As Halloween approaches, so do the images of goblins, ghouls, ghosts and, of course, witches.
Around the Old Line State, witches might call to mind The Blair Witch Project of a few years back. Historians readily think of Salem, Mass., and those infamous witch trials. But in dear old Maryland, and certainly in Cecil County, the witch mystique doesn’t come home to roost … or does it?
In Maryland, as with many other states besides Massachusetts, there were indeed witchcraft trials and persecutions in colonial Maryland. Those trials went from Maryland’s eastern shore to Annapolis and on into Southern Maryland. Two of the earliest cases in Maryland show that accused witches were, in fact, executed. Although the executions of the accused witches did not take place on Maryland soil, they were nonetheless conducted on ships bound for Maryland from England. The executions occurred in 1654 aboard the ship Charity.
A woman named Mary Lee was accused of sorcery by the crew of the Charity who stated in St. Mary’s City records that she “summoned a relentless storm” by the “malevolence of witches.” Shockingly, the second shipboard execution involved George Washington’s great-grandfather John Washington, of Westmoreland County, Va. Washington accused the ship’s owner Edward Prescott of hanging Elizabeth Richardson as a witch in 1659. Prescott did confirm Richardson was hanged aboard ship at a subsequent trial but the ship’s owner was acquitted once he blamed the ship’s captain, John Green, for the deed.
The only recorded execution on Maryland soil was Oct. 9, 1695, when Rebecca Fowler was hanged in Calvert County when a jury found her “guilty of certain evil and diabolical arts called witchcraft, enchantments, charms, sorceries.”
A host of others faced charges in Maryland which, fortunately did not result in their immediate demise such as Hannah Edward, in Calvert County, who was acquitted in 1685; Molly Dyer, in St. Mary’s County, who was driven from her home and died of exposure; and Virtue Violl, of Talbot County, who was acquitted in the last recorded witchcraft trial held in Annapolis in 1712.
Though the annals of Maryland history do not record any witchcraft trials for Cecil County that does not, in fact, mean there were not people accused in the county. Church records give evidence to at least one individual having been accused of witchcraft in the county, Alexander Kirk, who lived between the area now known as Calvert and North East in 1809. Kirk, still a familiar name in Cecil County, brought an appeal before the quarterly conference of the Methodist Church in Cecil County on Sept. 15, 1809, after he had been expelled for practicing witchcraft by the Rev. Asa Smith.
Kirk and his case were examined and as part of the quarterly conference and a unanimous judgment render in support of the Rev. Smith’s decision. Indeed the committee entered the following resolution upon the minutes of the Cecil County conference, “Resolved: That in the opinion of this conference it is criminal to apply to any man as a conjuror on the subject of witchcraft or the like and every Methodist is esteemed culpable for so doing.”