A Halloween tale of Philadelphia’s lone witchcraft trial
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.