Witchcraft in Chester County

Superstition in the early days seems not to have been confined to Salem whose witches so much exercised the Puritans of New England. The imaginary crimes of witchcraft at that time ranked among the most heinous, and hence were only tried by the superior courts. The parties concerned in the celebrated witch trial, which occurred before the proprietary, William Penn, and his Council, at Philadelphia, Feb 27, 1684, resided near the mouth of Crum Creek, were in good circumstances,and, for naught that is known to the contrary, were quite as respectable as their accusers. The following is a record of the trial, copied from the published minutes of the Council:[bib]32[/bib]
"Margaret Matson's Indictmt was read, and she pleasds not Guilty, and will be tryed by the Country. "Lasse Cock attested Interpriter between the Propor and the Prisoner at the Barr. "The Petty Jury Impanneled; their names are as followed: Jno Hasting, foreman, Albertus Hendrickson, Robt. Piles, Robt. Wade, Nath. Evans, Edwd. Carter, Wm Hewes, Jer: Collett, Jno. Kinsman, Jno. Gibbons, Walter Martin, Edwd Bezar. "Henry Drystreet, attested, saith that he was tould 20 years afo, that the Prisoner at the Barr was a Witch, and that several cows were betwitcht by her; also that James Saunderlings' 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 takent he Witchcraft of Hendrickson's Cattle, and out 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. "James Claypool attested interpritor betwist the Propr and the Prisoner. "The affidavid of Jno. Vanculin read, Charles AShcom being a witness to it. "Annakey Coolin, attested, saith her husband tooke the Heart of a Calf that Dyed,as they thought, by Witchcraft, and Boyld it, whereupon the Prisoner at the Barr came in and asked them what they were doing; they said Boyling of flesh; she said they had better they had Boyled the Bones, with several other unseemly Expressions. "Margaret Matsonn saith that she values not Drystreet's evidence; but if Sanderlin's mother had come, she would have answered her; also denyeth Charles Ashcoms attestatoin at her soul, and saith, where is my daughter; let her come and say so. "Annakey Cooling's attestation about the Gees, saying that she was never out of her Conoo, and also thay she never said any such things concerning the calve's heart. "Jno. Cock attested, sayth he knows nothing of thematter. "Tho: Baldings attestation was read, and Tho: Bracy attested, saith it is a true copy. "The prisoner denyeth all things, and saith that ye witnesses speak only by hear say. "After wch ye Govr gave the jury their charge concerning ye prisoner at ye Barr. "The Jury went forth , and upon thier returne Brought her in Guilty of haveing the Comon fame of a Witch, but not Guilty in manner and forme as she Stands Indicted. "Neels Matson and Antho. Neeson enters into Recognizance of fifty pounds for the good behavior of Margaret Matson for six months."
The Proprietary's charge has not been preserved, but it may be presumed that it was upon his suggestions that the based their very righteous, but rather ridiculous, verdict.
A few years later the Friends of Concord Monthly Meeting became greatly concerned about some young persons of Chichester township, who were engaged in the study of astrology and other arts, which they regarded as very dangerous. Their serious gravity in dealing with the matter, and their persistency in attempts to convince the offenders that it was evil, "a reproach of truth and the great hurt of themselves" is quite remarkable. We extract from the records of Concord Monthly Meeting, commencing with the date of 9, 11, 1695:
"Some Friends having a concern upon them concerning some young men which came amongst friends to their meeting following some arts which friends though not fit for such as profest truth to follow, viz. astroligy and other arts wherupon it was stated to this meeting Concerning Astroligy and other sciences,as Geomancy and Chiromancy and Necromancy, &c. It was debated and the sense of this meeting is that the study of the sciences brings a vaile over the understanding and a death upon the Life. "And in the sense of the same, friends order that Philip Romanbe spoken to to know whether he have dealt orderly with his two sons concerning the same arts; and that his two sons be spoke to to come to the next monthly meeting. "friends order John Kingsman and William Hughes to speak to Philip Roman & his tow sons to Appear at the next monthly meeting;"
"10, 9, 1695. Philip Roman and his brother Robert Roman friends children was spoak to about those Arts and Sciences abovesaid they seemed to disowne what is mentioned except Astoligy; much was said unto them but it was not received; - at last they proposed to the meeting if they thought well of it to confer with Nicolus Newlin and Jacob Chandler and if they could convince them that it was Evill they would leave it. This meeting receives their offer and concludes that Nicolus Newlin and Jacob Chandler Confer with them betwixt this and next monthly meeting and Make report thereof."
"11,13,1695. Nicolus Newlin and Jacob Chandler reports to this meeting that they have conferrd with Philip Roman, Jr. and Robert Roman according to their prpposall. Many arguments on both sides at Length Philip concluded with us that he did not know that he should use the Art of Astoligy Againe for he had denied severall yt came to him to be resolved of their Questoin already - Robert promised the same but with this reserve that unles it was to Doe some great good by it from whch belief od some great good may be done by it we could not remove him."
1,9, 1695-6. William Hughes (Hewes) and Jacob Chandler are ordered to confer with them again to "endeavor in the wisdom of God to bring them to a sense of their condition and to give forth a paper to condemn their practys therein." Philip Roman, Sr, presented an acknowledgement, condemning his sons' behavior and his own for taking their parts at first.
3, 11,1696. Philip Roman, Jr. made an acknowledement, but Robert was disowned.
The subject of these dark practices was also brought before the Chester Quarterly Meeting, which body appears to have taken a rather rational view of the subject for the times. The followign is an extract from the preamble of a long testimony published by that meeting in the year 1696:
"Whereas the meeting being acquainted, that some persons under the profession of truth, and belonging to this meeting, who professing the art of Astology, have undertaken thereby to answer questions, and to give Astrological Judgments concerning persons and things, tending to the dishonor of God, and the reproach of Truth and the great hurt of themselves and those who come to inquire of them; and Whereas it is also reported that some professing Truth among us seems too much inclined to use and practice Rabdomancy, or consulting with a Staff and such like things, all which have brought a weighty exercise and concern upon this meeting, as well because of reproach, that is already brought ponthe Turth hereby,as also to prevent, as much as in us lies, its being further reproached by any among us that may attempt to follow the like practices for time to come, &c."
But this business did not end with the meeting. An offense so serious as the practice of Geomancy could not escape the vigilance of te Grand Jury, particularly as the foreman lived in the same neighborhood with the parties. In bringing the matter to the notice of the court, they say:
"We the grand Inquest by the King's authority, presents Robert Roman of Chichester for practicing Geomancy according to hidden, and divining by a stick. Walter Marten, Foreman."
With the view of effectually eradicating the evil, it became necessary to destroy the implements of mischief by another presentment, which is thus recorded:
"We the grand Inquest by the King's authority presents the following books: Hidden Temples of Wisdom, which teaches geomancy, and Scots Discovery of Witchcraft, and Cornelius Agrippa teach Necromancy. Walter Marten, foreman."
Upon which "the Court may order as many of said books as can be found be brought to the next court."The following minutes records the closing scene of this ludicrous judicial procedure:
"Robert Roman was called to answeer the presentment of the Grand Jury the last court; he appeared and submitted himself to the Bench. The order of the court is that he shall pay five pounds for a fine and all charges, and never practice the arts, but behave himself well for the future, and he promised to do so, whereupon he is discharged for this time."
Some sixty years later as we find at Goshen Monthly Meeting (12,27,1759), that Uwchlan Preparative Meeting brought a complaint against Robert Jones (who belonged to Pikeland meeting) for joining others "in forcing a poor woman from her habitation (under a pretense of her bewitching a certain child), whereby she has suffered damage." To the credit of the meeting be it said, however, it sided with the woman by condeming her ooppressors and (3,7, 1760) the first-named meeting disowned Robert Jones. Perhaps this has some connections with the following circumstance:
More than one hundred years ago there lived in a log cabin on the barrens, a few miles form where West Chester now stands, an inoffensive old woman, Molly Otley, who was superstitiously characterized as a witch. A daughter of Joshua Ashbridge, who had become demented, acted strangely, uttering at the same time unintelligible sounds, which were construed into "molotly, molotly". This was conclusive evidence that she was bewitched, and by Moll Otley.
So one Seventh-day the populace assembled for her trial, not a judicial one, but a la Judge Lynch, and it is said the whole countryside were there, "gentle, simple, learned and ignorant, " all carried away by the then popular belief in witchcraft. James Gibbons (then living on what has since been known as the "Westtown School Farm") was deputed to bring the old woman. During his absence some were to draw her image on a board,and fire at it with pieces of silver (for lead would not hurt a witch); wherever the image was hit the witch would be wounded. Mr Gibbons was charged to notice if she manifested any pain or uneasiness by the way. After riding some distance she complained and said that she would rather walk, and did so the rest of the way. Arriving at the door of the house (over which a horseshoe had been nailed, the floor newly scrubbed, and salt sprinkled on te threshold), Molly turned around to clean her shoes, when the cry went forth, "She's a witch and can't pass over the salt until she performs some conjuratoin."
They then took her to the mill, put her in one scale and a Bible in the other, for it was held that a Holy Bible would always outweigh a witch. She remarked, "Children, I'll outweigh that book" and she did. She was next examined by a jury of matrons to see if her body bore any marks from the silver pieces fired at her image; but none were found. The next ordeal proposed was to throw her in to the mill-dam, believing that if she was a witch she would swim out quickly; otherwise, sink. Mr. Gibbons and others prevailed with the crowd to desist from this undertaking. But the final act in this farce, which had already well-nigh proved a tragedy, was yet to come. In accordance with a current superstition (that if the bewitched could draw blood on the witch above the breart, i.e., above the nostrils, and the witch would pray for the recovery of the "possessed", they would recover), she was carried to Ashbridge's into the presence of the child, in whose hand the father put a penknife; but Molly said "Joseph, I will not let the crazy child cut me; take it and cut me thyself." But as the blood must be drawn by the bewitched, and none other, Molly was held while the child scratched her face with her fingernails until it bled profusely. Then she was compelled to pray, which she did in these words: "O my God! have mercy on this child, and restore her to health!" "No, not thy God, for he is the Devil, but to my God, and the child's God." Finally satisfied, they released her; she departed and the crowd dispersed, no doubt confident in the belief that they had to do with as veritable a witch as that of Endor, whom the Bible says Saul consulted.
A curious and superstitious custom formerly prevailed in the matter of exercising rats. It was believed that if the person troubled by these pests would serve a notice upon them (perhaps after a certain form) and command them to depart, defining their course and where they were to go, they would leave the premises. A relic of this old notion was recently found in an ancient dwelling of Chester County among other antiquated papers. It read:
"Rats, I command you forthwith to depart my houses, barns and premises and go to Richard Jones a Course lying between west and southwest where you will be accommodated well & not return to this premises on pain of Death & this shall be your sufficient pass. Gideon Williamson. April 2nd, 1805."