As I prepare my blogpost on Morality in our society (the newest essay in my Human Behavior analysis series), I wanted to share some more findings from my research into the witch trials in early colonized America.
For the time being, I'm taking a little break from Salem and focusing in on my own home state of Pennsylvania. I feel that doing so will help with understanding the trials of Salem a little more, especially when I delve into Cotton Mather's biography.
I am also calling this an introduction to my blogpost on Morality because these are things I want you all to consider when going into reading that particular essay.
As I stated in one of my last postings, I started reading Thomas White's Witches of Pennsylvania: Occult History and Lore. Now another reason for my wanting to focus on Pennsylvania for the time being is that the state's history with witch trials may surprise some. In one of my first postings on my research into the witch trials, I stated how many - when imagining witch trials in the early colony - think of these simpletons with their pitchforks, shovels, and torches, screaming "burn the witch" as they drag the helpless accused woman from her home and straight to the stake she is to be burned at. It is also often stated that if a woman 'dared speak her mind' or 'mouth off' she was immediately presumed a witch. Well...while that may not be completely historically inaccurate, neither of those were actually the cases in many instances. In fact, as I also said in a previous post, several men were also accused, tried, convicted and executed of witchcraft. Now I hear some say "but, but, but...there were still more women executed then men!" True. However, in getting back to Salem for a brief minute, men weren't completely excluded from facing even death for supposedly practicing witchcraft. No one within the Salem magistrate said "Oh...John Proctor...he has a penis, right? Damn! Our bad. He's a man. Acquit him." Nope. In fact, on the day of Proctor's execution, the men outnumbered the women at the gallows as Proctor was executed with three accused male "witches" (George Burroughs, John Willard, and George Jacobs, Sr.) and one woman (Martha Carrier). So no, men were not immune to witch accusations or executions.
As I also stated in a previous post, the more popular method of executing a witch in the American colonies was hanging and not burning (the latter was the more chosen method of execution in Europe). And being accused of witchcraft didn't automatically mean you were screwed. Some of those accused were acquitted, including Mary Parsons, whom I portrayed in a Halloween event at the Depreciation Lands Museum. She and her husband were also able to sue her main accuser, Sarah Bridgman, for slander.
Yes, while Salem was definitely among the more extreme cases of witchcraft accusations and trials, how did other states - like Pennsylvania - handle them?
Pennsylvania was founded in the 17th century, founded by William Penn. William Penn, according to several biographies and sites dedicated to him, was a Quaker and an early advocate for democracy and religious freedom. He had also developed good relationships with the local Native American tribes and under his direction, the city of Philadelphia was planned and developed. He also presided over Pennsylvania's first and only witch trial.
In February of 1684, Margaret Mattson and her neighbor, Yethro Hendrickson, stood before Penn as accused witches (the first ones to be accused of such a crime in the English colony). According to Thomas White's book, official record of the trial is sparse. But according to legend, Penn asked of Mattson if she ever rode through the air on a broomstick. Being from Sweden and only able to speak limited English, she didn't understand the question but answered yes. Penn then replied by asserting that there is no such law against riding a broomstick through the air.
Now there is no official record of that exchange, so who knows if that even happened. But what is available is quite telling. According White's book, when the jury deliberated and returned with their verdict, Mattson was found guilty of "having the common fame of being a witch, but not guilty in the manner and form she stands indicted." She was fined fifty pounds and released back to her husband. But despite her found innocence, Mattson is known to this day as the Witch of Ridley Creek.
Now this particular trial occurred several years prior to the events at Salem, though having come from Europe, Penn and the jurors were well aware of the long history Europe had with witch hysteria. They wanted to prevent such hysteria within the colonies. As Quakers, they held more pacifist views and were also more tolerant toward other religious practices, faiths, races, and ethnicities. With their belief system, there was no way that they could, in good conscience, convict a person based on such flimsy evidence. They also seemed aware that the accusations against Mattson were based more on vendetta as opposed to actual beliefs in her practice of the 'dark arts.' The fine and probation bestowed upon Mattson was more to appease her accusers. After that, the state of Pennsylvania would not prosecute accused witches, though it could not stop citizens from believing in them. There were also some slander cases that involved a few accused witches suing their accusers.
So with no one able to turn to the legal system for relief from a suspected witch, many had to take matters into their own hands. As people of many different backgrounds, ethnicities, and religious practices entered William Penn's religiously liberated colony, they brought with them their own beliefs and practices, including their beliefs on magic, folk healing, and witchcraft. From these communities - particularly from within the Pennsylvania Germans (or Pennsylvania Dutch as they are often referred) - powwowers (not to be confused with the Native American practice of the same name) and hex doctors rose in popularity. Think of Moll Derry from one of my previous posts.
I will get more into the use of powwowers and hex doctors in a future post (but think of what Chadwick Hansen said in Witchcraft at Salem about the three degrees or levels of witchcraft in the meantime). I will also delve more into the following:
- how a prominent judge helped an accused witch escape her accusers.
- the family of Johann Seiler and how they were sought after by many for their healing practices until the last practicing relative of Seiler passed away in 1950.
- how many in 19th century society regarded the notion of witchcraft and accusations of such (you might be surprised).
Until then, keep all this in mind as we approach my essay on Morality in my analysis of human behavior.
Witches of Pennsylvania: Occult History and Lore
book by Thomas White
Witchcraft at Salem
book by Chadwick Hansen
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