- Historic Sites
The Witch & We, The People
Did the fifty-five statesmen meeting in Philadelphia at the Constitutional Convention know that a witch-hunt was taking place while they deliberated? Did they care?
August/september 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 5
On May 5, a Saturday, as the Pennsylvania Packet reported six days later, she was attacked “by some persons of the vicinity.” The story went on: “Upon a supposition she was a witch, she was cut in the forehead, according to ancient and immemorial custom, by those persons. This old body long since laboured under suspicions of sorcery, and was viewed as the pest and nightmare of society in those parts of the town where she had hitherto lived; she was commonly called, at Spring Garden, Korbmacher, by the Germans: and on that score, on the present and other occasions, unfortunately became the victim of vengeance of some individuals, who afforded her the most pointed abuse which so misled a passion and resentment, could possibly impose and inflict. ”
The paper went on to say that Korbmacher, fearing for her life, had applied to the authorities for protection. Though it was not clear what kind of protection they could offer, the paper deplored “the absurd and abominable notions of witchcraft and sorcery” and hoped that they would “no more predominate in an empire like ours, that has emancipated itself from the superstitions of authority, and in fact every other species of superstition consisting in the bondage of the body or the mind.” Silly fear of witches and witchcraft belonged to the Old World; it must have no place “in the free and civilized parts of independent America.” But after a lengthy denunciation of superstition, the paper acknowledged that “prejudices, worm-eaten prejudices, as our old companions are hard to be parted with. ”
Such prejudices, it was feared, might threaten not only the lives of poor women like Korbmacher but also the success of the coming convention. In the same issue the Packet observed “that as the time approaches for opening the business of the federal convention, it is natural that every lover of his country should experience some anxiety for the fate of an expedient so necessary, yet so precarious. Upon the event of this great council, indeed, depends every thing that can be essential to the dignity and stability of the national character.”
Philadelphians could read the story of the attack on Korbmacher not only in the Pennsylvania Packet but in several other newspapers as well. But one looks in vain for further details. As was their custom, the other newspapers simply copied the story word-for-word from the one that first printed it. Even the German Gemeinnützige Philadelphische Correspondenz simply translated it from the Packet .
Springtime passed, the convention met, and summer heat set in. The first week in July was especially hot and humid. It was a bad time for the convention, for on the second of July the members had become deadlocked over the question of representation, and for the next two weeks, until the so-called Great Compromise was agreed to (consisting mainly of representation for all states equally in the senate, and by population in the House of Representatives), the convention was in danger of dissolution. The heat wave broke with a thundershower on July 9, and five days later the convention was on course again, with the Great Compromise in place. Korbmacher did not fare so well.
It is not certain that the weather had anything to do with it, but the south side of Philadelphia was not a pleasant place in the summer heat. The fields in the area were a dumping ground for every kind of refuse. Dead horses and dead dogs lay amid the heaps, filling the air with the stench of putrefaction. Nevertheless, nothing untoward happened while the heat wave lasted, other than the usual riotous behavior of the wheelbarrow men. But on July 10, as a cool breeze swept the city and things began to look up at the convention, the people around the New Market broke out in rage against Korbmacher. Cutting her on the forehead had apparently not put an end to the misfortunes attributed to her. What these were is not recorded, but at least one woman blamed the death of a child on her charms. The whole story, so far as we know it, was carried in the papers in a few lines (this time the Pennsylvania Evening Herald was first, and the others copied from it). “We are sorry to hear,” the story began, “that the poor woman who suffered so much some time ago, under the imputation of being a witch , has again been attacked by an ignorant and inhuman mob. On Tuesday last she was carried through several of the streets, and was hooted and pelted as she passed along. A gentleman who interfered in her favour was greatly insulted, while those who recited the innumerable instances of her art, were listened to with curiosity and attention.”