The Vermont Witch-Trial of the Widow Krieger

by Timothy Page

In the late 18th or early 19th century, the small Vermont town of Pownal found itself embroiled in a witchcraft trial that would forever leave its mark on the community. Widow Krieger, a woman of unknown first name and likely of Dutch descent, became the central figure in this enigmatic tale, accused of possessing extraordinary powers. While the exact date of the trial remains elusive, historians believe it took place sometime between the town’s chartering in 1760 and the 1820s, when belief in witchcraft began to wane. In this article, we delve into the story of the widow Krieger, exploring the enduring fears of witchcraft beyond the infamous Salem trials and the impact it had on Pownal.

During this period in history, the fear of witchcraft permeated society, causing panic and suspicion to spread like wildfire. Widow Krieger’s alleged extraordinary powers, perhaps stemming from her elderly widowed status, led to public scrutiny and her subsequent trial in Pownal. The dunking test, a common method used to determine guilt or innocence, involved submerging her in the icy waters of the Hoosic River, highlighting the extreme measures taken to dispel suspicions.

As misfortunes befell the town, suspicions of witchcraft took root in the fertile soil of fear. The widow Krieger, with her piercing eyes and midnight hair, became the target of the townspeople’s growing dread. Rumors of her alleged sorcery and supernatural abilities spread quickly, fueling the accusations and escalating the tensions within the community.

Witches presenting wax dolls to the devil, featured in The History of Witches and Wizards (1720)

“The widow Krieger was suspected of possessing extraordinary powers, leading to her being subjected to the infamous dunking test. To the astonishment of onlookers, she sank like a stone, contradicting the popular belief that witches floated. Saved by townspeople, she escaped a damning fate, leaving the community perplexed and unsure of her true nature.”

-T.E. Brownell,

The Trials and Tribulations of the widow Krieger:

Unraveling the Secrets of Pownal’s Witchcraft

To prove or disprove the accusations, Krieger underwent a “trial by water” in which she was thrown into the frozen Hoosic River. The prevailing superstition held that a witch would float, sustained by the devil, while an innocent woman would sink. As the widow Krieger sank to the river’s bottom, the townspeople, astonished, took it as evidence of her innocence. They quickly rescued her from the water, saving her life.

Woodcut from an 18th-century chapbook about the prophetess and supposed witch Mother Shipton, featured in Chap-books of the Eighteenth Century (1834) by John Ashton

While no official records or graves confirm the fate of the widow Krieger after the trial, it is believed that she survived the ordeal and continued to reside in Pownal. This witch trial remains the sole documented case in the state of Vermont. Although it did not claim any lives, it stands as a stark reminder of the irrational hysteria surrounding witchcraft accusations in New England during the late colonial era.

Historian T.E. Brownell documented the witch trial of widow Krieger in the 19th century, providing valuable insight into the beliefs and events of the time. Brownell’s account serves as a crucial historical source, allowing us to delve deeper into the enigma surrounding Krieger and the circumstances of her trial.

The witch trial of Krieger is not the only mysterious occurrence in Pownal’s history. The town has witnessed other strange phenomena, such as the stone-throwing devil in 1874 and the presence of renowned seer Clara Jepson. These events further contribute to the intrigue surrounding Pownal and its connection to the supernatural.

As we continue to unravel the mysteries of Pownal’s past, the search for Krieger’s final resting place remains ongoing. Although no gravestone has been discovered, the presence of Krieger’s Rocks near the North Pownal Bridge serves as a haunting reminder of her alleged powers and the witch trial that forever etched its mark on the town’s history.

Photo courtesy of the Pownal Historical Society via Facebook

The witch trial of widow Krieger in Pownal, Vermont, stands as a testament to the enduring fears and accusations of witchcraft that extended beyond the infamous trials in Salem, a mere 150-odd miles due east of the town. This enigmatic tale sheds light on the persistent belief in supernatural powers and the grave consequences faced by those accused. Through historical documentation and the town’s own mysterious history, the story of widow Krieger serves as a captivating chapter in Vermont’s past and a reminder of the power of fear and superstition in shaping communities.

Back then, the hunts occurred due to real concerns over safety and diabolic influence corrupting the faithful, and brought out the most un-Christian of responses: fear, hatred, and paranoia. This was despite the concerns of a sizable number of the Puritan clergy of the time.

Increase Mather was a prominent Puritan minister and theologian who served as the president of Harvard College. In his book Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits, published in 1693, Mather questioned the legal procedures and evidentiary standards used during the trials. He argued that the reliance on spectral evidence (evidence based on alleged appearances or actions of accused witches in dreams or visions) was unreliable and could lead to innocent people being condemned. Mather advocated for caution and a more rigorous approach to the trials.

His son, the even more well known Cotton Mather, was another influential Puritan minister who initially supported the witch trials but later became more critical of the proceedings. In his book Wonders of the Invisible World, published in 1693, Mather defended the trials but also acknowledged the possibility of false accusations and cautioned against relying solely on spectral evidence. He called for a more cautious approach to the trials and emphasized the importance of gathering solid evidence and conducting fair proceedings.

Samuel Willard was another prominent Puritan minister in Boston during the heyday of the witch trials. In a sermon he delivered on June 24, 1692, titled Some Miscellany Observations on Our Present Debates Respecting Witchcrafts, in a Dialogue Between S. & B., Willard expressed skepticism about the validity of spectral evidence and urged caution in accepting it as proof of guilt. He argued that the Devil could easily impersonate innocent people and deceive the accusers. Willard’s sermon was critical of the trials and called for more rigorous standards of evidence.

Photo by Jay See at alltrails.com

It was due in part to their efforts that the terrible age of the witch trial came to a decline and eventual end. Yet when fears and suspicions reared their head again, these practices came alive for a brief moment once more. In the climate of societal polarization and vitriol in which we find ourselves, we all must remember the event and do our best to prevent such from happening again. In light of this tendency to revert to our former mistakes, we as conscientious citizens must remain ever vigilant, lest the trials begin once again in earnest.

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2 replies »

  1. How true…witches and warlocks are nesting and infesting in Montpelier…we need a strong Christian presence in this state, to speak up and speak out about the evils affecting this country and the world , and in so many portions of Vermont. The Bible clearly has prophesied that what was once considered evil will now be considered as good and acceptable and what was once considered good will now be accepted as evil (abortion, sexual perversion, divorce, faith trust and belief in the Holy Trinity, moral relativism, the strong family unit, critical race falsehoods, cancel culture, the persecution of Christians) …you name it, it is the opposite of what was once regarded as good or evil…Embrace what is right and just and Godly…express that in writing to or calling all our elected representatives on every level, even if most will disregard our united voice. We will be heard but only if we communicate it first, then again and again until we unite, overwhelm, and unseat these witches and warlocks who prowl our once hallowed halls of government.