Delmarva Witchtrials

by Dana Kester-McCabe

With Halloween just a few days away it is that time of year we indulge in scary stories. Delmarva has many ghostly legends chronicled in books and now by tour guides across the region. We also have a small history of witchcraft.

Here in America our colonial laws against witchcraft go back to British King James I who set severe penalties for anyone, male or female, who practiced what was called the dark arts. With several generations of sectarian turmoil leading up to his taking the crown, historians surmise that beyond his own beliefs, this was part of a multipronged strategy to prevent conspiracies against his rule.

His witchcraft laws had a strong emphasis against secret gatherings. Women were particular targets because the older pagan religions allowed more feminine influence on society and anything that seem to be backsliding into ancient ways was deemed dangerous and heretical. It was a felony to make a pact with the Devil or to cast a spell or curse. Most activities considered to be witchcraft were probably only the creation of folk remedies and innocent pagan rituals. The accused were blamed for famine, sickness, or any other misfortune that could not be fully explained. These laws also allowed people to get rid of someone in their midst they felt threatened by, or who they saw as outcasts because of their appearance. Innocence could only be proved by the defendant surviving being dunked in the local river.

When English colonists reached our shores, they found the shamanistic practices of the native peoples here were what they considered generally benign superstitions, but witchcraft nonetheless. Nanticoke Indians were known to be expert herbalists, famous for their love charms. They were also rumored to be proficient poisoners who supposedly could wipe out a whole community with a single dose of their diabolical potions.

Delaware Indians told a story of two Nanticoke men living among them who were witches. They believed that they transformed themselves into owls who poisoned and killed many of their tribe. This was discovered, legend has it, when after shooting down a pair of owls the birds turned into those two Nanticokes bearing the same wounds.

Nanticoke shamans who practiced white magic were essentially doctors dispensing folk remedies. Those who were practitioners of black magic were known as "night travelers" since their rituals were usually accomplished after sunset. These were seen as evil beings who did not keep company with the rest of the tribe and were accused of casting spells on people they didn't like, making them ill. Both types of witches were known to carry small amounts of magic potions mixed with animal bones, feathers, and other trinkets in small leather pouches hung around their neck. It was said that the only way to be sure that a Nanticoke witch was dead was if they were buried with the clay jars that they stored their potions in.

I did not find any record of native people in our region being charged with witchcraft during the colonial era, though there were a couple of poisoning cases. At that same time witch trials in European countries and their New World colonies lead to imprisonment, torture, and many gruesome deaths of mostly women and girls. The first witch trials in Maryland and Virginia actually happened just off shore at sea. Women on four different ships bound for our shores were tried and hung as witches. The ships crews believed that these women caused the dangerous weather they had encountered on their journey across the Atlantic. In 1654, a woman named Mary Lee was the first to be hung shipboard for witchcraft.

She was followed by Elizabeth Richardson on board another ship called the Sarah Archte. One of Elizabeth's fellow passengers on that voyage, George Washington's great-grandfather John, was so appalled by the despicable act he witnessed that he brought charges with colonial authorities against the ship's Captain Edward Prescott. Prescott blamed the incident on a subordinate and refused to attend is own trial claiming he had more pressing business: the baptism of one of his children. He was able to get away with that because women in those days were only seen as chattel under the supervision of their husband or some other male member of the family. Elizabeth was likely an indentured servant with no one to defend her rights.

In 1662 Lord Cecilius Calvert ordered each Maryland county to appoint four men to investigate charges of witchcraft and sorcery in their districts. Potential sentences included branding, enslavement to Lord Calvert, loss of land, cutting off a limb and even death. But by the time the Salem witch trials had caused a panic about satanic activity in New England during the 1690's, the governments on Delmarva had already become a little more enlightened. In fact, Mid Atlantic colonial's accused of witchcraft did not wait to be tried for the crime. They sued their accusers for slander. Since most of those accused were women, they usually had to have their husbands or some other man bring the matter to the courts for them. But it was a remarkable early step for women's rights to have testimony in their defense taken and believed. Magistrates wanting to prevent the madness they saw playing out further north made clear by their rulings that unless a plaintiff could actually prove that witchcraft was employed by a defendant they would be held financially liable for their accusations.

Many of those calling women witches were in fact themselves women. In 1687 in Old Somerset County Samuel Collins brought a suit on behalf of his wife against John and Catherine Robbins. Catherine was accused of telling people that Collin's wife had bewitched animals causing them to be sick. Collins claimed the slander had put his family in danger and had caused them to lose money when their livestock would not sell. He won his suit. John and Catherine Robbins had to pay the Collins family restitution and submit to probation.

I did not find any stories about anyone here on Delmarva who was tried, convicted, and executed for being a witch. The last witch ever tried in Maryland was however a Delmarva resident named Virtue Violl from the town of Plain Dealing in Talbot County. In 1715 she was sent to trial in Annapolis after a quarrel with Elinor Moore. They were both spinsters. Elinor said that Virtue had cursed her tongue making her mute. Virtue was acquitted of all charges.

Several decades later another woman from the town of Plain Dealing, named Katie Coburn, was rumored to be a witch. She was an indigent elderly woman who had been allowed to live in a decrepit old shack on the edge of a wealthy plantation. People feared her because she had some sort of deformity. They claimed she gave people the "evil eye." Long after her mysterious disappearance and presumed demise, there were rumors of her ghost haunting the area.

The laws concerning witchcraft were updated in the period following the Revolutionary War. They no longer referred to the practice of witchcraft, but to the pretense of it. This made occult activities such as conjuring and fortunetelling acts of fraud rather than heresy. The penalty was public whipping and a fine of up to $100.

On February 6, 1787 Worcester County resident Samuel Smith petitioned the state council for a reduction of a fine he had been ordered to pay. He said that "through ignorance he was induced to believe in Witchcraft" and this had led to his criminal behavior. His fine was reduced and he was released from jail. This was not because the magistrate believed his excuse, but because he felt sorry for the war veteran who had fallen on hard times.

In 1809 Alexander Kirk of Cecil County took his case to his Methodist minister complaining that another member of their parish was spreading the rumor that he was a witch. The minister stood up for him putting an end to that controversy.

Belief in folklore about witches continued for a long time here. People used rituals and charms to ward off evil doers. It is not uncommon for contractors and archeologists to find witch's bottles when excavating homes built well past the Revolutionary War period in this region. These bottles had various arcane contents like straight pins and small animal bones. They were buried upside down either in the hearth or under a door threshold to protect against witches.

There was a late 19th century legend that a man in Dorchester County died when a witch turned him into a horse and rode him all night long. It was said that clay was found under his finger and toe nails. This was supposedly the witch's revenge for the man refusing to let her borrow his horse.

In 1892 two women making a living fortunetelling in Wilmington were charged with witchcraft after customers reported being conned out of their money. In 1904 in Sussex County a man was charged with practicing witchcraft and sentenced to be whipped at the pillory. A date was set for the punishment but there is some question as to whether the sentence was actually ever carried out. The Delaware legislature banned this form of punishment the following year.

In 1950 another Wilmington fortuneteller was charged with witchcraft for charging someone an exorbitant amount of cash to rid them of a supposed curse. The judge dropped the witchcraft charge after the state was ridiculed in the national press about the case. By 1955 witchcraft as a crime was one of several laws purged from Delaware statutes for being obsolete. Journalists continued to have some fun at the state's expense saying witchcraft was now legal in Delaware. The state also drew unwanted satire in 2010, when Delaware US Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell made a tongue in cheek TV ad saying that she indeed was "not a witch." This was in reference to an unrelated admission on a television show that when she was a teenager she had been interested in the occult.

Like many counter culture activities witchcraft probably was practiced in secret all through Delmarva's history. And in fact, witchcraft now is known by many modern practitioners as Wicca which is a revival and modernized version of the pagan earth religions of Northern Europe.

In 1985 a court case brought by a Virginia convict named Herbert Dettmer helped Wicca be recognized by most states as a religion. Dettmer wanted permission to have certain things in his prison cell for his ritual practices. One of those things was a knife so naturally prison officials denied this. The case went to the federal court of appeals which said in brief that if his Wicca priest wanted to bring and use those things they could as long as the prisoner did not handle them. This was the rule for other religions like Catholicism. Dettmer lost his appeal but won a bigger victory with the court's recognition of Wicca as a religion. In 1986 the decision was upheld with the opinion from the 4th Circuit Court ruling: "The mere fact that a belief may be unusual does not strip it of constitutional protection."

Today most people are no longer afraid of witches. You can find Wiccan covens in various places around the Delmarva peninsula. Their mission is educational. They teach spiritual rituals for personal enlightenment and how to be more in touch with nature.

Whether you like your Halloween witches scary and riding broomsticks or nobly honoring nature with ancient Celtic harvest rituals I hope your Halloween is a happy one.


Witchcraft traditions in Maryland - Dorchester County

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Elias Jones - 1902 - Dorchester County

Witch Trials, Legends, and Lore of Maryland: Dark, Strange, and True Tales
By William H. Cooke
Published 2012

Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian
Ronald Hutton - 2016

Witchcraft a part of Maryland’s past
The Washington Times - Sunday, October 10, 2004

Sorcery in Cecil Maryland
By Erika Quesenbery
Sturgill Special to the Whig - Oct 26, 2013

Double, Double Toil and Trouble: Witchcraft in Maryland
By Lara Westwood · August 8, 2013

Witch Bottle
By: Rebecca Morehouse August 2009

The Witches of Plain Dealing Creek – Valliant Brothers Murder
Mindie Burgoyne -

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By Patricia A. Martinelli

Somerset County Court
September 30, 1687 June 12 1689

Order and Civility in the Early Modern Chesapeake
edited by Debra Meyers, Melanie Perreault

Historical Witches and Witchtrials in North America

Chronology of Colonial Swedes on the Delaware 1638-1713
by Dr. Peter Stebbins Craig

Witches in Virginia

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By Gladys Tantaquidgeon
The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission 1972

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by Marshall J. Becke
2009 by the Archaeological Institute of America

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By Owen Davies

Pen and Ink Witchcraft: Treaties and Treaty Making in American Indian History
By Colin G. Calloway

Delaware Covens

Maryland Covens