Dateline: Philadelphia, 1683/4: Quakers investigate witchcraft

Did the Quakers show the way on how to deal with accusations of witchcraft in seventeenth century America?

In William Penn’s writings, he said he didn’t want the Friends—the proper and more polite term back then for Quakers—to get into “horns and hooves.” That is, Quakers shouldn’t get involved in witchcraft and an undue interest in the devil, and perhaps not even to investigate it.

Intellectual Quakers like Penn were virtual rationalists, compared to other more Spirit-led Quakers, like their Founder George Fox.

Puritan New England and Old Europe is one thing, but Philadelphia is to be different.

However, Penn himself, the brand-new governor and proprietor of Pennsylvania, is about to oversee the strange case of two alleged witches: Margaret Matson and Yeshro (or Getro) Hendrickson. Their husbands have to make sure they appear before the Provincial Council.

The 7th day, the 12th month, 1683/4 (February 7, 1683/4*)

Modernized transcription begins:

Margaret Matson and Yeshro Hendrickson, examined and about to be proved [i.e. tried as] witches; whereupon this board [Council] ordered that Neels Matson should enter into a recognizance of fifty pounds for his wife’s appearance before this board the 27th Instant [this year]. Hendrick Jacobson (sic, it should be Jacob Hendrickson) does the same for his wife.

Transcription ends.

Now what about the trial itself? It takes place twenty days later, in cold February.

Councilors at the trial:

Wm PENN, Proprietor and Governor

Wm. Clarke, Tho. Holmes, Wm. Welch, Jno. [John] Simcock, Tho. Janney, Luke Watson, Wm. Clayton, Ja. Harrison, Chr. Taylor, Tho. Lloyd, Jno. Cann, Wm Wood.

The trial begins.

The 27th day of the 12th month, 1683/4

The Council minutes read so far:

“Margaret Matson’s indictment was read, and she pleads not guilty, and she will be tried by the country.”

It is odd that Penn did not throw the case to the courts. But maybe he intended to set a precedence for how Quakers should investigate witchcraft or not investigate it at all—no “horns and hooves.” He believes the Council represent the “country,” or at this time, Pennsylvania, not all of America.

Lasse Cock, a Swedish captain who served on the Council and as an interpreter between the English and Natives, was “attested” (sworn in) to be the interpreter between the governor and the prisoner. Then James Claypool, another prominent member of the Council, was also attested to be an interpreter between the governor and the prisoner. I’m not clear why he has to serve in that capacity, unless it’s to provide backup. Or perhaps Mrs. Hendrickson was Dutch, and Claypool knew that language.

Now we get to the meat of the trial.

Modernized transcription begins:

Henry Drystreet, attested, says he was told twenty years ago that the prisoner at the bar was a witch and that several cows were bewitched by her; also James Saunderlin’s mother told him that she bewitched her cow, but afterwards said it was a mistake and that her cow should do well again, for it was not her cow, but another person’s that should die.

Charles Ashcom, attested, said that Anthony’s wife, being asked why she sold her cattle, was because her mother had bewitched them, having taken the witchcraft of Hendrick’s cattle and put it on the oxen; she might keep but no other cattle; and also that one night the daughter of the prisoner called him up hastily, and when he came she said there was a great Light but just before; and an old woman with a knife in her hand at the bed’s feet and therefore she cried out and desired John Simcock [an prominent esquire and member of the Council] to take away her calves or else she would send them to hell.

The affidavit of John Vanenlin being read, Charles Ashcom being a witness to it.

Annakey Coolish, attested, says her husband took the heart of a calf that died, as they thought, by witchcraft and boiled it; whereupon the prisoner at the bar came in and asked them what they were doing; they said boiling of flesh; she said they had better they had boiled the bones with several other unseemly expressions.

Margaret Matson says she values not Drystreet’s evidence, but if Saunderlin’s mother had come she would have answered her; she denies Charles Ashcom’s attestation at her soul and says where is my daughter? Let her come and say so.

Annakey Cooling’s attestation concerning the geese, she denies, saying she was never out of her canoe and also that she never said any such thing concerning the calf’s heart.

John Cock, attested, says he knows nothing of the matter.

Tho. Balding’s attestation was read and Tho. Bracy, attested, says it is a true copy.

The prisoner denies all things and says that the witnesses spoke only by hearsay.

After which the governor gave the jury their charge concerning the prisoner at the bar.

The jury went forth and upon their return brought her in guilty of having the common fame of a witch, but not guilty in manner and form as she stands indicted.

Neels Matson and Anthony Neelson enter into a recognizance of fifty pounds apiece for the good behavior of Margaret Matson for six months.

Jacob Hendrickson enters into recognizance of fifty pounds for the good behavior of Yeshro (or Getro) Hendrickson for six months.

Transcription ends.

The question must be asked why Yeshro Hendrickson was not put on trial. Perhaps Penn realized the verdict would be the same.

And what was the verdict? Mrs. Matson (and Mrs. Hendrickson) acquired the public reputation of being a witch, but apparently the substance of the accusation was empty.

The Council minutes attest that this is the last time the highest governing body took up the case of witchery.

* Why the slashed year? For us, the first month of the year is January. For the colonies and the UK back then, it was March. When we today cross the month of January in these old records, their eleventh month, researchers begin to slash the year.

Minutes of the Provincial Council, vol. 1, 1683-1700, (Jo. Severns and Co. 1852), pp. 92-96

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