Philadelphia versus Salem: Preventing Witch Hysteria

Last week, we shared the story of the Mattson Witch Trial, the only known witch trial William Penn presided over.  Pennsylvania never reached anywhere near the heights of Salem’s infamous witch hunts.  So just how much did Penn’s ideals make a difference in the witch hysteria? 

"The Bewitched Man," Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, 1798

The answer lies not within one difference, but many differences.  Penn and his Quaker colony had a very different social environment influenced by religion, politics, and education.  Penn founded his colony as a “holy experiment” grounded in his plans for religious tolerance, laws created and governed by the people, and a fair justice system.  These values changed how witch hysteria affected the communities in Pennsylvania.

Much like the Quakers, Salem’s Puritan founders created their community out of a desire to escape religious persecution in Europe. However, contrary to Penn’s policy of inclusion and tolerance, Salem prohibited any non-Puritans from living in Salem. 

“Witches’ Initiation,” David Teniers the Younger, 1647-49

Salem also had a history of persecution for witchcraft.  The religious leaders regularly gave sermons warning of the danger of witches and openly advertised the witch hunts that happened throughout Europe.  In addition, the court system did not really function and failed to regulate or protect those accused of witchcraft.  So in 1692, when the accusations and trials really began to engulf the community, the colony’s government failed to maintain order and sanity.

Anonymous drawing of witches at work from Johann Geiler von Kayersberg, 1517. Cornell University Library.

All of these factors play into the horrible persecution of the 59 people tried in Salem, of which 20 were put to death before anyone could stop the hysteria. By the end of the summer in 1692, 13 women and 6 men were hanged in Salem, Massachussetts for the crime of witchcraft.

Needless to say the hysteria of witch hunts struck hard for centuries throughout Europe and the colonies, leading to severe persecution, shunning, and often death for the accused men and women.  Anything mysterious or hard to explain, like cows not producing milk or infant deaths, could be blamed on a witch.  Science would later prove the real reasons for such events, but it would come too late to save the many people who were burned, hanged or drowned as witches. Pennsylvania avoided most of this madness, but not entirely, as Margret Mattson and Yeshro Hendrickson’s trial proves.


Written by Mary Barbagallo, Intern


Pennsylvania Colonial Cases – Proprietor vs. Mattson

 The Malleus Malficarum of Henrich Kramer and James Sprenger: Translated with an introduction by the Reverend Montague Summers, Dover Publication, Inc., New York, NY, 1971.

 The Witch Hunts: A History of the Witch persecutions in Europe and North America, Robert Thurston, Pearson Education Ltd., United Kingdom, 2007.

“What magic words do you utter then?”: How to Catch a Witch!

‘Tis the month of ghost and ghouls and all things otherworldly… so it’s a great time to explore the role of witchcraft in 17th-century society!

So how would you react as a colonist, if someone in your community was accused of witchcraft?  Well first you have to understand what constitutes witchcraft.  Otherwise, how exactly would you know if your neighbor down the street had made a pact with the devil?  And then, if you found someone to be a witch, what exactly could you do about it?

Malleus Maleficarum, published  1487

In making these and all other decisions regarding witchcraft, there was a lengthy and well-known piece of literature that was referenced and it was called The Malleus Maleficarum (“The Hammer of Witches”). It gave well-respected advise on defining witchcraft, the powers possessed by witches, connections they had to the devil, and the threat this presented to society, as well as the judicial process for charging witches and how to punish them accordingly. Among these descriptions it also provided a set of questions to further help in the trial process, one of which provides the title to this blog. In fact, the Malleus Maleficarum was such a bestseller, it was published in four languages between 1487 and 1669.  It even made its way across the Atlantic Ocean and was used within the colonies during bouts of 17th-century witch hysteria that found hold in even the most liberal of colonial governments!

"The witches' sabbat," Gottlief Spisseln, 1687

Although the majority of hysteria during this time was not directly tied to Pennsylvania, there is one recorded witch trial in Penn’s colony in 1684. A Swedish immigrant to the colony, Margaret Mattson pleaded “not guilty” to accusations of being a witch and practicing her craft. Presiding as judge, William Penn allowed Margaret to defend herself on the stand, provided interpreters and fellow Swedes on the jury. After testimony was over, Penn gave the jury his charge and the verdict was reached.  

The jury found Mattson, along with the other woman being charged with witchcraft, Yeshro Hendrickson, guilty of having the reputation of being a witch (“the common fame of”), but there was no law against such a thing. However, in order to maintain calm within the community, Penn imposed a fine on both women’s husbands of £50 to be held as bond and for Mattson and Hendrickson to be on good behavior for 6 months. If no further charges were brought against them in this time by their neighbors, the money would be returned. This type of “sentencing” was known as a “peace bond” and often utilized by Quakers as a tool to encourage good behavior and to keep the peace within their settlement. Moreover, the death penalty was abolished by Penn for crimes of any sort with the exception of willful murder.

So why did Pennsylvania’s witch trial turn out so differently than other colonies?  Check back next week to catch Part 2 of this bewitching comparison!

William Penn presiding over the Margret Mattson Trial

Written by Mary Barbagallo, Intern


Pennsylvania Colonial Cases – Proprietor vs. Mattson

The Malleus Malficarum of Henrich Kramer and James Sprenger: Translated with an Introduction by the Reverend Montague Summers, Dover Publication, Inc., New York, NY, 1971.

The Witch Hunts: A History of the Witch persecutions in Europe and North America, Robert Thurston, Pearson Education Ltd., United Kingdom, 2007.

Penn’s Pen: A Government of Freedom

On Sunday we honored William Penn’s early hopes for a land of freedom.  Now we want to highlight the personal freedoms he made into law, just before sailing to his new colony in 1682:

“Persons living in this Province… shall in no ways be molested or prejudiced for their Religious Perswasion or Practice.” (Penn, Laws Agreed Upon in England, 1682)

With a law such as the separation of church and state, Penn allowed all citizens to find God in their own way, attracting many groups seeking religious tolerance.

In the late 1600’s individual freedoms were very seldom seen. Today we take privileges, such as religious freedom, acceptance of diversity, and many legal practices in our government for granted. Could you believe many of these had their beginnings as the radical ideas of William Penn?  In 1681 a Charter was given by King Charles II and granted this ambitious young Quaker a large tract of land we know as Pennsylvania. During his years in England he experienced the wrath of religious persecution and unstable political rule. As Proprietor of this new land, he was able to set forth new laws and establish a government unlike any other of its time.

Another ground-breaking act was addressing individual rights. By establishing laws in accordance with the wills of the colony’s citizens and promising a representative government, Penn allowed for a more ethical form of authority. Other advances included lessening the harsh criminal punishments of English law, holding elections by secret ballots, ensuring an open court with a right to trial, allowing all people to testify on their own behalf, and enforcing the honesty of trial witnesses under penalty of perjury. 

Excerpt image from the Charter of Pennsylvania, 1681. The image in the upper left corner is of King Charles II .

Though William Penn had no direct relation to the American Revolution, his individual beliefs and practices have impacted the manner of the birth of this nation.  Give thanks on this Independence Day for the hard-won freedoms of those who came before!

By Raymond Tarasiewicz, Intern


Penn’s Pen: Getting Arrested, Quaker-Style

In November of 1667, William Penn, a freshly converted Quaker,  was arrested with18 other Quakers in County Cork, Ireland. Christopher Rye, the Mayor of Cork, was well-known for his persecution of Quakers.  In a letter to The Earl of Orrery, one of the lords justice of Ireland, Penn requests that Rye not be encouraged in his persecution. 

What is remarkable is that the 23-year old Quaker was already forming and articulating the beliefs that became such an important part of his Holy Experiment:

Religion which is at once my crime and my innocency makes me a prisoner to a mayors malice, but my own freeman, for being in the assembly of the people called Quakers there came several constables, backed with soldiers, rudely and arbitrarily requiring every man’s appearance before the mayor, and amongst many others violently haled me with them.  Upon my coming before him he charged me for being present at a riotous and tumultuary assembly…

Penn describes the scene and questions the applicability of the law upon which the Mayor made his arrests.  He then appeals to Lord Orrery:

But I presume my Lord the acquaintance you have had with other countries must needs have furnished you with this infallible observation that diversity of faith, and worships contribute not to the disturbance of any place where moral uniformity is barely requisite to preserve the peace… and conclude no way so effectual to improve advantage this country as to dispense with freedom in things relating to conscience.

An astonished Earl Orrery responded that he had already heard about the matter from Rye himself.  Orrery wrote, “I confess I was surprised and sorry to see you thus associated ” with Quakers.  Orrery forwarded the Mayor’s letter to Penn’s father the Admiral (who had at least twice previously demanded that Penn return to England immediately), and cautions Penn that “you cannot expect that I will hinder the Magistrates from doing their duty.  I hope you will follow this friendly advice…”

Looks like young adults defying their parents is nothing new!


Written by Mary Ellyn Kunz, Museum Educator

William’s World: A Crime of Fashion!

The Scene:  The Justice Hall in the Old Bailey, London

The Date: 15-16 January 1690

Where’s William?
M.I.A.  At this stage, Penn was keeping a very low profile in England.  He was still suspected by the new King and Queen, William and Mary, of Jacobitism and perhaps Catholicism.  Most of his letters now just carry a date, not a location of where it was written, and letters to him were addressed to friends who might know his location, for hand delivery.

Far below the social and political sphere in which Penn maneuvered, there existed a large underclass.  This is especially true of the city of London.  Many upper class Londoners were quaintly amused by

the simple country laboring folk they encountered in journeys across southern England.  Closer to home, though, they often objected to the ‘airs’ put on by the lower classes, especially concerning their modes of dress.  Fashion, and fashionable clothing, became a London trait, most noticeable after the Restoration, and continuing after the Glorious Revolution.  Modes of dress indicated your status in society, and also indicated who could or could not be approached in public areas.  The engraving on the right is one of many in a collection by Marcellus Laroon, an artist who sketched London’s street hawkers, entertainers, and beggars in the late 1600s.  These chimney sweeps are from the lowest ranks of London society, and are dressed accordingly.  But unfortunately for the gentry, the lower classes started to find plenty of opportunities to buy the fashionable garments traditionally worn only by the upper-classes, causing a major disturbance in the class system.  Many women wearing fashionable gowns were now less than met the eye.  Bernard Mandeville, writing in the early 18th Century, laments:

This haughtiness alarms the court, the women of quality are

frighten’s to see merchants’ wives and daughters dress’d like

themselves: this impudence of the City, they cry, is intolerable;

mantua-makers are sent for, and the contrivance of fashions

becomes all their study, that they may have always new modes

ready to take up, as soon as those saucy city shall begin to

imitate those in being.

As the merchants wives went, so went the laborers and their wives and girlfriends.  They aspired to fashions which would elevate themselves to the merchants clothing status.  Men were no different, as you can see from the engraving here.  This fiddler sought to elevate his appearance and improve business by dressing in fashionable attire, probably bought used from a street crier.  A huge quantity of secondhand clothes abounded in London, both legitimate and stolen. Tradesmen looking to purchase new fashions or servants who receive garments from their employers would sell off used clothing to street hawkers (seen below) for extra money.  The hawkers would then resell for a much smaller price than new garments.  Clothing and cloth remained a huge black market commodity in 17th – 18th Century England, and most likely, throughout the Empire.  This continued until industrialization and its mass-produced, inexpensive clothing caught up with the demand.  If fashion or other needs called, and the purse was light, theft would do. 

Trials of Anne Hughes, Jane Townsend, Jean Voudger, Ursula Watson, and Mary Smith all before a jury for theft of clothing or cloth in the weeks preceding.


Anne Hughes – found guilty of stealing a number of clothing items from her employer, listed as a “quarter of an ell of Holland value 18 d one yard of Cambrick 3 s. one Scarf 6 d. one pair of Shoes 12 d. 

Jane Townsend – found guilty of  stealing one Flaxen Sheet value 5 s. from Joseph Brendon.

Both of these women were sentenced to being “Whip’d from Newgate to Temple Bar” which would have been from above St. Paul’s, and down Fleet Street, tied to a cart, being publicly whipped along the way.

Jean Voudger – found guilty of stealing from one John Rance 56 yards of Flanders Lace value 10 pounds,  two Laced Holland Cornets 7 s., two Quoifs 14 s., 2 pair of Gloves, 2s., and twelve Hoods 13 s.

She was sentenced to death for this crime, but was saved from the gallows by reason of her pregnancy.

Ursula Watson – found guilty of stealing a handkerchief and a pair of gloves, and was acquitted of theft charges regarding other items missing from the house.

Mary Smith – found guilty of for stealing six yards of Serge value 12 s. on the 24th of December , from Robert Acton.

Both Smith and Watson were sentenced to being whipped from Newgate to Holburn Bars.

The  second-hand clothing market fueled by fashion crazed London was a boon for some, allowing for an apparent increased status to lower class workers (like the crab seller seen above) and employing many.  However, it remained a bane to those caught stealing to supply this market and the aristocrats who saw their status as under assault by those up-dressing commoners!


By Todd Galle, Museum Curator 

Skip to content