These days the term ‘Witch Hunt’ is often heard and seen in the news. The term is being used too loosely describing a perceived irrational search and persecution of a political figure. For many of us, the term brings forth mental images of wild crowds of peasants carrying flaming torches, pitchforks and shovels screaming “Kill the Witch!” All too often, in times past that person was a talented, outspoken woman who was perceived to have power over others.
I’ve been a witch for 40 years, and I can tell you that witch hunts, even modern ones, often begin with a jealous wagging of tongues. Many modern-day witches and I included have had to suffer whisper campaigns by colleagues at work. This clandestine buzzing often leads to the witch being ostracized and of course, subjected to horrible workplace dynamics. Our modern practices of diversity and inclusion seems to have somewhat tempered these events, but workplace incidents still occur.
In our schools, it usually takes the form of a student wearing a pentacle to school, and suddenly the teachers and administration are making a big deal out of it. In any case, all too often, the witch is blamed but not the crowd of busybodies who started the whole hubbub.
Let’s call this what it is; this is a form of group bullying!
But in the 15th through 17th centuries such a whisper and smear could get a witch, or someone accused of being witch, killed. For the better part of twenty years, I lived and worked in the Great State of Maryland. During that time, an elder witch priestess friend of mine once mentioned to me that Maryland had its own bad history with ‘witch persecutions’. I decided to research Maryland’s history on witchcraft persecutions. What I found was eye-opening as well as enlightening.
There’s a great line from the 1989 film classic, ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,’ Professor Jones tells his archaeology class that “expeditions start in the library.”
The internet is great for some things, but it seriously falls short for deep historical research. In the mid-1990s, the best place to conduct such a deep historical inquiry is in a major library with the invaluable help of a research librarian.
It was in the archives of The Maryland Historical Society that we found a copy of Maryland Historical Magazine from December 1936. In this magazine edition, we found an extensive and thorough study of witch prosecutions in colonial Maryland. The article was titled “Witchcraft in Maryland” by historian Frances Neal Parker.
According to Mr. Parker, the first legal record mentioning witches was in the Proceedings of the Council of Maryland on 23 June 1654. It concerned the disposition of two travelers who related the tragic story of a witch hanging at sea on the good ship “Charity.” They stated that Mr. Peter Godson and his wife started a slanderous rumor at sea about Mr. Richard Manship’s wife, Mary Lee, stating that she was a witch. The gossip spread among the passengers and crew of the ship, and subsequently, Mrs. Mary Lee Manship was hanged by the ship’s master and sailors of the vessel.
The Maryland court in October 1654 brought Peter Godson and his wife up on charges of slander. They confessed their slander, expressed their remorse, and were fined substantially.
The next execution of a witch was also at sea. The complaint and charges were lodged by John Washington of Westmoreland County, in the province of Virginia. Mr. Washington, as it so happens, he was the great grandfather of George Washington.
In 1658, John Washington charged, Edward Prescott, who had committed a felony by hanging a witch at sea, (Miss Elizabeth Richardson) on his ship “The Sarah Artch.” The Maryland Governor Josias Fendall ordered the arrest of Prescott and held him for a court appearance. When John Washington was advised of the Governor’s actions, he provided the court with the facts of the case against Prescott, via correspondence.
Apparently, during the ocean crossing, the rumor and gossip that started against passenger Elizabeth Richardson reached such a fervor, that during the voyage, the ship’s master and crew were nearly involved in mutiny. Prescott, being the owner of the ship and fearing the mutiny of its crew, relented and allowed the hanging of Miss Elizabeth Richardson by deferring to the authority of the ship’s master.
Court records show that John Washington never appeared in court to face the accused. The reason turned out to be that the court date conflicted with the baptism of his newly born great-grandson George Washington. Edward Prescott was acquitted. While technically a felony had been committed, it must be remembered that the ship’s master held the power of life and death while at sea.
The ship’s master is solely responsible for the safety of the ship, it’s crew, passengers, and cargo. Due to this responsibility, the ship’s owner, Mr. Prescott, was not deemed responsible. Needless to say, no one was held to account for the hanging of Elizabeth Richardson.
In October 1665, a grand jury of the Provincial Court in Saint Mary’s County heard charges of witchcraft against Miss Elizabeth Bennett. The charges were of “witchcraft, burglary, felony, murther (murder) and other trespasses” and were brought forward by Mr. Philip Calvert, Chancellor. On 11 October, the case against Elizabeth Bennett came to court, and she was cleared by proclamation.
The first judicial conviction, apparently, was that of John Cowman, who is convicted under the statute of James I on charges of witchcraft, conjuration, sorcery, or enchantment upon the body of Elizabeth Goodale and he was sentenced to be hung. Mr. Cowman was saved by the intercession of members of the lower house of the General Assembly, who petitioned the Lieutenant General. The chief judge of the Provincial Court and Charles Calvert for clemency. On February 17, 1674, Mr. John Cowman was granted a reprieve.
Between 1665 and 1686, there were four cases of persons accused of witchcraft and a fifth in 1712. The details of these cases are lost to history due to missing court records. The resolution status was available. Elizabeth Bennett was charged with witchcraft, but her case was not presented.
Hannah Edwards, a married woman, and Virtue Violl, a spinster, was accused of practicing the black arts upon several women whose bodies had wasted away or were consumed. Both women were subsequently indicted, tried and acquitted.
The next case of note is that of Miss Rebecca Fowler, who, on 30 September 1685, was presented in a grand inquest and indicted. She was charged with witchcraft, enchantments and charms. She was accused of using such sorceries in a wickedly, devilishly and felonious way against one Frances Sandsbury as well as several other people in Calvert County, Maryland. Rebecca Fowler was found guilty of the matters of fact charged in the indictment.
The court sentenced her to be hanged by the neck until she was dead. Her execution took place on the ninth day of October 1685. The case in 1712, is alas lost to history in its entirety.
The insanity of the witch trials subsided in both Europe and the new world as western culture moved into the 18th century and the ‘Age of Enlightenment’.
In the twentieth century, the persecution of witches has been limited to local mobs and vigilante-style persecution.
During the twentieth century, it was in the divorce court that many women were accused of practicing witchcraft arts. This was usually a last-ditch effort act by a man and his lawyer to paint the divorced wife as an unsuitable mother. Sometimes this worked sometimes it didn’t work.
In 1990, one of my priestesses was involved with a child custody case following a divorce from her husband. During custody hearings, the husband and his lawyer desperately attempted to discredit the wife by painting her with the perceived taint of practicing the “Dark Arts” of witchcraft. The young mother was accused of practicing Wicca. During arguments, the husband’s lawyer also attempted to use her association with me, a very public witch, as confirmation of her witch-like activities. Naturally, as her high priestess, my legal and craft names were made a matter of public record in the court proceedings.
All of this was an effort on the husband’s part to taint his ex-wife’s character enough to cause a judge not to give her sole custody of the children from their now-dissolved marriage. The Maryland judge laughed both the husband and his lawyer out of court and awarded full custody to the wife. About a year later, a television writer approached me because the aforementioned child custody case received a minor amount of press. Since I was named in the proceedings, he asked if I could introduce him to some other women who had been accused of witchcraft in divorce proceedings. I told him,
“Come to dinner at my house on Friday night, and I’ll introduce you to a dozen of them!”