Tuesday, September 28, 2010

She Turned Me Into A Newt, But I Got Better

This working for a living thing, it’s really eating into my blogging time.

I have a number of things I want to write about, but they will have to wait until I have time to get them organized in my head. This stuff doesn’t happen by itself, you know. It may seem effortless and flowing (or lazy and rambling – however you want to phrase it) but it’s a labor of love.

And right now all my labor is going into other things.

So for now I will just tell a story, one of my favorites from my US1 class and one I will get to tell tomorrow, as Monday’s class ran long and I didn’t get to it then. There are a number of versions of this story, most of which vary slightly in one detail or another, but this is the story as it was told to me.

Did you know that Pennsylvania had its own witchcraft trial?

Everyone knows the famous ones in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. The Puritans made sure of it, for one thing – they were quite proud of themselves. And if you can get into their heads a bit, you can almost understand why. The 1670s, 1680s and early 1690s were miserable times in New England for a lot of reasons. The Puritans lived in a mental world where everything had a spiritual cause and purpose – a world saturated with religion in a way modern Americans, even the most fervent evangelicals roistering about on the Christian right, simply cannot grasp. In a world where everything is spiritual, clearly their problems were spiritual, and spiritual problems call for spiritual solutions. Witches are in the Bible. The Bible is fairly clear that they are not the sort of people Puritans ought to be tolerating (not that Puritans tolerated anyone who wasn’t Puritan – that was the whole point of setting up New England, after all, not to have to do that). Get rid of the witches and the secular problems go away too, because they really weren’t secular problems at all.

Q. E. D.

Everybody always asks why the witchcraft trials happened in Salem, but the real question is why they didn’t happen everywhere else. And when they did happen, why did they end up so differently? They all read the same Bible. If God had servants, then it just stood to reason that the Devil had them too. Why not have the same results?

If you boil it down, the answer is basically this: not everyone was as saturated with spirituality as the Puritans. Not everyone saw the world as just a physical manifestation of religious currents the way they did. And when you take that out of the equation, things turn out different.

Pennsylvania was founded by Quakers in 1682, and was owned by William Penn, lock, stock and barrel – that’s what being the proprietor of a colony meant. It was his, just like his shoes were, and he could do what he wanted with it. Fortunately, mostly what he wanted was to establish a refuge for Quakers and anyone else who promised to get along and not make trouble.

His main town, Philadelphia, was built not far from a former Swedish colony, and there were still a few Swedes floating around when he got there. One of them was an old woman named Margaret Mattson, who lived near Ridley Creek in what is now Delaware County, just outside the modern city of Philadelphia and not all that far from where I grew up. Mattson quickly found herself accused of being a witch and of doing the sorts of things that witches did back then – casting spells, flying through the air on a broomstick, bewitching animals, and so on. And in 1683 she went to trial.

William Penn himself presided over this trial, and as 17th-century judges were wont to do he took a much more active role in the questioning than modern judges do.

He started big. “Art thou a witch?” he asked Mattson, in the pointedly familiar style that Quakers used. No, she replied.

He then went through the list of the things she had been accused of, asking her if she had done any of them. Mattson’s answer was always no.

Finally he asked, “Hast thou ever ridden thine broomstick through the night sky over Philadelphia?”

Now, imagine this from Margaret Mattson’s perspective. Here she is, on trial for her life. She barely speaks the language – some versions of this story have it that she didn’t speak English at all and there were interpreters involved – and her questioner is the proprietor of the entire colony, the biggest of the big wigs, the weightiest Quaker in the New World. It was a little intimidating.

And she got so flustered that she said yes, yes she had in fact ridden her broomstick through the night sky over Philadelphia.

Tradition has it that at this point William Penn paused and thought about that for a moment. And then he turned to the prosecutor and said that as far as he was aware, that wasn’t illegal in Philadelphia.

And at that point the trial was effectively over.

Mattson was convicted of having the reputation of a witch, though not of actually being a witch, and released. Pennsylvania never again tried anyone on charges of witchcraft.

It’s a great story, and I wish it were as widely known as the other, more tragic one in Salem.

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