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.
Photo: Statue at a Salem, MA museum.