N ine years before the witchcraft hysteria in Salem claimed two dozen lives, Pennsylvania witnessed its first and only witchcraft trial.
The accused were two Swedish women, Margaret Mattson and Gethro Hendrickson of Ridley Township, now Delaware County. Neels Mattson and Hendrick Jacobson, husbands of the accused, were each required to pay a recognizance of 50 pounds to ensure the women's appearance before the provincial council in 1683.
On the prescribed date, the women appeared before William Penn and a petit jury. Another Swede, Lasse Cock, served as interpreter between the prisoners and the governor. While there is no record of the testimony of, or against, Gethro Hendrickson, Margaret Mattson's accusations and response are recorded and preserved.
The first witness, Henry Drystreet, testified that 20 years previously, he had been told that Margaret Mattson was a witch and that several cows had been bewitched by her. Charles Ashcom took the stand to say that Mattson's daughter reportedly sold her cattle because her mother had bewitched them. The daughter also told Ashcom, he said, of the appearance of a bright light and of the visage she'd seen of an old woman, standing at the foot of her bed, holding a knife. Annakey Coolin testified that, while she and her husband were boiling the heart of a calf they believed died by witchcraft, Mattson entered their home and advised them it would be better to boil the bones.
In her defense, Margaret Mattson denied the testimony calling it hearsay.
At the trial's conclusion, Governor Penn gave the jury their charge. The members found Mattson guilty of having "the common fame" of a witch, but not guilty in "matter and forme as Shee stands indicted." A recognizance of 100 pounds for good behavior was demanded of Margaret; half that was required of Gethro Hendrickson.
According to a researcher at Pennsbury Manor, the former estate of William Penn, the then-governor had two primary concerns about the Mattson case: Swedish and English relations, and what might happen if Mattson was actually found guilty. But Penn never felt this was a ground-breaking case, and in fact, never wrote about it in later years.
As noted by John F. Watson in his 1857 Annals of Philadelphia, the Mattson verdict likely allowed Pennsylvania to escape "the odium of Salem." By trying the case publicly - and sharing the "evidence" (or lack thereof) with the public - William Penn demonstrated just how petty and potentially damaging such charges were. Two more recent cases prove, however, that superstition afflicts all generations.
On Thanksgiving Day 1928, Nelson D. Rehmeyer was found dead in his York County home. He had been badly beaten and the killers had tried, unsuccessfully, to burn his house - with his body in it.
Three persons were convicted of the crime: John Curry, age 14; Wilbur G. Hess, age 18; and John J. Blymyer, age 28. The trio believed Rehmeyer to be a witch and went to his home with the intention of obtaining a lock of his hair. Burying the hair was, according to Blymeyer, the only way to break the spell they believed Rehmeyer had cast upon them. Once inside the home, however, things went terribly wrong. Rehmeyer fought his attackers but was eventually subdued by blows with a piece of firewood. The dismal attempt to cover the crime was futile, and within two months all three were tried and found guilty of murder.
News of the York County killing made nationwide headlines. That it involved "pow-wowing" - the belief in special powers to cure illnesses and cast spells - was fascinating to readers, yet also served to cement the view many had that the "Pennsylvania Dutch" were a closed and superstitious sect. These stereotypes were reinforced six years later when Schuylkill County was rocked by another "hex murder."
In March 1934, a taxi-driver by the name of Albert Shinsky (also spelled "Yashinsky" in some accounts) crept through the evening darkness to the home of Mrs. Susan Mummey. The house was barely lit, so it was not until the woman's daughter entered the room carrying a lamp that Shinsky could make out the figure of Mrs. Mummey. He took aim and fired. His bullet struck the 63-year-old in the side, killing her.
Shinsky openly confessed to the crime, even re-enacting it for county detective Louis Buono. He explained that he shot the woman because she had "hexed" him eight years previously by bringing a spirit down out of the sky. The hex made him ill, tired, and depressed, Shinsky said. As if this weren't bad enough, Shinsky described a huge, green-eyed cat that appeared in his bedroom on occasion, tearing at his skin. The only way he could drive the cat away, he told Buono, was by chanting phrases a Hazleton pow-wow doctor suggested.
The Shinsky case was covered throughout Pennsylvania and in such prestigious papers as the Washington Post and New York Times. This publicity may have helped the defendant. After initial resistance by the prosecutor, Shinsky was declared insane and sent to a state sanitarium rather than being tried for murder.
Today most Pennsylvanians view "hex symbols" as harmless, attractive signs used to decorate barns and outbuildings - particularly those in areas with heavy German influence. Many outsiders, though, still believe the old folk magic of pow-wowing is real. Perhaps it is a spell after all - one cast by the artists who create these colorful souvenirs. 💀