A Witch Trial at Mount Holly

In Benjamin Franklin’s A Witch Trial at Mount Holly, one is met with a plethora of unknowns. For instance: there is, apparently, some doubt as to whether or not he wrote the piece; the legitimacy of the account is doubtful; and the status of the piece as fiction or non-fiction could be argued in multiple fashions. However, there is little doubt as to the intent of the piece: it appears to be a work of satire, which is, in and of itself, indicative of it being Franklin’s work.

The short essay details exactly what its title suggests: a witch trial held in Mount Holly (however, according to America in Class, a historical organization, the piece was initially untitled; its name was later bestowed by an eighteenth-century editor who gave it the appropriate heading). At the witch trial, two people had been accused, a man and a woman, and their two accusers were also a man and a woman. The accused requested that their accusers undergo the same trials they will endure (willingly, to prove their innocence), and the accusers quickly agreed to this, as they are pious and sure they would pass all the tests easily.

First, the four were given the test of the “scales”, in which they would be weighed compared to the Bible; if they weighed less, they were clearly possessed or guilty of witchcraft, but if they weighed more than the Bible, they were innocent (for that moment at least). All four weighed more (the text details “their Lumps of Mortality severally were too heavy for Moses and all the Prophets and Apostles) and so everyone moved to the next test: “Trial by Water”. All four, accused and accusers, stripped down naked (except for the women, who kept on their “shifts”, decently). The rules of the trial dictated that if they floated they were guilty, but if they sank they were innocent. Following the four people being thrown in the water, a rather absurd and comical scene played out. The female accuser desperately attempted to sink but continually floated, and summarily declared that the accused cursed 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 man also floated, and consequently “was not so confident of his Innocence as before”; other such ridiculous scenarios played out with the other man and woman as well. In the end, it was declared that “the Womens Shifts, and the Garters with which they were bound help’d to support them; it is said they are to be tried again the next warm Weather, naked.”

Many secondary sources which I have consulted agree that this witch trial at Mount Holly never actually occurred—it was not reported by any other newspaper or source of the time, and by 1730 a publicized witch trial had not occurred in America for a considerably amount of time; as reported by the New York Times, “The most famous case, the Salem trials, occurred nearly 50 years earlier. Twenty people were executed in Salem, and this gory excess helped to turn public opinion away from belief in witches. In England, the last legal execution of a witch took place in 1685.”. Also, no author was credited in the original account—but it was published in the Pennsylvania Gazette, which was owned and published by Franklin at the time. Given all of this information, and knowing Franklin’s penchant to publish writing anonymously, it is almost certain that the work was his, and was intended to be satirical. The depiction of the entire ordeal—the manner in which the trial is depicted, the actions of the accused and the accusers, the assumptions clearly held by the community at Mount Holly, the verbalizations of all involved—bespeaks a sort of belittlement on Franklin’s part, directed towards the behavior of those involved (fictional account or not).

This is not dissimilar from many of Franklin’s earlier essays as Silence Dogood. One may see this belittlement of others’ stupidity in numerous writings (such as Essay #7), and it was almost always presented with a sly tone and sardonic humor. By depicting this tale of superstition in such an absurd manner, one could argue that Franklin was not only denouncing the practices wherein but calling for more progressive, enlightened thinking based on common sense, rather than traditional superstition and fear-induced irrationality. Ultimately, The Witch Trial at Mount Holly was a parody, and remains so to this day; while the account could, theoretically, be true, the New York Times sums up well why it almost certainly was not: “The Mount Holly story has about it the sense of humor and scorn of superstition that characterized Franklin throughout his long life. Though the story is probably a fraud, it is not without significance. It shows that, by 1730, an educated man like Franklin could attack belief in witches as laughingly old- fashioned.”

Link to New York Times article


2 thoughts on “A Witch Trial at Mount Holly”

  1. I really enjoyed the background you gave on the essay. I wrote about the Mount Holly as well, and I did not know that the essay was unnamed until the eighteenth century. I also appreciate that you looked at outside sources to find extra information that you may not have gotten by just reading the essay. Although the Trial at Mount Holly did not really exist, it was actually pretty interesting. However, I did find the essay to be a little bit difficult to follow, but your summary and analysis of the piece was very accurate and easy to comprehend. I also did not realize the connection to Silence Dogood, in which both essay belittle or make fun of other’s beliefs. I also read that in this particular essay, he is mainly poking fun at the puritans, whom were the main believers in witchcraft at the time.

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