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Bethel, Ohio, had its own witch trial with a happy(ish) ending

bethel witch trial
Pixabay

When you hear the phrase "witch trial" you might think about the hysteria that overtook 17th century Salem, Massachusetts. Not as widely known is a Southwest Ohio witch trial in the early 19th century. It ended very differently.

The town of Bethel was a seemingly quiet place for the first seven years after its founding. But in 1805, the excitement started. Cindy Johnson with the Clermont County Historical Society says the story is told in an 1880 history book.

Bethel.jpg
Bill Rinehart
Bethel was previously known as Plainfield and Denhamstown, according to the Clermont County Historical Society.

"The older Hildebrand daughters, young women grown, began behaving more peculiarly, giving evidence they were possessed of some evil spirits," she explains. "The book says on the approach of night they would scream, at times become perfectly frantic from fright of some hideous objects that only they could see, and maintain such a spell over them that they were unfitted for their duties."

Johnson says the family tried an exorcism, performing a ritual designed to scare an evil spirit out of the girls' bodies and into a nearby sack.

"At the conclusion of which, the witch would have been forced to take refuge in the bag," Johnson says. "Then you quickly close the bag, tie it shut tightly, you lay it on the porch of the house, and with a sharp axe, cut it into a thousand pieces."

Johnson says it didn't work. The demonic influence remained. She says the young women then pointed to a neighbor, Nancy Evans, and accused her of being a witch. Other community members started getting nervous. If Nancy Evans was a witch, she could cast spells on anyone. They went to the local justice of the peace and demanded action.

Bethel2.jpg
Bill Rinehart
The trial was held near what is now the intersection of State Routes 125 and 232.

Johnson says Ohio legislators hadn't passed any laws about witches or witchcraft, so the justice had to get creative.

"He had an idea. First he had a large, crude scale constructed. With Nancy Evans agreeing, he gathered the Hildebrands and other concerned townspeople around the scale. He held in one hand a mighty impressive Bible and he started his speech."

She says the justice of the peace, whose name has been lost to the sands of time, argued the word of God would outweigh any demonic spirit. " 'So I will place this Holy Bible on one side of this scale, and seat Miss Evans on the other. If the Bible is heavier, we will know to drive her from our midst forever.' And the crowd cheers."

Unsurprisingly, Evans was heavier, and neighbors' fears were alleviated. Johnson says she has a lot of respect for that unnamed Bethel justice.

"He devised a way of bringing peace to his town without having to burn anybody at the stake," she says.

The episode was not all that unusual, according to Erika Gasser. She's an associate professor of history at the University of Cincinnati, and says trials of one sort or another continued long after the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Even today, she says we still have the term "witch hunt."

"People, when they say that now, they tend to mean trumped up charges that are baseless and that are simply done as a kind of cynical cover for what people actually want to do, which is to just persecute people."

Gasser says it's important to remember actual witch trials were conducted by people who were sincere, and human thought processes have not changed since then.

"It's difficult for us to not see this as an entirely irrational thing," she says. "But it's important to understand that for them it fit into an existing mentality that was logical, based on science, and believed in by some of the most important minds of the day."

She says it's also easy to think a witch hunt is perpetrated by the powerful onto the powerless.

"And that's especially because we know that sometimes marginalized people were considered suspicious. And that's all certainly true. The thing for us to remember is that a lot of the pressure for prosecution came from neighbors and regular people who wanted the law to get involved to stop the person who they thought was harming them. So the lesson is really we are all potential accusers."

Cindy Johnson says soon after the Bethel trial ended, Nancy Evans and her family left and moved to Brown County. The Hildebrands took off too, but it's not recorded where they went. She says since the trial and the departures of everyone involved, Bethel has not had a witch problem.