The Witch & We, The People

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The members of the convention were concerned, we know, about law and order. The times were hard, bankruptcies looming everywhere, mortgages foreclosing, beggars conspicuous in the city. In Massachusetts there had been open defiance of government; and in several other states, too, including Connecticut, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, mobs had assembled to close the courts or to retrieve property seized for debts or taxes. Law and order were threatened, and when walking the streets of Philadelphia that summer, one could not escape meeting up with people who made defiance of law and order a way of life.

Even as the convention sat, an ugly kind of crime made its appearance in the city.

The Philadelphia prison was right on the mall, a stone’s throw from the statehouse, and anyone who ventured to stroll by it got a taste of what kind of people were inside. They had provided themselves with poles, attaching a little cap at the end, which they thrust out to passersby to beg for coins. To refuse was to invite a barrage of curses by expert cursers. It was well known what the prisoners did with the coins. The jailer sold drinks in the prison’s common hall, where men and women inmates cavorted together promiscuously.

Nor was it possible to escape the curses of prisoners simply by shunning the vicinity of the prison. A new state law had prescribed labor on the city streets as a substitute for imprisonment in many cases. Convicts with shaved heads, shackled with ball and chain and an iron collar, were to be seen everywhere at work, or allegedly at work, under the supervision of overseers. The “wheelbarrow men,” as they were called, were also expert beggars and cursers. They wheedled drinks from passersby and, as the newspapers reported (three days before the convention opened), “frequently exhibit the most horrid scenes on this side’ of the infernal regions—abusing the inhabitants, beating their keepers, and with drawn knives and other weapons, oblige them to fly for their lives, uttering horrid imprecations of death and destruction.”

Criminals in chains were bad enough, but criminals who had not been caught were worse. In some areas of Philadelphia large numbers of houses were deserted and offered shelter to gangs of footpads. In Broad Street, south of Market, landlords even rented their aging buildings to thieves, who sallied forth to prey on unsuspecting strollers. And if poverty was a spur to crime, Philadelphia was under considerable pressure. During the preceding year the almshouse had admitted 196 men, 213 women, and 73 children. In addition, 19 children had been born there during the year.

For a city with a total population of 40,000, these figures bespeak a sizable underclass of the poor and the criminal, enough to make law-abiding citizens uneasy, as they were uneasy about the people in the countryside who were taking action against the legal collection of debts and taxes. The convention, it was hoped, would do something to restore prosperity and ease the poverty that drove people to crime. But even as the convention sat, an uglier kind of crime made its appearance in the city.

I N 1787 WITCHCRAFT had long since ceased to be recognized in law. The English statute against it had been repealed in 1736, and prosecutions in England and the colonies had ceased well before that. But belief in witchcraft could not be repealed. Fear of it continued, and so did popular methods of detecting and dealing with witches. Trial by water remained a favorite method. A witch, when bound hand and foot and thrown into deep water, was supposed to sink if innocent, float if guilty, a procedure calculated to dispose of the victim in either case. In 1751 a woman was subjected to this test in Hertfordshire, England, where a mob dragged her back and forth through a pond and then kicked her as she lay dying on the bank. A less drastic way of dealing with a witch was to cut or scratch her, preferably on the forehead, a procedure that was supposed to counteract any evil spells she might have cast. The church and the law had long frowned on these rituals, but they survived in popular memory. And one of them, cutting on the forehead, survived in Philadelphia.

The trouble began on May 5, the day Madison rode in for the convention. He came from the north, from New York, so he could not himself have seen it happen, because it took place near the New Market on the south side of town. An old woman, known familiarly as Korbmacher (“basketmaker”), lived there. We know nothing about her except that she had formerly lived among the Germans in Spring Garden, on the north side. She had there acquired her nickname—whether she actually made baskets is not clear—and an evil reputation. She was thought to be a witch, and when things went wrong—presumably illnesses among children or cattle—she would be blamed.