Sacred Texts  Americana  Index  Previous  Next 


Early Witch Trial in Pennsylvania.--To illustrate the extremely fortunate circumstances in having so few witch trials in Pennsylvania, we bring to you reference to the first reported case (which turned out to be not much of a case at all), in which William Penn sat in judgment--and let it speak for itself.

There is in our "'Pow Wow' Book," (The Aurand Press, Harrisburg, 1929), a detailed account of what appears to be the only "witch" trial in the entire history of the Colony, Province or the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Margaret Mattson and Yeshro Hendrickson, (Swedish women), had been accused as witches, and the jury accordingly found a true bill. Absentee jurymen were fined 40 shillings each!

The first mentioned pleaded "not guilty" to the charge that she bewitched calves, geese, etc., but that, while she could bewitch cattle, oxen were above her reach. Her daughter's suspicions and convictions were given in evidence, but "the prisoner denieth all things."

Governor Penn charged the jury, which brought in a verdict sufficiently ambigious and ineffective for such a dubious offense, saying they find her "guilty of having the common fame of a witch, but not guilty in the manner and form as she stands indicted." The women were put on their good behavior for six months!

It may be pointed out that in the early days of the colony, we had by precedent, a statute of King James I. "That act," says Watson in his "Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania," "was held to be part of our law by an act of our provincial Assembly, entitled 'An Act against conjuration, witchcraft and dealing with evil and wicked spirits.'"

But all around us in the early days one heard of witches and witchcraft--Virginia, New Jersey, New York, and New England. Where, even today, is there a State, or Nation, wherein one cannot find such beliefs? Folklore and customs are long-lasting; because we have never learned of such things is a poor assumption that there is no "such thing."

The Penn decision reminds one of the account of Jesus in the Temple, writing on the ground with his finger, and saying, as we read in John 8:7: ". . . He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her . . . 9. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one. . ."

Several "Near" Witch Trials.--The case of the York boys, three of them, who murdered an old man for a book, or a lock of hair, back in 1928, is well known throughout America. It was about that time that newspapers needed some innoculations in the matter of a new line of news, and the York case certainly went a long way to fill the bill.

Subsequently a baby at Lebanon died of malnutrition, and again the "witch doctor" got it in the neck, and the newspapers got the "news."

In the same neighborhood a "buried treasure" hoax got abroad, and "headlines" got a lot of "hex" ideas across.

A case in Lehigh county tried to rear its head a dozen years ago, but if it was a "witch" case they are still trying to solve it.

Then there was the Bechtel case in Philadelphia--a Mennonite who was murdered--the authorities at first declaring it was witchcraft--which it wasn't.

Murder "For Insurance" Is Hardly "Witchcraft."--Recently closing its records, the Philadelphia courts charged a number of persons with "witchcraft," or, at least that was the impression left after reading the newspapers. The cases turned out to be nothing more than mere "murder-for-insurance"--surely a long way off from "witchcraft."

The Shinsky Case in 1934.--There was the case of Albert Shinsky, near Pottsville--notable for the fact that he claimed he killed a witch in self -defense--and, that nothing whatsoever happened in that affair to prove, or disprove, the theory regarding witches, other than that they are creatures of the mind, and of that fact there is little, or no doubt.

Newspapers at that time published a copyright account by this writer, some of them with screaming headlines: "Did Bible Figure in Witch Slaying?"

In the article thus published, we had not established positively that the Bible did figure, but suggested "it could have;" this conclusion was supported a few days later when a professor from a Philadelphia university, accompanied by an officer, called on Shinsky in his jail cell.

Warden William Watson, of the Schuylkill county prison, reported that Albert Shinsky believed that the murder of Mrs. Mummey, a "witch," was justified in the Bible. Warden Watson was quoted in the Phila. "Inquirer," of March 26, 1934, as follows:

"He told me," said the Warden, "that there are numerous instances in the Scriptures where the sacrifice of human life has been declared necessary. He cited the Old Testament tale of how Abraham was about to kill his son Isaac on the altar as showing the necessity for taking human life to placate spiritual curses or spells.

"He told me that all the New Testament writers clearly believed in the power of demons and that the devil is a real personage, and not merely an evil influence as modern theologists have it.

"The Bible represents the devil as a fallen angel, who goes about whispering and suggesting evil acts. If you will read closely you will find that Hell was made for the torment of the devil, and not human beings, as a way of escape from that place has been provided for all of us."

An eminent psychiatrist, Dr. A. I. Baron, of Philadelphia, who examined Shinsky in jail, reports that

"When I left his cell after an exhaustive research as far back as his earliest memories, I knew that I had been talking to an adolescent boy of the most primitive development. I had been talking with a mental and emotional infant.

"If the State demands the death penalty for Schuylkill county's 'hex' slayer, society will be seeking revenge upon a 13-year-old savage."

Dr. Barton reported that Shinsky, although 23 years old, "has actually been five different people, each personally at war with the other four;" that he was "in medical phraseology--an emotional, imaginative extrovert with schizophrenic reactions."

If psychiatrists were called in to examine 100, or 1000 adults, taken from the streets at random, we wonder how many of that number would have large traces of the same "disease" attributed to Shinsky. Surely the "things" he bred in his mind can be found in the minds of all too many others.

It is probably true, as pointed out elsewhere in this account, that "religion and superstition walk hand in hand;" that children learn about "this and that," but cannot, when they reach adulthood, separate their thoughts from those learned as a child. The general effects of this inability to forget surely has taken a terrible toll in the history of man.

Yet, on the other hand, if we could forget as easily as would be necessary to get rid of witches, we would as likely forget to whom we are married, whose kids belong to who, and certainly where we live!

Whether Mrs. Mummey was a witch, or not, we'll never know--and the authorities sent Albert to a place for men with "weak minds."

The Late Clarence Darrow, Esq., Was Interested in the York "Witch" Case

The late Clarence G. Darrow, eminent lawyer and scholar, is quoted in reference to the York witchcraft case, at the sentencing of 14-year-old John Curry, to "life in prison."

"Outrage," is the one word expressed by Darrow, who then queried: "Do you think the State of Pennsylvania will stand for it? . . . It seems a terrible outrage." Yes, the State did stand for it, although, after something like ten years Curry was released from the penitentiary.

While many persons did not like all of Darrow's opinions, nevertheless he was a deep thinker, and we record here his opinions regarding the York case, as reported in the Harrisburg "Patriot," Feb. 21, 1929:

"Belief in witchcraft cannot, in itself, be thought a crime. If it is there would be but few of us really innocent. Not so many years ago our best people and devout Christians not only believed in witches but guaranteed their celestial happiness by murdering them.

"We placidly admit that there are sections of our country where people are isolated by their own customs and thought, or by geography, and live quaintly a century and a half behind our little more enlightened communities. But we forget that a mere century and a half takes us almost back to Cotton Mather and the stake. Then witches were hanged for the glory of God and for the peace of mind of those who thought they had been or might be bewitched. There are today groups of people who have advanced but little in mentality beyond the ignorant frenzy that glorified in hangings.

"Even today a literal interpretation of the Bible would force us to believe in witchcraft and sorcery. And those simple folk of which that Curry boy is a product hold strictly to the Word just as they find it. To them the Witch of Endor is very real. The devil is real. Spells are real. In their world, furnished by traditions, myths and Old World lore, handed down unchanged from one generation to another, there are evil spirits as certain as a flying railroad train bearing down on a motorist stalled on the tracks.

"Is there any doubt that Curry and those others believed that Rehmeyer had an evil power which he could exercise at will? Is there any doubt that they thought a lock of his hair would break the spell? Nothing new in that belief, nothing unusual. Reach into your own pocket for your own personal protector against bad luck.

"Our belief in capital punishment as a deterrent is just another form of witchcraft. Apart from the mass desire for revenge, there is a subconscious desire to rid ourselves of what we believe to be an evil person. We look in vain for any proof that executions have had any effect on crime. When England punished by death everything from bread and sheep stealing to wholesale killing, crime was far more general than it is today. Education and the training of youth in trades and profession has diminished crime, never the death penalty.

"Isn't there every reason to believe that the crime of murder is a symptom. In the York case it was clearly a symptom of a prevailing ignorance, a condition which should never be allowed to exist in the State of Pennsylvania. . . ."

Next: Those Little ''Differences'' Between Science and Folklore