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Widow Korbmacher's tragedy
Richard Dobbs Spaight and William Pierce
Elizabeth Powel
 
 
   
   
   
   

Those Convention delegates who read the Pennsylvania Packet, Philadelphia's only daily newspaper, on Wednesday July 18, received a sharp reminder of the thin line that separated an enlightened society bound by the rule of law from one fueled by violence and superstition. The Packet reported that an elderly German woman, known in the city as Widow Korbmacher, had died of the wounds she had received at the hands of an "ignorant and inhuman mob," who had suspected her of being a witch. The editors of the Packet expressed their outrage: "It must seriously affect every humane mind," they wrote, "that in consequence of the barbarous treatment lately suffered by the poor old woman, called a Witch, she died on Wednesday last."

Widow Korbmacher's tragedy began to unfold just a few days after James Madison first arrived in town to prepare for the Convention. On May 5, she was viciously attacked by a mob near Newmarket, just a few blocks from the Pennsylvania State House. According to the report printed in the Packet on May 11, she had "long... laboured under suspicions of sorcery, and was viewed as the pest and night-mare of society in those parts of the town where she has... lived." As punishment, "according to ancient and immemorial custom" the mob administered a severe cut on her forehead. The Packet deplored the incident, editorializing that "the absurd and abominable notion of witchcraft and sorcery" had no place in "an empire like ours that has emancipated itself from the superstitions of authority." The belief in witchcraft, the Packet noted, was a remnant of the "old world," and had no place in the "free and civilized parts of independent America.

But superstition died hard. On July 10, as the delegates were struggling to reach their compromise on the matter of representation in the National Legislature, the temper of the mob bent on punishing Widow Korbmacher for her suspect4ed sorcery frayed and snapped. This time an even larger mob attacked her, carrying her through the streets, where the citizens of the City of Brotherly Love shouted insults and pelted her with sones. Eight days later, she died of the wounds she had received at the hands of the angry mob.   

Poor Korbmacher's travail provides a sobering reminder that though our Founding Fathers were for the most part far-seeing men living in an age of enlightenment, the year in which they carried out their deliberations, 1787, was more closely linked in time to 1692-the year of the Salem witchcraft trials and executions in Massachusetts-than it is to our own era.

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