ANOTHER witch in the family! Allegedly, I mean…

“We have a witch in the family. Isn’t it wonderful?”
— Aunt Petunia

I’ve told you before about my wife’s ancestress, Elspeth Craich — one of many, many characters I’ve found who make building a family tree fascinating (to me, anyway). She lived in Scotland from 1631 to at least 1656.

And she was a witch. Allegedly — although she confessed for reasons unknown. I very much hope the reason wasn’t that it was tortured out of her. I like to think she was being crafty. And the record says she “voluntarlie confesst” (for what that’s worth).

This isn’t family legend, by the way. I found documentation, here and here. As it happens, she was fortunate enough to be charged during a time in which Cromwell (Oliver, not Thomas) had banned the execution of witches. (Actually, other sources I glanced at were vague on this, but he was no fan of witch-hunting. He seems not to have believed in witches.)

This put the local authorities in a fix. They had her locked up, but didn’t know what to do with her. Finally, they had to just let her go. Why? Well, she apparently was eating too much. The record complains of “the great trouble that hath been susteaned be the inhabitants of this burgh in watching of Eppie Craich, witch, within thaire tolbuthe this quarter of this year bygane, and the great expens that this burgh is at for the present in susteanyng and interteanyng her in bread and drink and vther necessaris, and finding it to be expedient to dismis hir.”

You’ll notice they kept her in the “tolbuthe,” which is to say, toll booth. Made me think the town, Culross, had an inadequate tax base. They couldn’t afford to feed Elspeth, they couldn’t afford to send her to Edinburgh and let them deal with her, and they couldn’t even afford a jail. (But seriously, folks, that’s what they called a jail in those days. It was apparently a sort of multipurpose public building, like Andy Taylor’s courthouse, where Otis would sleep.)

Anyway, I’ve told you about her before.

Over the weekend, we discovered another such family “scandal.” And this time, it’s on my side of the family.

My grandchildren take varying levels of interest in the family tree, but one of them is into it enough to enjoy sitting by me as I rummage through our thousands of forebears. With her watching, I was poking around in the branch occupied by my great-great-great grandmother Isabella Telford. I actually have a photo of her — which is unusual with people back that far, which is why I went to that part of the tree to show it to my granddaughter. But I knew little about her, beyond the fact that she lived in New York state, making her one of very few ancestors I have who hailed from the North. I had her, and maybe a generation or two of her Telford antecedents.

I saw I had some “hints” from Ancestry on those people, so I decided to show my granddaughter how to add someone to the tree. I was looking through the hints for Isabella’s grandmother (and my 5th-great grandmother) Margaret McCaulay (who married a Tilford, a variant spelling). Ancestry had more than a dozen such clues to offer with regard to Margaret, who for some reason was nicknamed “Betty.” I was skimming down to see if she had a Findagrave page, as those are almost always helpful, when my granddaughter made me stop and go back to another hint I had skipped. “It said ‘witch’!” she told me.

So, you know, here we go again.

I went back and grabbed that document, and resumed searching. A moment later, I saw she did have a Findagrave page, and in place of the customary obituary, it displayed… the story of the witchcraft charge.

Mind you, this wasn’t in far-off Culross, Scotland, in the benighted 1600s. This was more than a century later, in the land of the free, during the American Revolution. And it happened in Salem! No, not Massachusetts — it was Salem, NY.

“It began when Archy Livingston’s cows began producing cream that couldn’t be churned into butter.” Ol’ Arch, a neighbor of the Tilfords, or Telfords, figured he needed some expert advice. Lacking a university-based agricultural extension service, he went to see a shady character named Joel Dibble, who “told people’s fortunes by cutting cards.” Wouldn’t you, under the circumstances?

Dibble worked his magic with the cards, and then broke the bad news to Archy — either the milk or the cows were bewitched. And being the oracle that he was, he could describe the witch: “a short, thick, black-haired woman who had a red-haired daughter.”

This described Margaret Telford to a T. Archy promptly shared the shocking news with everyone he knew, and the community was in an uproar. They were all like “We’re in the middle of a war, and now this!”

Archy’s father-in-law stuck up for the Telfords, and apparently gave Arch a piece of his mind for listening to a “malevolent designing scoundrel” like Dibble. But not everyone agreed:

However, others began to shun the Telfords. Some parents forbade their children to associate with the Telford children. The local magistrate refused to get involved. Or perhaps he was not asked — the Presbyterians might have thought that would have violated the separation of church and state. Because both families were members of Dr. Clark’s church, they agreed that the church was the proper authority to decide the matter.

The Presbyterian pastor initiated a formal investigation, and witnesses were called. Fellow church members testified that Margaret “was an upstanding Christian woman and her moral character was exemplary.” Nevertheless, Rev. Clark called expert witness Dibble:

During the examination, Dibble said he had learned his art in French Canada, and had paid good money for his lessons. He defended the art of cutting of cards on the grounds that, like any other art or trade, it had rules. He said he wasn’t naming any names. He just followed the rules of the cards and, through them, learned indications. With that, Clark cut off the examination, saying there was “nothing tangible here for the church to take hold of.” In Robert Blake’s account, he indicates simply that “the matter was still before the Church and undecided when Dr. Clark moved away.”

The matter was never resolved, and as one chronicler said, over the course of four or five years, “the subject was prudently dropped.”

I’d like to end the narrative on that encouraging note. But sadly,

Even after “the excitement died away,” Margaret continued to suffer from having been accused of being a witch. Many neighbors made life difficult for the family. The young Telford folks were shunned from many parties and merry-makings. When George and Margaret ‘s son John became engaged to Sarah Rowan, many of her friends and relatives opposed the match.

Nevertheless, Margaret and her husband George stuck it out in that community, and soldiered on, and from what I can tell, folks generally respected them for that. And in the end:

George and Margaret are buried in the “Old Cemetery” in Salem, so they must have remained members in good standing of the church that the Rev. Dr. Clark founded.

Of course, it might have helped if the minister had stood up and loudly denounced the nonsense, but I guess he felt he was in over his head. Or something. Sorry I don’t have a totally happy ending there for you (and for that portion of my family I’d never heard of before building my tree). But I think you can see what I mean about family history being interesting.

If you want to know what actually caused the problem with Archy’s cows, don’t look at me. We Telfords had nothing to do with it…

5 thoughts on “ANOTHER witch in the family! Allegedly, I mean…

  1. Brad Warthen Post author


    I didn’t even look at the document I mentioned that was all about the witchcraft case — the one my granddaughter had pointed out — until after posting this. The stuff I quoted above was from the Findagrave page, and was excerpted from this much-longer PDF.

    It contains all sorts of things. There’s some very interesting stuff about Rev. Clark’s past in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and more on why the community was so stirred up at that point during the war — and why the Telfords might already have made enemies when they were suspected of being Tories.

    Here’s some info on Clark:

    The Rev. Dr. Thomas Clark played a crucial role in the witch investigation. To set the stage, let me tell you a bit about him. He was a remarkable
    individual who in several ways was unique among Presbyterian ministers who came to America. Born in Scotland in 1720, he was educated at the
    University of Glasgow, first earning a degree as Doctor of Medicine in 1744 and then completing his ministerial studies in 1748. In between degrees
    Clark served a soldier who battled against Bonny Prince Charlie (1745-46). As a minister, he was beloved and commanded great loyalty, but he was
    not adverse to controversy and, apparently, wielded great divisive power. First of all, the Rev. Dr. Thomas Clark was a member of a minority sect of a
    minority sect of Presbyterians. He was a Presbyterian, a Seceder, and a Burgher… In January of 1754 Clark was jailed for refusing to take the Oath of Abjuration. Since he was a Seceder
    and vocal critic of the established Irish Presbyterian Church, the Synod of Ulster was likely behind Clark’s trouble with the civil authorities….

    And that wasn’t the last time he was in jail. He was wise to move over here. Here’s something about the “Tory” business:

    The settlements around present-day Salem lay near the path of Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne’s march from Canada to
    Saratoga, and in the summer of 1777, the area was the scene of a war atrocity. An Iroquois scouting party led by a chief called Le Loup (the wolf) was
    allied to Burgoyne. After claiming some injury, Le Loup vowed revenge on the town. In Argyle, the Allen family was attacked in their home, and
    seven people, including women, children, and slaves, were killed. In another incident, near Fort Edward, Jane McCrea was attacked and killed. As
    word of the massacres spread, residents fled for their lives. Many went to the only safe place in the area — Burgoyne’s camp in Fort Edward.
    Unfortunately, many of those who fled to the stronghold of the British were branded afterward as traitors or loyalists. The Telfords and Blakes were
    among those who sought shelter at Fort Edward, and they had to pay a price for seeking shelter. The following year, on April 17, 1778, George
    Telford, William Blake, and two other men were summoned before the Albany County Board of Commissioners for Detecting and Defeating
    Conspiracies “for going to the Enemy.” The other family that had had traveled with the Telfords and Blakes, the Bells, proved themselves to be
    loyalists by moving to Canada. Fortunately for the Telfords and Blakes, an officer from the militia who knew them, Cap’t John McKellop, was willing
    to provide information on behalf of the accused. They each had to post a hundred pound bond, and the captain paid their bail of another hundred
    pound. For several reasons, including “that their only inducement to go was to save their Families from being Scalped by the Indians,” they were
    permitted to return home, but not before “their entering into Recognizance with security for their future good behavior as good and faithful Subjects
    and monthly appearance before any one of the Commissioners.” Again on February 16, 1781, George Telford was ordered to appear before the board
    and post a hundred pound bond for his good behavior, even though in the intervening years he had served in the New York Militia as a private in Cap’t
    Cornelius Doty’s company of Col. Lewis Van Woert’s Sixteenth Regiment of Albany County Militia….

    Finally, there’s a postscript about Clark, which contains the most amazing thing of all to ME. It’s a rather astounding coincidence:

    What Blake omitted was the detail that the congregation had a vote whether or not to retain the Rev. Dr. Clark as its minister. There is no indication
    that the vote was at all related to the witch trial, but a new spirit of divisiveness could easily have sprung or been enhanced by the controversy.
    Although Clark survived the vote by a very slim majority, perhaps only a single vote, he realized his tenure in Salem was insecure, and in 1782 he
    requested to be released from his pastoral charge. He then visited his former congregants in South Carolina and remained there for about a year. Clark
    had kept in touch with his former congregants, having visting them by order of the Presbytery in 1779, and perhaps once before in 1771. Although he
    is listed in the church records as preaching at the congregations of Long Cane, Little Run, and Cedar Springs (formerly Cedar Creek), he was not
    formally called as their pastor. Sometime during the summer of 1783, he left South Carolina and began serving as a missionary for the newly
    established Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, largely traveling in the northern states. His peregrinations ended in 1789, when he accepted a
    petition of the united congregations of Little Run, Long Cane, and Cedar Creek, to return as their paster. He accepted the call, once again refusing to
    be formally installed most likely on the grounds that he was simply continuing an uninterrupted church ministry begun in Ireland forty years before.
    The Rev. Dr. Clark preached his last sermon on Christmas Day, 1791, at the Long Cane Meeting House. He died the following day.

    You see, the Long Cane and Cedar Creek churches were very important to a whole other branch of my family. Many years later, a great-great-granddaughter of George and Margaret, Laura Grier Moffatt, would marry William Oscar Bradley. William and Laura were my great-grandparents.

    William is buried at Cedar Creek (later called Cedar Springs). So is his father. His grandfather was buried at Long Cane. So was his great-grandfather, Patrick Bradley, who was my great-great-great-great grandfather. And no connection whatsoever to those Telfords up in New York. But it’s quite likely that Patrick Bradley encountered Rev. Clark.

    This may be the biggest coincidence I’ve ever run across in building this tree….

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I found, at the end of the document, the author of that article. He’s a retired librarian at Ithaca College, and he’s also descended from the Telfords.

      I’ve reached out to him via email…

  2. Philip Cheney

    At the time of which you speak, there was no separation of church and state in the American colonies. 12 of 13 colonies had an official church(Rhode Island was the exception). The Church of England was South Carolina’s state church.

Comments are closed.