Sunday, 18 December 2011

Witches of Maryland

In North America, most people think of Salem when witch trials are mentioned. I've already blogged about Virginia witches where the first such trial was held on the continent in 1626. But the neighboring colony of Maryland was known to have witch trials as well.

At least twelve people were prosecuted for being a witch in that colony. The earliest known trials were aboard ships bound for Maryland. In 1654, on the Charity from London, a storm struck at sea. Passengers aboard the ship claimed the relentless storm was caused by "the malevolence of witches." An old woman by the name of Mary Lee was found to have a "witch's mark." The crew hanged her. Her corpse and all of her belongings were thrown into the sea.

The second sea hanging involved the great grandfather of George Washington, Colonel John Washington, in 1659. He accused the owner of the ship Edward Prescott for hanging Elizabeth Richardson. Little is known as to why she was regarded to be a witch. Washington was unavailable for Prescott's trial. Prescott claimed John Greene had been in command of the ship at the time and was acquitted of any wrongdoing.

In 1665, a grand jury refused to indict Elizabeth Bennett for being a witch. Not much is known about the case, except that she was the wife of a wealthy landowner, which makes her quick acquittal understandable.

Rebecca Fowler wasn't so lucky. In 1685, she had "not the fear of God before her eyes, but being led by the instigation of the Devill certain evill & dyabolicall Artes called withcrafts charmes & sorceryes... did use practice & exercise... against one Francis Sandsbury... and Several other persons... and their bodyes were very much the worse, consumed, pined & lamed..."

Rebecca Fowler was hanged on the 9th day of October, 1685.

Similar charges had been brought against John Cowman in 1674. He was convicted "...for Witchcraft Conjuration Sorcery or Enchantment used upon the Body of Elizabeth Goodale." The governor gave him a last minute reprieve, providing the sheriff take him to the gallows and place a rope around his neck. After that he was to remain an indentured servant to the governor and Council that had spared his life.

The most famous Maryland witch is Moll Dyer. Because she was an herbal healer (a cunning woman?), she was said to have been accused of being a witch and driven out of her home during a winter night by the local townspeople and her home burned to the ground. Her body was found by a child a few days later frozen to a large stone. Unfortunately, historians have never uncovered any evidence that Moll ever existed. Even though the legend has been disregarded as a folktale, the rock where she supposedly died and left a hand print sits outside the historical society in Leonardtown.

Several other cases surfaced throughout the 17th and into the early 18th century. Katharine Pout was fined one hundred pounds of tobacco, and the last trial was held in 1712 when Virtue Violl was acquitted. Like most other areas, the majority of those accused were women, and in Maryland, those cases were 90 percent.

Kim Murphy

1 comment:

Catherine/Suburban Vampire said...

Thanks for sharing yet another slice of fascinating history that's been hidden away as well as poor Mary Lee's corpse!