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Not the only, not even the first

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we all know about the Salem witch trials.

Witch hat halloween poster vintageSeriously, The Legal Genealogist knows tomorrow is Halloween, and everybody goes a little bit Salem-witch-trial crazy around this time of year.

But Massachusetts wasn’t the only place to have laws about witchcraft — and it wasn’t the only place to hold a witch trial.

Enter… Pennsylvania.

Where I am, right now, getting ready to present to the North Hills Genealogists here in Pittsburgh for the 2015 Fall Conference, with Michael J. LeClerc. Today, I’m doing a workshop on conflicting evidence, and Michael’s doing on on genealogical writing. Tomorrow, we go head-to-head with presentations ranging from using old documents to tax lists.

So… about those Pennsylvania witches.

First off, the law. It was adopted as part of “An Act for the Advancement of Justice, and More Certain Administration Thereof,” in 1718, and the provision in question simply provided “That another statute made in the first year of the reign of King James the First, chapter twelfth, entitled ‘An act against conjuration, witchcraft, and dealing with evil and wicked spirits,’ shall be duly put in execution in this province, and of like force and effect, as if the same were [here] repeated and enacted.”1

Not very helpful, is it?

So we have to go to the earlier British law, enacted in 1604, which provided:

That if any pson or persons after the saide Feaste of Saint Michaell the Archangell next comeing, shall use practise or exercsise any Invocation or Conjuration of any evill and spirit, or shall consult covenant with entertaine employ feede or rewarde any evill and wicked Spirit to or for any intent or pupose ; or take any dead man woman or child out of his her or theire grave or any other place where the dead body resteth, or the skin, bone or any other parte of any dead person, to be imployed or used in any manner of Witchecrafte, Sorcerie, Charme or Inchantment ; or shall use practise or exercise any Witchcrafte Sorcerie, Charme or Incantment wherebie any pson shall be killed destroyed wasted consumed pined or lamed in his or her bodie, or any parte therof ; then that everie such Offendor or Offendors theire Ayders Abettors and Counsellors, being of the saide Offences dulie and lawfullie convicted and attainted, shall suffer pains of deathe as a Felon or Felons, and shall loose the priviledge and benefit of Cleargie and Sanctuarie.2

So Massachusetts wasn’t the only place to have laws about witchcraft — and it wasn’t even the first place to hold a witch trial.

That honor belongs to Pennsylvania where, on December 27, 1683, Margaret Mattson — an elderly Swede from Ridley Township, now Delaware County — stood trial before William Penn himself, charged with being a witch. Another woman had also been charged, but Mattson was the only one to go to trial.

The case is reported in detail in an 1862 history of Delaware County:

Henry Drystreet, attested, saith he was tould 20 years ago, that the Prisoner at the Barr was a Witch, and that several cows were bewitcht by her; also that James Saunderling’s mother tould him that she bewitcht her cow, but afterwards said it was a mistake, and that her cow should doe well againe, for it was not her cow but another Persons that should dye.

Charles Ashcom, attested, saith that Anthony’s Wife being asked why she sould her cattle; was because her mother had Bewitcht them, having taken the Witchcraft of Hendrick’s Cattle, and put it on their oxen; she myght keep but noe other Cattle, and also that one night the Daughter of ye Prisoner called him up hastely, and when he came she sayed there was a great Light but just before, and an old woman with a knife in her hand at ye Bedd’s feet, and therefore she cryed out and desired Jno. Symcock to take away his Calves, or Else she would send them to Hell.3

A 1908 account of the trial suggests that, at one point in the trial, Penn asked the woman if she could fly on a broomstick and when she was confused in her answer, he was reported to have said he didn’t know any law that made it illegal.4

There’s no doubt that Penn and his Council carefully controlled the courtroom in this case, and while Penn’s charge to the jury wasn’t recorded, the jury verdict was: “The Jury went forth, and upon their Returne Brought her in Guilty of haveing the Comon fame of a Witch, but not Guilty in manner and forme as she Shee Stands Indicted.”5

For which the woman’s husband then had to post a bond for her good behavior for the next six months.

Witchcraft trials, Pennsylvania style.

Not as big a deal as Salem in one respect… but when it came to getting to the right result? A very big deal indeed.


SOURCES

  1. “An Act for the Advancement of Justice, and More Certain Administration Thereof,” §VIII, Chapter 236, 3 St.L. 199, 203 (31 May 1718).
  2. “An Acte against conjuration Witchcrafte
    and dealinge with evill and wicked Spirits,” 1 Jas. I, c.12.
  3. George Smith, History of Delaware County, Pennsylvania (Philadelphia : Henry B. Ashmead, printer, 1862), 152; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 29 Oct 2015).
  4. Amelia Mott Gummere, Witchcraft and Quakerism: A Study in Social History (Philadelphia: The Biddle Press, 1908), 39; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 29 Oct 2015). See also Joseph S. Kennedy, “Before Salem, a witch inquiry in Pennsylvania,” Philly.com (http://articles.philly.com/ : accessed 29 Oct 2015).
  5. Smith, History of Delaware County, Pennsylvania, at 153.
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