Dark days cast spell over area

Lecture covers witchcraft accusations in Maryland

Lecture covers witchcraft accusations in Maryland

September 27, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

Bewitching cows, boiling bones, riding broomsticks, shape-shifting into black cats to escape through keyholes, making hogs talk - sound like the script from a B horror movie? Try late 17th-century court transcripts from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

"I think we stereotypically think of witchcraft as happening in Salem, Mass.," said John Nelson, curator of the Jonathan Hager House and Museum in Hagerstown's City Park. He said many Americans associate witch hunts with the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692 - during which 19 men and women were found guilty of practicing witchcraft and executed, while countless others were imprisoned - but it "might come as a surprise to many that the crime of witchcraft was well-known in many American colonies, even before the hysteria that swept through New England."

Nelson will host a "Witchcraft in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania" lecture at the Hager House at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 28. Using such sources as the Maryland and Pennsylvania state archives, he and fellow researcher John Bryan uncovered nearly 20 witchcraft cases in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia from about 1650 to 1712.


Hannah Edwards of Calvert County, Md., for example, was accused of "being led by the instigation of the Devil certain evil and diabolical arts called witch crafts, enchantments, charms and sorceries," according to grand jury records from May 1686. The jury found Edwards not guilty; others weren't so lucky.

While the term "witchcraft" turned up in numerous slander cases of the time, several women were actually convicted of sorcery and executed - either by court order or by people who took the law into their own hands, Nelson said. Hanging, not burning at the stake, was the execution method of choice, he said. Others accused of witchcraft were forced to perform various tests to prove their innocence. In one Pennsylvania case, the researchers found, an accused man and woman were stripped, bound, and thrown into a pond to test the accusers' theory that witches would float rather than sink.

Nelson said he was surprised at the number of witchcraft allegations he and Bryan stumbled upon in Maryland - 11 - as compared to three in Pennsylvania and four in Virginia.

Pennsylvania's many Quakers likely discouraged the state's witch population, Nelson said. Maryland boasted its own witch hunter.

Nelson will discuss the puritanical Rev. Francis Doughtie of Charles County, Md., and other witchy tidbits during his lecture.

If you go ...

"Witchcraft in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania"

7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 28

Jonathan Hager House and Museum

110 Key St.



For more information, call 301-739-8393 or send e-mail to

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