Martha White

Before there was Rosa Parks there was Martha White, who was thrown off a public bus in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for sitting in the “whites only” section. This was in 1953, 2½ years before Rosa Parks was arrested for the same “crime”. White’s defenestration didn’t move the country the way that Parks’s did, but she was brave nonetheless. White died on Saturday at 99.

Above a picture of her and her friends.

Lewis and Clark Expedition

One year after the United States doubled its territory with the Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis and Clark expedition leaves St. Louis, Missouri, on a mission to explore the Northwest from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.

Even before the U.S. government concluded purchase negotiations with France, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned his private secretary Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, an army captain, to lead an expedition into what is now the U.S. Northwest. On May 14, the “Corps of Discovery”—featuring approximately 45 men (although only an approximate 33 men would make the full journey)—left St. Louis for the American interior.

The expedition traveled up the Missouri River in a 55-foot long keelboat and two smaller boats. In November, Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian fur trader accompanied by his young Native American wife Sacagawea, joined the expedition as an interpreter. The group wintered in present-day North Dakotabefore crossing into present-day Montana, where they first saw the Rocky Mountains. On the other side of the Continental Divide, they were met by Sacagawea’s tribe, the Shoshone Indians, who sold them horses for their journey down through the Bitterroot Mountains. After passing through the dangerous rapids of the Clearwater and Snake rivers in canoes, the explorers reached the calm of the Columbia River, which led them to the sea. On November 8, 1805, the expedition arrived at the Pacific Ocean. After pausing there for the winter, the explorers began their long journey back to St. Louis.

On September 23, 1806, after almost two and a half years, the expedition returned to the city, bringing back a wealth of information about the region (much of it already inhabited by Native Americans), as well as valuable U.S. claims to OregonTerritory.

Source: history.com

Clarence Darrow

On this date in 1857, Clarence Darrow, later dubbed “Attorney for the Damned” and “the Great Defender,” was born. For a time he lived in an Ohio home that had served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. His father was known as the “village infidel.” Darrow attended the University of Michigan Law School for one year, then passed the bar in 1878 and moved to Chicago. There he joined protests against the trumped-up charges against four radicals accused in the Haymarket Riot case. Darrow became corporate counsel to the City of Chicago, then counsel for the North Western Railway. He quit this lucrative post when he could no longer defend their treatment of injured workers, then went on to defend without pay Socialist striker Eugene V. Debs. In 1907, Darrow successfully defended labor activist “Big Bill” Haywood, charged with assassinating a former governor. His passionate denunciation of the death penalty prompted him to defend the famous killers, Loeb and Leopold, who received life sentences in 1924.

His most celebrated case was the Scopes Trial, defending teacher John Scopes in Dayton, Tenn., who was charged with the crime of teaching evolution in the public schools. Darrow’s brilliant cross-examination of prosecuting attorney William Jennings Bryan lives on in legal history. During the trial, Darrow said: “I do not consider it an insult, but rather a compliment to be called an agnostic. I do not pretend to know where many ignorant men are sure–that is all that agnosticism means.” Darrow wrote many freethought articles and edited a freethought collection. His two appealing autobiographies are The Story of My Life (1932), containing his plainspoken views on religion, and Farmington (1932). He also wrote Resist Not Evil (1902), An Eye for An Eye (1905), and Crime, Its Causes and Treatments (1925). His freethought writings are collected into Why I Am an Agnostic and Other Essays. He told The New York Times, “Religion is the belief in future life and in God. I don’t believe in either” (April 19, 1936). D. 1938.

“I don’t believe in God because I don’t believe in Mother Goose.”
~ Clarence Darrow, speech, Toronto, 1930.

Witch Trial Tests

1. Swimming Test 

As part of the infamous “swimming test,” accused witches were dragged to the nearest body of water, stripped to their undergarments, bound and then tossed in to to see if they would sink or float. Since witches were believed to have spurned the sacrament of baptism, it was thought that the water would reject their body and prevent them from submerging. According to this logic, an innocent person would sink like a stone, but a witch would simply bob on the surface. The victim typically had a rope tied around their waist so they could be pulled from the water if they sank, but it wasn’t unusual for accidental drowning deaths to occur. 

Witch swimming derived from the “trial by water,” an ancient practice where suspected criminals and sorcerers were thrown into rushing rivers to allow a higher power to decide their fate. This custom was banned in many European counties in the Middle Ages, only to reemerge in the 17th century as a witch experiment, and it persisted in some locales well into the 18th century. For example, in 1710, the swimming test was used as evidence against a Hungarian woman named Dorko Boda, who was later beaten and burned at the stake as a witch.

2. Prayer Test

Medieval wisdom held that witches were incapable of speaking scripture aloud, so accused sorcerers were made to recite selections from the Bible—usually the Lord’s Prayer—without making mistakes or omissions. While it may have simply been a sign that the suspected witch was illiterate or nervous, any errors were viewed as proof that the speaker was in league with the devil. This twisted test of public speaking ability was commonly used as hard evidence in witch trials. In 1712, it was applied in the case Jane Wenham, an accused witch who supposedly struggled to speak the words “forgive us our trespasses” and “lead us not into temptation” during her interrogation. Still, even a successful prayer test didn’t guarantee an acquittal. During the Salem Witch Trials, the accused sorcerer George Burroughs flawlessly recited the prayer from the gallows just before his execution. The performance was dismissed as a devil’s trick, and the hanging proceeded as planned.

3. Touch Test

The touch test worked on the idea that victims of sorcery would have a special reaction to physical contact with their evildoer. In cases where a possessed person fell into spells or fits, the suspected witch would be brought into the room and asked to a lay a hand on them. A non-reaction signaled innocence, but if the victim came out of their fit, it was seen as proof that the suspect had placed them under a spell. 

Touch tests played a famous part in the 1662 trial of Rose Cullender and Amy Denny, two elderly English women charged with bewitching a pair of young girls. The children had been suffering from fits that left their fists clenched so tightly that even a strong man could not pry their fingers apart, but early tests showed they easily opened whenever Cullender or Denny touched them. To ensure the reaction was genuine, judges had the children blindfolded and touched by other members of the court. The girls unclenched their fists anyway, which suggested they were faking, but even this was not enough to prove the women’s innocence. Cullender and Denny were both later hanged as witches. 

4. Witch Cakes

A bizarre form of counter-magic, the witch cake was a supernatural dessert used to identify suspected evildoers. In cases of mysterious illness or possession, witch-hunters would take a sample of the victim’s urine, mix it with rye-meal and ashes and bake it into a cake. This stomach-turning concoction was then fed to a dog—the “familiars,” or animal helpers, of witches—in the hope that the beast would fall under its spell and reveal the name of the guilty sorcerer. During the hysteria that preceded the Salem Witch Trials, the slave Tituba famously helped prepare a witch cake to identify the person responsible for bewitching young Betty Parris and others. The brew failed to work, and Tituba’s supposed knowledge of spells and folk remedies was later used as evidence against her when she was accused of being a witch.

5. Witch’s Marks 

Witch-hunters often had their suspects stripped and publicly examined for signs of an unsightly blemish that witches were said to receive upon making their pact with Satan. This “Devil’s Mark” could supposedly change shape and color, and was believed to be numb and insensitive to pain. Prosecutors might also search for the “witches’ teat,” an extra nipple allegedly used to suckle the witch’s helper animals. In both cases, it was easy for even the most minor physical imperfections to be labeled as the work of the devil himself. Moles, scars, birthmarks, sores, supernumerary nipples and tattoos could all qualify, so examiners rarely came up empty-handed. In the midst of witch hunts, desperate villagers would sometimes even burn or cut off any offending marks on their bodies, only to have their wounds labeled as proof of a covenant with the devil.

6. Pricking and Scratching Tests

If witch-hunters struggled to find obvious evidence of “witch’s marks” on a suspect’s body, they might resort to the ghastly practice of “pricking” as a means of sussing it out. Witch-hunting books and instructional pamphlets noted that the marks were insensitive to pain and couldn’t bleed, so examiners used specially designed needles to repeatedly stab and prick at the accused person’s flesh until they discovered a spot that produced the desired results. In England and Scotland, the torture was eventually performed by well-paid professional “prickers,” many of whom were actually con men who used dulled needlepoints to identify fake witch’s marks. 

Along with pricking, the unfortunate suspect might also be subjected to “scratching” by their supposed victims. This test was based on the notion that possessed people found relief by scratching the person responsible with their fingernails until they drew blood. If their symptoms improved after clawing at the accused’s skin, it was seen as partial evidence of guilt. 

7. Incantations

Also known as “charging,” this test involved forcing the accused witch to verbally order the devil to let the possessed victim come out of their fit or trance. Other people would also utter the words to act as a “control,” and judges would then gauge whether the statements had any effect on the victim’s condition. Charges were famously used in the 16th century witch trial of Alice Samuel and her husband and daughter, who were accused of bewitching five girls from the wealthy Throckmorton family. During the proceedings, judges forced the Samuels to demand that the devil release the girls from their spell by stating, “As I am a witch…so I charge the devil to let Mistress Throckmorton come out of her fit at this present.” When the possessed girls immediately recovered, the Samuels were found guilty and hanged as witches.

Sources: history.com, historycollection.com, washingtonpost.com

The First American Witch Hunt (Hartford, Connecticut)

In March 1662, John and Bethia Kelly grieved over the body of their 8-year-old daughter inside their home. Little Elizabeth had been fine just days before when she returned home with a neighbor, Goodwife Ayres. The distraught parents, grasping at any explanation for their loss, saw the hand of the devil at work.

The parents were convinced that Elizabeth had been fatally possessed by Goody Ayres. The Kellys testified that their daughter first took ill the night after she returned home with her neighbor, and that she exclaimed, “Father! Father! Help me, help me! Goodwife Ayres is upon me. She chokes me. She kneels on my belly. She will break my bowels. She pinches me. She will make me black and blue.”

After Elizabeth’s death, accusations of bewitchment flew, and fingers were pointed at numerous townspeople. Hysteria gripped Hartford, a town that a generation before had witnessed the first execution of a suspected witch in the American colonies. Alse Young of Windsor, Connecticut, was sent to the gallows erected in Hartford’s Meeting House Square on May 26, 1647.

Witchcraft was one of 12 capital crimes decreed by Connecticut’s colonial government in 1642. The legal precedent cited by the devoutly Puritan colonists was of a divinely higher order: biblical passages such as Exodus 22:18 (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”) and Leviticus 20:27 (“A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death”).

After Young’s public hanging, at least five other Connecticut residents met a similar fate. However, it was in Hartford in 1662, 30 years before the infamous Salem witch trials, that a witch hunt hysteria took hold, resulting in seven trials and four executions.

Shortly after Elizabeth Kelly’s death, the pious Ann Cole suddenly became “afflicted,” shaking violently and spouting blasphemy. According to one account, Cole was “taken with strange fits, wherein she held a discourse for a considerable time.” Cole blamed her bewitchment on neighbor Rebecca Greensmith, described by one townsperson as “a lewd, ignorant, considerably aged woman,” and others already suspected of witchcraft in the Kelly case. The accused began to accuse others, and even their spouses, of being the true witches. In what became a vicious circle, neighbors began testifying against neighbors. Goody Ayres’ husband, perhaps in an attempt to save his wife, joined in the chorus of Greensmith’s accusers.

The most damning testimony supposedly came from Greensmith herself, who reportedly admitted to having “familiarity with the devil” and said that “at Christmas they would have a merry meeting” to form a covenant. Greensmith implicated her husband and said she had met in the woods with seven other witches, including Goody Ayres, Mary Sanford and Elizabeth Seager. Neighbors testified that they saw Seager dancing with other women in the woods and cooking mysterious concoctions in black kettles.

Two of the suspects, likely the Greensmiths, were subjected to the swimming test in which their hands and feet were bound and they were cast into the water to test the theory that witches are unable to sink. After they were tried, the Greensmiths were indicted “for not having the fear of God before thine eyes; thou hast entertained familiarity with Satan the grand enemy of God and mankind and by his help hast acted things in a preternatural way.” The court’s verdict: “According to the law of God and the established law of this commonwealth, thou deserves to die.”

Rebecca Greensmith had confessed in open court. Nathaniel Greensmith had protested his innocence. But they both met the same fate: the noose. Sanford was also sent to the gallows. After their executions, Cole reportedly was “restored to health.” Ayres fled Hartford, while Seager was finally convicted of witchcraft in 1665, although the governor reversed the verdict the following year. Mary Barnes of Farmington, Connecticut, was also swept up in the region’s witch hunt and executed alongside the Greensmiths.

The four executions of suspected witches in Hartford were to be Connecticut’s last. Another hysteria broke out in Fairfield, Connecticut, in 1692, but none of those convicted met death. Connecticut held its final witch trial in 1697, a half century after Alse Young’s execution. During that period, there were 46 prosecutions and at least 11 executions.

Sources: history.com, historycollection.com, washingtonpost.com

Witchy History: Grace Sherwood

One of the most famous witches in Virginia’s history is Grace Sherwood, whose neighbors alleged she killed their pigs and hexed their cotton. A farmer, healer, and midwife, she was accused by her neighbors of transforming herself into a cat, damaging crops, and causing the death of livestock. She was charged with witchcraft several times. Sherwood was accused of bewitching her neighbor, Elizabeth Hill, causing Hill to miscarry. Other accusations followed and Sherwood was brought to trial in 1706.

The court decided to use a controversial water test to determine her guilt or innocence. Sherwood’s arms and legs were bound and she was thrown into a body of water. It was thought if she sank, she was innocent; if she floated, she was guilty. Sherwood didn’t sink and was convicted of being a witch. She wasn’t killed but put in prison and for eight years.

A satirical article (supposedly written by Benjamin Franklin) about a witch trial in New Jersey was published in 1730 in the Pennsylvania Gazette. It brought to light the ridiculousness of some witchcraft accusations. It wasn’t long before witch mania died down in the New World and laws were passed to help protect people from being wrongly accused and convicted.

Witchcraft and Dark Magic in Colonial America

The power of the “Indian Curse” – whether in New England or in Virginia, as in the case of the equally famous Curse of Chief Cornstalk – was considered an irrefutable truth by the colonists because of their belief in the Native Americans as diabolical servants of Satan. This belief was strengthened early on by the Indian Massacre of 1622 in Virginia when, on the morning of 22 March 1622, the chief of the Powhatan Confederacy, Opchanacanough (l. 1554-1646) launched a surprise attack on the settlements, killing 347 people. Prior to the attack, the natives had appeared friendly (purposefully so, on Opchanacanough’s orders, to lower the colonists’ defenses), and this, to the colonists, was proof that no native could be trusted and all posed a potential threat.

The belief in natives wielding supernatural powers continued, however, as they became more marginalized, and it was understood that they had grounds for holding a grudge. Other minorities were equally apt to be suspect though, whether African slaves – who were thought to be able to cast spells through their own associations with Satan – or Catholics whose religious beliefs were considered diabolic by the majority of Protestants.

Witchcraft, thought to be practiced by all three of these groups, was understood as an intimate relationship between a person or people with Satan himself, God’s adversary, who continually plotted against those whom the Bible claimed God had made in his own image. Although the Salem Witch Trials are easily the most famous expression of the fear and hysteria generated by a belief in witchcraft, marginalized people – most often women – were charged, convicted, and hanged or otherwise dispatched in colonies from Massachusetts down to Florida.

Source: World History Encyclopedia Online, ancient.eu