William Penn's Witches

by Anonymous Rex
9 April 2022
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William Penn is essentially the "founder" of Pennsylvania, the one for whom the state is named. He was an English writer, born in 1644 in England to a wealthy nobleman. His father, Sir William Penn was an admiral in the English navy, and a member of the House of Commons in the 1660s. King Charles II wound up owing Sir William Penn a considerable boon, and in 1681, this debt was repaid in the form of some North American land gifted to Sir William Penn's son, and namesake. William Penn set sail for America immediately, sailing up the Delaware River, past the largely Swedish New Castle colony, arriving in PA in 1682. The colonists pledged allegiance to Penn, and PA held its first General Assembly meeting. Penn went on to found Philadelphia on the west bank of the Delaware, but found that previous Dutch and Swedish colonists were not too supportive of his largely Quaker government. Eventually, New Castle split off from provincial Pennsylvania to form Delaware.

Penn was one of the earlier proponents for unification of the colonies into a United States of America, and his democratic principles are largely what formed the basis of democracy to come in the new world. The Pennsylvania Frame of Government was a foundational work in insiring the U.S. Constitution to come, and the capital city of the new unified colonies would be none other than Penn's own Philadelphia. In fact, many credit his pacifist ideology and musings about the idea of a European Assembly as the basis for the future European Union.

Penn was also a fierce defender of religious liberty. He was outspokenly an advocate of old-world Christian philosophy, before the fire and brimstone of the Protestant revolution. He wrote a classic piece of Christian theological literature ("No Cross, No Crown", 1669) before coming over to America, and his ideas largely paved the way for other restoration movements and eventually denominationalism and unitarianism. In a way, his foundational work as a Christian primitivist led the way for modern movements like the Open Minded Path.

In Thomas White's Witches of Pennsylvania: Occult History and Lore, which this one highly recommends for anyone seriously interested in the history of witchcraft in PA, the good natured tolerance and generally reasonable nature of William Penn is quite literally put on trial as he puts to bed the witch hunt in PA before it can even get started. In a landmark case in 1684, a Swedish mother was accussed of several counts of witchcraft, which at the time, was largely defined by dark acts of maleficia, diabolism or consorting with the Devil, and acting magically to cause harm on others. This is what everyone universally accepted the term "witch" to mean, and in Pennsylvania, men were accused of witchcraft about as often as women during the witch hunt era (from this trial in 1684 to the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1794 by the PA state legislature). However, accusation of witches never really got traction in the PA state court system, and all because of how the clever William Penn handled this first trial of Margaret Mattson.

"Did you fly through the air on a broomstick?" Penn asked Mattson before the jury. She, being poor in English, seemed to struggle to understand the question, before she tentatively said yes.

"It is not illegal to fly through the air on brooms", William Penn replied.

This well known (but undocumented) legend reflects perfectly the perception of Penn that the people of his province had at the time. The instructions he set to the jury were specific, and the standard for evidence required for conviction was higher than witness testimony alone could ever provide. She denied ever having been present for any of the supposed events and accusations, and that made it all into a "he said/she said" kind of case. The jury therefore found in her favor, stating that Mattson was guilty of "the common fame of being a witch, but not guilty in the manner and form she stands indicted". She was charged a fine, not a small one mind, but the offense was considered a misdemeanor, not a serious criminal matter, and she was only given probation and a fine as appeasement for those who would see her executed for witchcraft. People continued to call her a witch, the witch of Ridley Creek (another urban legend in years to come).

This precedent stood throughout the rest of the 17th century, and witchcraft thrived in some areas, and in many forms. Much of what we would call witchcraft today was not associated with the dark arts of witches in the past, coming instead in the form of German folk magic (article to come) and unique, American traditions of hex magic. William Penn was well-known to have had a positive relationship with the Lenape Native Americans, whose traditions may also have had a role in shaping witchcraft in the region over the years (another article to come).

However, this precedent also became a great source of frustration for many residents of PA in the early 18th century. Immigrants were drawn in to PA by the religous tolerance of the Quakers, only to find that their own levels of tolerance were lacking by comparison. Eventually, the Quakers were outnumbered by other, less tolerant forms of Christianity. Riots broke out after a witch was acquitted in Philadelphia in 1749, with more riots to come over the years. One old woman was stoned to death by an unruly mob in the streets of Philly one tragic day in 1787. The witch hunt and mob mentality runs deep in the veins of the Philadelphia native even today!

Many in Pennsylvania did not believe in witchcraft at all, Renaissance men like Ben Franklin, who published a spoof, satircal piece in his newspaper the Gazette in 1730. Many believed the story to be a true recount of how the women all floated when put in water to see if they would sink or float as witches. It was said the case against them was dropped because the nature of their clothes interfered with the test, and so it would have to be redone when the women could be thrown in naked! This type of almost certainly fictional account of the witch hunt helped to keep witch hunt ideology out of the courts and academic institutions. Riots and mobs were largely consisting of lower and middle class, uneducated Americans who more than likely were venting the frustrations of their lives onto easy targets within the community, as was common throughout all of the regions during the witch hunt era.

Whether the traditions of the witches of the Early Modern era align with what modern witches do today, doesn't matter. The point of this article is to show the foundation of religious tolerance in Pennsylvania that allowed for witches in PA to practice their folk magic in peace, unafraid of persecution by corrupt government officials or accusation by jealous neighbors. William Penn set a precedent for witchcraft in America that echoed in short order around the world. In many ways, Penn is like the grandfather of modern witchcraft.