The Magic of Words: North Carolina’s First Witch Trial

IGNORAMOUS:  That’s the all-caps, bolded word scrawled across the verdict of North Carolina’s first witch trial.

Apparently, the panel of fifteen men found the accusation of a woman with bewitching powers to be stupid and a waste of the courts time. When researching this court case, there was not much to go on and most of the documents during this time were written in Ye Olde English.

Thomas Bouthier vs. John & Susannah Evans

“Wee of Ye Jury find no bill and ye person IGNORAMOUS and it is Ordrd that the sd Sussnh Evens be acquitted pay the charges.”

This was the first documented case of someone being accused of witchcraft in North Carolina history. Before I begin the story, you have to understand the profound statement the grand jury was making in the verdict of Bouthier vs. Evans case. The Salem Witch Trials were still lingering in the air and still very fresh in the minds of the colonist.

Trade relations in the Albemarle area with the New Englander’s allowed news of the witch hunt frenzy to travel down to the Southern colonies. This allowed the Southern residents to become acquainted with superstitions and the horrors of witchcraft. Coastal town folk had been informed of the trials and executions that had recently taken place in Salem, Massachusetts.

To be accused of witchcraft during this time was a serious charge. This type of felony was punishable by death in the New England colonies.

However, witchcraft was not subjected to such harsh punishments in the Tar Heel State and was settled as a civil penalties matter, rather than requiring criminal punishment. Religious beliefs were not even considered in the argument of one being accused of witchcraft.  The Puritans of the New England colonies were die-hard fanatics concerning their faith. Puritans were zealous and conscientious believers in the Bible and lived by the law of Moses, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Ex. 22:18).

The story begins on July 25, 1703, when Thomas Bouthier filed a legal complaint with the courts of Albemarle County accusing Susannah Evans for the death of his wife Deborah by means of witchcraft. The filed petition stated that Susannah Evans of Currituck, not having the fear of God before her eyes, but being led by the instigation of the devil, did devilishly and maliciously bewitch, with the assistance of the devil, afflict the body of Deborah Bouthier with mortal pains that caused her death. Thomas testified on August 31, 1703, that on the morning of July 24th, his servant Mr. Walker fell sick with stomach pains and was unable to work that day.

Thomas called on his servant’s wife, Mrs. Walker, to come and nurse her husband. Ms. Walker came the next morning from the Evan’s House. Thomas stated that shortly after Ms. Walker’s arrival, his wife, Deborah became ill with extreme pain in her feet. Deborah told Thomas that the pain in her feet and legs felt like a thousand nails piercing her skin.

Deborah tried to relieve her pain by soaking her feet in hot water for 24 hours. By the next day, the pain had ceased in her feet but she was tormented with terrible stomach pains. Neighbors and family that came by to help tend to Deborah’s needs also became ill with stomach pains. In her cries of agony, Deborah cried out that Susannah was an evil woman and the great pain she was suffering was from Susannah’s bewitching. She begged Thomas to have Susannah investigated and examined to prevent her from doing more mischief to others. Deborah continued to blame Susannah for her terrible affliction until she died a month later.

Living in a small community, it didn’t take long for word to get back to Susannah and John regarding the accusations.

John and Susannah confronted Thomas, asking him to stop his deceit. Angrily, they proclaimed they wouldn’t stand for these lies. Thomas maintained his obligation to his wife’s dying request and filed official charges. John, it’s rumored, responded to Thomas with his fists.

After hearing the evidence against Susannah Evans, the grand jury returned their verdict on October 27, 1703. Susannah was discharged and cleared of all charges of witchcraft.

The grand jury found that the petition filed by Thomas Bouthier caused much damage and detriment to Susannah Evans and that no proof was submitted that she bewitched or caused the death of Deborah Bouthier. A man by the name of Captain Cornelius Jones, a well-known sea captain, served as the foreman of the grand jury. Captain Jones had been well informed of the atrocities in Salem, Massachusetts during his travels to the New England colonies. He used his knowledge of the Salem incident and powers of persuasion to convince the jurors to dismiss the charges of witchcraft. His political motive was to avert the panic, avoiding the same witch hunt hysteria that had occurred in Salem. Even though Susannah was found not guilty of witchcraft, it was reported the townsfolk continued to keep their distance from her.

This case was fascinating to research, but left me with more questions. Reading between the lines, it’s obvious these women knew each other before the incident. The servants that worked for them were married to each other. And growing up in a small town, everybody knows everybody! What happened between Susannah and Deborah that caused the rift in their relationship?

Did Susannah and Deborah get into a heated argument?  Perhaps Susannah angrily cursed Deborah to die a slow and painful death in a moment of rage. We all say things in the heat of the moment that we sometimes regret later. Could this be the reason Deborah singled out Susannah? Could she have attributed her illness to Susannah’s angry curses?

See Also Pheobe Ward: The Mysterious Hag Witch of Northampton County

Although these questions will remain unanswered, there is a valuable lesson we can learn from this 300-year-old case. Words have tremendous power!

Words have more power behind them than we give them credit for. And when words are set forth in vibration with intense emotions behind them, they can uplift, inspire, and heal, or they can be damaging and discouraging to someone. The strength of words is a very unique gift and, in this case, they were used to destroy one’s spirit and stir up hatred and violence. If we allow negative words to take control of us and our thoughts, then we cause suffering in our own souls and all around us.  In many ways, words are magic.

I can only hope that Susannah and her husband John did not suffer the same consequences as did others that were also accused of witchcraft.  Did Susannah perhaps live with guilt over Deborah’s fate?

If you want to produce goodness in world, it is important that the words you speak and thoughts you engage reflect that quality of life you desire and the world you want to live in.

See Also Frankie Silver: Unjustly Hanged or Guilty of Murder, Appalachian Folklife: The Mysterious Vampire of Big Stone Gap, Phoebe Ward: The Mysterious Hag Witch of Northampton Count, Appalachian Folk Magic: The Witch Bottle

Sources:

Reminiscences and Memoirs of North Carolina, John H. Wheeler 1884 https://www.carolana.com/NC/eBooks/Reminiscences_and_Memoirs_of_North_Carolina_John_H_Wheeler_1884.pdf

North Carolina Historical and Genealogical Register, J.R.B. Hathaway, 1903 https://archive.org/details/northcarolinahis03hath/page/56

NCPedia https://www.ncpedia.org/witchcraft

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