Do you believe in witchcraft? Do you believe in witches? Down through the centuries many people have, and evidence of such things has been debated long and hard. In the late 1600s, the town of Salem, Massachusetts, earned everlasting fame because many supposed witches were actually brought to trial before the Puritan fathers. Several were found guilty of such and were hanged by the neck until dead.
There were other witchcraft trials in the early colonial days, but none ever received as much publicity and renown as those in Salem. Even colonial Pennsylvania got in on the act. One and only one person was ever tried for witchcraft in William Penn’s province.
The year was 1684, and her name was Margaret Mattson. Margaret and her husband arrived in this new world before William Penn, before the land was ever granted to him by England’s King Charles II. They were Swedish, and along with their neighbors, made up the first group of immigrants to settle along the lower Delaware River. They soon would be displaced by the ever more numerous English settlers who followed Penn. That was probably the cause of it all.
Margaret and her husband were very successful farmers. Having arrived early, the claimed much good river-bottom land, good for crops and the raising of cattle. Later arriving Dutch, and particularly the English, found they had to look harder, and go farther inland, to find suitable lands to claim. There was not a little jealousy regarding these Swedish farmers. They didn’t even have the decency to speak English for goodness sake. By 1684, the Mattsons were settled along Ridley Creek, a tributary of the Delaware River, which it joined at Upland (present-day Chester PA.)
And so, as often happens in the case of jealousy, false rumors would be started, and well believed by others as they spread. If an Englishman’s cow failed to give milk, it must be because it’s been hexed. If the Englishman’s crops did not do well, there had to be a reason. It must be that old Swedish woman. She must be a witch and was casting spells!
Or so the rumors spread. Eventually, one of the English farmers went so far as to file a complaint with the authorities charging that Margaret Mattson was indeed a witch. A date was set for a trial. A jury of twenty-one Englishmen was selected. The Proprietor himself, William Penn, would preside over the trial as Judge! Of course in those days, the defendant was not provided with legal counsel, and poor Margaret Mattson couldn’t even speak English.
The prosecution tried to ask Margaret many questions. Finally the gist of the matter came down to two questions asked of Margaret by none other than William Penn himself. “Art thou a witch? Doth you fly though the air on a broomstick?”
Margaret, of course not understanding the questions at all, seemed to answer in the affirmative. The prosecuting attorney and the English farmers who coveted the Mattson’s lands were delighted. It seemed Margaret had confessed to the crimes. But William Penn had sensed that the whole thing was a sham, that the charges were trumped up just to deprive these old established settlers of their property. As the chief judge, he deliberated. Then he announced to the court that there was nothing in the laws of the Province that made it a crime to fly about on a broomstick! “Not guilty,” Penn decreed. “Let the woman go.”
But Penn’s advisors quickly pointed out that it was against English law, and the law of the Commonwealth, to be a witch. She could not be found totally innocent. So William Penn compromised. He assessed a fine on Margaret, and forbid her to “practice” any witchcraft for a period of two years. He realized of course, that she had never practiced it at all. Needless to say, the English farmers were downtrodden, but the will of the Proprietor would stand.
Margaret Mattson and her husband continued to live on the banks of the Delaware River for many a year. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, she, nor anyone else, was ever again accused of being a witch!
Postscript: The tale as related above, was compiled from sources that are suspect in their historical accuracy. In addition, it was additionally enlivened by the author’s sense of “the telling of the tale.” One should, as I believe Mark Twain once pronounced, “never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” I recently came across “Margaret Mattson, Accused Witch” by Sheila W. Martin. Ms. Martin is/was an Associate Editor of the Bucks County Panorama. Her story was obtained from the archives of the American Swedish Historical Foundation in Philadelphia. Ms. Martin’s story sticks closely to the factual version, including actual transcript from the 1684 trial. I include the following information, “just to get the story straight.”
Margaret and her husband Nils Mattson were among a group of Swedish settlers who landed near Wilmington, Delaware, in 1638. First settling along Christiana Creek in what is now Delaware, they moved to the vicinity of Upland. Several land transactions by Nils Mattson appear in colonial records, and by 1680 it apears they owned land along both Crum Creek and perhaps Ridley Creek as well. They were well-established members of the community. Early records sometimes also call him “Neels” and at other times “Neals.”
Whether the motive of her accusers was the Mattson’s land or simply petty jealousies over other matters remains unclear. Most of the testimony given is hearsay. Not one witness accused Margaret of a direct act of witchcraft.
William Penn is portrayed in my original version of the story as the true “hero,” defending Margaret as well as he could from what he truly knew to be false charges. The record puts Penn in an even better light, as not only were there Swedes on the trial jury, but Margaret was provided with an interpreter as well. Margaret stated to the court after the testimony of the many witnesses, several of whom were Swedish also, that she “denyeth all things and that the witnesses speake only by hearsay.” The jury, after quick deliberation, found her guilty of “having the Common fame of a witch, but not guilty in manner and forme as Shee stands Indicted.” So Margaret was only guilty of being considered a witch. Her husband Nils paid fifty pounds to assure her good behavior for a period of six months.
It is most interesting to note that in 1684 there was no law against witchcraft in Pennsylvania, and that William Penn had abolished the death penalty in his Colony for all but “willfull murder.” Laws against witchcraft were not imposed until 1718, when they were forced upon the Colony by England’s Privy Council. So it is interesting to speculate what actions would or could have been taken against Margaret had the jury pronounced her guilty of actually practicing witchcraft. Why did the trial ever commence in the first place if no law was broken? In spite of this, the verdict returned may well have averted a sudden rush of similar jealousy-based charges against other equally innocent women, as happened in Salem, Massachusetts, where one conviction led to another.