The pattern revealed in that document would have deterred many buyers, but even if it had arrived earlier, Mitchell had been struck by a love-blindness often experienced by homebuyers.

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Left: Original front door. Center: The “Prison Room.” Right: The staircase. Credit: Vanessa Mitchell, Florent Lambert

Mitchell found another unsettling document among some papers in the kitchen. “It was a death certificate of the guy that hung himself there, six months before,” she told me. “I remember thinking, what a month to kill yourself, you know, near Halloween.”

Next, Mitchell lifted up an old rug, and screamed. “We had an infestation of thousands and thousands of maggots,” she said. Nicole scrubbed the floor with bleach while Mitchell swept the larvas into the street. They discovered other issues with the house. It was freezing cold even on warm days. Strange drafts wafted the scent of baking bread, pipe smoke, and a sour smell that turned Mitchell’s stomach. Then, one morning not long after she moved in, she heard three loud knocks on the door. On the doorstep Mitchell found a startled boy with spiky hair, wearing a school uniform — not a ghost, but flesh and blood.

“Oh, really sorry!” said Freddie Young, who was 12, “I don’t mean to upset you, but, you know, it’s tradition for me.” Young explained that his grandmother — who he called ‘Nan’ — was a white witch. Nan used her powers for good not evil, he explained. She’d warned him not to walk past the Cage without knocking three times “as a sign of respect to the witches…to ward off the evil.” Mitchell stood in shock as the boy turned and ran away down Coffin Alley.

Despite its strangeness, Mitchell thought her little corner of St. Osyth was magical. “I couldn’t have wished for a better place to be,” she told me. Through her bedroom window she watched stags rutting in the monastery grounds. She drank in the King’s Arms with the locals until the street lights flickered off. At midnight, the village plunged into darkness and it felt like walking through the 1500s. All you could hear was the crackle of fireplaces, as smoke drifted into the bible-black sky.

When Ursula Kemp walked along these same streets 400 years earlier, St. Osyth was a broken town with a desecrated monastery. “It would have felt like the ends of the earth,” said Marion Gibson, Professor of Renaissance and Magical Literatures at the University of Exeter. “It was a society of people who were forced together…a kind of powder keg of festering resentment.” Kemp was likely middle-aged, illiterate, and poor, yet respected as a cunning woman — a type of magical individual who, in exchange for coins or cheese, could cure colds or place the occasional curse. One day in 1582, Grace Thurlowe, a neighbor, called on Kemp to help her sick child. Kemp recited a spell three times: “A good child, how thou art loden.” The boy recovered.

A bitter disagreement erupted over payment. When Thurlowe’s newborn baby fell from her cot and snapped her neck, she accused Kemp of causing the death by witchcraft. These accusations were rife in Essex, where the poor sometimes faked bewitchment to receive money given in pity, and cunning folk interfered in local disputes. back then, courts tried individuals for crimes associated with their witchcraft rather than for witchcraft itself, and nobody in Essex was above suspicion. Husbands accused wives. Children accused their mothers. Grace alerted her employer and local magistrate, Lord Bryan Darcy, who arrested Kemp and threw her in the Cage. Darcy’s father had been “bewitched to death,” authorities believed. This inspired his crusade against what he called: “Sorcerers, wizzardes…witches, wise women.”

By the summer of 2005, Vanessa Mitchell had settled into the Cage and discovered a tremendous sense of freedom. She had found a new job selling caravans at a nearby vacation park. There, her charming smile and well-honed sales pitch cast a spell over the older customers. “I was earning six, seven grand a month on commission,” she told me. With Kirtly helping to pay her mortgage, Mitchell had never felt wealthier.

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Nicole Kirtly and Vanessa Mitchell in the Cage. Credit: Vanessa Mitchell

Kirtly stayed home while Mitchell went to work. On weekends they howled along to Oasis records and drank wine. It wasn’t the settling down that Mitchell had imagined, but it was bliss. Then, strange things started to happen. Both women saw tiny bright lights floating through the house. “Things would just disappear and turn up in bizarre places,” Kirtly told me. “As you walked through the door, you had a feeling as if, like, you’re trying to wade through jelly.” Sometimes, at night, the heavy latch on Kirtly’s bedroom door rattled, as if someone was trying to break in.

Freddie Young became a frequent guest. “Some days I’d knock and we’d chat and catch up about things,” he said. Young told Mitchell he lived with his grandparents in the old bakery. It had once burned down in a fire, he said, and Nan often saw the ghosts of the baker’s three daughters. Grandad spent his days drinking in the King’s Head, which is how Young found out about the witches. He was sitting outside the pub when he saw an old woman in the Cage’s window. Nan gave him a lecture about the afterlife. His grandmother wasn’t a witch with “a freaky-deaky pointy hat and a cauldron,” Young explained. “But she always had some kind of lotion or potion on the go.” Nan always steered clear of the Cage when she flew through the village on her mobility scooter.

That October, Mitchell and Kirtly decided to throw a Halloween party at the Cage. They both dressed like stereotypical, if sexy, witches. “Stripy tights, pointy hats…little short dresses,” recalled Kirtly. Hours before the guests arrived, they were applying black lipstick when they heard a huge crash downstairs.

“What’re you doing?” Mitchell shouted down.

Kirtly appeared from her bedroom.

“What are you telling me off for? I haven’t done anything!”

The two witches looked at each other but said nothing. Then they crept down the stairs. They felt a presence in the house, but no one was there.

In the days following Halloween, the energy in the home completely changed. “The TV [volume] was going up and down, it was just ridiculous,” said Mitchell. Fridge magnets flew across the room. Kirtly saw a soda can slide across the kitchen table on its own. The old chain — that Mitchell believed dated to the jailhouse days — had started to swing violently at night, and the door to the hallway slammed shut with a bang. Then, at night, Mitchell started to hear the disembodied voices of infants, just like her mother’s heroin babies.

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Photographs seen in the Cage. Credit: Vanessa Mitchell

Soon after, Mitchell and Kirtly marched over to the village church and asked to see the vicar. Both women recall a meeting with Rev. Martin Flowerdew, who Kirtly described as a “trendy vicar.” Beloved Rev. Flowerdew, 50, wore a tidy beard and a controversial earring, and was fascinated with the archaeology of St. Osyth. He agreed to visit the Cage, Mitchell said. (Rev. Flowerdew declined to comment for this story.)

“The vicar walked in, and he sat down in the front room and we had a really long chat,” Mitchell recalled. Kirtly had gone out for the day, and when Mitchell gave the vicar the tour, the Cage was eerily silent. “He started getting his robes and his holy water out and everything, and I said, ‘is this common?’”

“I’m going to tell you this,” Mitchell remembers the Vicar saying. “‘I’ve been in lots of parishes…but never since I’ve come to the parish in St. Osyth have I had so many people coming to me in private, and coming to me in church, saying I need you to come to bless the house, I’ve got a haunted house.’ I can tell you of at least four houses up this road I’ve been into. I’m not going to tell you what houses they are, because that’s private.’”

The vicar recited some prayers, Mitchell recalled. Then they took a second walk around the house. Everything was quiet until they reached the upstairs bathroom. Both the bathtub faucets were gushing water.

“I told you!” Mitchell cried. “I told you!”

She said the vicar agreed there was something not right about the house. “He said ‘I can feel it…if you have any more problems, call me.’”

“Of course it didn’t change anything in the house,” Mitchell said. She never called the vicar back.

Despite the horrors at home, things were looking up for Mitchell’s love life. While she was selling caravans in nearby Seawick one day, a customer arrived from London with a friend, named Jay. “He was very handsome, very funny…I fell for him,” Mitchell admitted. Soon Jay was living in the Cage. “He didn’t believe in ghosts or anything like that at all,” she said. “And I remember we were sitting in bed one evening watching TV, and he had a Coke can by the side of his bed, and it literally flew off and smashed on the other side of the room.”

During a whirlwind romance, they decided to get married in Las Vegas, but Mitchell got cold feet. What if she was jumping into something that would become a nightmare, like her current real estate investment? “I cancelled it a few days before. He wasn’t the right person,” she said. They stayed in touch, but Mitchell was sleeping alone again. “I was sleepwalking,” she recalled. “Same time every night…I ended up waking up every night in the hall. By the hanging place where [the previous owner] had hung himself,” she said. It felt like the house was goading her. She’d hear voices in her head that whispered: Kill yourself, kill yourself, kill yourself.

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Mitchell was relieved when Kirtly’s boyfriend Jim moved into the Cage. “He didn’t believe in ghosts or the paranormal,” Mitchell wrote, but after several months in the Cage he “flatly refused to be left alone inside the house.” The three roommates made a pact: “Under no circumstances would we leave any one of us alone inside the old prison, for any reason at all. We began to plan our lives and daily schedules around that single, unbreakable rule.” But in October of 2006, Kirtly told Mitchell that she and Jim were moving out. They were expecting a baby. “I couldn’t blame them,” Mitchell recalled. The Cage was no place for children. By then, she was slowly accepting that it might not be a place for any living being.

To avoid being alone, Mitchell filled the Cage with visitors. One afternoon, she invited Kirsty Williams and her husband Neil for drinks. Neil, who was serving in the British Army, was the first to see the blood. Twenty or thirty droplets of deep red blood splattered the floor, as if dropped from a pipette, or a bleeding nose. Williams told me: “I’m a nurse. I work in cancer, in hematology. I definitely knew that was blood, but couldn’t explain it…it wasn’t there when we arrived.”

Everyone panicked as Mitchell searched for a credible explanation: “The first thing we’re thinking is shit, somebody has a door open, or a window open, and a cat’s come in that’s injured.” Maybe it was one of the crows that often flew inside the Cage and smashed against its windows trying to escape. But they found nothing. Mitchell took it as a warning.

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Crows often flew into the Cage and smashed into the windows. Credit: Vanessa Mitchell

Mitchell’s friends started to feel uneasy about visiting the Cage. “There was another incident,” Williams told me. “Vanessa felt what she described as something, or somebody, biting her ear!”

“I just absolutely screamed!” Mitchell recalled.

After two years in the Cage, Mitchell had given up searching for rational explanations for the strange activity. Cell phone towers, electromagnetic fields, and practical jokers were no longer feasible. She had come to terms with living alongside the spirit of “one or more witches.”

Then, in the summer of 2007, Mitchell felt unwell.

“I kept on going back to the doctor and he kept on giving me loads and loads of tablets. He thought I had pelvic inflammatory disorder,” she told me. At the hospital, a nurse smeared cold gel onto her stomach, and applied an ultrasound wand. The nurse saw the issue: “You’ve got a five-and-a-half-month-old baby in there.”

Mitchell screamed!

She refused to look at the screen. Being a single parent was not in her plans. But raising a child in the Cage was impossible. “I knew that a baby’s never going to be safe in that house,” she recalled. A blind panic rose inside Mitchell. I can’t even cope with this house alone, she thought. How the hell can I do this?

Back in 1582, single mother Ursula Kemp sat in the Cage alone and stewed. She had been separated from her eight-year-old son, Thomas Rabbet, and faced accusations that could send her to the gallows. Then, Lord Darcy offered leniency if she confessed to the charges. She had no choice, said Historian Marion Gibson. “Imagine if you’re a poor village woman, and the big man in authority comes down from the big house and says, ‘now, tell me about how you’re a witch.’” Darcy transported Kemp sixteen miles by wooden cart to stand trial in nearby Chelmsford. Meanwhile, he started to turn the village and her family against her.

During a chaotic trial, Kemp’s brother Lawrence accused her of bewitching his wife, who “immediately gasped and died.” Thomas, her son, told the court about his mother’s “familiars,” four imps, two cats, one sheep, and a toad that sucked her blood. A neighbor, Annis Letherdall, accused Kemp of sickening her child. The evidence was clear, Letherdall announced. When she carried her baby past Kemp’s house, he screamed.

Eager for the court’s mercy, a sobbing Kemp dropped to her knees and confessed. She also accused 12 other St. Osyth women of witchcraft. All were dragged to court, but two were not indicted, two were discharged, four were acquitted, and four were found guilty but reprieved. Kemp was betrayed. She was sentenced to death alongside another accused witch named Elizabeth Bennet. They were likely paraded through the town and hanged before a cheering crowd.

England learned little from the St. Osyth witch trials. Parliament later passed the Witchcraft Statute of 1604, officially ruling witchcraft as a crime in itself, punishable by death. Vigilantes searched the country for witches and murdered them for cash. In 1645, a failing solicitor named Matthew Hopkins appointed himself England’s ‘Witchfinder General.’ Based in Manningtree, a five-minute gallop from St. Osyth, Hopkins killed an estimated 230 women. Most, like Kemp, were buried in unconsecrated land with their bodies pointing north-south. The Essex witch trials echoed through time, said Gibson: “Salem isn’t in Essex County for no reason. These [American] communities were seeded by the communities back at home in Essex, and they took their beliefs with them, and they replicated the whole thing in the New World.”

In 1921, a St. Osyth man was digging in his backyard on Mill Street when he discovered two skeletons. Charles Brooker declared them witches and charged tourists sixpence to peer into their grave. This enterprise lasted until 1932, when an unexplained fire engulfed Brooker’s home, and a fireman fell into his witch pit. Fearing a curse, locals reburied the bones, but they were eventually sold to England’s Museum of Witchcraft, and later to an eccentric artist named Robert Lenkiewicz. After Lenkiewicz died in 2002, a British documentarian named John Worland petitioned his estate to rebury the bones in St. Osyth, where they belonged. In Worland’s film, The Witch Who Wouldn’t Stay Buried, solicitor Peter Walmsley, a solemn executor of the Lenkiewicz estate, admitted that strange phenomena followed the bones. “Things have tipped over,” he said. “Windows have closed themselves, which would have been rusted open.”

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Tourists paid sixpence to view Ursula Kemp’s skeleton. Credit: John Worland

By September of 2007, different troubles were bubbling in the UK. There were signs of a global recession brewing, and British banks had started going bust. St. Osyth residents panicked. “People lost their houses here, my mortgage doubled literally overnight,” Mitchell recalled. Due to her variable rate mortgage, her payment increased to £900 ($1,175). “I just got bit by bit into debt,” she said. Without Nicole’s rent, Mitchell worried about supporting a baby.

As a recession loomed, fewer customers bought caravans. Sometimes Mitchell slept in a caravan at work to save gas money driving home. A deep depression gripped her. “I remember just being like a robot at work,” she recalled. Her commission evaporated.

At home, the attacks seemed to increase as her stomach grew. Mitchell recalled the spirits becoming violent, too. “I was looking in the mirror, and all of a sudden, I felt two hands shove me, and I hit the floor, and I fell into the spare room. If I were to fall the other way I’d have gone straight down those stairs,” she said. Mitchell lay on the floor, scared of going into labor. If I move an inch, she thought, I’m gonna be in trouble.

As her due date neared, Mitchell asked a plumber to install a new bathroom. He ran terrified from the house after hearing heavy footsteps, she said. A friend tasked with repairing an electrical fault in the Cage told Mitchell that ‘a force’ tried to push him down the stairs.

Only Freddie Young, now a chatty teenager, wanted to spend time at the Cage, much to Nan’s dismay. “She cast some kind of protection thing on me,” Young said. But when he arrived at the Cage, something happened that chilled his bones. “As I walked in, clear as day in my ear hole, a man said to me: ‘That shit won’t work here!’”

Young spun around. There was no one there.

The man soon presented himself, Mitchell said. “I’m just watching TV and I’ve seen this man, but I could only see him from the waist up. And he was gliding very, very slowly, looking at me, gliding past the beams. I saw him so clearly. He even had, you know, like laughter lines. He had black spiky hair. And he had old fashioned clothes on. But I couldn’t see him from the legs down.” Mitchell sensed he could have been a jailor.

On Christmas Eve of 2007, Mitchell gave birth to her first child, Jesse. She took him home to the Cage, carefully avoiding the prison room. Mitchell went straight back to selling caravans. “Work was impossible,” she said, “because I wasn’t sleeping at night.” A new sales manager had joined the company, and for the first time in her career Mitchell felt bullied. “He stopped me from being able to go out on the show ground to pick up business. So I basically stopped making money,” she recalled. Every night she drove home to her hell house, where she had reluctantly become the latest in a long line of terrified owners. “Living inside the Cage was grueling,” she wrote about that time. “The longest slog of my life. It drove me to the brink of exhaustion and nervous breakdown.”

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Baby Jesse only slept in Mitchell’s bedroom, in the modern part of the building. She was angry that her life had been reduced to a small room. One night, she awoke to the sound of footsteps pounding up the stairs with a boom-boom-boom! The metal latches crashed against the door, as if someone was about to burst in. “It was so violent and so quick,” she recalled. “And my heart was bursting out of my chest.” And then nothing. Mitchell became a nervous wreck as the attacks continued night and day. “I was brushing my teeth, and I was hit on the bum. Early morning, getting ready for work. This hit was so hard and aggressive.”

In desperation, Mitchell confided in friends and colleagues. A manager at the caravan park had a daughter who could help. Wendy was a local police detective with an interest in the supernatural — she now runs a Facebook page called Horrible Haunted History. Wendy told me she does not use her psychic powers for police work, and asked to be referred to by her first name only, as she still works for the police. “I didn’t realize how bad it was,” Wendy said, recalling the day Mitchell begged her for help.

“The police won’t do anything, Vanessa,” Wendy told her. “You’re talking about something people don’t understand.”

Wendy agreed to visit the Cage. She didn’t last long. “Almost immediately after I walked over the threshold — banging headache. It felt like somebody was trying to crush my skull. And that old cliché, I felt like I’m being watched. I had a really bad feeling like something terrible was about to happen,” she said.

Late one night, three loud knocks pounded the front door. Young burst in. He’d had a blazing argument with his grandmother. “Granddad was dying,” he recalled. “Nan was carrying on, screaming, crying, and it was all a bit mad.” So he ran down to the Cage. He knew it was midnight because the street lights had flicked off. Mitchell said he could stay, but there was only the sofa downstairs. In the prison room.

“I’ve managed to fall asleep,” Young told me. “It was very, very dark. And I kept brushing my face. It felt like there was something on it, like a spider…and I opened my eyes in the end. And I looked down. And next to me — and I shit you not — there’s, there’s a woman, and she’s on her knees, and she’s stroking my head and brushing my hair!”

Terror froze him. “I can’t scream,” he said. “I can’t breathe, I can’t do anything.” Eventually the woman vanished. Young kept his eyes open until sunrise, then fled.

Mitchell now slept while holding Jesse close in bed, which she knew was dangerous. “That was just the situation I was in,” she explained. The one time she put him down for a second, mysterious forces threw him off the bed and onto some drinks she kept on the floor. “Lord have mercy, the glasses didn’t break,” she told me. Mitchell wanted out before the haunting claimed her sanity. “When I finally came to realize this was not a fight I was going to win, I began to think seriously about an escape plan,” she wrote.

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Illustration: Corey Brickley

It was now February of 2008, and a winter chill swept across Essex. At nightfall Mitchell found herself in the street, unable to summon the courage to go inside. She tucked baby Jesse inside her coat to protect him from the cold. She thought to herself: What’re you gonna do? You have to go in, his stuff’s in there. You’ve got work in the morning. “And the snow started falling on his little head,” she recalled. If you don’t go in, you’re gonna freeze anyway. Then she took a deep breath and pushed open the ancient door.

Tired and weary, Mitchell broke her own rules. With Jesse asleep, she crept downstairs to press some clothes for the morning. Alone in the prison room, she pushed an electric iron across a blouse. Just then, a jaunty, electronic song filled the room. She looked down at her feet and saw several toys had come to life. “Jesse’s Thomas the Tank Engines, four or five of them all at once, started chugging around my feet,” she said.

“Jesse!” She screamed, climbing the stairs two at a time.

“There was a bloke standing at the top of the stairs,” she recalled. Not a burglar, but a ghostly figure standing between her and Jesse. Mitchell had no choice but to dash past the apparition to grab her son. As she cradled her baby, she broke down in tears. “I’d rather be homeless,” she decided. “I’m not living there because it’s unlivable.”

Mitchell put the Cage on the market, naïvely hoping for a quick sale. Not a soul was interested. Who would be? After a few agonizing months, she moved in with a friend nearby. “I felt pissed off that I had to leave because it was my house, and I knew it was going to put me in more financial trouble,” she said. At the end of that long, harrowing summer of 2008, Mitchell removed the last of her furniture from the Cage — by daylight, and with the help of friends. When the driver pulled the van up outside, he saw in a bedroom window the shadowy figure of a woman.

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Mitchell called moving out “pure relief.” It was also the start of more problems. She tried to rent the Cage to another old friend from the village, who called on a psychic to clear the house. As soon as the woman saw the Cage, she refused to enter. That tenant moved out after four months, then a young couple with a baby lasted half that time. When Mitchell sought help from the church, she learned that the vicar had moved to another parish, 200 miles away. Rev. Flowerdew told a local newspaper that he had suffered a nervous breakdown after a block of concrete crashed through his car windshield.

With no tenants, Mitchell faced bankruptcy, and needed answers. In 2010, she wrote to The Society for Psychical Research, a scientific organization established in 1882 to examine claims of psychic and paranormal phenomena. John Fraser of the SPR’s Spontaneous Cases Committee visited the Cage and conducted interviews with Mitchell, her friends, and former residents.

“I think the Cage is a good case, because similar things have happened to a lot of people,” Fraser told me, comparing it to history’s famous poltergeist cases. “The one problem with the Amityville case is you have only the family as evidence, which is a very, very narrow evidence base.” The fact that Mitchell’s witnesses are reputable professionals — Williams is a cancer nurse, and Young is now a school teacher — made the case more reputable to Fraser. In his book Poltergeist! Fraser spoke to other paranormal investigators who Vanessa allowed to inspect the Cage.

One investigator had left the house with angry red marks on her legs. “The blistering was later examined by a doctor and diagnosed as being burn marks,” wrote Fraser. Kim Sondergaard, of a Danish Parapsychology group, told Fraser he was prodded and bruised on his leg. “[I was] standing in the courtyard… then I broke down… I started to cry uncontrollably,” he told Fraser in a recorded testimony.

Word of a serious paranormal investigation soon reached England’s amateur ghost hunters, who descended on St. Osyth carrying spirit boxes, ouija boards, and night vision cameras. Seizing an opportunity, Mitchell advertised the Cage as a haunted holiday home, and leased it to companies who charged visitors £35 ($45) to attend ghost hunts. The British tabloids dispatched reporters from the Sun, Daily Mail, and Daily Express, who called the Cage “the most haunted house in Britain.” A retired police officer claimed to have snapped a photograph of four ghosts carrying a dead witch in Coffin Alley. Others captured witch-like faces and even a ‘Satanic goat.’ (“It was an upside down parka coat,” Fraser told me.)

During this media circus, some suggested that Mitchell had embellished her paranormal experiences. “She has made quite a lot of money,” said Worland, the documentarian. Of the Cage’s supernatural activity, he added: “I think it’s a load of bollocks.” Mitchell doesn’t care. The women of St. Osyth are no strangers to accusations.

They say falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it. In 2012, Worland asked Archaeologist Jacqueline McKinley to inspect the St. Osyth skeleton. She concluded that the person was not Ursula Kemp, but a male. And the iron spikes were “recent” additions designed to enhance the witch story. In the Clacton and Frinton Gazette, Charles Brooker’s grandson, Paul, made a confession: “Grandad put the nails there. He embellished things.”

On April 15, 2012, Worland achieved his mission: The bones were reburied in unconsecrated land in St. Osyth, in a ceremony witnessed by Pagan and Christian representatives. It didn’t stop the curse of St. Osyth. Regulars abandoned the King’s Arms, and the owner shut its doors. Then on July 26, 2016, a car driving along Colchester Road mysteriously crashed into the Cage. The driver couldn’t explain how he lost control of the BMW. Mitchell had another son in 2016, but her relationship with his father ended too. Over the next three years, the Cage and the King’s Arms lay silent, apart from the occasional slamming door, or rattling chains, or the cries of infants echoing in the night. So the rumors went.

Then, last year, Mitchell found a new realtor who staged the property with broomsticks and books about the unexplained. On January 7, 2020, she accepted an offer of £224,000 ($300,000). The sale made international news, but after fees, taxes, and interest, Mitchell cannot calculate the extent of her losses. All she gained was a valuable lesson in hardship. “I’d learned about being terrified of something you can’t do anything about,” she told me. “I can deal with anything now.”

After some legal delays, the new owner of the Cage plans to move in by December. Mitchell felt it was her duty to warn her. The buyer is a divorcée who hoped to make a new start in St Osyth. The woman had no time for stories of the supernatural, Mitchell said.

“She doesn’t believe in ghosts at all.”

Credits

Words: Jeff Maysh
Illustrations: Corey Brickley
Lettering: Joanna Lisowiec
Editor: Aaron Gilbreath

More by Jeff Maysh:

Written by

Crime journalist in Los Angeles.

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