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A Witch Trial At Mount Holly Satire Essays

Studies in American Humor


The official journal of the American Humor Studies Association, Studies in American Humor (ISSN 0095-280X) has published scholarly essays, review essays, and book reviews on all aspects of American humor since 1974.

Coverage: 1974-2017 (Vol. 1, No. 1 - Vol. 3, No. 2)

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ISSN: 0095280X

EISSN: 23339934

Subjects: Language & Literature, History, American Studies, History, Area Studies, Humanities

Collections: Arts & Sciences XIII Collection

In the second test, accused and accusers were bound and thrown, one by one, into the millpond. The assumption was that a witch would sink while an innocent person would float, since water - the instrument of baptism - would reject someone who had renounced God.

Everyone floated except the male accuser.

The trials appear to have ended on this inconclusive note, for no further word on the subject ever appeared in The Gazette.

This story, if true, is a historically important indication of folk belief in 18th-century New Jersey.

But is it true?

At first, the account was accepted. A contemporary publication, The Gentleman's Gazette, reported it to its readers as fact. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, many historians treated it as genuine.

But there have been increasing doubts. In an 1887 book, the historian John Bach McMaster pronounced it a hoax. Since then, educated opinion has swung in that direction.

What suggests that the story is false?

First, there is the absence of corroborating historical evidence. An event of this nature, one assumes, might have been mentioned in other records, such as diaries, letters or church minutes. Unfortunately, there are no court records for Burlington County in that period.

Second, the episode is a bit out of synch with what we know of witchcraft in America.

The most famous case, the Salem trials, occurred nearly 50 years earlier. Twenty people were executed in Salem, and this gory excess helped to turn public opinion away from belief in witches. In England, the last legal execution of a witch took place in 1685.

It would thus be unusual to find a case involving an entire village as late as 1730.

The nature of the charges against the Mount Holly witches is also atypical. In English and American history, witches were usually accused of bringing sickness and misfortune to their victims or their victims' livestock. In Mount Holly, the witches were blamed for causing sheep to dance and hogs to sing.

Third, there is the strong element of satire and broad farce in The Pennsylvania Gazette story. For example, the description of what happened when the first accused witch was placed on the scale is a bit slapstick:

''But to the great Surprize of the Spectators, Flesh and Bones came down plump, and outweighed that great good Book by abundance. After the same Manner, the others were served, and their Lumps of Mortality severally were too heavy for Moses and all the Prophets and Apostles.''

The explanation of why the women did not sink was in a similar vein:

''It (was) the general Belief of the Populace, that the Womens Shifts, and the Garters with which they were bound help'd to support them; it is said they are to be tried again the next warm Weather, naked.''

In describing the overall scene, the article noted that the scale was placed next to the home of the town's Justice of the Peace so that ''the Justice's Wife and the rest of the Ladies might see the Trial without coming amongst the Mob.''

And so on.

Finally, there is Benjamin Franklin.

When the article was published, the 24-year-old Franklin was proprietor of The Gazette and wrote much of the copy. He had a predilection for press hoaxes, which began with the satirical ''Silence Dogood'' letters he wrote as a Boston teen-ager.

The Mount Holly story has about it the sense of humor and scorn of superstitution that characterized Franklin throughout his long life.

Though the story is probably a fraud, it is not without significance. It shows that, by 1730, an educated man like Franklin could attack belief in witches as laughingly old- fashioned.

Sadly, those beliefs have not entirely been expunged. Any supermarket carries tabloids with articles about witches, astrology and ghosts.

And The Gazette article also deserves a footnote in history for another reason: In poking fun at the rural folk of Burlington County for his Philadelphia readers, it might be said that Franklin was telling the first New Jersey joke.

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