Dirty Laundry and a Friend Save Philip English From the Salem Witch Trials

Philip English was all that the Puritan villagers of Salem distrusted: He was an Anglican who lived lavishly, he spoke French and he was in and out of court, mostly suing people in property disputes.

The Salem Witch Trials.

He emigrated to Massachusetts sometime in 1670 from the Isle of Jersey, changing his name from Philippe L’Anglois. He married the aristocratic Mary Hollingsworth in 1675, the daughter of a wealthy merchant.

By 1692, Philip English was one of the wealthiest fishing and shipping merchants in Salem. He owned a wharf and warehouse, 14 buildings and 21 seagoing vessels. In the spring of 1682 he was elected a town selectman.

The Troubles Begin

The home of Mary and Philip English.

The home of Mary and Philip English.

His wealth and rising prominence probably made him a target for Essex County’s High Sheriff George Corwin, who seized the property of accused witches and divided the spoils with his deputies.

On April 18, shortly before midnight, Corwin and his deputies entered Mary’s bedchamber and demanded she come with them. She refused and told them to return in the morning. Corwin agreed, leaving his deputies to guard the house. The next morning after breakfast, Mary English allowed the deputies to take her and hold her in the second floor of a tavern near the meetinghouse. Three days later, she appeared before a large crowd to answer a complaint of witchcraft. The records are lost and it isn’t known on what grounds she was accused.

Accusations of witchcraft had been flying through Salem since late February. On May 27, 1692, a court of oyer and terminer was commissioned to hold the infamous Salem witch trials. By then, Mary had already been transferred to a jail in Boston.

Philip English criticized the Salem magistrates for his wife’s arrest, which added to his unpopularity. On April 24, Susannah Sheldon claimed he pinched her in church and told her to touch his ‘Devil’s book’ or he’d kill her. Sheldon filed complaints against 23 other people as well.

Sheldon’s claims against English inspired accusations from others including William Beale, who had tangled in court with him two years earlier, Elizabeth Booth and Mary Wallcott. Beale claimed English’s witchcraft caused his nose to bleed when he was discussing the lawsuit with a friend.

Dirty Laundry

On April 30, the Salem magistrates issued an arrest warrant for Philip English, but he’d been tipped off and hid in a secret room. He then fled to Boston, hoping to free his wife. Officers came looking for him and on May 6 searched the home of George Hollard, a business associate of English who lived at the edge of Boston’s North End. English was there, hiding behind a sack of dirty laundry — the one place they didn’t look.

Eventually English realized his absence hurt Mary’s case, so he gave himself up. Magistrates examined him on May 31 and ordered him sent to jail in Boston to join his wife – a privilege allowed him because of his wealth.

Every morning the jailer freed the couple after they promised to return at night. According to family lore, a minister named Joshua Moody persuaded them to flee. He arranged for a carriage to take them to New York, where they could wait out the witchcraft hysteria. Mary and Philip English reluctantly took his advice, and left their children save for one daughter behind with friends.

In New York, the Englishes kept track of the witchcraft trials. When they learned of a food shortage in Salem, Philip English sent a boatload of corn to the poor in the afflicted town.

How To Get a Debt Repaid

By 1693 the witchcraft hysteria died down and Philip and Mary English returned to Salem. There they found George Corwin and others had pillaged their buildings and vessels. Mary died the next year after giving birth to a son. Phillip returned to his shipping business and pursued claims against Corwin for his property.

Corwin, the grandson of John Winthrop the Younger, died of a heart attack in 1696 at the age of 30. English demanded repayment. Corwin’s family ignored English and proceeded to bury him.

As Corwin’s mourners wound their way to the graveyard, English stepped in the road and ordered them to stop. Suddenly his men appeared, blocking the road and heading toward the hearse. English took possession of Corwin’s body. Several days later the Corwins repaid English in silver and jewels, and they got the late high sheriff’s body back.

This story updated in 2022.

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