The Witch Trial of Pennsylvania

Our Documentary Heritage showcases holdings drawn from the vast collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

Pennsylvania’s founder and original proprietor William Penn (1644–1718) was not only a great lawgiver but also a clever arbiter of disputes between residents of his commonwealth. His thoughtful handling of a witch trial on December 27, 1683, at a Provincial Council meeting in Philadelphia helped to prevent a crisis in Pennsylvania like the hysteria that occurred in Salem, Massachusetts, only eight years later. It appears to be the first and only official witchcraft trial in Pennsylvania’s history.


Margaret Mattson and Yeshro Hendrickson, two Swedish immigrant women, were accused by their English neighbors of being witches who had threatened them and caused their livestock to perish. Mattson was brought to trial before Penn, his attorney general, a grand jury, and a petit jury. Because Mattson was not fluent in English, she was provided with an interpreter, James Claypoole, a Swedish-born painter living in Philadelphia. In addition, the jury included some Swedish members. Mattson was also permitted to defend herself at the trial — a progressive act in a time when women were typically not permitted to testify in criminal trials in England.

Mattson, sometimes referred to as the “Witch of Ridley Creek,” denied “all things and saith ye witnesses speake only by hear say.” Henry Drystreet attested that Mattson “was a witch and that several cows were bewitched by her.” Charles Ashcom testified that his wife “sold her cattle . . . because her mother bewitched them having taken the witchcraft off of Hendricks cattle and put it on the oxen. . . . And also that one night the daughter of the prisoner called him up hastily and when he came she said there was a great light[,] but just before[,] and an old woman with a knife in her hand at the beds feet and therefore she cried out and desired John Lymcock to take away his calves or else she would send them to hell.” During the trial Penn asked Mattson directly if she was a witch. She said no.

The court found that although Mattson was guilty of having the reputation of being a witch, she was not guilty of the crimes of which she was accused. She was released on condition of good behavior for six months. Her husband Nils Mattson, a Delaware County farmer, had to pay a peace bond of 50 pounds to ensure her compliance. If, after six months of having no further charges filed against her, their bond money would be returned.

Penn had the case tried in public so that Pennsylvanians could hear the lack of real evidence against Mattson. Why did he display such consideration during this case? Part of the reason has to do with the nonconformist ideology that Penn evidenced in his welcoming of all immigrants regardless of their religious views. The Puritan society of Massachusetts responded to witchcraft accusations with less tolerance. Fortunately, through Penn’s guidance, Pennsylvania was spared the witch hysteria that swept Salem in 1692 and resulted in the execution by hanging of 19 people.

The handwritten court record for the witchcraft trial of Margaret Mattson is held in the Pennsylvania State Archives under Record Group 21.8, Proprietary Government, Minutes (The Provincial Record), 1682–1775.


Richard C. Saylor is an archivist for the Pennsylvania State Archives and author of the award-winning book Soldiers to Governors: Pennsylvania’s Civil War Veterans Who Became State Leaders and numerous articles on military, political and sports history.