Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Witch Abusers Brought to Court

The events described in this news item took place at a time in Maine when old superstitions were still alive, but on their last legs. It comes from The Eastern Herald and Gazette of Maine of Nov. 17, 1796. I've added a few paragraph breaks to make it more readable.

The Courts of Common Pleas and General Sessions of the Peace for the County of York, were holden at Biddeford last week. At this Court and action was commenced on behalf of the Commonwealth against Elizabeth Smith and others, for an assault and battery on Elizabeth Smith, widow.

In the course of the trial it appeared that in the month of October last the Complainant had been accused of witchcraft; and that not only her neighbors, but her relations had been so incensed against her, that she was obliged to fly to a neighboring town for safety.

It seems that one John Hilton had, some time in October, become insane; and while in that state, accused the Complainant of having bewitched him. He said, that as he was going home one evening, just before dark, the Complainant appeared before him, and walked some time at about six yards distance; that he had an ox goad in his hand which he held by the middle; that presently he perceived the goad to move through his hand; that when it had passed almost out of his hand, being persuaded that it was the Complainant who was drawing it out, and that she did it by the power of witchcraft, he attempted to strike her; but instead of doing any injury to the Complainant, he himself received a violent blow on the lower part of the back; that the blow gave him great pain, &c.

Eaton Cleaves, witness on behalf of the defendants, further testified, that till the time mentioned by Hilton, he had been possessed of a sound mind; that he then declared the Complainant had bewitched him, and had ever since continued to declare it. That the Complainant had been requested to visit Hilton; and that while she was in the house he appeared to be much better, and talked very rationally; that it was proposed to obtain some of her blood as an antidote; and that she consented HER BLOOD SHOULD BE SHED.

But notwithstanding all this, it appeared in evidence that the defendants had threatened her life, had said she ought to have been long ago in hell with the dunned; and that they would let loose the man whom she had bewitched, John Hilton, to kill her. Whether they let him loose or not is uncertain; but it is a fact, that he made his escape from the place where he was confined, and ran immediately to the house of the Complainant; beat her violently with a stick, drove her out of the house, then seized her by the throat and well nigh choaked her. While Hilton was striking and choaking her, one of the defendants, and niece to Hilton, cried out "kill her, uncle John."

It appeared also in the course of the trial that other means had been used to kill her besides calling on "uncle John." The defendants had, to use their own expressions, "tried projects"—one of which was to boil uncle John's urine! This not having the desired effect, uncle John went in person.

Many circumstances given in evidence were calculated to provoke laughter. But at the close of the trial, the subject assumed a very serious aspect. The delusion appeared to be general, and the ignorance of the people profound. While the Court were sitting, news was received that on account of the trial in question, a house had been entirely demolished in the neighborhood of the complainant—

His honor Judge Wells, in an address to the defendants, endeavored to convince them of the groce [sic] error into which they had fallen; and that the difficulties and dissentions in the neighborhood arose rather from ignorance in themselves than from witchcraft in the poor old woman.

The defendants were bound to keep the peace till June next, and thence till August.

1 comment:

Michelle said...

Phew.... kind of makes the average neighborhood squabble of today sound casual in comparison.