Common section

Popular understanding

In July 1891 a reporter from the New York paper The World interviewed a thirty- year-old woman named Mary Ruth of Greshville, Pennsylvania, who suffered from depression and anxiety due to the accusations of witchcraft made against her by neighbours. The tormented and confused Mary told how she had visited a Reading witch doctor to ask whether she had really bewitched a neighbour named Mrs Boyer. The witch doctor said Mrs Boyer was indeed bewitched, but declined to confirm that Mary was responsible. Nevertheless, her possible guilt weighed heavily on Mary, and she explained to the journalist that: ‘Someone told me that the penalty was $1,000 fine for witchcraft, and that we would be sued and all our property taken from us. This worried me and I’ve had no rest and peace of mind since’.69 Ruth was not alone in her concern. An Irish St Louis woman, Rose Downey, who was accused of bewitching her infant grandson, visited the deputy coroner in 1898 to know if she could be charged for bewitching the child. She left much relieved.70 The confusion was, no doubt, due to popular misunderstanding of the legal status of witchcraft. Remember that in Pennsylvania the law punished the pretence ‘to effect any purpose by spells, charms, necromancy or incantation’. But as we have seen, the newspapers misrepresented the crucial distinction between witchcraft and the pretence of witchcraft. No wonder the likes of Ruth and Rose were confused.

There were not a few who firmly believed that witchcraft was still a prosecutable offence. A Mississippi man known to the psychiatrist James Kieman was one such person. He had, it has to be said, spent spells in prison and asylums, but he was an intelligent man. He had pestered justices on several occasions to have people prosecuted for bewitching him, and during one stay in the state prison studied law so that he could push through a legal case against a witch. When some fellow inmates convinced him that General Grant had repealed the witchcraft laws, his mental state deteriorated.71 Periodic cases occurred where those who considered themselves bewitched applied to the local justice fully convinced that witchcraft was a crime that the authorities would punish. In the summer of 1850 one such case occurred in Philadelphia and another in the neighbouring town of Camden. In the first an elderly gentleman lodged a complaint before Alderman McKinley that a female neighbour had cast a spell upon him over the last eighteen months. McKinley dismissed the case. Across the Delaware River in Camden, a few days later, Mrs Eliza Toy charged Sara A. Pearson with witchcraft before a local justice. Toy accused Pearson of bewitching her child. Both women and Mr Toy were bound over to keep the peace in the sum of $100 each.72 In November 1901 Peter Calebrese, lodging at 138 Ewing Street, Chicago, went to the Maxwell Street police station and requested the presiding magistrate, Captain Wheeler, to arrest one Mary Devito of 138 West Polk Street, for having cast a spell over him and his sister. Wheeler, who was described as a modest man prone to good deeds, said, rather generously, he would have to look up the law on witchcraft before taking any action. The impatient Calebrese instead went to consult the well-known neighbourhood priest, Father Dunne.73

While in most instances the squire swiftly dismissed such cases or resolved them by converting them into breaches of the peace, a perplexed and overly accommodating local judiciary occasionally followed up on demands to restrain suspected witches. This was the unfortunate fate of Margaret Gilmore of Vincennes, Indiana, in 1907.74 The son of a neighbour, John Paris, accidentally injured one of her chickens. Paris subsequently heard from neighbours that Gilmore had declared, ‘If that chicken dies one of his children dies too’. The chicken died, and not long after so did Paris’s two-year-old son. He suffered from whooping cough, but for the Paris family the cause of death was witchcraft. John Paris sought official help against Gilmore’s spells, visited a local justice of the peace, and paid for a peace warrant against her as a disturber of the peace. Once sworn and paid for, Gilmore was arrested. The next stage in the process of swearing a peace warrant was for the arrested person to be brought before a magistrate at the nearest convenience to answer the charge. In Gilmore’s case that meant a stint in Knox county jail. Considering the origin of the complaint, there was no chance of the case going any further though. As one local newspaper observed, ‘the peace bond under which he seeks to place the “witch” would be about as binding as the rich widow’s appeal “now you stop!” to the robbers who were murdering her for her wealth’.75 But by now Gilmore had already suffered. Innocent of any crime, she had spent time in jail and the newspapers had broadcast the accusations against her far and wide. It was not uncommon for those arrested under such a peace warrant to sue for malicious prosecution, but there is no evidence that Gilmore did so. Not surprisingly, three years later, she was no longer living in Vincennes.

In a peculiar case from 1924, the Princess Anne county court, Virginia, banished an elderly root doctor, Annie Taylor, wife of a longshoreman, from the county, with her husband having to pay a bond of $2,000 to ensure that she stayed away. Her crime was being a nuisance to her neighbours. The decision was a triumph of popular pressure over legal probity. Banishment from town, county, or state, had been used in colonial days, and later as a strategy for dealing with vagrants and other miscreants, but by the twentieth century it was deeply problematic and rarely invoked. It broke the national right to freedom of movement, and generated inter-county and inter-state friction, as one state dumped vagrants on another. Some state constitutions, such as West Virginia’s, explicitly forbade banishment as a punishment. During the first half of the century a series of rulings by a number of supreme courts confirmed that county courts did not have the judicial powers to banish citizens.76 This did not stop Princess Anne county magistrate Frank Bell from issuing the banishment order against Taylor. He did so after hearing the complaints of several African American and white residents of Kempsville, who testified as to Taylor’s healing and bewitching activities. Farmer Walter Johnson swore that she had killed his mule by waving her stick over its head. Lucy Brown accused Taylor of cursing her by place some roots and horsehair in a bottle and burying it under her front door. A wealthy Kempsville farmer, Columbus C. Hudgins, had a rather different complaint. Some of his chickens and pigs had been stolen and he believed the thieves had given them to Taylor as payment for her charms and medicine. Bell concluded that he could find no law that provided punishment for her alleged crimes, but that something must be done. Lawyer and former Jamestown councilman John G. Tilton defended Taylor, and his presence apparently calmed the hostile crowd in the courtroom, even if he was unable to get the charges dropped. Taylor had her supporters too, and they gathered at the railway station to see her off when she was dumped across the state border to become North Carolina’s ‘problem’.77

Popular understanding of the legal position of witchcraft was shaped to a considerable degree by the adherence of many to the literal truth of the Bible. For centuries the persecution and execution of witches had been justified by reference to the Old Testament. Did it not state in Exodus chapter 22, verse 18, as printed in the King James Bible, that ‘thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’? As far back as the sixteenth century, sceptics had argued that the vernacular Bibles of Protestant Europe had mistranslated this and other passages referring to witches and sorcerers. They argued that the original Hebrew and Greek texts condemned poisoners and not witches—as they were understand at the time of the witch trials. While this was increasingly accepted by the clergy and intellectual society during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, nothing was done to correct the King James Bible in this respect despite the various revisions that were undertaken by the American Bible Society and others.78 So there it remained in the millions of well-thumbed Bibles in American homes: witches had to be killed.

In 1875 the family of John Berry, well-known and respected in Clinton County, Kentucky, ended up in court before they could enact Mosaic Law. One of Berry’s married daughters, who lived with her husband on the edge of Ballard County, suffered a lingering illness and believed she had received a visitation from the spirit of a man named McDonald. The spirit told her that certain female neighbours were witches and that in the form of cats they would do great harm to her family. Being devout believers, the family turned to their Bible for help and found the passage from Exodus. The accused women were made aware of the Berry family’s views and feared for their safety. One day, one of John Berry’s teenage sons espied a cat, and believing it to be a witch he took his gun to shoot it. The cat seemed to vanish though, so he made threats against the suspected women believing they had just resumed their human form. Fortunately, other neighbours in the community did not share the Berry’s suspicions, and after this episode, they instigated the arrest of John, his wife, and two sons. Under oath they testified that they believed that according to the Scriptures the witches should be killed. Then after conceding their views might be erroneous, they were released on giving a bond of $300 for their good behaviour.79

When, in June 1912, farm labourer Clinton Baugher of Walkersville, Maryland, was brought before Justice Aaron R. Anders for assaulting his brother, Joseph Baugher, whose wife he accused of witchcraft, a brief exchange took place on the content of the Bible. Anders instructed those present in court that witches did not exist, to which Baugher replied, ‘The Bible says there are witches, but you mustn’t believe in ‘em’, by which it was presumed he meant ‘could not trust them’. A member of Baugher’s family then piped up to explain that the Bible directed that ‘she that hath bewitched me be slain’. Anders told them firmly that there was no such statement in the Bible.80 He was right, but the Baughers oral version of Exodus 22:18 indicates how its message was ingrained in folk conceptions of witchcraft. Biblical support for the existence of witches rested on more than just Exodus though. Both Old and New Testaments referred to malign magical practices and practitioners. The account in 1 Samuel Chapter 28 of the ‘Witch of Endor’ who raised up the prophet Samuel was often referred to as proof, even though in the King James Bible and others she is not actually referred to as a ‘witch’. When, in July 1871, a newspaper reporter interviewed a bewitched woman of New Albany, Indiana, and stated he did not believe in witchcraft, she ‘wondered if we had ever read the Bible, especially that part relating to the witch of Endor, whom she declared had never died, and she had ample opportunity to teach her vile arts to others’.81

To explain away all these references as mistranslation was a tall order, as was proven by the determined campaign of a Swedish witch believer named Leopold Weedstrand. In 1875, Weedstrand, who had arrived in the US six years before, and believed he was persecuted by witches based in Meadville, Pennsylvania, wrote letters of complaint to the United States District Attorney Reed at Pittsburgh. Receiving no reply, he turned up at his office and was duly kicked out. When a journalist told him, ‘You know you can’t bring an action at law against the witches’, Weedstrand replied, ‘I can bring an action against whoever keeps them. There is no law for people keeping devils or witches. The devil can’t hurt anybody unless he is kept by somebody. Haven’t you read in the Bible about people keeping a devil?’ Where do you find it in the Bible?’ Inquired the journalist. ‘I read it in the writings of Moses, and the Acts of the Apostles, and I tell you I’m going to law to find out about this thing at Meadville’.82 Weedstrand was a litigious fellow, and sued the editor of the Scranton paper the Morning Republican, John E. Barrett, for libel regarding an article ridiculing Weedstrand’s claims.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!