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The Witch and William Penn

The cows were acting funny. That is how the only official witch trial in Pennsylvania history began.

Eight years before the infamous Salem Witch Trials in colonial Massachusetts, a Swedish woman named Margaret Matson was brought to trial in Philadelphia. The Salem trials resulted in the execution of 20 people and the arrests of over 100. In Pennsylvania, the outcome was much different.


Margaret and her husband Nils Mattson were among a group of Swedish settlers who landed near Wilmington, Delaware, in 1638. They arrived before William Penn, before the land was ever granted to him by England's King Charles II. Several land transactions by Nils Mattson appear in colonial records and by 1680 it appears they owned land along both Crum Creek and perhaps Ridley Creek, a tributary of the Delaware River, which it joined at Upland (present-day Chester, PA).


They were well-established members of the community. Early records sometimes also call him "Neels" and at other times "Neals." They soon would be displaced by the ever more numerous English settlers who followed Penn. That was probably the cause of it all.


Margaret and her husband were very successful farmers. Having arrived early, they had claimed much good river-bottom land, good for crops and the raising of cattle. Later arriving Dutch, and particularly the English, found they had to look harder, and go farther inland, to find suitable lands to claim.


This probably led to some jealousy regarding these Swedish farmers, who did not even have the decency to speak English. So, as often happens in the case of jealousy, false rumors would be started, and well believed by others as they spread. If an Englishman's cow failed to give milk, it must be because it's been hexed. If the Englishman's crops did not do well, there had to be a reason. It must be that old Swedish woman. She must be a witch and was casting spells.


Rumors began to spread. Eventually, Henry Drystreet's cows were no longer producing milk. The only explanation, he felt, was witchcraft. Specifically the witchcraft of Margaret Mattson. In the 1680s, witchcraft was a very serious offense.


He filed a complaint with the authorities charging that Margaret Mattson was indeed a witch. The trial took place on a Wednesday. By the Julian calendar it was 27 February 1683. By our modern Gregorian calendar the trial took place on 8 March 1684. She was tried before a jury of 12 men that was presided over by Governor William Penn and the Provincial Council.


William Penn

Penn took several steps to ensure Mattson had a fair trial, providing the Swedish-speaking woman with an interpreter. Her fellow Swedes filled the jury and Mattson was allowed to defend herself at the trial. While that may not seem crazy by today's standards, at the time it was extremely progressive; women were not allowed to take the stand in criminal cases until the 19th century in England. There was no death penalty at stake either, as Penn had abolished it for all crimes except for willful murder. That, of course, would change in 1718 when the Pennsylvania Assembly created a list of 14 capital offenses (witchcraft among them).


Whether the motive of her accusers was the Mattson's land or simply petty jealousies over other matters remains unclear. Most of the testimony given was hearsay. Not one witness accused Margaret of a direct act of witchcraft.


The prosecution tried to ask Margaret many questions. Finally the gist of the matter came down to two questions asked of Margaret by none other than William Penn himself. "Art thou a witch?" and "Hast thou ever ridden through the air on a broomstick?"


Margaret, appearing confused and to not entirely understanding the questions, seemed to answer in the affirmative. The prosecuting attorney and the English farmers who coveted the Mattson's lands were delighted.


It seemed Margaret had confessed to the crimes. But William Penn had sensed that the whole thing was a sham, that the charges were trumped up just to deprive these old established settlers of their property. As the chief judge, he deliberated. Then he announced to the court that there was nothing in the laws of the Province that made it a crime to fly about on a broomstick.


In the end, Penn found Mattson guilty of having a reputation for being a witch, but not of actually committing witchcraft. It was a crafty play on the part of Penn, who was able to thus acknowledge the women's reputations without labelling them guilty of a crime. After all, it was not a crime to have a reputation as a witch.

When Penn decreed, "Let the woman go," his advisors quickly pointed out that it was against English law, and the law of the Commonwealth, to be a witch. She could not be found totally innocent. So William Penn compromised.


Margaret's husband wad fined 50 pounds, which was kept as a bond for good behavior. If no further charges were made against her for six months, then the money would be returned. This was a popular Quaker practice and known as a "peace bond," with the money serving as a guarantee that the accused would behave and thus keep the peace.


Needless to say, the English farmers were downtrodden, but the will of the Proprietor would stand.


Margaret Mattson and her husband continued to live on the banks of the Delaware River for many a year.


But this is not only an interesting story, there is also an historical connection.


Gunnar Rambo was a member of the Grand Jury for the trial. His brother-in-law, Lawrence Petersson "Lasse" Cock was a member of the Provincial Council. Both were present for his historic event.


There are also a couple Mattson/Matson members in my family tree. However, I have not yet been able to connect them to Margaret.



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