Not the only, not even the first
Yeah, yeah, yeah, we all know about the Salem witch trials.
Seriously, 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.
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.
- “An Act for the Advancement of Justice, and More Certain Administration Thereof,” §VIII, Chapter 236, 3 St.L. 199, 203 (31 May 1718). ↩
- “An Acte against conjuration Witchcrafte
and dealinge with evill and wicked Spirits,” 1 Jas. I, c.12. ↩
- 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). ↩
- 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). ↩
- Smith, History of Delaware County, Pennsylvania, at 153. ↩
And before that England – 1563 ‘Acte Againste Conjuracons Inchantments and Witchcraftes’. 🙂
For causing injury, using witchcraft to search for missing items or treasure –
‘once in every Quarter of the said Yere, shall in some Market towne, upon the Market Daye or at such tyme as any Fayer shal bee kepte there, stande openly upon the Pillorie by the Space of Syxe Houres, and there shall openly confesse his or her Erroure and Offence’.
Causing death by witchcraft or invoking evil spirits were capital crimes.
The whole law of witchcraft in colonial America was imported from England, Janet — mostly the 1604 statue of James I, building on the earlier Elizabethan statute.
You wrote, “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…”
Both England and New England had held witchcraft trials prior to 1683. John Demos’s Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England is probably the classic work for New England, including transcriptions of a number of cases. One of the cases in Demos’s work involved my ancestor’s sister as one of the accusers; I blogged about it last year, and it’s still one of my most popular posts, which I think shows how much modern interest there is in these topics.
Your ancestor’s case is an interesting variant, Liz: not a witchcraft trial, per se, but rather a defamation case because a neighbor said she was a witch!
Indeed. Defamation cases because of gossip about (or outright accusations about) witchcraft were pretty common in New England then, which I think is interesting in and of itself. After she died her family’s continued accusations led to the same woman being tried as a witch at the top court in Cambridge in 1675. I wish the trial transcript survived so I could find out what happened at the trial that led to the accused’s acquittal!
The Margaret Mattson verdict is supposed to have been framed by John Gibbons (my ancestor) who was, I believe, the jury foreman. He gave the superstitious their chunk of red meat (“the common fame of a witch”) and slid her out from under (“not Guilty in manner and forme as she Shee Stands Indicted”).
According to Yvette Hoitink’s “Dutch Genealogy” blog post for this week, witchcraft cases also occurred in various parts of the Netherlands and Flanders from the 16th through the 17th centuries. There, one possible punishment was (shudder) burning. An interesting rebuttal to an accusation of witchcraft was that the accused person weighed too much to ride on a broom! While she doesn’t say how what the weight limit was, she has a picture of a still-existing scales used to determine whether or not a person could be guilty.
If the accused person was found to be innocent, they could accuse their accuser of slander. She says one reason for the decline in witchcraft trials was the Enlightenment. With interest in science, people wanted logical reasons why, say, their cow no longer gave milk, or a child got sick. Saying that one’s neighbor made a pact with the devil, and was therefore a witch, wasn’t a very scientific reason.
In 1614, well before either the Pennsylvania or Salem cases, two of her ancestors were accused of witchcraft, and brought to trial. While facing their accuser they denied the charge. He claimed he would never have said anything of the sort–unless he was drunk. They seem to have settled, as the accuser paid a fine of 50 gold guilders and some oats. While Hoitink gives the images of the court records, they’re in Dutch, which I don’t read, and she doesn’t provide the specific nature of what her ancestors were supposed to have done, which would have been interesting to know.
Here is the link to Yvette’s post, for anyone interested: http://www.dutchgenealogy.nl/a-reverse-witch-trial-in-winterswijk/
There were plenty of trials to do with witchcraft in Europe in the late medieval and early modern periods. An article about some of England’s most notorious cases is over here. The author notes, “One common misconception is that witch trials belong to the medieval era. In fact, there were no laws against witchcraft in Britain until 1542, when Henry VIII passed an act against witchcraft and conjuration. But this does not mean that witches were not considered a problem in the 15th century…”
I personally particularly like the author’s point, “Note that I’ve used the word ‘persecution’ and not ‘craze’. This was not an episode of mass insanity: witchcraft made perfect sense within the world view of people at the time.” I have talked to a number of people about cases here in New England who have been dubious that people truly believed witchcraft was real, so I think it is a particularly important point to stress.
No question that there were far earlier cases in Europe, and some in the colonies, before Salem.