On October 22, 1730 an article appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette
describing a witch trial that had recently been held in Mount Holly near Burlington, New Jersey. (Click here
to read the full article.)
According to the article, over 300 people had gathered to witness the trial of two people, a man and a woman, who had been accused of witchcraft. The charges included "making their neighbours sheep dance in an uncommon manner, and with causing hogs to speak, and sing Psalms, &c. to the great terror and amazement of the King's good and peaceable subjects in this province."
The two people were to be tested to determine whether the charge of witchcraft was true. They would be subjected to two tests. In the first test they would be weighed in a scale against a Bible. If they were heavier than the Bible, then this would be evidence that they were not witches. In the second test, they would be tied and thrown in a body of water. If they floated, then this would be evidence that they were witches.
The man and woman, eager to prove their innocence, volunteered to undergo these tests. However, they insisted that two of their accusers undergo the tests with them. This was agreed to, and the tests began.
All four were placed, one at a time, on one side of a scale, and then a heavy Bible was placed on the other side. All four easily passed this test. So far there were no witches.
Next, all four were bound, stripped (the women were allowed to wear their shifts), and thrown in the nearby Mill-pond. One of the accusers, a very thin man, immediately began to sink, but the rest of them floated.
The other accuser, a woman, began to panic when she did not sink and asked that she be dunked to facilitate her sinking. When she floated back up she declared, "That she believed the Accused had bewitched her to make her so light, and that she would be duck'd again a Hundred Times, but she would duck the Devil out of her."
Meanwhile the accused man, growing nervous, told the crowd that, "If I am a Witch, it is more than I know."
Finally some of the spectators sensibly decided that anyone would try to swim if they were bound and dropped in water, and so they dragged all four people out of the water. However, they decided that the women's shifts might have helped them float and agreed that they would have to be tested again, naked, when the weather grew warmer.
The Hoax Revealed
This account of a witchtrial provided gripping reading for Philadelphians. It was soon reprinted in a British paper, the Gentleman's Gazette
The story would have been remarkable if it were true, because in 1730 a witch trial had not occurred in America for many decades. The famous Salem Witch Trials had occurred almost forty years earlier, in 1692. Nevertheless, we can say with certainty that the report was not true. If such an incident had occurred, some other source would doubtless have reported it.
The Pennsylvania Gazette
's account of the witch trial slipped into obscurity for over a century, until the late nineteenth century when John Bach McMaster cited it as a satirical work by Benjamin Franklin
, and included it in his book Benjamin Franklin as a Man of Letters
(1887). Since then, it has generally been accepted to be a work by Franklin.
The evidence to suggest Franklin's authorship of this hoax is that in 1730 he was the owner and publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette
. He commonly published articles and letters written by himself, but attributed to others, in order to make it appear that his paper received more correspondence than it actually did. The witch-trial article also fits Franklin's satirical style. However, although authorship of the Witch Trial is now commonly attributed to Franklin, some doubts persist. For instance, the Yale edition of Franklin's papers notes that Franklin's authorship is not certain.
Assuming that Franklin did author the Witch Trial, he evidently intended it as a parody of Puritan beliefs. The piece is noteworthy for revealing that by 1730 it had become acceptable for the educated class in America to ridicule beliefs such as witchcraft, even though the majority of the population still clung to those beliefs.
Links and References
- Pennsylvania Gazette. (October 22. 1730). Pages 3-4.
- Mappen, Marc. (Oct. 28, 1984). "The Trial of Witches in Mt. Holly." New York Times: 32.
- McMaster, John Bach. (1887). Benjamin Franklin as a Man of Letters.