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Witch Trials


The witch trials of Salem, Massachusetts, comprise one of the darkest periods in American history. Over 150 people were arrested and imprisoned under the charge of witchcraft. Of those, 29 were convicted, 19 were hanged, and one man, Giles Corey, was crushed to death under heavy stones when he refused to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. But contrary to popular belief, American witch trials were not simply the provenance of Massachusetts Puritans. There were also trials for witchcraft in New York, in Virginia, and among Quakers in Pennsylvania.

The first Pennsylvania trial took place almost a decade before the more-famous trials in Massachusetts and was presided over by William Penn. Two women – Yeshro Hendrickson and Margaret Mattson – stood accused of bewitching “calves, geese, cattle, and a few persons.” Mattson’s daughter testified that her mother was in league with the Devil. Several sources also report an exchange in which Penn asked whether it was true that Mattson was a witch: “Hast thou ridden through the air on a broomstick?” When Mattson answered in the affirmative, Penn responded that he knew of no law against it. Both women were set free.

In 1695, members of the Chichester and Concord Monthly Meeting minuted that two young men, Philip and Robert Roman, had studied astrology, earth divination, palm reading, and necromancy. The brothers agreed that if members of the meeting could convince them of the evils of witchcraft, they would give it up; and it was later reported that both brothers had set aside their studies of the dark arts unless it was found that such arts might be used “to do some great good.”

Instead of letting that be the end of the matter, local authorities commanded a trial. Robert Roman was found guilty of possessing certain questionable books. He was fined, ordered “never to practice the arts,” and released.

Responding to this crisis early in 1696, the quarterly meeting issued a testimony against all forms of magic, divination, and witchcraft as an “abomination to the Lord,” further warning that Friends everywhere must “use their utmost endeavors, in the way and order of the Gospel practiced among us, to bring such person or persons to a sense of their wrong practices . . . and, if any shall refuse to comply with such their wholesome and Christian advice, that then the Friends of said respective Monthly Meetings do give testimony against them; and so Truth will stand over them, and Friends will be clear.”

Penn responded that he knew of no law against it. Both women were set free.

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