Occult Ohio: Home of the Peaceful Witch Trial
When one thinks about Ohio, Cedar Point, corn fields, and the deteriorating Rust Belt may come to mind but witch trials, not so much. As someone born and raised in the state, witch trial history was taught as more of an early pilgrim, East coast happening that was left behind as people of the colonies spread West and not something that made it as far as Ohio. A witch trial did, however, make it to the state in 1805 in the village of Bethel.
Unlike the hundreds of trials that came before it, the charges of witchcraft here were met with logic from the local justice of the peace, resolved without bloodshed, and claims of witches disappeared from the region. How was this so easily achievable for Bethel from the very first accusation but not for the earlier colonies or even Europe? Ahead lies an exploration into how peace was always possible in witch trials but so rarely seen and why sense prevailed in Bethel. To begin, we shall start with the multiple potential motives for witchcraft accusations.
Retired Professor of History from King’s College, Brian Pavlac, sums up the most popular witch hunt origin theories as follows: conspiracy, disaster, geography, greed, illness, misogyny, religious conflict, religious rebellion, social control, and social function. Mixtures of these themes can be found igniting witch prosecutions throughout history and can also provide a window into why certain places participated more aggressively and easily in witch trials than other regions. Through this lens, researching the culture, history, and beliefs of each area paints a more accurate picture of the abstract “why” witch trials occurred but it can also explain the peaceful outcome in Bethel as well.
History of Clermont County, Ohio
According to the History of Clermont County, Ohio by J.L. Rockney and R.J. Bancroft (1880), the witchcraft charges in Bethel first arose from the older daughters of the Hildebrand family. The daughters would scream at nightfall and claimed to see horrifying visions that prevented them from working and they blamed witchcraft. After, unsuccessfully, attempting to catch their tormentor witch specter in a witch bag ritual, the daughters finally accused their neighbor Nancy Evans of coming to them in spirit form and then, finally, of witchcraft and demanded she move from the region.
Also, within the History of Clermont County, Ohio text, Bethel was founded by Obed Denham in 1798 after he left the state of Kentucky due to his hatred of the state’s slavery practices. He successfully encouraged other neighboring Kentuckians to move as well, and this migration led to the formation of the village. With this aversion to slavery as a basis of forming the town itself, I think it also stands as a clear indication of a common belief of logic, fairness, and autonomy among the majority of the first settlers of Bethel and why violent prosecutions didn’t take root there. Also within the text, both families involved in the trial are referenced as being “not so highly favored in mental ability and who, unfortunately, believed in the presence and power of evil spirits and witches.” (pg.324).
75 Years later
Although this account was written 75 years after the witch proceeding, the village attitude was so accepted and well established toward it, that the townsfolk openly called the participating families stupid in state records and I think that fairly sums up the local belief on the subject. Now we know the locals don’t believe in witchcraft, there’s no plague or widespread disaster to seek blame for, the accusing family wasn’t recorded as seeking money or compensation, and two women accusing another woman removes misogyny as a complete motive. Whatever the cause, there was nothing further igniting this to spread to an enraged community spectacle. There in steps the justice of the peace.
Legally speaking, the state of Ohio had no laws regarding witchcraft prosecution but according to New England Law Boston, the Salem witchcraft trial of 1693 brought with it the dismissal of spectral evidence in all U.S. legal proceedings. So, with the spirit claims being unacceptable evidence but wanting to bring forth a resolution, the justice sought out an old witch test, weighing the accused against the Bible. If Nancy was heavier than the holy book (spoiler: she was) then she was innocent and could remain in Bethel. After the weighing test was publicly conducted and Nancy’s innocence declared, accusations of witchcraft finally left the village.
Bethel, Ohio, and Nancy Evans had a peaceful resolution with witchcraft and maybe that’s why it gets a little forgotten in history because the truth is so many didn’t. Hundreds of thousands of people were murdered in the prosecuting of “witches” and we will probably never get a clear reason as to how this was permitted to happen for so long. However numerous a motive, history does spell the end of barbarity, a person with reason.
While witchcraft accusations were far out of style by the time they hit the residents of Bethel, during the Burning Times, defending voices were rare as it often meant threats or even death for the defender. Higher station within these societies brought some level of protection as it was much easier to also accuse any lower-class defenders as they had no way to afford or bribe a trial. On multiple occasions people spoke out against witchcraft hunts and trials, like Henry Cornelius Agrippa, Increase Mather, and John Winthrop Jr. and thwarted the violence in their regions and lived to tell the tale.
Unfortunately, speaking out didn’t occur nearly often enough and, in my opinion, this complicit silence caused the Burning Times to blaze for far longer than it ever should have. In the end, however, maybe Bethel’s witch trial can teach us some other things too. That people are capable of change, don’t hesitate to be the voice of reason in the room, and maybe we’re not fully doomed to repeat the very worst of our history. Maybe.
Pavlac, Brian A. Ten Theories about the Origins of the Witch Hunts. www.brianpavlac.org/witchhunts/wtheories.html.
Bancroft, R. J., and J.L. Rockney. History of Clermont County, Ohio: With Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Its Prominent Men and Pioneers. Google Books, McDowell Publications, 1880, pp. 324–325, books.google.com/books/about/History_of_Clermont_County_Ohio.html?id=TrYCVEmAzqAC.
New England Law Boston. “A True Legal Horror Story: The Laws Leading to the Salem Witch Trials.” Www.nesl.edu, 2020, www.nesl.edu/blog/detail/a-true-legal-horror-story-the-laws-leading-to-the-salem-witch-trials.
Martin, Lois. The Pocket Essential History of Witchcraft. No Exit Press, 2002, pp. 85-87.