A Witch Trial at Mount Holly

Although it is not certain, it is thought that Benjamin Franklin write the essay, “The Witch Trial at Mount Holly”, which appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette on October 22nd, 1730. The story begins with approximately 300 people gathered together to see the trial of two witches, a man and a women, whom have been accused of, “making their Neighbours Sheep dance in an uncommon Manner, and with causing Hogs to speak, and sing Psalms.” Denying the claims, the two accused witches agreed to undergo two tests to prove their innocence, only  if two of their accusers would take the tests with them. The first test required the accused witches to stand on a scale where they would be weighed against the bible. The accusers believed “that if the Accused were weighed in Scales against a Bible, the Bible would prove too heavy for them”. Therefore, being lighter than the bible would prove that they were guilty. However then Franklin states, “Flesh and Bones came down plump, and outweighed that great good Book by abundance”. Since they were all found innocent, they had to forego the second test, in which the four “were bound Hand and Foot, and severally placed in the Water, lengthways, from the Side of a Barge or Flat, having for Security only a Rope about the Middle of each, which was held by some in the Flat”. If they sunk, they were innocent, and if they drowned, they were guilty.  However, only the male accuser began to sink, while the two accused witches and the female accuser continued to float. The floating accuser claimed that “the Accused had bewitched her to make her so light, and that she would be duck’d again a Hundred Times, but she would duck the Devil out of her”. The accused male on the other hand stated, “If I am a Witch, it is more than I know”. However, after much consideration, the people decided that anyone would try to stay afloat and that perhaps it was the women’s clothing that made them stay above the water. Therefore, the trial was put off until the weather was warmer and they could try them all naked.

Having lived in Massachusetts in his early life, perhaps Franklin was intrigued by the witch trials that were performed in Salem. Witch trials had not occurred in decades in North America, however they were very interesting to hear about. Franklin wrote this piece to simply entertain his readers in Philadelphia, however the story was later published in a newspaper in London, England. It could also be inferred that Franklin was making fun of the Puritan belief that people could be witches. He makes this apparent in the last paragraph where he states, “The more thinking Part of the Spectators were of Opinion, that any Person so bound and plac’d in the Water (unless they were mere Skin and Bones) would swim till their Breath was gone, and their Lungs fill’d with Water.” He makes it sound as if the people were finally coming to their senses, knowing that these trials were pointless and couldn’t prove anything. Many people in the 1730’s still believed in the concept of witchcraft, and here Franklin is showing that he thinks that this concept is simply preposterous. This satirical essay, may not have only made people giggle, but may have also played a role in shifting old beliefs.

Though it is understandable that the writing and language of this essay is dated, due to the fact that it was written in the 1730’s, it was still quite difficult to understand exactly what was going on without using another source to explain what was happening. This may be because of the lack of paragraphs in the essay; as it is presented in one large paragraph with no separation. This made it difficult to pick on subject changes throughout the course of the essay. Another reason was due to the obvious differences in the English language that exists in older writing. The quotation: “A Sailor in the Flat jump’d out upon the Back of the Man accused, thinking to drive him down to the Bottom, but the Person bound, without any Help, came up some time before the other”, is a clear demonstration of how Franklin’s writing can sometimes be difficult to understand.

Finally, another aspect of this essay that does not work to its advantage is that Franklin’s old type of humor is no longer relevant. Though this may be a matter of opinion to its readers, it is hard to relate to what Franklin is writing about in order for it to be humorous. If it were not for the translation source, it is difficult to even figure out that the story is fictional. However, it is believed that the Trial at Mount Holly never truly occurred.

By,

Rachel Neves, Jason Davison, and Alex Marcus

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