Grandma Was a Witch?

My 11x great-grandmother, Margaret Matson [her maiden name seems to have been Margareta Ericsdottir], was the ancestor of my great-grandmother Edith Edna Curtis.

Margaret was born about 1635 in Torshälla, Södermanland, Sweden.  She married Nils Matson [also Matsson] in Sweden on 5 Nov 1651.  The couple immigrated to America in 1654, arriving at “New Sweden, Delaware“.

According to a biography written by Nils Matsson’s great-grandson Peter Matson, Nils and Margareta arrived aboard the ship Örn and were initially assigned a plantation in “Finland”, an area south of Upland, Pennsylvania.  The family then moved to land along Crum Creek near present-day Eddystone, Pennsylvania.

The Matssons did not speak English, and had a prime tract of farmland due to their early arrival at the colony.  They were, by some accounts, prosperous farmers.  This may have led to distrust and jealousy amongst the later-arriving Dutch and English.  Margaret was also said to have been a “healer” in the Swedish tradition.  In any case, in 1683 Margaret was accused of witchcraft by several people in her settlement, including (indirectly) her own daughter-in-law.  Some accounts posit that this was a poorly-conceived attempt to wrest the land from the Matson family.

Whatever the motive, Margaret and Nils were brought before a provincial Grand Jury headed by William Penn himself to face charges that Margaret was a witch.  It was the only witchcraft trial ever held in the province of Pennsylvania.

William Penn, Governor of early Pennsylvania

William Penn, Governor of early Pennsylvania

The trial proceedings are recorded in the “Minutes of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania“, and, frankly, it’s pretty funny stuff.  It’s written in Old English, which gives it a real charm, and the accusations against Margaret read like a scene from “Monty Python’s Holy Grail”.  It’s not far from “She turned me into a newt!

There was a preliminary hearing, held on 7 Dec 1683, that saw Nils Matson posting a bond of 50 pounds to ensure the good behavior of his wife.  The trial date was then set for the 27th of December.

At the actual trial a couple of different Swedes were available to translate for Margaret, who, as previously-stated, did not speak English.  Margaret plead “not guilty” to the charges, then the first witness against her took the stand.  Henry Drystreet testified that:

“He was tould 20 years agoe, that the prisoner at the Barr was a witch, and that several cows were betwitcht by her; also, that James Saunderling’s mother tould him that she bewitched her cow, but afterwards said it was a mistake, and that her Cow should doe well again, for it was not her cow but another person’s that should dye”.

Got that?  Henry got up and said he had once been told that Margaret was a witch, and his proof was that Mrs. Saunderling said that Margaret had bewitched her cow, but later told him she was mistaken because her cow was fine and it had been someone else’s cow that had died.  Compelling stuff.

The next witness was just as convincing.  Charles Ashcom took the stand and testified.

“Charles Ashcom attested, saith Anthony [Matson]’s wife being asked why she sould her Cattle; was because her mother [in-law] had bewitcht them, having taken the witchcraft of Hendrick’s cattle, and put it on their oxon; she might keep but noe other cattle.”

So, Charles’s point seems to be that he asked Margaret’s daughter-in-law why she sold her cattle, and she told him that Margaret had bewitched the cattle, taking a spell off Hendrick Jacobson’s cattle and putting it on some oxen.  As a result, the wife sold her cattle and wouldn’t own any more.

Charles then got into some more serious accusations:

“That one night the daughter of ye prisoner called him up hastily, and when he came she sayd that there was a great light but just before, and an old woman with a knife in her hand at ye bedd’s feet, and therefore shee cryed out and desired Jonathan Symcock to take away his calves, or else she would send them to hell.”

This one’s a little tougher to decipher, but it seems that Margaret’s daughter-in-law [the Matsons had three sons and no daughters] called Charles in the middle of the night to say, “You just missed it!  I was asleep, and then suddenly an old woman appeared in a flash of light at the foot of my bed!  She had a knife, and she said if John Symcock doesn’t take his baby cows off our property this spectral, knife-wielding woman would send us… or the calves… she wasn’t entirely clear on the matter… to hell!  Totally was not a dream.  At all!”

“She turned me into a newt!”, indeed.

Witch Trial (etching)

Witch Trial (etching)

The next witness, Annakey Coolin, testified that she and her husband had a calf die, “they thought, by witchcraft”, so they boiled the heart of the calf, presumably to draw out the witch.  When they were boiling the heart, Margaret came to their door and asked them what they were doing.  They told her they were boiling the flesh, and Margaret told them they should have boiled the bones of the calf instead.  This statement was, they said, accompanied by “other unseemly expressions”.  There was apparently another story told by Annakey about how Margaret had gotten out of her canoe and bewitched some geese.  That story is, unfortunately, only alluded to in the court transcript.

Finally, with the help of the interpreter, Margaret took the stand in her own defense.

“Margaret Mattson saith that she values not Drystreet’s evidence, but if Sanderlin’s mother had come, she would have answered her.  [She] also denyeth Charles Ascom’s attestation at her soul, and saith, “Where is my Daughter?  Let her come and say so.”  Annakey Cooling’s attestation concerning the geese, she denyeth, saying that she was never out of her canoe, and also that she never said any such things concerning the calve’s heart.  The Prisoner denyeth all things, and saith that ye witnesses speak only by hear say.”

In other words, “None of that happened, and none of you actually saw any of the things you’re testifying about.”  The jury deliberated and returned a verdict:

“The jury went forth, and upon their returne brought her in guilty of having the comon fame of a witch, but not guilty in manner and forme as shee stands indicted.”

That’s one of my favorite parts:  “We find you guilty of people thinking you’re a witch, but find you not-guilty of actually being a witch.”  Case closed.  Nils paid a 50 pound fine to ensure her good behavior for the next six months (kind of a probation), and they went home.

Nobody ever accused anyone else of being a witch in Pennsylvania after that.

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About cthomas1967

Seeking to bring my ancestors out of the shadows of history and into the light. I have always been interested in history, and at a few different times I tried to do a family tree, but wasn't able to do it with the technology that was available then. On a business trip I visited the World War I Museum in Kansas City, MO and it was a very impressive establishment. While I was there I remember thinking, "Didn't my great-grandfather father fight in World War I? And wasn't his brother killed alongside him in some famous battle? I wonder if I can find out where he died." That's what started it all. View all posts by cthomas1967

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