In the early days of colonization, much was unfamiliar to the settlers who came to New England seeking religious freedom. They did, however, have a firm faith in God, and a rejection of magic, the occult, and any person or persons who practiced black magic. In fact, New Haven colonial records indicate that, “If any person be a witch, he or she shall be put to death according to Exodus … Leviticus … [and] Deuteronomy.”
Witchcraft was punishable by death in Connecticut in 1642, and its witch hysteria occurred nearly half a century before the notorious witch hunt of Salem, Mass., in 1692. Salem is more infamous for condemning its witches, but Connecticut brought numerous suspected witches to trial, and also records the first hanging of a witch in New England—in 1647 of a Windsor woman named Alse (Alice) Young.
“When you think about witchcraft and the witchcraft trials of New England, most people make the association to Salem and the mass hysteria that ensued there,” explained Connecticut state historian Walter Woodward. “Connecticut was most aggressive in witchcraft persecution in New England, and a generation before the Salem witch trials.”
So why has Connecticut’s witch hunt history been largely overlooked? There are several historical reasons, according to Mr. Woodward, who will share spellbinding annals from this frightening era of American history in a lecture titled “Witches in Connecticut,” Oct. 30 at 3 p.m. in Huntington Hall at the Danbury Museum and Historical Society in Danbury. It is presented in partnership with the Richter Association for the Arts, and is free and open to the public.
“This period of history has left a lasting impression on New England history and culture,” Mr. Woodward explained. “Connecticut has played a unique, and uniquely important role in American culture, but the fascination with these trials transcends time. These stories still capture people’s imaginations because the idea of being convicted of witchcraft is so alien to us.”
While there are questions surrounding this era of history, Mr. Woodward said what is clear from colonial records is that Connecticut colonies never hesitated in prosecuting accused witches. In fact, between 1647 and 1655, he said, Connecticut’s magistrates and Puritan ministers fervently prosecuted alleged witches, and “every single person tried and found guilty of witchcraft was executed.” Perhaps most intriguing is that then-Connecticut Gov. John Winthrop Jr. drew on his own fascination with alchemy and magic to save, rather than condemn, the accused.
Mr. Woodward, who specializes in early American and Atlantic world history, and the history of Connecticut, with interests in alchemy and the creation of New England culture in the 17th century, focused much of his energies on John Winthrop Jr., early colonial governor of Connecticut, magistrate and alchemist. It was this research that led him to the Hartford witch hunt of the 1660s, which revealed how Winthrop “ … forcefully intervened to end Connecticut’s rush to judgment on witch suspects, saving them from a sure trip to the gallows.” Mr. Woodward’s findings are documented in his book, “Prosperos’s America: John Winthrop Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606-1676.”
“The witch hunt in Connecticut was the fiercest [in New England]. Connecticut took its duty quite seriously,” Mr. Woodward explained. “Between 1647 … and 1665, Connecticut hanged [every person] accused of witchcraft. Massachusetts acquitted half of the people who were tried. … Things really started heating up in Hartford from 1661 to 1663 and accusations really started to fly—and an accusation of witchcraft in Connecticut was a death sentence.”
According to the Connecticut Judicial Branch Law Libraries, Alse (Alice) Young of Windsor, was the first person executed for witchcraft in America in 1647, and she was not the last. Mary Johnson of Wethersfield was executed in 1648 after confessing to entering a pact with the devil. Joan and John Carrington, also of Wethersfield, were executed in 1651, followed by Rebecca and Nathaniel Greensmith and Mary Barnes, who were found guilty of witchcraft and hanged in Hartford on Jan. 25, 1663.
“I knew Connecticut had its own witch hunt, but I started discovering a pattern,” Mr. Woodward said. “There was a 27-year period when no one was convicted, but there were two periodic epidemics [of] hysteria.”
According to his findings, the 1660s were one of those periods, when 8-year-old Elizabeth Kelly accused Goody Ayres of witchcraft, claiming, “she had pricked her with pins.” The girl, who was ill at the time, died not long after the accusations were made. “When Bray Rossiter, a physician—essentially an early-American medical examiner—conducted the autopsy and determined the cause of death was preternatural, it launched a flurry of witchcraft inquiries,” Mr. Woodward confirmed.
Research into the witchcraft panic in Connecticut uncovers an interesting history that has been largely ignored. The trials become more interesting when the role of John Winthrop Jr., is considered.
“By the end of 1660, Katherine Harrison from Wethersfield became the most contested case of witchcraft in Connecticut history,” Mr. Woodward noted. “Admitting to the knowledge of diabolical magic most certainly meant a noose around the neck, but she admitted to study of astrologers. This was when questions were raised as to the differences between diabolical magic and the chemical arts and sciences, and the cases started to point to the big guy—John Winthrop Jr.”
Winthrop, the son of a Massachusetts governor, founded three Connecticut towns, was an industrial entrepreneur and the most sought-after doctor in New England. He was a member of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, he served in the Connecticut General Assembly and secured the Connecticut Royal Charter from King Charles II. Winthrop was also an alchemist, which was considered magic by 17th-century religion.
“He was a magistrate and governor, but he was also a very advanced scientist for the time,” Mr. Woodward noted. “The lines of magic and religion were linked.” The hysteria reached its peak in Connecticut while the governor was in England securing the royal charter from Charles II. During this time, from 1661 to 1662, eight trials were held in eight months; four people were hanged, and five others fled for fear of being executed. Mr. Woodward said the numbers of those who fled may have been higher had Winthrop not returned when he did.
“The trials began when he left and escalated while he was gone,” Mr. Woodward noted. “When he returned, he put a stop to the madness.”
It didn’t stop entirely, however. Suspects were brought to trial during the closing years of Winthrop’s term, but none were ever executed. In 1669, Winthrop, who was engaged as a consultant on such cases, saw to it that what constituted diabolical magic was carefully defined, ending the witchcraft trials and executions in New England until the hysteria in Salem.
“One of the hardest things for people to understand today is how ordinary people feared their neighbors enough to kill them—to really believe that the grumpy old lady across the street worked through the devil,” Mr. Woodward said. “The world was a different place then … . It was a very permeable time when people believed in the occult.”
He spoke of animals and talismans, of the perceived power of the stars. “If a child died unexpectedly, if there were a drought or if cheese rotted unusually fast, they believed it to be the work of the devil,” he said. “The real test of being a witch was making a pact with the devil. They all believed in magic of some sort, but to cooperate with the devil was unacceptable. …You were considered extremely dangerous.”
Those accused of witchcraft were harshly interrogated. “They had to be harsh, because it was believed [the accused] had the devil within them, and that the devil was telling them what to do and what to say to avoid punishment,” Mr. Woodward explained. “When you read the testimonies of these women, you see them resist, resist, resist, until they crumble under the stress of it all.”
The court preferred confessions from the accused, but it wasn’t the only way to prove witchcraft. Mr. Woodward documented a case in which a couple was bound hand and foot and thrown into a pond: “If you sank to the bottom, you were innocent; if you floated, you were a witch,” he said. “The logic there was that if you had a pact with the devil, the water in which you were baptized rejected you and you floated. …The drama of these trials was unreal.”
Even today, Mr. Woodward said, it’s hard to believe witch hunts actually occurred, but that its harder to understand how people could condemn their neighbors and friends to death.
“If there is an instructional lesson to be learned, it is that we are creatures of time,” Mr. Woodward said, offering McCarthyism as an example of a modern-day witch hunt. “The question is: Who are our witches today?”
The Danbury Museum and Historical Society is located at 43 Main St., Danbury. For more information, visit 203-743-5200, or visit www.danburymuseum.org.