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Feb 27

The Story of Mary Otley

Posted on February 27, 2019 at 1:39 PM by Chester County Archives

Otley Ghost
Stereograph produced circa 1860. Courtesy of the Chester County Historical Society.

Every year when the calendar turns to October and the Halloween season begins, the local legend of Mary Moll Otley resurfaces. Around the 1770s—the popular tale goes—a seven-year-old Goshen Township girl named Ashbridge began acting very strangely. The young girl appeared “demented” and her only means of communication was the repetition of the barely intelligible phrase molotley, molotley, molotley.” For the residents of Goshen Township, this was clear evidence that the widow Mary Moll Otley bewitched the innocent child.

J. Smith Furthey and Gilbert Cope’s 1881 book, History of Chester County, narrated the Otley tale in their familiar style that often relied on older accounts with undocumented sources. According to their version, the local constable James Gibbons went to arrest the elder Otley on the charge of performing witchcraft. While Gibbons made the arrest, other residents stayed behind to draw Otley’s image on a board. They then “fired at it with pieces of silver (for lead would not hurt a witch).” While in the presence of the accused witch, Gibbons monitored her behavior and appearance. If she expressed pain or unease, then the constable would have strong evidence of witchcraft. (1

Futhey and Cope’s book continued with equally ridiculous claims like the idea that Gibbons made Otley walk across salt. Their version also alleged that the local residents escorted Otley to a nearby mill where they weighed her against the Bible. “For it was held,” Futhey and Cope stated, “that a Holy Bible would always outweigh a witch.” Perhaps the most extreme torment the local community subjected Otley to was having her draw blood and pray for the “bewitched” seven-year-old girl. (2

This local legend remained popular throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, reappearing in various publications like an 1899 edition of the local Westonian Monthly Magazine for Friends. (3) But what primary source evidence did these histories utilize? Many histories produced during this period relied on word of mouth and local lore. Until the twentieth century, methodological, evidence-backed history proved scarce, especially for local history.
 

Historians today, however, must defend every assertion with evidence. In a more recent book, Douglas Harper contextualizes the Otley witch story using the records at the Chester County Archives. Harper uses the local tax assessments and pauper records to delegitimize the story and, as he notes, belief in witchcraft generally subsided as the eighteenth century progressed. “It is extremely unlikely,” Harper asserts, “that such hysteria could have broken out in Goshen as late as 1780.” Although less secular compared to today’s standards, people in the late eighteenth century would have avoided mass hysteria over witchcraft. (4

Despite this age-old tale, Goshen Township almost certainly evaded a Salem-like witch hunt in the mid-1700s. Although no record will definitively prove or disprove whether or not Otley practiced witchcraft, the records at the Chester County Archives can provide circumstantial evidence against the story. Nearly every account begins with Mary Otley bewitching the seven-year-old daughter of Joshua Ashbridge. Perhaps the most important clue lies with the relationship between these two families—the Otleys and Ashbridges. 

20181016_091919
This 1754 entry by the Goshen Township Overseer of the Poor calls Jonas Otlay a "Blind poorman."
 
The Otleys were a poor family that regularly required assistance from neighbors. The Ashbridges, on the other hand, owned various mills in the township’s southeast section. Before 1799, Chester County did not have a poorhouse to aid struggling families. Rather, each township assigned an Overseer of the Poor to ensure the poor received necessary help. In 1753, Goshen Township’s Overseer of the Poor reimbursed George Ashbridge for aiding Jonas Otley, a “blind poorman.” (5) The Otleys continued to receive help from neighbors including in 1762, when Joshua Ashbridge, the then Overseer of the Poor, “paid Tho Hoopes for the firewood he gave Mary Otley.” (6

The two families clearly knew each other, but perhaps the relationship was strained in 1765, when George Ashbridge, along with two others, “…did beat wound and evilly treat other Harms to the said Mary Otley….” (7) Although the specifics of the case remain unknown, the fact that George Ashbridge injured Mary Otley indicates animosity between the two sides. Not only did Ashbridge maliciously injury Otley, but he was publically humiliated as he was tried in front of the Chester County Court of Quarter Sessions. Just imagine the local gossip happening around town as the poor Mary Otley testified against the prosperous mill owner. 

Mary Otley’s lifelong poverty along with the trial against Ashbridge certainly harmed her reputation, but interestingly enough the records at the Chester County Archives connect Otley to an even darker event. In May 1744, the County Commissioners paid a William Jones twenty shillings for “the examination of Ann & Mary Otley concerning murdering Ann Otley’s child.” (8) Murder was a capital offense and tried by the provincial government, therefore the Chester County records do not include details concerning the trial. Furthermore, based on the wording of the entry, we do not know whether Mary Otley was charged directly with murdering Ann’s child or just assisting and/or concealing the murder. Because she was not hanged, however, we can conclude she was acquitted of her crime or perhaps even pardoned. (9) Despite the apparent acquittal, her involvement in the case probably followed her throughout life and subjected her to local taunts. 

Otley8

1744 Commissioners' Minutes.

A woman, whose life was defined by poverty and misfortune, came to be known as a witch. Instead of being an object of the community’s support, her life became the fodder for local gossip. Maybe it was her implication in the murder case that tarnished her name, or the grinding poverty of the eighteenth century that embittered her to her neighbors. Or perhaps she earned the enmity of the Ashbridge family by charging George Ashbridge with assault. Whatever the cause, Mary Otley was certainly not a witch, just a casualty of local lore. Over the centuries, tales like this become enshrined in the local community, but no matter how esteemed or how well-documented they may be, no story should ever escape questioning.

Sources:

1) John Futhey Smith and Gilbert Cope, History of Chester County Pennsylvania, with Genealogical and Biographical Sketches, (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & CO., 1881), 412-414.

2) Ibid, 414.

3) “Witchcraft at Westtown,” The Westonian: A Monthly Magazine for Friends 5, (1899): 23-25.

4) Douglas R. Harper, West Chester to 1865: That Elegant & Notorious Place, (West Chester, PA: Chester County Historical Society, 1999), 74-79.

5) Goshen Township Account Book, 1718-1869. Chester County Historical Society.

6) Goshen Township Account Book, 1718-1869. Chester County Historical Society.

7) Court of Quarter Sessions Papers, August 1765, pg. 36-38, Chester County Archives.


8) Commissioners' Minutes, April 1744, pg. 40, Chester County Archives.

9) The Pennsylvania Gazette did not mention anything regarding the case, and G.S. Rowe argues that during this period, there were more accusations of infanticide than actual verdicts. See, G.S. Rowe, "Infanticide, Its Judicial Resolution, and Criminal Code Revision in Early Pennsylvania,  Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 135, no. 2 (June 1991): 200-232.

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