All in all, I tend to think of Ohio as a relatively boring state, but every once in a while I find something interesting hidden under the veneer of mundanity my home state likes to paint over itself.
We all know I love weird, morbid, and/or spooky history, so saddle up because we’re diving into a couple of lesser known American witch trials.
Ohio has a grand total of 1 trial for witchcraft in it’s history. Surprisingly, Hildebrand-Evans case didn’t occur until 1805, about a century after most American witch trials had already been consigned to the darker annals of our country’s history.
It started out much like the Salem witch trials: with a couple of bored teenage girls and an outcast older woman.
Nancy Evans was an elderly woman who lived alone in a small cottage, at a cross roads, with her black cat. Very little is known about her or the trial, only that the Hildebrandt daughters, who are unnamed in the records, showed signs of being possessed. They and their family all accused Evans of the crime. According to the daughters, the cat could talk and would torture them psychically.
Members of the community began to shun the old woman, who understandably thought the entire thing was ridiculous. Finally a magistrate stepped in. After a bit of research, the community decided the “witch’s chair” was the best way to settle the case.
There are two different versions of the “witch’s chair”: The first involves a long pole suspended over a body of water with a swing on the end. When weighed against a Bible, the accused will either weigh less than the book (a witch) or weight more and thus be dunked into the water. This usually resulted in drowning as most people and women in particular prior to the 1920s an the advent of a more athletic swim suit didn’t swim at all because water was considered bad and they didn’t have appropriate clothing. Also between corsets, stays, or other waist-cinching devices, petticoats, and boots, they tended to suck up water like a sponge and weigh down the wearer, pulling them into the water. The idea was that if a witch was discovered, the person operating the device could shake her off the swing where she would drown.
The second is essentially the same but without the water. A set of human-sized scales are constructed, and a book is placed on one end the accused sits on the other. Again, the book should be lighter than the person if they are really innocent.
The various articles I found are somewhat conflicting on which form of the chair was used. One of the links below references a body of water, but the other two don’t.
But back to the trial.
Once the chair was constructed, the elderly Mrs. Evans was brought to trial. A bible was placed on one side, and the accused brought forward, still not really taking the proceedings seriously.
Mrs. Evans plunked her ass down on the chair. Not a slight woman, the bible went flying, thus proclaiming her innocence.
Honestly, this is probably the most ridiculous case of witchcraft I’ve ever come across, and I think it was very smart of the court to choose this method of “investigation.” Most methods of testing witches involved attempted murder that would only fail if the person possessed magical powers. Unsurprisingly, this is how many accused of witchcraft died, rather than through hanging or burning. Witchcraft accusations were a double edged sword, frequently involving torture as a means of interrogation. If a person confessed, they would be found guilty and, oddly, often survive–but only if they named others in their “coven”. Those who faced torture with a stiff upper lip were found guilty by default, because clearly they had the protection of the devil.
In researching this case, I found one other–the last witch trial in the United States, which brings us back to Salem. Check in next week for the story!
Like what you see? Check out My Favorite Witch Trial