Saturday, January 16, 2016

Witchcraft: 19th Century Attitudes, A Family Business, and Judge Brewster's Dilemma

Hi everyone,

Well after a short hiatus of sorts,it is time for me to begin blogging for real again.

As those who follow this blog likely know, my further exploration into the witch hunts and trials of old was fueled by my having the opportunity to portray 17th century accused witch Mary Parsons for a Halloween attraction at the museum. Having this role got me researching the American (along with the European) witch trials in more depth than I had done in the past. If you would like to see previous posts on my exploration of the subject, here they are:

Tiffany's 31 Days of Halloween: Witch Hunting Edition

"Exploring the History of Witchcraft in Salem and Elsewhere" or "Burn the Witch?"

More Interesting Witch Trial Finds

A Quick Word on Cotton Mather (Salem Witch Trials)

In addition to perusing several websites, I ended up getting some of the books on the subject, include Chadwick Hansen's Witchcraft in Salem, Thomas White's Witches of Pennsylvania: Occult History and Lore, and Rick Kennedy's The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather. I have been covering these works in the postings on the subject, but for this particular post, I will be revisiting Thomas White's book. But first, I will give the man the proper introduction that I should have given him when I referenced his book in previous posts.

Thomas White is the university archivist and curator in the Gumberg Library at Duquesne University. White is also an adjunct lecturer in Duquesne's history department, an adjunct professor of history at La Roche College, and the author of several books on the history and folklore of Pennsylvania.

When I started this journey in researching the witch hunts and trials, I - like many others, including other history buffs - found that I was holding on to quite a lot of preconceived notions about how these events went down. And of course at the center of that was the belief that women were targeted mainly because they were women. That if they dared be more than a soft spoken, proper 'lady', she was labeled a witch and therefore punished as one, which included rather horrific methods of execution (burning was typically done in Europe and hanging was the preferred method of execution in America). However, now that I've been researching the matter further, I can at least say that it was a lot more complicated than that, and not as cut and dry as it is often made out to be. As I stated in my previous posts, a lot of early American Colonial leaders, including William Penn of Pennsylvania and the founders of New York (or New Netherland as it was called at the time of its founding), wanted to avoid the mass hysteria of the witch trials in Europe. Add to that, in the more extreme cases of witch trials (in Massachusetts and Connecticut), several men were also accused, tried, convicted, and executed. To confirm this, all you have to do is Google names like John Proctor and Giles Corey. In fact, on the day of Proctor's execution, the number of men being executed outnumbered the women. And if someone out there can offer any research or proof that Proctor, Corey, and all other men said to have been executed for witchcraft (in both Europe and America) were acquitted and given a cookie simply because they had penises, knock yourself out. I am more than willing to recant a statement if it can be proven wrong.

Here is also an interesting little chart listing the witch trials, some of which ended in the accused being executed and some of which ended in acquittal. 

In some cases, not only was the accused acquitted and sometimes not even tried, but the accusers were also sued for slander/defamation and/or fined. I will be referencing this chart again in the future.

In Thomas White's book, he gets into the history of witchcraft and the one and only official trial in Pennsylvania. Like Chadwick Hansen, he gets into the three levels of the type of witchcraft practiced in the early colonies and was especially prevalent among the Pennsylvania Dutch (Pennsylvania German) community, focusing mainly on the first two levels, powwowing ("white" witchcraft) and hex doctors (which seem to me what Hansen describes as the "level two" witchcraft, right before the level three witches that make a pact with the Devil, the latter being the one punishable by death).
One thing of interest that White notes in his book is how later 19th century periodicals scoff at and ridicule the belief in witchcraft of their predecessors. The medical/pharmaceutical industry also saw individuals seeking the more holistic practices of the powwowers as a threat to their profession and therefore worked overtime at trying to discredit and even persecute and prosecute powwowers. They would often take the absolute worst of the worst and lump all powwowers into the same dishonest snake oil salesman category. Therefore the spirit of the witch trial remained, if in a different form.
One such prominent powwower family was the Seiler family (their name was later Americanized to Saylor).

Johann Peter Seiler emigrated to American from Germany in 1738 and settled in New Jersey before coming to Pennsylvania, where he established himself a good reputation as a healer. He employed the methods of powwowers. One legend concerning Saylor (Seiler) is that his work led to the use of the term powwow as applied to braucheri (which was the original Pennsylvania Dutch term for the more holistic and spiritual healing profession). After he successfully treated several Native Americans, the natives then referred to their interactions with him as powwowing, thus the term was then widely adopted for folk healers, especially those of German descent.
In addition to his own successful career, he established a long line of powowwers in his area. Before his death, Johann trained his youngest son Peter in the profession of powowwing and hex. Peter was born in 1770 and practiced his profession until his death at age 91. He was also the most well-known powwower from his bloodline, other than his father, Johann. Numerous anecdotes concerning his methods of healing circulated the community. Interestingly, he was respected for his abilities but was never considered a "witch." He also trained his son, Peter Jr. and possibly his nephew Jacob in the ways of powwow and hex. Peter Jr. continued his practice until his death in 1868, passing the tradition and family business onto a relative by the name of John Henry Wilhelm. Now Wilhelm did come under a bit of scrutiny, not for witchcraft but for practicing a form of medicine without a license. However, due to the large amount of public support he had, the accusations died down and hardly affected his practice. Upon John's death in 1886, his son Eugene took up the torch, adding new services and elements to his inherited family tradition. He increased use of herbal remedies and traditional medications, as well as "magnetic treatments."
Eugene passed away in 1905 and his son Arthur took over. Arthur did go to school and received a traditional medical doctorate (out of mounting pressure of society at the time), though favored practicing powwow and homeopathic remedies. His success and good reputation garnered him many clients, both in and out of his county and state. He passed away in 1950, leaving him as the last of his lineage to prominently practice powwow.

Another interesting account covered in White's book is the impromptu witch trial that Judge B.F. Brewster oversaw, much to his dismay. He had bought his home in Harmar Township in 1798 (now known as Twelve Mile Island) on the Allegheny River. In 1802, he found himself awakened to the sound of an angry crowd that had taken a local woman from her home. He emerged from his house to the demands that the woman be tried as a witch (I have not found record yet as to why the woman was accused).
Brewster was not a believer in witchcraft and was actually disgusted over the attitudes of those in the crowd. He tried reasoning with them but it was no use. Despite the laws set in place by Pennsylvania's founders, the crowd insisted on the woman being tried. He hoped that the accusers would be unable to produce sufficient evidence and that he would be able to find her not guilty and diffuse the issue. But that would not be the case.
As more individuals from the crowd came forward with accounts of bewitchment from the accused woman (testimonies that are not recorded though it is clear from Brewster's records that he placed no merit in them), they began to demand that she be executed.
At this point, Brewster is finding himself incredibly alarmed and in a very tight situation. Finally, he announces to the crowd that he needs to consult his legal books in order to proceed in a proper punishment. During this time, the accused woman would remain in custody inside his home.
Apparently, this was enough to appease the crowd. Once Brewster had the woman inside, he arranged for her to escape his house and sneak away to safety. His records don't offer any detail of how she escaped or to where, but what we do know is that after stalling for a long enough period of time after the woman was able to escape and get into the clear, Brewster emerged from his home to announce that she was gone. She was no longer present, therefore he could not legally render a verdict.
Many in the crowd became enraged, even threatening the judge's life and home, but he refused to relent. Eventually, the crowd dispersed and everyone went home.

Now, my purpose for giving some more light to these accounts is not to make light of the horrors that the women accused and executed faced. But I do feel that simplifying it down to "they were targeted just because they were women" trivializes the issue and events. While I'm sure that merely being a woman played a role in some of the cases, saying that was the only reason and those were the only cases is an insult to not only the accused and executed women and men, but also those who were openminded and saw through the hysteria, because there were many. Many powwowers were respected and freely practiced in their communities without problem, and even hex doctors were often left alone. And Cotton Mather, one of the more prominent and very misunderstood figures of the Salem Witch Trials very much supported the education of women in Puritan New England (as per Rick Kennedy's book The First American Evangelist: A Short Life of Cotton Mather... see my post A Quick Word on Cotton Mather (Salem Witch Trials). In fact, based on what I'm seeing, he actually insisted on education for women and minorities.

Interview with Rick Kennedy by Eerdmans Author Interview Series

I will continue next week with sex and the Middle Ages.

Until then, check out my YouTube Channel and subscribe. :)


Witches of Pennsylvania: Occult History & Lore by Thomas White

The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather by Rick Kennedy

More information on Johann Peter Seiler

More information on Judge B. F. Brewster


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