Dinah Sylvester: A Good Old American Witch Story
It was a blustery March day in 1661, thirty years before the notorious witch trials in Salem, when Dinah Sylvester marched into the General Court in Plymouth Colony and accused her neighbor, Elizabeth Holmes, of being a witch. In her deposition, the nineteen year-old Dinah insisted she’d seen Mrs. Holmes transform herself into a bear – a standard witchcraft allegation.
The witch trials of Massachusetts are the all-American Halloween story, one of those bad chapters in our history that conjures up images of early colonists roaming the foggy countryside and terrorizing women who, according to many modern interpreters, were simply feminists before their time.
But Plymouth Colony records of my great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great Aunt Dinah make it clear that, like many tales told on Halloween, there’s much more fiction than historic fact. Outspoken and independent women were very much a part of early life in the American colonies, even when it came to the issue of witchcraft.
When Dinah presented her story to the General Court, they were unconvinced. The Magistrate pressed her for details and the tale quickly unraveled. She admitted she had made up the witchcraft charge to settle a grudge.
As punishment, Dinah was to be whipped and fined 5 pounds, about a thousand of today’s dollars, but the Court offered her a deal. If she would make a public confession she could get off with paying court costs.
She agreed and wrote a tearful statement expressing great remorse for her false allegation, but her reputation was badly damaged. Shortly after the incident, her fiancé broke their engagement.
Dinah didn’t take the jilting sitting down. Instead, she sued him for breach of promise and won. The court awarded her twenty pounds – about four thousand dollars -- for the broken contract.
The jilting wasn’t the only time Dinah’s love life landed her in front of a judge. She was cited and fined for fornication in 1667 and in 1669 she went to court as a single mother, naming the father of her child. She told the court that they could force the father to support her baby, or the community would have to do so.
In a sharp contrast to the fictional woes of Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, Dinah won damages again.
It is hard to imagine how a woman could be more outspoken or fearless in protecting her own rights. There are no records in Plymouth indicating she ever married.
The early colonists were far more skeptical about witchcraft than Europeans of that time, who executed thousands of women over a period of decades. Fewer than a hundred people were ever charged with witchcraft in the colonies. In Salem, leaders knew almost immediately that an awful mistake had been made. Just months after the execution of 14 women and 5 men for witchcraft in 1692, the General Court of Massachusetts passed a motion deploring the trials and pardoning the victims. Their families were paid compensation.
The Salem trials marked the end of most witchcraft prosecutions in America. By the 1700’s, almost everyone who was executed was pardoned, though some of the victims’ descendants are still seeking pardons today.
Some years, on Halloween, school children in Plymouth County re-enact her fishy witchcraft tale, complete with a character that turns into a bear. Dinah’s story is not the usual portrait of one of our foremothers. Still, she is a model for a certain kind of determined American woman who is not daunted by circumstances and is determined to make her own path. Dinah’s records also remind us that individual independence, even for women, is part of our national DNA. As the Massachusetts born daughter of a Puritan immigrant, Dinah enjoyed far more freedom in America than she would have if her parents had remained in England.
Sources: Plymouth Colony Records, Vol 3, pp 205-207. Vol 4, p.162, Vol 5, p. 22, The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love and Death in Plymouth Colony by James Deetz & Patricia Scott Deetz, Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth Century New England by David D. Hall and A History of the American People by Paul Johnson.