July 12, 2016

A Witch Trial and A Slave's Testimony from 1679

A while ago I posted about how Tituba, the famous Arawak Indian slave from the Salem witch trials, came to be portrayed as black in fiction and drama.

That post got a lot of hits, but I think it's important to point out that while Tituba was not of African descent many other people involved with New England witchcraft were. Witchcraft was an equal opportunity belief system, and people of all races were accused of witchcraft. For example, a black slave named Candy was accused during the Salem trials, but happily was not found guilty, even after her accusers produced evidence in the form of a poppet she had allegedly made.

In Rhode Island, a black woman named Tuggie Bannock had a reputation as a powerful witch in the 1800s, well after the witchcraft trials had ended. And as historian William Pierson writes in his book Black Yankees (1988), many people of African descent across New England worked as diviners, fortune-tellers, and herbalists.

One of the earliest accounts from New England of a black person involved with witchcraft comes from 1679. In December of that year, a black slave named Wonn testified in the Salem court against a woman named Bridget Oliver. Oliver was an outspoken woman who had been married multiple times, and when her current husband Thomas Oliver beat her she would hit him back. Naturally, her neighbors in Salem suspected this independent woman of witchcraft.

Wonn testified to the court that one day the horses hauling his sled mysteriously and unaccountably ran into a swamp up to the their bellies. This doesn't seem like very significant evidence, but several witnesses said they had never seen horses behave so strangely before. And what unseen force had frightened them into the swamp anyway?

A week later Wonn saw Bridget Oliver's specter perched upon a beam in the barn, holding an egg in one hand. He swung at her with a rake but she disappeared. Finally, as Wonn ate dinner that evening two strange black cats appeared in the house. Upon seeing the cats Wonn tried to speak, but felt himself pinched by invisible hands.

Although Wonn (which is perhaps an older spelling of Juan) was of African descent his testimony contains many elements of classic New England witchcraft. The misbehaving livestock is a common trope, and bewitched draft animals often allegedly brought their wagons or carts into swamps or rivers. The black cats and invisible pinching are also classic witchery.

I'm not so sure about the egg, though, which I haven't seen in too many stories. Was Bridget Oliver stealing the egg? Was she brandishing it as a threat and planning to use it in a spell? It's not clear, but it's a very powerful image.

Bridget Oliver was initially found guilty based on Wonn's testimony, but the court later let her go free. She wasn't so lucky thirteen years later in 1692. Then married to her third husband and called Bridget Bishop, she was again found guilty of witchcraft again and hanged on June 10.

The history books don't tell us what happened afterwards to Wonn. Did he really think he was bewitched by Bridget Oliver? Did he have a personal grudge against her, or was he put up to it by his owner, John Ingersoll? Was Wonn still in Salem in 1692 for the witch trials? It's all a mystery.


Special thanks go out to my friend Ed for suggesting this as a topic after he read New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America (2016) by Wendy Warren. I also got information from William Pierson's Black Yankees (1988) and Marilynne Roach's The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-By-Day Chronicle of A Community Under Siege (2002).


Anonymous said...

Oomantia - the ancient practice of using eggs (mostly the yolks) to predict the future. Just one of many possibilities. Seems I have heard of this in colonial times but have no solid source. Bill P.

Peter Muise said...

Hi Bill! Thanks for the comment. I know that the English settlers sometimes floated an egg white in a glass of water and interpreted the shapes it made to divine the future. They called the technique a "Venus Glass" but I think oomantia sounds better!

John said...

Peter: You might also be interested in the mention and back story of Bridget Oliver/Bishop in the 2015 book by Stacy Schiff, "The Witches, Salem 1692." There are numerous statements about Bridget in the book, but her earlier trial for witchcraft is addressed on pp. 114 - 115.

Peter Muise said...

Hi John! Thanks for the recommendation. Stacy Schiff's book is on my reading list and I hope to get to it soon!