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The Witch & We, The People

July 2024
12min read

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?


SEVENTEEN EIGHTY-SEVEN was not that long ago. It will be four years before we can celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of what happened in Philadelphia that summer. And it will be something worth celebrating. The United States Constitution was the culminating achievement of the Enlightenment in America, if not in the world. Fifty-five men agreed on a way of government that has been more successful in almost every way than any other in a thousand years and more. Yes, the members of the Constitutional Convention all had their special interests to protect, among them the interests of slaveholders, not among them the interests of slaves. But they listened to each other. They reasoned together. And what they did was not unreasonable. It worked. It still works.

It is hard to think that those fifty-five men were much closer in time to the Salem witch trials of 1692 than they were to us. It is still harder to think that in Philadelphia that summer in the very week when they were hammering out the most crucial provisions of the Constitution, they could have witnessed, perhaps did witness, in the streets they daily walked, an event that tied them more closely to the dark world of superstition than to the enlightenment they cherished.

In 1787 Philadelphia was unquestionably the intellectual capital of the United States. It was not simply the fact that Philadelphia was much larger in population than New York or Boston; it was the distinction of its citizens that made the city a magnet for foreign visitors and the obvious meeting place for men who thought, as Alexander Hamilton put it, continentally, men who could see beyond the boundaries of their town or parish or county or state. It was the city of Benjamin Franklin, the very symbol of the Enlightenment, of Benjamin Rush, America’s best-known physician, of David Rittenhouse, America’s leading astronomer, of Charles Willson Peale, painter and promoter, of William Bartram, the country’s foremost botanist. It was the home of the American Philosophical Society, the only significant learned society on the continent. It had a flourishing theater where, despite lingering objections from Quaker moralists, ladies and gentlemen could laugh at a farce or weep at a tragedy. It had eight newspapers and two monthly magazines, The Columbian Magazine and The American Museum , the first magazines in the United States. It had Peale’s Museum with a display of waxworks, paintings, and scientific curiosities, the eighteenth-century prototype of the Smithsonian. It had Gray’s Tavern, with the most elaborate landscape gardens in the country, complete with waterfalls, grottoes, and Chinese pagodas. Philadelphia was the place to be, the place to go.

During that summer the great convention was not the only assemblage of notables to gather there. The Society of the Cincinnati (composed of the officers of Washington’s army) and two religious denominations, Presbyterian and Baptist, held their meetings there at the same time as the convention. Throughout the summer, troops of distinguished visitors would pass through, including Indian chiefs on the way to negotiate with the lame-duck Congress in New York—then the nation’s capital city—about incursions on their lands and land speculators making plans for more incursions. Sooner or later, it seemed, everyone came to Philadelphia.

The members of the convention began arriving in May, the Virginians first. James Madison got there on the fifth, plans for a wholly new national government already forming in his head. George Washington rode in on the thirteenth, suffering from embarrassment that he had declined, on the pretext of his private affairs, to attend the meeting of the Cincinnati and now was to be in Philadelphia anyhow. Gov. Edmund Randolph,with whom Madison concerted his plans, was there by the fifteenth. Benjamin Franklin, of course, was already on hand. He had just completed an addition to his house on Market Street, and on the sixteenth he entertained the new arrivals at an elegant dinner there, along with John Penn, grandson of the founder of Pennsylvania.

The other delegates trickled in at intervals. It was May 25 before enough were present for the convention to begin. What they said to each other on the upper floor of the statehouse has been preserved for us by Madison, in one of the most exciting journals of American history. What they said in the evenings as clumps of them dined together at their taverns and boardinghouses can only be guessed at. What was the conversation, for example, at the Indian Queen, where Madison roomed, along with New Yorker Alexander Hamilton, Virginia’s George Mason, Luther Martin from Maryland, Charles Pinckney and John Rutledge of South Carolina, and North Carolina’s Hugh Williamson?

Presumably they continued to talk, when no outsiders were present, about the things they had argued over during the day. But what did they think about events that went on around them in the city? Were their daytime thoughts affected by the sights and sounds, the stench, the dangers, the alarms and excursions that confronted them when they stepped out of the statehouse? Although we cannot know the answer, we can know a little about the darker side of what they saw. It may not have affected the outcome of what they did, but it may affect our own understanding of the world they lived in and were trying to change.

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.

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.”

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.

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