HAGERSTOWN, Md. — Witchcraft trials and executions were facts of life in colonial Maryland.
From Southern Maryland to the Eastern Shore and as far north as Anne Arundel County, historians have documented at least 12 cases of persons prosecuted or persecuted in the 1600s and early 1700s because of accusations that they practiced witchcraft.
There wasn’t the same sort of hysteria in Maryland that there was in Massachusetts, where 19 men and women were executed and many imprisoned for witchcraft in 1692.
But Maryland and neighboring Pennsylvania and Virginia all had witchcraft trials, according to Hagerstown-based historian John Nelson.
Two of the earliest witchcraft cases in the Maryland State Archives involve executions aboard ships bound for Maryland from England.
Two men who recently had arrived on the Charity of London told colonial officials in St. Mary’s City in 1654 that the ship’s crew had hanged an old woman named Mary Lee after she was accused of sorcery.
Her supposed crime: summoning a relentless storm that some on board blamed on “the malevolence of witches.”
The second shipboard execution involved George Washington’s great-grandfather, John Washington of Westmoreland County, Va. He accused ship owner Edward Prescott in 1659 of hanging Elizabeth Richardson as a witch.
Prescott acknowledged the hanging at his trial but was acquitted after he said the ship’s captain, John Green, was the one responsible. The trial was in Patuxent, in either Anne Arundel or Charles counties.
Maryland’s only recorded execution for witchcraft on land occurred Oct. 9, 1685, in Calvert County. Rebecca Fowler was hanged after a jury found her guilty of “certain evil and diabolical arts called witchcrafts, enchantments, charms [and] sorceries.”
Hannah Edwards, also of Calvert County, was acquitted in 1686 of similar charges.
St. Mary’s County is rich in witchcraft history, with three cases in the historical record and a folk tale that is perhaps Maryland’s best-known bit of witch lore.
There is no historical record of Moll Dyer, but her legend is as enduring as the 875-pound boulder in front of the Old Jail Museum in Leonardtown that supposedly bears her hand print.
The reported witch is said to have been driven from her home on the coldest night of the year by townsfolk who burned her cabin. Dyer died of exposure and was found with her hand frozen to the rock, the story goes.
Maryland’s last recorded witchcraft trial was held in Annapolis in 1712. A jury acquitted Virtue Violl of Talbot County of using witchcraft to harm the health of an invalid neighbor.
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