As the United States emerged as a nation, the fear of witches cast a long and sinister shadow over its early years. While the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692 in Massachusetts are well-documented, lesser-known but equally disturbing trials occurred in other states, including Ohio.
Witchcraft trials in Ohio, though less well-known than some of their counterparts in the United States, reveal the enduring fear and superstition that once gripped communities. One such case unfolded in Bethel, Ohio, in 1805, shedding light on the deeply ingrained beliefs of the era.
Bethel, Ohio was established in 1798 by Obed Denham. In its early years, several families settled in this tranquil Ohio town, including the Hildebrand family, whose name would soon be intertwined with an extraordinary incident.
The Hildebrand family consisted of two older daughters who believed they were under the influence of evil spirits. Their affliction manifested in screaming fits and visions of ominous happenings visible only to them. Desperate to rid themselves of these malevolent forces, the family embarked on peculiar rituals.
One such ritual involved creating a large bag from lindsey-woolsey, which each family member held during a ceremony. Believing the witch responsible for their troubles had been trapped within the bag, they securely tied it and then chopped it into thousands of pieces, going so far as to burn the remnants to ensure the witch’s complete destruction.
Despite their efforts, the girls’ hysterical activities persisted. Some suggested that their motive might have been to evade household chores, but regardless of the cause, the girls now believed that the spirit had taken a physical form—Nancy Evans, their neighbor and a widowed woman. Convinced that Nancy was the source of their misfortune, they shunned her, but their problems persisted.
At this point, the local justice of the peace, Houton Clarke, felt compelled to intervene and remove Nancy from the village. As there were no statutes in the Ohio territory to address accusations of witchcraft. Justice Clarke was faced with the challenging task of devising a way to resolve the issue.
A widely held belief at the time was that witches, having forsaken all goodness, possessed little weight. Thus, the solution was to weigh Nancy Evans against the Holy Bible. The villagers gathered around as the scales were set up, with the Bible placed on one side and Nancy on the other. Justice Clarke solemnly pronounced, “Nancy Evans, thou art weighed against the Bible to try thee against all witchcraftry and diabolical practices.”
Nancy, significantly heavier than the Bible, was proven innocent in the eyes of the law. Some among the crowd wanted the sisters to face consequences, but Clarke had them escorted from the trial. Shortly thereafter, the Hildebrand family moved west, while Nancy eventually relocated to Brown County. Houton Clarke continued to serve the community.
According to the “History of Clermont County, Ohio” (1880), “since their departure (the Hildebrands), witches have no more flourished at Bethel than at any other place, and the village became noted for the general intelligence of its inhabitants and the neighborly relations which existed among them, and continue to this day.”
This peculiar and singular episode from Bethel’s history stands as a testament to the fears and superstitions that once gripped communities, as well as the innovative ways they sought justice in a time when the line between reality and the supernatural was often blurred.