Monday, December 7, 2009

The Maryland Witch Trials

I recently wrote a book about the Salem witch trials called Justice at Salem, but it is worth noting that there were witch trials that happened outside of New England.
A few people from Maryland were accused.

William Thomas Russell, in his 1907 book, Maryland; the land of sanctuary: A history of religious toleration in Maryland from the first settlement until the American revolution wrote:

It was during the Puritan regime [anti-Puritan bias was especially strong among writers in the early 20th century, which explains these remarks. The Puritans were not any more likely than any other religious group at the time to persecute alleged witches] that we first hear of witches in Maryland. While no death penalties were ever inflicted [he is incorrect again, see below] on those unfortunate suspects in the Land of Sanctuary, some few instances are on record to remind us that there were not wanting in the Province those whose dispositions were modeled after Puritan forms. In 1654, at sea, on the ship " Charity " about a fortnight before its arrival in Maryland, it became rumored among the seamen that a woman aboard named Mary Lee was a witch, ' the sailors confidently affirming the same upon her own deportment and discourse, and importuning the master that a trial might be had of her, which the master refused ' . . . Finally the sailors apprehended her without an order, and, without the consent of the ship's captain, the men hanged the woman.1

Father Francis Fitzherbert [I doubt that a Jesuit priest would have been on a ship with Puritans. The murderers were likely not Puritans] travelling as an unknown layman, was a passenger on this ship when Mary Lee was hanged by the sailors. In the Jesuit Letter of 1654 the following allusion to this occurrence is made. "The tempest lasted, in all, two months, whence the opinion arose, that it was not on account of the violence of the ship or atmosphere, but was occasioned by the malevolence of witches. Forthwith they seize a little old woman suspected of sorcery; and after examining her with the strictest scrutiny, guilty or not guilty, they slay her, suspected of this very heinous sin. The corpse and whatever belonged to her they cast into the sea." 1 Needless to say, at such a time, it would have been worse than useless for the priest to have made any interference.

In 1674, John Cowman was ' arraigned, convicted and condemned ' for ' witchcraft, conjuration, sorcery and enchantment used upon the body of Elizabeth Goodale. He was reprieved by the Governor at the intercession of the Lower House, carried to the gallows, the rope put about his neck, it there being made known to him how much he is beholding to the Lower House for interceding in his behalf. Afterwards he was to be employed in such service as the governor should see fit.'

There was still another case similar to the one mentioned above, in which John Washington, greatgrandfather of George Washington, lodges a complaint against one Edward Prescott for the hanging of Elizabeth Richardson for witchcraft on his ship. 1 But it must be remembered that neither of these executions took place upon Maryland soil, and in both were the proceedings condemned by the authorities.
Russell concluded his remarks by writing, "As far as known, these three cases include the whole story of Maryland's part in witchcraft." But others were charged and at least one person was executed for witchcraft in Maryland.

Rebecca Fowler from Calvert County was charged with witchcraft and after a trial in 1685, she was hanged.

Another alleged witch from 17th century Maryland, Moll Dyer was chased out of her village in St. Mary's County after she was accused. Another alleged witch from St. Mary's, Elizabeth Bennett, was cleared by her fellow citizens.

Hannah Edwards of Calvert County was acquitted of witchcraft in 1686. Amazingly, it is reported that Maryland's last witchcraft trial took place in Annapolis in 1712, when a woman from Talbot County named Virtue Violl was acquitted of witchcraft charges.

Of course, while Maryland does not have an overly bloody history of witch prosecutions, its history is hardly perfect. Blacks were treated horribly and although Maryland was more tolerant than other colonies, religious dissenters were also sometimes persecuted.

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