Witching Hour: Duquesne Archivist’s Latest Book Brings Folk Tales to Life
In 1684, two women from now-Delaware County stood before a Philadelphia grand jury accused of witchcraft. The women, their neighbors claimed, had hexed their cows into producing less milk. Colony founder William Penn presided over the grand jury, which found the women guilty of being thought witches, but innocent of actual witchcraft. It was Pennsylvania's only witch trial-but not the only witchcraft tale the state has to offer. And it's just one of many that Thomas White, Duquesne University archivist and curator of special collections, explores in his latest book, Witches of Pennsylvania: Occult History and Lore.
White is no stranger to Pennsylvania folk tales and ghost stories, and this book follows on the heels of seven others that have explored topics ranging from Western Pennsylvania ghosts to forgotten tales of both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. In his latest work, White chronicles the belief in witchcraft in the Keystone State, from William Penn's proceedings until the present day.
Unlike other tellers of spooky stories, White doesn't merely recount the tales for his readers. Instead, he presents the story in context, outlining the historical events and associations that contributed to the tale's creation.
"There are all kinds of things you can learn from legends if you read them a little more deeply," White said. "You learn how things are remembered, and that's important. Legends also carry warnings and show you what frightens people at various times in history."
Witches of Pennsylvania begins with Penn's 1684 trial, then examines the presence of witchcraft beliefs in early Pennsylvania. It goes on to investigate the Pennsylvania German tradition of powwow (a sort of faith healing) and hex, then chronicles alleged incidents of witchcraft from the 1780s through the 1920s. He finishes the book by discussing the witchcraft-related murders that shook eastern Pennsylvania in the 1920s and 1930s, and witchcraft's transition into modern urban legend.
"Tales of witchcraft and the supernatural continue to remain popular because they appeal to a belief in forces beyond our bureaucratic and materialistic world, and offer a way to 'push back' against the often dehumanizing forces of modernity," White said. "Believing in supernatural evil, in the form of witchcraft, is usually also accompanied by a belief in supernatural good."