“shee was a witch & if shee were nott a witch allreddy shee would bee won.”

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Posted by Goody Sandy on January 17, 2000 at 12:01:16:

Life could be very difficult in 17th-century America for men and women who had poor relationships with their neighbors. Neighbors played a vital role in each other’s lives but the ideals of “good neighborhood” were more readily advocated then achieved. The early colonists were a contentious lot, quick to anger and prone to physical violence or verbal abuse of others. Men and women were often charged with “setting differences between Neighbours,” “scoulding & abuseing their neighbours,’ or setting “neighbours together by the ears.” In the most acrimonious cases, the disruption of local harmony could surface as witchcraft accusations.

One lawsuit from a strife-ridden neighborhood involved the allegation that “the worke of the divell was done” at another house. This case was atypical because the person accused of doing the devil’s work was a man. Witchcraft charges were more commonly employed against women than men. The women charged with sorcery tended to be those who had especially contentious relationships with neighbors.

The designation as witches came not so much from any “supernatural” act but rather from the superstitions of the men and women who dealt with them on a daily basis and found those interactions troubling in a variety of ways. Such women differed little from men in the same position – men who were widely mistrusted by their neighbors and thereupon became the targets of physical or verbal abuse. But why, then, were such men not also charged with witchcraft?

Men and women – particularly men – who were angry with their male neighbors had many means of expressing their anger. A man could be hounded with nuisance lawsuits, he could be deprived of whatever offices he held, his fence and property could be vandalized, his pigs and cows stolen or killed, the possibilities for a vengeful person were endless.

But successfully attacking a woman was more difficult. The majority of women who were charged with witchcraft in the colonies were married at the time of the accusation. A married woman owned no property; only her husband would go to court to respond to a lawsuit; she could hold no public offices. In short, most adult women were shielded by their social and legal standing from the sorts of tactics that could easily be employed against men.

Out of necessity, then, neighbors’ attacks on mature women often took verbal form. The most damaging charges that could be leveled against women were those that accused them of capital crimes – witchcraft, infanticide or – in New England – adultery (which was not a capital crime in the Chesapeake). A charge of infanticide was credible only when used against young, unmarried women, and the Bay Colony’s law providing for the execution of adulterers was implemented only once. That left witchcraft as the one viable accusation that could be employed as a last resort against a married woman.

This accusation was utilized against Salem’s Edith Crawford in 1666. Crawford was initially charged with vengefully burning down a house from which she and her husband had recently been evicted. The court acquitted Crawford after witnesses deposed that she had been at her new dwelling with her husband at the time the fire broke out. The house’s owner was not satisfied and continued to insist that Crawford set the fire. It did not matter that she was nowhere near the scene, he declared, for “shee was a witch & if shee were nott a witch allreddy shee would bee won.”

He thus adopted the only course left open to him after Goody Crawford’s acquittal of arson, he developed a supernatural explanation that allowed him to maintain his firm belief in her guilt and spread a rumor that he hoped would place her under a perpetual cloud. Deprived of other weapons, verbal or physical, he advanced the witchcraft charges as a last resort.

Such cases disclose two important elements of neighborhood interactions in 17th century America. First, a person’s credit rested in part on he/she being regarded as a good neighbor. Second, part of being a good neighbor was bowing to the collective judgement of one’s peers.

“It was very unComfortable for neighbours to live in Contention.”

Best wishes,
Goody Sandy

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