There have been quite a number of witchcraft trials in what is now New York State, including in Westchester County, and on Long Island. In the midst of the American Revolution, in the town of Salem (now near the New York-Vermont border in Washington County, NY), there was another witch trial, of a sort.
Salem, NY, much like Salem, MA, has a very religious past. The community is said to be founded by Presbyterian Rev. Dr. Thomas Clark, who had emigrated from Ireland in the mid-1760s with his congregation, part of a Presbyterian schism. Clark’s congregation first settled in nearby Stillwater, on the Hudson River but eventually landed in what is now Salem, NY, where they purchased a 25,000 acres among the mostly New England settlers already established there.
Among the congregation were Margaret and George Telford, who were accused of witchcraft in 1777 under some interesting circumstances. According to local historians, George Telford was a devout follower of the Presbyterian faith, and this often led to contention between him and his neighbors. George Telford was a strict observer of the Sabbath, his neighbors were not so much. Telford complained of his neighbors to the local magistrate, who dismissed the cases.
In the summer and fall of 1777, the villagers found themselves in the path of General John Burgoyne’s Saratoga Campaign. Some villagers, including the Telfords, found refuge at Burgoyne’s camp in Fort Edward, but as a consequence were branded Loyalists. At the same time, while in Burgoyne’s camp, the Telfords were considered disloyal to the Crown and forced to pay for shelter (a British soldier who knew the family paid part of the cost).
Meanwhile, a neighbor was having trouble with his cows; the milk they produced could not be churned. The neighbor believed that either the cows or the milk was bewitched. After consulting another neighbor, they concluded that Margaret Telford was the cause of the dairy problem. A religious trial was presided over by Rev. Dr. Clark, as both the accuser and accused were members of his church.
Several church members came forward to say on record that Margaret was an upstanding citizen of the village and was a good Christian woman. Clark then examined the two men and determined that there was not enough evidence against her to have Margaret tried as a witch. Its said they were ostracized by many in the community, and that the issue divided neighbors. Margaret and George Telford remained in good standing with the Salem Presbyterian congregation throughout the rest of their lives.
This essay is the second in a series of three about witchcraft accusations in New York. You can read the first here, and part two of the series here.
Photo: Statue at a Salem, MA museum.
Jane E Wilcox says
Interesting! I’m researching some of the Presbyterian families in Salem and Cambridge for a family history. I’d love to read the accounts of the trial to see if my families were involved. Do you have a list of your sources?
Mary K O'Donnell says
One spelling error – dairy problem not diary.
John Warren says
I’m the 5th great grand daughter of Margaret. I’m looking for more information.
Cody Himelrick says
I hope this e-mail and the soon to be Autumn Season finds you well!
I just read your article (I had come across the story years ago while doing some property research in Washington County and was thrilled to come across your article, especially as it also discusses two additional cases here in New York State that I had no idea about!), and I was just hoping to see if your book about British wilderness raids in Upstate New York had been published yet? 🙂
I worked at the Fort William Henry Museum and Restoration for 10 years as a bagpiper/highland historical interpreter (while working on my B.A. in History from SUNY Albany and my law degree in 2014), and also volunteered with the Washington County Fair Farm Museum (loved the farming equipment of yesteryear), and just saw the foot note about your book and thought it would be right up my alley 🙂
I would tremendously appreciate your thoughts, and I look forward to hear from you! Hope all is well!
Cody Himelrick, J.D.
David Hollingsworth says
Just saw the movie “They Remain” about two researchers investigating supposed cult activity, They also find remains of a 200 yr old settlement – lotsa dead bodies. Possible this film and the novella on which it is based might stem originally from the “Telford caper”