Witches in the Colonies


Author Carson Hudson shares some practical 17th-century tips for identifying witches.


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi. Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns and mostly I ask questions. To 17th-century Americans, witches were the evil force behind unexplained deaths, sickness, poor crops, and storms. Author Carson Hudson joins us today to tell us how this fear evolved from a real threat to a holiday myth. Belief in witches was rather standard, wasn’t it?

Carson Hudson: Well, yes and no. By the 1700s, we were entering the Age of Enlightenment. There were lots of people who still believed in witchcraft from the earlier times, and there were witchcraft persecutions in America and in Virginia. By mid-century, many people had dropped those beliefs, and by the 1770s, the time of the American Revolution, there was only a few who actually still believed in witchcraft. Actually, one of the few who believed was John Wesley, who founded Methodism. He was a staunch believer in witchcraft.

Lloyd: He would almost have to be, wouldn’t he? If you believe in heaven and hell, then you have to have a devil.

Carson: That’s exactly right, and that’s kind of the cornerstone on why early Americans believed in witchcraft. It’s an age in which you have witches and fairies and demons appearing in works of Shakespeare. Everyone believes in these things. King James himself actually had written a book, “Demonology,” on how to discover witches. He was a firm believer in witchcraft.

Lloyd: I find it fascinating that James I was so convinced of witchcraft, and there was a general belief that the more barren and wild the place you lived, the more likely that there was a witch behind every tree.

Carson: Yes, the wildest parts of these lands, King James wrote, referring to Virginia, are the scenes of where the devil and his minions are in control. When the first settlers got here at Jamestown in 1607, they were looking at the Native Americans, the Indians, as being followers of the devil. There are many instances where people who are writing, the Englishmen who are writing in the early days of Jamestown, are comparing the Indians to devils and to witches. In particular, John Smith refers to Chief Powhatan – he says that he is blacker than the devil.

Lloyd: I found it interesting reading about some of the trials, the tests that were developed for telling who’s a witch and who isn’t. They are hysterically funny.

Carson: They’re hysterically funny to us, but they’re all grounded on beliefs that these people at that time seriously believed in. You’ve got to take out our image of the 21st century of what we know, and you know, put yourself into the mind of 17th and 18th century Virginians and Americans and look at things from their point of view.

In the 17th and 18th century, this was a time in which you could learn and do anything from a book. You could learn how to fight with a sword, you could learn how to raise sheep, you could learn how to dance – all from reading a book. One of the things that you could do was learn how to discover witches.

There were many, many different types of books on discovery of witchcraft and that sort of thing. These tests came about in order to try and prove that a person wasn’t, or was, a witch. You have looking for the devil’s mark, for example. The devil’s mark was a mark that was somewhere on the body, said to resemble a bluish mark, like a scar or a birthmark that was insensible to pain. And if you possessed this mark, it was a sign that you had put your name in the devil’s book and the devil had kissed you, and that had left a mark.

Lloyd: I’m afraid dunking or ducking was my favorite. I just thought it was wonderful to throw somebody in water and see if they sink. Well, does that mean they’re guilty? No, that means they’re innocent.

Carson: The test actually goes back to the code of Hammurabi to determine whether a person had a good soul or a bad soul. You would bind someone up and throw them into water. Because water was a pure element it was supposed to repel an evil soul. It was a test that could not be proven one way or the other, because if you took 100 people, tied them up, threw them in the water and some sank and some floated, you couldn’t prove that the people who sank had good souls or bad souls, and the people who floated or whatever. It was something that was inside each individual. So there was no way to disprove the test.

By the 17th and 18th century, there were safeguards in effect. The court was not out to kill an innocent person. You see these Monty Python skits of throwing someone in and ducking them and they’re going to drown if they’re innocent, in reality the court took great care to safeguard people that were put to this test.

They would bind them with a rope, of course, but then put ropes around their bodies so that if they did sink beneath the water, they could be pulled up instantly. They had proven that they were innocent, and you wanted to preserve their life. One case here in Virginia in particular in 1705, the court even postponed the test of trial by water because it was raining the day that they wanted to do the test, and they did not want the person being tested to catch a cold.

Lloyd: I like the fact that a horseshoe would protect your home from witches if it were put up over the window or the door with the points down, how did that develop?

Carson: I can’t give you a background on why the up or down for horseshoes for witches, why it came about. We do know that yes, if the horseshoe is up the luck holds in, and if it’s down, it’s a protection against witches. There are several instances here in Virginia of horseshoes being mentioned in one particular case in which a horseshoe was tried to keep a woman out of a house. A horseshoe was put up over her door to see if a woman could actually enter through a door. If she could, then it proved her innocence, that she was not a witch.

Also, a curious fact is that we know that the English, and Virginians, were using what was called a “witch bottle.” A witch bottle was a glass bottle filled with goat’s urine and with brass pins and sometimes a small scroll with a religious saying on it or the Lord’s Prayer, which was buried underneath of a hearth or at a doorsill or under a windowsill to keep witches from entering the building. The theory there was that the glass flask or bottle would simulate the witch’s bladder, and would burst, or be in pain if they tried to pass that particular point.

Lloyd: Comparatively, was there more belief in witchcraft in New England because of the Puritan background than there was in Colonial Virginia, which was almost, but not quite as puritanical?

Carson: Well, anywhere in the 17th and 18th century that you have an English colony, you were going to have witchcraft laws and witchcraft beliefs. Englishmen were Englishmen wherever they were at, whether it was Massachusetts, Virginia, Georgia, or Barbados or whatever. You had these witchcraft beliefs.

If you investigate into the truth of the matter, there are witchcraft cases in all of these colonies. There are more than just the famous Salem witchcraft trials in Massachusetts. The Justices of the peace here in Virginia believe in witchcraft, as any Englishman does, but they needed it to be proved to them before they will convict someone. They’re not just going on a wild accusation.

Basically, again, we’re coming into the Age of Reason, the Age of Enlightenment. People are beginning to get explanations for why things are occurring. These witchcraft beliefs are falling by the wayside. But most people are letting this fall by the wayside by the midcentury.

I think a lot of it, too, is that it’s just common sense. Some of the witchcraft accusations, although they sound fantastical to us today and we laugh at them as you said earlier, even in the 17th and 18th century, there are people who are saying these are too fantastical and they’re laughing at them. They’re just not taking this stuff seriously.

Every age has its own culture. Every time has its own culture. Again, that’s why historians have to look at a culture through the eyes and mores of the time that they are looking at. We cannot impose our 20th-century beliefs and ideas upon the 17th century, and the 25th century cannot do that with us if they want to seriously look at and investigate what we were doing, or if we want to do the same to the past.