Mention witch trials in New England, and the first place to come to mind is inevitably Salem, Mass. Ironically, Connecticut's own unfortunate history with accusations and executions around charges of witchcraft predates our more famous neighbor's, as described in this article from October 1988.
This article is being posted to the web in October 2021 as part of Connecticut Magazine's 50th anniversary celebration.
While Salem, Mass., reigns as the witchcraft capital of Colonial America, the dubious distinction of having carried out the first execution of a witch in New England goes to Connecticut, where some 45 individuals were accused of the crime between 1647 and 1697.
Diana Ross McCain
Once upon a time, a young girl was afflicted with bizarre, terrifying fits. While under their spell, she accused an old crone of bewitching her. The accused woman was questioned and examined, then put on trial and found guilty of the loathsome crime of witchcraft. The convicted witch was put to death, and the afflicted girl recovered from her seizures to live a normal life.
This gruesome scenario, or some more or less deadly variation on the same theme, was played out time and again during the 17th century throughout Connecticut. According to modem historian John Demos in his Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England, between 1647 and 1697 at least 45 individuals, most of them women, were suspected of witchcraft or actually accused of the crime under the laws of the Connecticut Colony or of the New Haven Colony (which in 1665 was absorbed into Connecticut).
No fewer than nine, and perhaps as many as 11, of those who were convicted of witchcraft were executed by hanging. In fact, while Salem, Mass., may reign in the popular mind as the witchcraft capital of Colonial America, the dubious distinction of having carried out the first recorded execution of a witch in New England goes to Connecticut.
It must be understood that to the people of 17th-century England and New England, the existence of witches was an unquestioned reality, a fact of life as mysterious yet undeniable as the changing colors of the leaves in autumn. For confirmation of the fact, anyone who dared to doubt had to look no further than the Holy Bible itself, the revealed word of God in which the Puritan faith was grounded, which includes numerous references to witchcraft, including the blunt directive, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” The belief in witchcraft may have been ingrained particularly deeply in the minds of the pioneer residents of the Connecticut Colony, for as historian William Holdsworth has discovered, the majority of Connecticut Colony settlers had migrated from the county of Essex, the witchcraft capital of England.
Being a witch meant being the servant of Satan, the Prince of Darkness, who to the 17th- century mind was also a real personality locked in an ongoing power struggle with God. Satan sought human disciples through a combination of promises of power and material reward and threats of tormenting agony. Those who succumbed to his persuasions made a pact with the Devil by which they received supernatural power. They then unleashed that power on their fellow human beings and used it to attempt to enlist others in Satan’s service.
In 1642 the Connecticut Colony officially made witchcraft not just a crime, but a capital crime, thus putting it on a par with such foul offenses as murder, rape, kidnapping and treason. The New Haven Colony followed suit in 1655.
Determining if someone was a witch was a knotty problem. Those suspected of witchcraft did not, of course, go about dressed in pointed black hats and ride broomsticks in broad daylight. But there were certain characteristics, some of them observable, that were believed to be telltale signs of a witch.
A witch had a “familiar”—that is, an evil, supernatural companion that appeared in the form of an animal. Although the familiar might very well be the classic black cat that appears so frequently with witches in Halloween imagery today, it could just as well be a dog, a bird, a fox or a mouse. A witch bore on her (or his) body a witch’s mark or “teat,” made at the time the covenant was sealed with Satan. From this teat, which was believed to be insensitive to pain, the witch’s familiar was believed to suck daily.
A witch could appear as a specter or in the form of an animal and could perform supernatural acts, including damaging or destroying property and inflicting physical harm, disease, even death on both animals and people.
Belief in witches existed within a religious philosophy that rejected the idea that events in life took place by accident or through random chance. Occurrences, whether momentous or insignificant, happened for a reason that might be ordained by God, or conversely, might be caused by Satan or one of his witch disciples. In this atmosphere, it is not surprising that when an individual exhibited eccentric, unconventional or unpopular behavior, or when some event occurred that could not be explained by the 17th century’s scanty knowledge of science and nature, suspicion might arise that something was afoot—and that the foot in question might be a cloven one.
The first individual in New England to fall victim to the superstitions of the 17th century was a Windsor woman named Alse Young. All that is known of her is that she was probably the wife of a man named John Young. Whether she was young or old, beautiful or ugly, agreeable or ornery, has not been preserved for posterity.
No record has survived of the circumstances that led to Alse Young being suspected of being a witch, what kind of an investigation was carried out, when or where she was tried or convicted, or what evidence was presented for or against her. Her landmark fate is known only from two terse contemporary notations. “One ------ of Windsor” was “arraigned and
executed at Hartford for a witch” wrote Massachusetts Bay Gov. John Winthrop Sr. in his journal in the spring of 1647. After 250 years of anonymity, the unfortunate victim was identified in the late 1800s, with the discovery of an entry made by Windsor town clerk Matthew Grant in his diary on May 26, 1647: “Alse Young was hanged.”
Over the next 17 years, 14 more people in the Connecticut or New Haven colony were suspected of witchcraft, according to John Demos’ research. Some were able to beat the potentially deadly rap in court, for even when there was strong evidence, conviction was not a foregone conclusion. The case against Elizabeth Garlick of Easthampton, Long Island, which was then under Connecticut Colony jurisdiction, would, for example, seem to have been a damning one. Evidence introduced at Goodwife (Goodwife or Goody being the 17th-century equivalent of Mrs.) Garlick’s trial in Hartford in 1658 included the fact that a young mother, Elizabeth Howell, on her deathbed had accused her of being a witch who used her sorcery to inflict on Howell the fits from which she eventually died. Nonetheless, the jury found Garlick not guilty.
For others the outcome was tragic. In 1651, a Wethersfield husband and wife, John and Joane Carrington, were accused of witchcraft in an indictment which charged that “not having the feare of God before thine eyes thou hast interteined ffamilliarity with Sathan the great enemye of God and mankinde and by his helpe hast done workes above the course of nature.” Both Carringtons were found guilty and hanged.
In 1653, Goodwife Knapp, wife of Roger Knapp of Fairfield, was convicted of witchcraft based in part on a report by a committee of women who said they had found witch’s teats on her body. Heavy pressure was brought upon Knapp, up to the very moment she mounted the gallows, to confess and to implicate others in witchcraft, particularly a woman named Mary Staples, whose testimony had helped convict Knapp. Knapp steadfastly refused to publicly finger Staples, saying, “Goodwife Staples hath done me some wrong in her testimony, but I must not render evil for evil.” This so unnerved Staples that after the execution she tore the clothes from Goody Knapp’s lifeless body as it lay at the foot of the gallows in a frantic search for the alleged “witch’s teats,” and declared there was no such thing. “If these be teates, here are no more teates then I myselfe have, or any other women,” the distraught Staples cried out.
Within a year those words would come back to haunt Mary Staples. Roger Ludlow was a neighbor of Mary Staples and her husband Thomas, and had been at odds with them. Ludlow began to spread gossip to the effect that Goody Knapp had at her execution whispered to him that Mary Staples was a witch.
Thomas Staples launched a vigorous counterattack on Ludlow, suing him for slander against his wife. In his defense at his 1654 trial, Ludlow called witnesses who recounted Mary’s behavior at the Knapp hanging. Staples nonetheless won his case. Ludlow was ordered to pay a hefty cash settlement as damages, and Mary Staples’ name was cleared of the stigma of sorcery—temporarily.
In Windsor later that year, a woman named Lydia Gilbert was charged with employing witchcraft to bring about the death three years previously of one Henry Stiles. Stiles’ death, the result of the accidental discharge of a gun belonging to Thomas Allen, had originally been declared “homicide by misadventure” by a colony court, which fined Allen.
Three years later the case was reopened. The court determined that Lydia Gilbert had exerted some malevolent power to make Allen’s gun go off, found her guilty of witchcraft and sentenced her to death.
Astonishingly, some of those accused became the instruments of their own destruction, for they actually confessed to being witches. Why they did so can only be conjectured. Perhaps they were mentally disturbed or honestly believed they were witches.
Mary Johnson of Wethersfield, a servant with a record of theft, went to the gallows in 1648 after admitting to “familliarity with the Devill.” According to Cotton Mather’s Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions...in New England, published in Boston in 1689, “Her first familiarity with the devils came by discontent; and wishing the Devil to take that and t’other thing...whereupon a devil appeared unto her, tendring her the best service he could be for her,” which included doing her chores. Mary also confessed to murdering a child, and to being “guilty of uncleanness with men and devils.” Before she met her death she repented fully of her sinful actions. In 1651 another woman, Goody Bassett, was hanged in Stratford after confessing to witchcraft.
Up to this point, witchcraft cases were isolated incidents in Connecticut. But in 1662 and 1663 the Hartford area, including Wethersfield and Farmington, experienced a rash of witchcraft accusations that foreshadowed the infamous Salem panic 30 years later.
It began when an 8-year-old girl, Elizabeth Kelly, was seized in the middle of the night with fits in which she screamed that a neighbor woman, Goodwife Ayres, was tormenting her by choking her, pricking her with pins and trying to kill her. Elizabeth begged her father to cut off Goody Ayres’ head. This was no case of a child feigning possession to attract sympathy or attention; after three days of agony, little Elizabeth died.
The deaths of individuals who claimed to be bewitched, like Elizabeth Kelly and Elizabeth Howell, are among the great mysteries of the witchcraft phenomenon. Perhaps such victims accused acquaintances in the delirium of a fatal illness. Or perhaps, believing themselves possessed, they were actually made ill by their own anxiety.
In any case, an official investigation was opened into the case of Elizabeth Kelly’s bizarre death. Several other young women in town were seized with fits, during which they pointed an accusing finger at a number of townspeople. The best documented of these instances of possession was that of Ann Cole, “a person of real piety and integrity,” who included Goody Ayres among those she charged were tormenting her.
After hearing of Ann Cole’s accusation, the townspeople apparently took matters into their own hands by subjecting Goody Ayres and her husband to a “water test.” Both had their hands and feet tied, then were cast into the water, where, noted Increase Mather in his 1684 book Remarkable Providences, they both “apparently swam after the manner of a buoy, part under, part above the water.” This was bad news for the couple, for ancient superstition said that in such a test a witch would float, since the pure water would reject his or her corrupted body. Although the Ayres’ failure to sink like stones was not accepted as legal evidence, it did aggravate public suspicion against them. With the handwriting on the wall, they beat a hasty retreat from Connecticut.
When Rebecca Greensmith, “a lewd, ignorant and considerably aged woman” who was already in prison on suspicion of witchcraft, was confronted with Anne Cole’s accusations, she admitted guilt. Greensmith recounted a lurid tale of how she had on several occasions answered the call of the Devil, who first appeared to her in the form of a fawn, to attend meetings at which other people came in a variety of shapes, including one as a crow. At one gathering that she claimed was attended by five other individuals, including Goody Ayres, “we danced, and had a bottle of sack.” Increase Mather reported that Greensmith also admitted that “the Devil had frequently the carnal knowledge of her body.”
Not content with sticking her own head into the hangman’s noose and endangering others, Rebecca went on to implicate her husband, Nathaniel, whom she claimed performed his chores with supernatural assistance and was sometimes accompanied by strange doglike or foxlike creatures that sounded suspiciously like familiars. Nothing Nathaniel Greensmith could say carried much weight against such testimony from his own wife, a confessed sorceress. The two were convicted and hanged on Gallows Hill, a little north of where Trinity College stands today.
Others accused by Ann Cole or Rebecca Greensmith or under suspicion were able to defend themselves against the charges or followed the Ayres’ lead and left the colony. But two women—Mary Sanford of Hartford, who was among those named by Rebecca Greensmith, and Mary Barnes of Farmington—were hanged for witchcraft during the Hartford panic.
As for the victim Ann Cole, she “was restored to health” once the suspected witches were either hanged or departed, noted Increase Mather.
The next three decades saw a comparative lull in witchcraft cases under Connecticut jurisdiction, with only about a dozen instances, of which four actually came to trial. Only two were found guilty. Elizabeth Seager of Hartford, who had been named by Rebecca Greensmith, had been tried twice in 1663, but gotten off both times. In 1665 she was found guilty of witchcraft, but her conviction was overturned. Katherine Harrison of Wethersfield was convicted in 1669, although a special court opted not to sentence her to death but to require her to leave Wethersfield.
For these two reprieves historian William Holdsworth credits Gov. John Winthrop Jr., a sophisticated, worldly, well-educated man renowned for his open- mindedness and tolerance. Winthrop had presided over the 1658 trial of Elizabeth Garlick, who was acquitted, but he had been away from Connecticut when the deadly witchcraft trials occurred in Hartford in 1662 and 1663.
The last major gasp of witchcraft persecution in Connecticut came in 1692, shortly after the commencement of the infamous proceedings at Salem, Mass., where 19 people would eventually be hanged as witches.
The accusations were centered in lower Fairfield County. Eight people came under suspicion, including Mary Staples, who decades earlier had been the object of Roger Ludlow’s whisperings. Four people ultimately were brought to trial (Staples was not one of them), and three were found innocent. But one, Elizabeth Clawson of Stamford, was convicted.
Clawson, who along with Mercy Disborough of Westport had been accused by a servant girl, Katherine Branch, of tormenting her with witchcraft, got off despite the fact she had failed the water test, having “boyed-up like a corck.” Her acquittal was undoubtedly assisted by the fact that her husband presented a petition attesting to her good character.
Mercy Disborough, however, was found guilty based on evidence that included failure of the water test, which she had asked to be performed, and a report by a committee of women that they had found on her body suspicious things that might be witch’s teats. Sentenced to death, she was saved from the gallows when a special court granted a reprieve in 1693, citing in its reasoning the rejection of such types of evidence as specters, teats and water trials, which had been taken so seriously only 30 years earlier.
A few minor instances of witchcraft popped up after the Fairfield panic—a man accused in Stratford in 1693, a mother and her teen-age daughter in Wallingford in 1697, a woman in Colchester in 1724, and even a rumor of a case as late as the turn of the 19th century in Bristol. But never again was Connecticut’s record stained with witchcraft persecutions of the type and magnitude that occurred in the 17th century
RELATED: More ghost stories from the archives
From October 1977, “Stalking Witches and Boogeymen” visits several self-proclaimed mystics living in suburbia.
From Dudleytown to New Haven’s Midnight Mary, “Haunted Connecticut” (October 2015) outlines Connecticut’s most infamous supernatural legends.
From April 1972, “In Search of the Supernatural” profiles Connecticut’s O.G. ghostbusters, the late Ed and Lorraine Warren, still the most famous paranormal investigators in the world.
A writer reflects on her affection for the reputedly cursed Charles Island in Milford, in “My Lifelong Love Affair With a Haunted Island” (July/August 1972).
We received a quite chilling reception when we first visited Cortlandt Hull and his Witch’s Dungeon museum of movie memorabilia way back in October 1984’s “House of Horror” (this month we pay a return visit to Hull at his new, expanded showplace in Plainville).
These and more articles from Connecticut Magazine's history can be found at connecticutmag.com/archives