April 11, 2017

Discovering Witches with Sword Magic

There are a lot of great things about writing this blog. I visit strange places. I meet new people with similar interests. I research unusual topics. And sometimes, I find a piece of witchcraft lore that is totally new.

Well, at least it's new to me, but most of it is really old. Here's a good example. I've recently been reading about some early witchcraft trials in Connecticut and found a test for witchcraft that I had never seen before.

Witchcraft tests are an important form of old New England folk magic and show up in many trial accounts. Imagine that you are a Puritan settler and someone in your family is acting strangely. Maybe they suffering from strange convulsions. Maybe they have an illness that won't go away. Maybe they say a strange entity has been appearing in their bedroom at night. You need to know if their problems are caused by something natural or supernatural. Basically, you need a test to see if someone has bewitched them.

Some witchcraft tests are quite well known. Mary Sibley tried used a witch cake to test if the Parris children were bewitched in an incident that might have started the Salem witch trials. Witch bottles are both a way to test for witchcraft and also a way to defend against it. But here's the witchcraft test that was new to me: holding a sword over the bewitched person and seeing if they laugh.

It comes from the case of Katherine Branch, a servant girl living in Stamford, Connecticut in the 1690s. In April of 1692 Branch began to exhibit strange behavior, including uncontrollable convulsions, weeping, and hysterical shouting. A midwife at first thought the cause was natural and tried bleeding Branch, but when the convulsions didn't stop she decided witchcraft was more likely the cause. Branch herself claimed two local women, Elizabeth Clawson of Stamford and Mercy Disborough of Fairfield, were the witches attacking her.

Unlike their co-religionists to the north in Salem, the Puritans in Connecticut were very strict about what evidence they would accept. They wanted to be sure that Branch was actually bewitched and not lying. One of the tests they administered was the sword test.

The sword test was suggested by a neighbor named Thomas Asten. Asten said he had heard that holding a sword over the bewitched person would cause them to laugh uncontrollably, possibly even to the point of death if the sword were held over them long enough. Branch's employers agreed to let Asten administer the test.

Sword image from this site...
 Asten held his sword over Branch, and she began to laugh hysterically. She continued laughing until Asten moved it away. "You see," said Asten, "she is clearly bewitched!" Another neighbor, Sarah Kecham, was not convinced. She brought Asten into another room and quietly suggested that Branch could have easily faked her laughter. After all, she knew the sword was being held over her head and knew why they were doing it. Kecham wanted to try the test again.

Asten and Kecham returned to the room where Branch was. While Branch was looking in the other direction Asten very quietly held his sword over her. She was unaware the sword was there and she didn't laugh at all. Not so much as even a giggle. Perhaps she wasn't really bewitched after all...

Elizabeth Clawson and Mercy Disborough were ultimately found innocent of witchcraft, although it took several lengthy trials to reach that decision. The sword test was probably one of the pieces of evidence that helped them go free. Let's be glad that Sarah Kecham was a skeptic!

This test might not be easy to administer these days because not many people have swords. A sword may not be necessary, though. I think the sword test was considered effective because swords were made of metal, and metal is anathema to witches in folklore. Items like horseshoes and nails were often used to repel witches, and it was believed that binding a witch with iron manacles prevented them from using their powers. So maybe if you don't have a sword a crowbar might work instead? Then again, sometimes the best test (and defense against witchcraft) is just plain old skepticism.


The information for this week's post is from Richard Godbeer's book Escaping Salem.

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