The Witch & We, The People

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How was she carried? In a cart? What was she pelted with? With refuse? Rocks? Who pelted her?

How was she carried? Perhaps in a cart? What was she pelted with? With refuse? With rocks? Who were the people who pelted her? Were they the same people who passed drink to the wheelbarrow men? Were the wheelbarrow men themselves among them? What kind of people still believed in witches in 1787? Nothing in the record tells us. But the picture is extraordinary. While America’s great men sat in solemn conclave, working out the compromise that saved the Union and established the form of government under which we still live, Korbmacher was carried through the streets, her tormentors reciting her supposed acts of sorcery, inviting the throng to pelt her. And the story does not end there: eight days later she was dead. The newspapers tell us what she died from: “It must seriously affect every humane mind that in consequence of the barbarous treatment lately suffered by the poor old woman, called a Witch, she died on Wednesday last. It is hoped that every step will be taken to bring the offenders to punishment, in justice to the wretched victim, as well as the violated laws of reason and society.”

It was a pious wish, shared by“severalrespectablecitizens” who at the time of the second attack expressed a willingness to testify in the woman’s behalf and by a “gentleman of the law” who proposed to undertake the prosecution of her tormentors. The case evidently did come to trial at the so-called city sessions held by the Mayor’s Court in October. The City Archives contain the docket of that court from 1782 to 1785 and from 1789 to 1792, but the years from 1786 to 1788 are missing. Hence, once again, we know of the case only from the newspapers, which do not even record the outcome and would perhaps not have mentioned it at all had not the judge made it the occasion for a labored exercise of tasteless wit. Here is the story, offered first in the Pennsylvania Evening Herald for October 27: “On Monday last [October 22] the city sessions commenced, and on Friday the business of the court was concluded. Several persons were condemned to the wheel and barrow, but the greater number of bills were for keeping disorderly houses, and committing assaults and battery—a melancholy proof of the depraved manners, and the contentious spirit of the times. One woman, who had been indicted for some violence offered to the person of the unhappy creature that was lately attacked by a mob under the imputation of being a witch, maintained the justice of that opinion, and insinuated her belief that her only child sickened and died, under the malignant influence of a charm . Upon which the presiding Justice made the following observation—what! that a poor wretch whose sorrows and infirmities have sunk her eyes into her head, and whose features are streaked with the wrinkles of extreme old age, should therefore become an object of terror, and be endowed with the powers of witchcraft—it is an idle and absurd superstition! If, however, some damsels that I have seen, animated with the bloom of youth, and equipped with all the grace of beauty, if such women were indicted for the offence, the charge might receive some countenance, for they are indeed calculated to charm and bewitch us. But age and infirmity, though they deserve our compassion, have nothing in them that can alarm or fascinate our nature.”

So the episode closed. What did the great men make of it? What did Washington think? What did Madison think? What did Roger Sherman of Connecticut or Massachusetts’s Elbridge Gerry think, or the other New Englanders with their not-so-ancient heritage of witchcraft? And what did Philadelphians, other than newspaper correspondents and facetious judges, think? Again the record is silent. The attacks on Korbmacher and her death passed unnoticed in the diaries and letters that have thus far come to light.

T HAT FACT MAY itself suggest something, namely that the episode did not seem as bizarre to people of the time as it does to us. Seventeen eighty-seven was less than a century from the witch trials of 1692. It is worth reminding ourselves that Benjamin Franklin once talked with Cotton Mather. He and the other fifty-four men who labored in the statehouse that summer may have been working against greater odds than we have realized. Superstition dies hard, and witch-hunts have generally proceeded from the bottom up. Even the Spanish Inquisition lagged behind popular demand in its pursuit of witches. The members of the Constitutional Convention have often been taken to task by historians for their seeming distrust of the people. And although that distrust has been greatly exaggerated, and although it affected some members much more than others, it was real. It shocks us a little, as we read Madison’s notes of what his colleagues said, to find them at the very outset of the convention fearful of an “excess of democracy,” worried that the people “are constantly liable to be misled.” If, however, we bear in mind the actions of this particular mob on the very doorstep of the convention, we may perhaps take a more charitable view of their bias. Enlightenment still had, and has, a long way to go.