Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Possible Evidence that Residents of the Manor of Pelham Were Acquitted in Rare 17th Century Witchcraft Trial in New York

A few weeks ago I had to do a double take as I did some research regarding the history of Minneford's Island (known today as City Island and once part of Pelham before annexation by New York City in the late 19th Century). Though formal witchcraft trials were somewhat of a rarity in New York during the 17th Century, I stumbled across a reference that suggests that a couple who were acquitted of witchcraft after a trial on Long Island in 1665 subsequently fled to the Manor of Pelham where they lived for a time on Greater Minneford Island when it was owned by Thomas Pell, First Lord of the Manor of Pelham. Today's Historic Pelham Blog posting transcribes the text of the reference from a book published in 1869 and cited below.


During the Administration of the Government of New York by Richard Nicolls, Esq., one Case of Witchcraft, at least, found its Way into the Courts. That they were as common as in other contemporary Communities of the Day, there is not much Doubt. That they were not Matters of legal Investigation, possibly depended on the Absence of a special Law for such a Contingency, or that the Laws in general were less regarded than they were among their Neighbours in some of the other Colonies. Certainly in New Jersey, the Legends of an existing Witchcraft, or a certain Belief that it had existed there is current in many Places, and a Witch Tree is, or was, pointed out not many Years ago, in a certain Locality.

The Case which came before the Court of Assizes in New York in 1665, was that of Ralph Hall, and his Wife Mary Hall; and although they were eventually acquitted, they were held in Durance about three Years. [Historic Pelham Note: Durance means restraint by force.] The Charge in the Indictment against Hall was that he 'upon the 25th Day of December [1663], being Christmas last was twelve Months, and several other Days and Times since that Day, by some detestable and wicked Arts, commonly called Witchcraft and Sorcery, did (as suspected) maliciously and feloniously practise and exercise, at the Town of Seatalcott [since Setauket, now Brookhaven], in the East Riding of Yorkshire, on Long Island, on the Person of George Wood, late of the same Place, by which wicked and detestable Arts the said George Wood (as is suspected) most dangerously and mortally sickened and languished, and not long after, by the aforesaid wicked and detestable Arts, the said George Wood (as is likewise suspected) died.' Also it was alleged, in the same Indictment, that an Infant Child of Ann Rogers, Widow of the aforesaid George Wood, had, 'some While after the Death' of Wood, sickened and died, and that its Death was caused by the said Hall. The same Indictment was also recited against the Wife of Hall, and then a Bundle of Depositions was read to the Court (no Witnesses appearing in Person), and the Accused called upon by the Clerk to hold up the right Hand, and the substance of the Charges were reiterated. They pleaded not Guilty, and their Case was committed to the Jury. In due Time the Jury rendered a Verdict, to the Effect that they 'found some Suspicions of what the Woman was charged with, but Nothing considerable of Value to take away her Life; but in Reference to the Man, we find Nothing considerable to charge him with.'

The Sentence of the Court was, that Hall 'should be bound Body and Goods for his Wife's Appearance at the next Sessions and so on from Sessions to Sessions, as long as they stay in this Government. In the mean While to be of good Behaviour.' Under these Bonds they continued until the 21st of August, 1668, at which Time 'they were living upon the Great Miniford's Island.' And we do not find that they were compelled to pay the Costs, as was often the Case with Parties acquitted elsewhere."

Source: Drake, Samuel G., Annals of Witchcraft in New England and Elsewhere in the United States from their First Settlement Drawn Up from Unpublished and Other Well Authenticated Records of the Alleged Operations of Witches and Their Instigator, the Devil, pp. 125-27 (NY, NY: Burt Franklin 1869).

It seems at least possible that Pelham founder Thomas Pell knew Mr. and Mrs. Hall. They were living on his land ("Great Miniford's Island") in August 1668 a year or so before his death in late September or early October 1669.

Pell and his family certainly knew the horrors of witch hunts. His family members testified in a Connecticut witch trial of "Goodwife Knapp" in 1653. That trial resulted in her execution. See Bell, Blake A., The Involvement of Thomas Pell's Family in the Witchcraft Persecution of Goody Knapp, The Pelham Weekly, Vol. XIII, No. 4, Jan. 23, 2004, p. 11, col. 1.

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