A Hal­loween tale of Philadel­phia’s lone witch­craft trial

The Review - - OPINION - Jim Smart Of All Things Visit colum­nist James Smart’s web­site at jamess­mart­sphiladel­phia.com.

Hal­loween can re­mind a Philadel­phia his­tory buff of the only witch­craft trial ever held in Philadel­phia. Gov. Wil­liam Penn presided.

It was on Feb. 20, 1683, that Mar­garet Matt­son was brought be­fore the Pro­vin­cial Coun­cil of Penn­syl­va­nia, charged with prac­tic­ing witch­craft.

She and her hus­band, Nils, had ar­rived here from Swe­den in 1654, and were farm­ing out near the Ri­d­ley Creek.

Mrs. Matt­son was brought be­fore a pro­vin­cial ver­sion of a grand jury, seven promi­nent men presided over by Wil­liam Penn, who had been given his Syl­va­nia by King Charles about two years be­fore.

She didn’t speak English. Two promi­nent Swedish Philadel­phi­ans were on hand to trans­late for the ac­cused: Lasse Cock and Gun­nar Rambo. Cock was also one of the judges. The most promi­nent English­man was Thomas Holme, who had re­cently ar­rived and was busy sur­vey­ing and map­ping the new city for Penn.

The first wit­ness, if he can be called that, was Henry Drys­treet, who tes­ti­fied that 20 years ago, some­body had told him that Mar­garet Matt­son was a witch and that she had be­witched sev­eral cows. Also, James Sounder­ling had told him that his mother had said that Mrs. Matt­son had be­witched her cow, “but af­ter­wards said it was a mis­take and that her Cow should do well again.”

Next, An­nakey Coolin tes­ti­fied that she and her hus­band had a calf that died be­cause, they thought, of witch­craft. While they were boil­ing the calf’s heart, Mrs. Matt­son came to their door and told them they should have boiled the bones in­stead. They said she made some “un­seemly ex­pres­sions.”

Coolin claimed that while ca­noe­ing, she saw Mrs. Matt­son get out of the ca­noe and be­witch some geese, al­though she didn’t ex­plain how to tell a be­witched goose from a nor­mal one. Mrs. Matt­son de­nied get­ting out of the ca­noe.

An­other wit­ness, Charles Ash­comb, told the judges that Mrs. Matt­son’s daugh­ter-in­law, mar­ried to her son, An­thony, when asked why she had sold her cat­tle, said that it was be­cause Mrs. Matt­son had be­witched them.

Ash­comb fur­ther told the panel that his daugh­ter-in-law told him that in the mid­dle of one night, the fig­ure of an old woman had ap­peared at the foot of her bed in a flash of light and threat­ened that if a neigh­bor named John Sym­cock didn’t take his calves off the Matt­son prop­erty she would send them all to hell.

How Wil­liam Penn and his judges re­ceived th­ese tales is not recorded. Mrs. Matt­son, called to tes­tify, de­nied ev­ery­thing.

It’s pos­si­ble that Gov. Penn didn’t take it all very se­ri­ously. At one point in the pro­ceed­ings, he asked the de­fen­dant di­rectly, “Art thou a witch? Hast thou ever rid­den through the air on a broom­stick?”

The record in­di­cates that Mrs. Matt­son an­swered, “Yes.” That does seem un­likely. We might as­sume that the stress of the trial was con­fus­ing her, and/or she was hav­ing trou­ble un­der­stand­ing English when Swedish was her na­tive language.

What­ever her an­swer meant, Gov. Penn was un­abashed. Some ac­counts of the trial re­port that he said that she had a per­fect right to ride upon a broom­stick, for he knew of no law what­so­ever against it.

Af­ter­ward, “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.”

She was only guilty of peo­ple think­ing she was guilty.

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