12 Oct 2022
By Kathi Ferguson
Witches in Maryland? Apparently so. The Free State even has a famous witch—The Blair Witch— inspiration for the film, The Blair Witch Project. The Blair Witch, Elly Kedward, terrorized the town of Blair, now Burkittsville, during the late 1700s and was executed for her crimes. Shortly thereafter, her accusers, as well as many of the town’s children, disappeared without explanation, resulting in the town being abandoned. Other weird happenings are said to still plague the area and are attributed to Elly’s restless spirit.
Simply put, witches were people who practiced witchcraft, using magic spells and beckoning spirits for help or to bring about change. Most were perceived years ago as evil beings by Christians in Europe, inspiring the iconic Halloween figure of today.
Early settlers of Maryland were also wary, and not necessarily kind to those they suspected of exercising their devilish tricks.
It seems that the dangerous waters of the Atlantic Ocean condemned Maryland’s first witch. On their journey to Maryland and the New World in 1654 from England, the crew and small group of passengers aboard the ship Charity encountered violent winds, choppy seas, and began to take on water. The weather refused to yield as the crew looked for the cause of their imminent sinking. Rumor took hold that a witch must have conjured up the storms. A Jesuit priest traveling aboard the Charity recalled the sailors concluding that foul weather “was not on account of violence of the ship or atmosphere, but the malevolence of witches.”
Among the passengers was a woman named Mary Lee. She was most likely young and poor and one of the convict women given the choice of going to jail or going to Maryland to serve hard labor. For whatever reason, the sailors concluded that she was a witch, responsible for casting a spell on the journey from the start. Lee was seized and her body searched for the Devil’s markings. The crew claimed to have discovered a protruding teat from which the Devil could supposedly feed. Mary was subsequently hanged and her body and belongings dumped overboard. The Charity landed in St. Mary’s City, damaged but in one piece, minus a witch!
Immigrating with the colonists, accusations of witchcraft were common in the 17th and 18th centuries across Maryland and often arose from town disputes. An argument would erupt between neighbors where one would fall mysteriously ill or his or her chickens would be suspiciously killed in the dark of night. In Talbot County for example, old spinster, Virtue Violl, who lived along Plain Dealing Creek, was indicted for exercising black magic after a quarrel with neighbor Elinor Moore. Moore accused Violl of cursing her tongue leaving her unable to speak.
Plain Dealing Creek would encounter its second witch in 1753. Samuel Chamberlain, a wealthy tobacco grower, who built a house on the creek known as “Plain Dealing”. In his later years, Chamberlain allowed a woman to live in an old shack at the end of his property. Katie Colburn, better known as “Witch Katie”, terrified the locals who described her as “old, deformed and hideous…and one who no one would look at for fear of being “hoodooed by a wicked glance from her evil eye.”
Although few witches met their untimely end in Maryland, myths remain about legends of evil sorceresses and superstitious antidotes for bewitchments. Glass bottles containing sharp objects were buried under the entrance of a home to prevent a witch from entering the property or cursing its inhabitants. Another ruse to keep witches away was to place a broomstick across the threshold of a home’s entrance.
Witches are still among us today—and far more of them than you think. Their practices draw from a combination of pre-Christian European religions, Western occult and Masonic societies, and forms of witchcraft. Most place their focus on positive things such as performing rituals, healing, and energy. As Halloween approaches however, you might just want to have that broomstick handy!