The Witch Hunts: the Hysteria that Never Died

Yo waddup, my peasants? I’ve got a spooky guest post for you!

My girl Tiffany Apan from Tiffany’s Labyrinth and I decided to swap blogs for the day and boy does she have some fascinating information to share with you peasants today! I won’t keep you long, I just wanted to give you an introduction to my girl’s post!

The Witch Hunts: Hysteria that Never Died

I first started my ventures as a living historian back in 2015 (hard to believe that much time has passed since then!) and my first foray into that world was at the Depreciation Lands Museum over in Allison Park, PA. At that time, visitors were most likely to find me in the schoolhouse portraying a schoolmarm. It was great fun and I even started developing a rather fun and complex character as I furthered my research and became kind of a staple in that schoolroom. And being the creative that I am, I really went to town with it.

In my first year, I was most excited about participating in their Halloween event, Lantern Tours. The theme for the 2015 season was a witch trial.

This subject has been a fascination of mine for years and any way I would be able to participate in that event would have left me thrilled. BUT, imagine my utter joy when I was informed that I was selected to portray Mary Bliss Parsons, a real life woman who was accused of witchcraft during the 17th century by a neighbor of hers named Sarah Blessing. The premise of our event was going from building to building in the village, listening to the testimonies of those accusing Mary, and then listening to those individuals that supported her and sought her acquittal.

Finally, it was time for Mary Parsons herself (me) to give her testimony inside the schoolhouse where she was being kept before the official trial. At the end, it was the visitors in attendance at the event that got to vote on whether Mary was guilty or not. Would she (or I) be condemned to the gallows or set free? The real Mary Parsons was actually acquitted and she and her husband later sued her accuser. But what about the museum’s Halloween event?

Getting to portray Mary Parsons was great fun (I got to let out a blood curdling scream and freak everyone out), but it was interesting to see how a modern audience would react to a witch trial. Because, while the 17th century Mary Parsons was found not guilty, the 21st century Mary Parsons was found…GUILTY.

Yes, a modern 21st century audience sentenced me to hang for the crime of witchcraft that I may or may not have been guilty of. Something that, in the end, I found rather interesting, which I will get a little more into at the end.

As I said earlier, the witch hunts have been a pet subject of mine for quite some time, and something that I’ve done quite a lot of research on. Through this research, I’ve learned much about the truths vs. falsehoods surrounding these events. And trust me, the falsehoods are many, several of which being passed around in the form of those blasted Facebook memes (please, can we not??) by well-meaning but ill-informed individuals. The thing is that once you go down the rabbit hole of debunking historical myths, it is very difficult to stop. In fact, the more you find out, the more you want to learn. And the more infuriating it becomes to hear these history myths continuing to be passed around and believed as fact. With that all said, I will go into some of the more popular myths that I see getting passed around quite frequently.

Myth 1It ran rampant through the early colonies.

Truth – While this does hold truth, there is definitely much complexity here. Like most other controversial topic in human history, witch hunts and trials left many divided, neighbor against neighbor, and sometimes even family member against family member. Many are surprised to find out that even back then, there were those that thought it ridiculous to accuse a person of such a thing. One example being a prominent Pennsylvania judge by the name of who helped an accused woman escape when those in town were getting on him about condemning her. There were also incidents in which an accused person had supporters signing petitions asking the courts to acquit them. One such incident is cited in Robert Godbeer’s book, Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692. Several signed a petition on behalf of Mercy Disborough after she was found guilty. The petition cited that the second half of her trial had been unjust and illegal. And she did not get a new trial. She was acquitted, even after the initial guilty sentence. There was also another woman (whose name is eluding me at the moment) fled town after being accused. The magistrate of the town she ran to offered her protection, so long as she stayed within those boarders. When it was inquired that she be returned for trial, the magistrate of her new town refused and allowed her to stay and seek refuge within their town.

There is also a legend of how William Penn conducted Pennsylvania’s first and only witch trial, acquitting the woman almost immediately. After that, witch hunts were considered illegal in the state of Pennsylvania and any that might have taken place was not done under the law. One thing that Penn and his comrades did not want was the hysteria that had gone down in Europe. Then there was the only trial in New Netherland (which is New York today) in which a husband and wife were accused and then acquitted.

Myth 2 – Only women were ever accused.

Truth- This is one that seems to be the most popular and widely spread, despite many mentions of men accused and sentenced to death for the so-called crime. Men like John Proctor and Giles Corey, along with many others. I very often recommend Suzannah Lipscomb’s documentary Witch Hunt: A Century of Murder, in which she goes into detail of a few women and men accused. In addition, she touches on how in countries such as Normandy, Estonia, Russia, and Iceland, the vast majority of the accused and executed were men (which included several clergymen). According to Lipscomb, 8 or 9% of those accused and executed in Iceland were women. The other 91%-92% were men. In England and parts of the American colonies, however, the larger portion of the accused and condemned were women.

Myth 3An accusation meant an immediate death sentence.

Truth – I think we have Hollywood to thank for this one, at least for the most part. I’m sure many of us are familiar with that old movie scene in which the accused woman is dragged from her home and immediately, without even a trial, is tied to a stake and burned alive by the ignorant simpletons of townfolk screaming “burn the witch!”. Some also go the extra mile and add a part where the accused curse the townfolk and their descendants before she breaths her last. While this might make for a dramatic and horrific scene, it wasn’t as typical as people tend to think, at least not legally. Yes, many of the accused were immediately thrown into a prison
cell. Many were harshly defamed by their accusers, whether it was a disgruntled neighbor, one woman jealous of another woman (think 17th century version of Mean Girls…this did happen quite a bit), or by someone who genuinely thought you were up to no good in town and thought that when you glanced at them in a rather irritated fashion that you were giving them the evil eye, it was a long process to even get someone to trial in the legal system, and many were acquitted before even standing trial. Unfortunately, this meant that many had to sit in a dark cell for months and sometimes even years before news of a trial or (hopefully) an acquittal. There were a few incidents in which some were released to their family and placed on a sort of house arrest until a verdict of trial or acquittal was made, but there were many that also passed away before they could even have any type of verdict

With all that said, going to trial didn’t mean an automatic death sentence either. Scary as going on trial was, many ended up acquitted. And in many cases, once a person was acquitted, it was illegal to try them again for the same crime. As I mentioned in Mary Parsons’ story earlier, many of the acquitted also ended up suing their accusers for libel, slander, and defamation of character. In Lipscomb’s documentary, she discusses of a couple of incidents in which upon the acquittal of an accused person (especially if that person was found not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt), the accuser was actually the one punished, usually with a fine or sometimes even imprisonment from a couple of months to a year. And the crime? Wasting the magistrate’s or monarch’s time with nonsense.

Myth 4 – Any and all forms of ‘witchcraft’ were condemned.

Fact – As I’ve stated earlier, the subject of witchcraft was hardly cut and dry, even in centuries past. In fact, it was just as complex (if not more so) than any other event in human history. Believe it or not, some ‘witches’ were sought out for their abilities. This included herbal healers.  

Most medicines back then were of the herbal kind, something practiced in many homes. At times, such healers, especially those among the most gifted, are referred to as practitioners of ‘white magic.’

The next step up from a so-called ‘white witch’ or folk healer was the hex doctor. Hex Doctors practiced ‘gray magic’ or magic that blurred the lines between the light and dark. Like their ‘white witch’ counterparts, these practitioners were healers, but with a twist. Basically, they were where you wanted to go if you wanted revenge on someone that did you wrong. In addition to healing, Hex Doctors placed – well – hexes on people that were said to be deserving of it. As a side note, I sometimes wonder if an accused and acquitted ‘witch’ ever went to a Hex Doctor in order to get even with whoever accused him or her (the irony).

Another interesting fact is that in many cases, Hex was also a family business, often with practitioners spanning for generations. One example would be the Johann Saylor family, who practiced from the late 18

th century and up into the 1950s. One very well-known Hex Doctor was Mary Derry, also known as the Monongahela Witch or the Fortune Teller of the American Revolution. Married to a Hessian, she is said to have been both feared and respected for her work. Along with Hex doctors, people also sought out mediums and masters in cartomancy. One very interesting book to check out on these subject is Witches of Pennsylvania, Occult History and Lore by Thomas White.

Above the Hex Doctor in the light to dark magic scale was the ‘black witch’ or ‘sorcerer’. This was the one that conjured, conversed, and made pacts with the devil and caused havoc, preying on towns and innocent individuals. Being found guilty of this was what could get a person the death sentence.

The thing is, many of the accused and condemned weren’t practitioners of any kind. They were simply women and men that unfortunately got caught up in a bad place at a bad time and then dragged through the mud by society. According to the book Salem Possessed, much of the events had to do with family feuds and land ownership. Much of it was political. Of course, there are always nuances, but we do need to be mindful of getting the facts straight and not adding to the hysteria of long ago.

Of course, there is still the sensationalism of it all and many make the pilgrimage to Salem, Massachusetts every year based on that alone. Thankfully, I have heard historians in Salem actually debunking a lot of the sensationalism and myths, which does provide some comfort. But the desire by many to sensationalize and – yes – romanticize the ordeal is disturbing. Whether one means to or not, when you capitalize on and preach some of these myths, the horror that these women and men went through is being undermined. Then there are those (even some history sites) that just want to sweep it under the rug. I guess because it’s too controversial of a subject and you know, we can’t offend anyone.

After giving it thought, this is why I’ve become rather passionate about this subject. While portraying a fictional version of Mary Parsons, I will admit to feeling some slight nerves while awaiting the results of the votes from the general public; therefore, I can only imagine what someone back then actually being accused might have been going through. And to think that as Mary Parsons, I was condemned by a 21st century crowd. Sure we can argue that it was just a game, but this makes me wonder of how some of these people would behave in a real situation like that. How would they decide? What made them decide a guilty verdict during the Halloween event? Or do we even want to know?


  1. Hi, I think the name that is eluding you is Sarah Clayes. She came to Framingham MA in the middle of the night in the wintertime and stayed in some caves with her husband, who had helped her break out of jail in Salem. Eventually they were able to build a house which is still standing, actually was abandoned for years but was very recently purchased, restored, and sold by the Framingham History Center. They did a beautiful job.


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