October 8, 2016 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)
Most histories of witchcraft in New England portray the phenomena as something particular to the earliest years of European settlement, a tragic hold-over of Old World superstitions and prejudices that, with the rise of education and a wider religious toleration vanished from New England, later, the newly born United States.
This is, of course, total bunko. While the deaths at Salem in 1692 proved to be the final instance of people being executed for witchcraft in New England, they were by no means the end of the widespread belief in witchcraft or even in charges of being made in a court of law over alleged instances of witchcraft. For today’s entry, I thought I might share nine cases I have been able to uncover where claims of witchcraft were considered, in some way, by the legal system after 1692.
I should note that I am only included instances where some legal authority was called in to investigate a claim of witchcraft, either as part of a prosecution, an investigation of strange circumstances and local gossip, or as part of a charge of slander against the supposed witch’s accuser. If were to compile every instance where someone was said to be a witch or had rumors of witch-like activity spread throughout their communities, we would almost certainly have a book rather than a blog post… I wonder if there would be a market for such a project? Let me know in the comments.
Winifreds Benham (1697 – Wallingford CT)
Previously accused of witchcraft a a few years earlier, the elder Winifred Benham, as well as her daughter (also Winifred Benham, aged 12 or 13 years), were charged again with witchcraft in the Fall of 1697. A grand jury ruled there was not enough evidence for a trial and they were eventually released. Later they moved to New York, in all likelihood to find friendlier neighbors.
Source: The Witchcraft Delusion on Colonial Connecticut by John Taylor
Mehitabel Warren (1708/9 – Plymouth MA)
An odd case, the only record we have what might have been charges of witchcraft against Mehitabel Warren, late of Plymouth, is a affidavit, dated in Februrary 1708/9, entered by Warren’s former friends and neighbors in Hingham, Massachusetts defending the elderly Mrs. Warren against these claims. It says in part:
Whereas we underwritten, heard that there are scandalous reports of the widow Mehitabel Warren of Plimouth, we knowing that she was brought up in this place, and in her younger time had been a person of great affliction before she was married, and both lived in the towne and divers years in her widowhood, and we never have had any thoughts or sispition that any amongst us had the least sispition that euer she was guilty of the sin of being a witch or anything that may occasion such sispition of her.
Source: The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, vol. 5. 1851.
Mrs. Dudley (1721 – Littleton, MA)
In a case sharing many similarities with the early witchcraft accusations at Salem thirty years earlier, an older married woman was accused on bewitching a trio of young woman, aged between 5 and 11. The Blanchard household had been beset by increasingly strange occurences before the girls blamed Mrs. Dudley for their affliction – including odd knocking sounds and unexplained buises on the girls; when confronted by their parents the three children insisted the many odd antics were the fault of their neighbor. The family consulted with the town’s minister for guidance; at about this time Mrs. Dudley died and her supposed attacks ceased. In later years, however, the girls admitted they had invented their supposed attacks and that they had no reason to blame the late Mrs .Dudley.
Source: The History of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, from the Charter of King William and Mary in 1697, until 1750 by Thomas Hutchinson.
Sarah Spencer (1724 – Colchester, CT)
Spencer sued her neighbors Elizabeth and James Ackley who had publicly accused her of spectral pinching and “riding” them by night. While she initially won her case, the damages substantial damages she was awarded were reduced, after the verdict was appealed by the Ackleys, to 1 shilling.
Source: The Witchcraft Delusion in Colonial Connecticut by John Taylor
Mrs.M Gregor (after 1724 – Pownal, VT)
(The date of this incident is unclear, but this small town in the southern tip of Vermont was first settled in 1724.) The unnamed Mrs. Gregor, the wife one of the region’s earliest settlers, was “an extraordinary woman” and after her husband’s death, she was accused of witchcraft by her envious neighbors and brought to trial. To prove her innocence she was “ducked” – the nearby Hoosic River was frozen, so a hole was cut in the ice so that she could be forced under the water. The unfortunate woman began to drown, proving her innocence, and was saved and cleared of the charges.
We should note that our source describes this case as “a very good story, the truth of which [he does] not vouch”.
Source: The Vermont Historical Gazette: “Pownal” by T. E. Brownell
Merilla Norton (1768 – Bristol, CT)
Accused by her niece of “riding” her to witches’ Sabbats in Albany and other supernatural misdeeds. Reports at the time suggest an air of panic in the isolated community, with others claiming they were sticken by the supernatural sensation of being pinched or burns, and includes a must curious incident where the ox of a deacon who had come to attend to the afflicted young woman was said to have been torn apart by an invisible thing. Eventually the panic subsided, a change possibly connected with the departure of a young minister whose arrival roughly paralleled the outbreak of the witchcraft accusations.
Source: The Witchcraft Delusion in Colonial Connecticut by John Taylor
Eleanor Estes (1787 – Harpswell, ME)
She and her husband sued their neighbor Alcut Stover for slander after he had made accusations to several neighbors that Eleanor was a witch and “he had enough evidence for her to be hanged”. Stover blamed Mrs. Estes for bewitching his livestock and otherwise afflicting him with a variety of pains mental and physical.
Source: An Address to the Members of the Cumberland County Bar by James Hopkins
Elizabeth Hilton (1796 – Arundel, ME)
Conflict between members of the extended Hilton family included accusations of witchcraft against the widow Elizabeth Hilton. In an attempt to neutralize her supposed witchcraft, several members of the extended clan attacked her, nearly killing her. Some of those involved in the assault tried for the attack soon after, where the allegations of Hilton’s witchcraft came to light.
Source: America Bewitched by Owen Davies
Mrs. Adam Gibson (before 1821 – Lyman, NH)
William Eastman accused Mrs. Adam Gibson of bewitching him and his livestock -in particular causing his piglets to dance on their hind-legs. Some sources claim that Eastman’s conflict with the Gibson family stemmed not from a belief in witchcraft but rather a romance with one of the Eastman daughters that had soured. One version of the story says that Eastman was able to have Mrs. Gibson put on trial but was exhonerated; Eastman was required to pay the supposed witch $14 restitution.
Source: Folk-lore Sketches and Reminisances of New Hampshire Life by ‘New Hampshire’s Daughters’
For an readable but still well-grounded academic discussion on this topic, see John Demos’ Entertaining Satan (2004 Edition), particularly p. 387-94.