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Witchcraft in Bermuda

This document details the trial of Jeane Gardiner, who was accused of witchcraft during the Bermuda hysteria of 1651–1655.

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Summary

1651 An assize and general gaol delivery held at St. Georges from the nineteenth day of May to the 22nd days of the same month. Captain Josias Foster Governor, These opening lines explain that the following document is a summary of a trial conducted from May 19 to May 22, 1651 in St. Georges, Bermuda, by Governor Josias Foster.
The jury for our Sovereign lord the King do present Jeane Gardiner, the wife of Raph Gardiner of Hambleton tribe, for that the said Jeane, on or about the 11th day of April 1657, feloniously, deliberately, and maliciously did say that she would cramp Tomasin, a mulatto woman in the same tribe, and used many other threatening words tending to the hurt and injury of the said mulatto woman, and within a while after, by practice and combination with the devil, feloniously did practice on the said mulatto the diabolical craft of witchcraft in so much that the said mulatto was very much tormented, and struck blind and dumb for the space of two hours or thereabouts, A jury heard evidence that Jeane Gardiner used witchcraft to torture her neighbor, Tomasin.
and at divers times in other places did practice the said devilish craft of witchcraft on several persons to the hurt and damage of their bodies and goods contrary to the peace of our Sovereign Lord and King, his crown and dignities. Other community members also claimed she hurt them with witchcraft.
To which indictment she pleaded not guilty, Jeane plead not guilty.
but being the grand inquest found a true bill, and for her further trial did put herself upon God. The Country, which being a jury of 12 sworn men, did find her guilty whereupon the sentence of death was pronounced upon her and accordingly she was executed on Monday the 26th day of this instant May at St. Georges before many spectators. The jury found her guilty, and she was publicly executed on May 26, 1651.
The proceeding against this woman was long and tedious by reason of many accusations. The Governor and counsel was very careful in finding out the truth. He caused a jury of women to search her and one Goody Bowen who was suspected. The governor assigned a group of local women to inspect Jeane for the signs of a witch.
They returned as follows: “Having Made diligent search according to our oaths, we cannot find any outward or inward mark so far as we can perceive whereby we can in conscience find them or either of them guilty of witchcraft, only in the mouth of Goody Gardiner there is a blue spot which being pricked did not bleed and the place was insensible, but being pricked close by it it bled, the which we leave to the judgement of physicians.” The women who inspected Jeane found a suspicious blue spot in her mouth, and recommended a doctor be called in to examine it.
Mr. Hooper and the surgeon being appointed to view that spot the day that she was to come to her trial and it was fallen away and flat, and being pricked it bled and it was known to be there 18 years, The local doctor inspected the spot.
and for further trial she was tried and thrown twice into the sea. She did swim like a cork and could not sink. Jeane was thrown into the ocean twice, and both times she floated.
These signs and other strong evidences in Court condemn her yet nevertheless she would confess nothing at her death. Jeane never confessed to being a witch.
She was demanded in Court if she could give a reason why she did not sink. She answered that she did open her mouth and breathed but could not sink. The Court asked Jeane why she did not sink, and she told them she tried to.

Transcript of Jeane Gardnier Trial of Witchcraft, Bermuda Importation License and Copy of 1651 May 19, 1651. New-York Historical Society Library.

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Background

The history of witchcraft accusations and trials stretches far back in European history, but they reached their peak from 1580 to 1650. During those years, England, the Germanic principalities, and France experienced waves of witchcraft panic. Women were the main victims of these panics. When English colonists set off for the New World, they brought this custom with them. The most famous episode of witchcraft panic took place in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, but there were other outbreaks in the English colonies.

Between 1651 and 1655, ten women and two men were accused of witchcraft in Bermuda, and four women and one man were found guilty and executed. As with all of the witchcraft trials in Europe and North America, historians are still debating what set off the panic.

About the Document

This document tells the story of the trial of Jeane Gardiner, a widow who was caught up in a witchcraft panic that took place in Bermuda from 1651 to 1655. Bermuda was a Puritan settlement, which meant everyone in the colony was expected to follow the same religious practices. The island of Bermuda is only twenty-one square miles, so the settlement’s population of 3,000 people all lived very close together. Each community in Bermuda was called a tribe; there were nine tribes, and political and religious tensions in the settlement ran high.

It is worth noting that a second woman, Anne Bowen, was accused at the same time as Jeane, but she escaped unharmed. This was probably because Anne was the daughter of an important political figure in the colony.

Vocabulary

  • assize: English court that met at regular intervals.
  • Bermuda: English island colony off the coast of the Carolinas.
  • country: Court.
  • cramp: A painful muscle spasm.
  • diabolical: Devilish.
  • divers: Several.
  • felonious: Very evil.
  • gaol: Jail.
  • Germanic Principalities: Name for the many independent German kingdoms before they became a united country.
  • Goody: Goodwife, an honorific used for married women in the English colonies.
  • insensible: Numb.
  • instant: Year.
  • mulatto: A mixed race person, typically of Black and white descent.
  • Puritans: A group of English Protestants who left England for the New World to start their own settlements where religion would govern daily life.
  • St. Georges: The first permanent English settlement of Bermuda.
  • tribe: Bermuda community.

Discussion Questions

  • How does the court go about determining whether Jeane Gardiner is a witch? How fair are these methods?
  • What does the prevalence of witchcraft trials in the early English colonies reveal about the people who lived there? Why do you think women were the primary targets for these trials?
  • Why does Anne Bowen escape her trial unharmed, while Jeane is found guilty and executed? What does this reveal about the position of women in the English colonies?
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Suggested Activities

  • Invite the students to write a short play that re-enacts the trial of Jeane Gardiner. They should identify key players and motivations based on the historical document of her trial, and then write a script that covers these important points.
  • Compare this description of a witchcraft trial with those of the Salem witch trials. List and account for the differences.
  • Explore other ways women were targeted in English colonial courts (bastardryfornicationdisorderly speech and conduct), and analyze what these trials reveal about colonial attitudes toward women.
  • As a widow, Jeane was particularly vulnerable in English colonial society. Combine this life story with the will of Joseph Grover and the life story of Dennis and Hannah Holland to learn more.
  • Jeane was not the only woman in the colonies to stand trial for crimes she disavowed. Compare and contrast her experiences with any of the women in the following resources: Life Story: Marie-Josèphe Angélique, Life Story: Doña Teresa de Aguilera y Roche, and Life Story: Lisbeth Anthonijsen. Ask students to answer the following questions: why were these women put on trial? What evidence existed of their guilt? What outside circumstances likely influenced the outcome of their trial?
  • Religion was a powerful force in the daily lives of women in the European colonies of the Americas. Combine this life story with any of the following resources for a lesson on colonial women and religious life: Life Story: Doña Teresa de Aguilera y Roche, Life Story: Kateri Tekakwitha, The Mourning Poetry of Anne Bradstreet, and Lady Deborah Moody.

Themes

POWER AND POLITICS

New-York Historical Society Curriculum Library Connections

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