Saturday, December 10, 2011

William Bladen's Grave, Annapolis. Maryland's last witch prosecutor

Grave of William Bladen

William Bladen, an important early Maryland official is buried at St. Anne's Episcopal Church, in Annapolis on Church Circle. There are only a few graves in the actual church yard, (the larger graveyard that they own is nearby). Who was this person and why was he considered important? 

According to Side-lights on Maryland history: with sketches of early Maryland families by Hester Dorsey Richardson:
Honorable William Bladen came to Maryland in 1690, at the early age of nineteen years. That he was possessed of eminent ability is very certain from the fact that he at once became active in public affairs. Two years after his arrival, when but twenty-one years old, the House of Burgesses awarded him 1600 pounds of tobacco for his services as clerk. Later in the same year young Bladen was allowed in the levy 4000 pounds of tobacco for transscribing copies of the laws, and in 1693 he, with Captain John Davis and William Aisquith, was appointed deputy to apprehend, seize and take into custody Colonel Peter Sayer and Thomas Smith, of Talbot County, for conspiracy.

For a while Honorable William Bladen seemed to have rivaled the modern clubwoman in his many offices. In 1695 we find him clerk of the House of Burgesses; on December 12, 1696, he made oath that he was then clerk of the House of Burgesses, clerk of St. Marie's County and clerk of general indictments in Prince George's County, while just one year later he gave bond for £500 as Collector of the Port and district of Annapolis, with Charles Carroll and Edward Dorsey as his sureties.

St. Anne's Episcopal Church
In 1698 he was Surveyor and Deputy Collector of the port; the next year or two Naval Officer and Surveyor of the Port.

In 1701 Nathaniel Blackistone, Royal Governor of Maryland, appointed Honorable William Bladen Secretary of the Province. On May 8, 1702, he was commissioned Attorney-General and in 1704 he was Clerk of the Council.
In addition to his civil offices William Bladen was a vestryman of old St. Anne's Church, Annapolis. In the year 1708 Queen Anne appointed Honorable William Bladen one of the first Aldermen for the City of Annapolis. But this high and important Colonial official upon his arrival in Maryland had lived first in St. Mary's County on St. Elizabeth's Manor, an estate of 2000 acres, originally patented to Thomas Cornwaleys in the year 1639. It was in St. Mary's that he met, wooed and won young Anne Van Swearingen, daughter of the notable Gerret Van Swearingen, of St. Mary's County, a native of Holland and said to have been of noble lineage.
The removal of the capital from the City of St. Mary's to the Port of Annapolis accounts for the change of residence of many Colonial families whose representatives figured in official life, and this it was, no doubt, that resulted in Honorable William Bladen's removal from St. Mary's County. His name is associated with the important work of compiling the first laws of Maryland into one volume.

What is left out of this account is a review of his performance as Attorney General, one of the many positions that he held. C. Ashley Ellefson in the book, William Bladen of Annapolis, 1673?-1718:"the most capable in all Respects" or "Blockhead Booby"? painted a far more cynical picture of Bladen as a scheming public official who would do anything to get and hold onto power. Ellefson pointed out that as prosecutor Bladen only received convictions in less than half of the cases that he took to trial. And while that was probably better than my average as a prosecutor in Baltimore City, it was low considering that criminal defendants had less of an ability to get a fair trial in those days. Ellefson wrote about this:
Bladen’s high proportion of failures might be evidence not only of incompetence but also of simple cynicism. Criminal prosecutions and punishments in eighteenth-century Maryland were designed as deterrents — warnings to others to behave themselves as authority demanded —, and the prosecution of an innocent person was as good a warning as the prosecution of a guilty person was. 
Actually the prosecution of an innocent person might provide an even better warning than the prosecution of a guilty person would. The person who watches the prosecution of a defendant whose guilt appears to be clear might conclude that if he does not break any laws he will be safe, while watching the prosecution of an innocent person might lead him to conclude that he had better not draw attention to
himself in any way by deviating from the strictest conformity.

One additional fact about Bladen, that may interest readers, is that as Attorney General he brought the last (capital) witchcraft case to trial in the Provincial Court in Annapolis (then Maryland's highest trial court). Virtue Violl, from Talbot County, was charged with using witchcraft against a neighbor, Elinor Moore, and causing her to lose the use of her tongue. Violl was indicated, transported to Annapolis, and put on trial. She was acquitted by a jury. What is most strange about this case is that it took place in 1712, when most educated people would have ceased to believe in the power of witches to do harm. Did Bladen actually believe that Violl was in fact a witch? Did he care about the truth of the accusation? Or did he simply prosecute her, as Ellefson suggests, as a warning to others?

Hooper sleeping
History's final judgment on William Bladen may still be out. But while visiting the site, my dog, a greyhound named Herr Hooper, made his own judgment. Upon seeing the grave he promptly walked up to it and, despite my protests, urinated on it.

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