Connecticut's witch hunt was the first and most ferocious in New England, occurring almost fifty years before the infamous Salem witch trials. Between 1647 and 1697, at least thirty-four men and women from across the state were formally charged with witchcraft. Eleven were hanged. In New Haven, William Meeker was accused of cutting off and burning his pig's ears and tail as he cast a bewitching spell. After the hanging of Fairfield's Goody Knapp, magistrates cut down and searched her body for the marks of the devil. Through newspaper clippings, court records, letters and diaries, author Cynthia Wolfe Boynton uncovers the dark history of the Connecticut witch trials.
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About the Author
An award-wining journalist, playwright and poet, Cindy Boynton is a freelance writer whose background includes more than fifteen years as a regular correspondent for the New York Times and nine years as editor and publishing director of Better Health magazine. Cindy is also an English and communications instructor at the Yale School of Medicine and Housatonic Community College, as well as host of the weekly Literary New England Radio Show podcast.
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Cauldron of Fear
Connecticut Executes First Accused Witch in America
It has ... been made a doubt by some, whether there are any such things as Witches, i.e., such as by contract or explicit Covent with the Devil ... Though it be Folly to impute every dubious accident to Witchcraft ... some things cannot be exempted against.
— Puritan minister Cotton Mather in his book Memorable Providences, 1689
In the 1600s, Satan and his supernatural forces were seen as very real threats to those living in wild New England. Austere in manner, attitude and appearance, Connecticut's first colonists, like all Puritans, believed the devil literally walked the earth, causing cows' milk to dry up, corn crops to fail, carefully made cheese to turn sour and desperately needed rain to not fall. Claiming maleficium — the Latin term for "mischief" or "wrongdoing," used to describe evil or malevolent sorcery — Puritans blamed Satan for sudden sicknesses, tragic accidents and too-early snowfall. These early American settlers lived in what author and women's studies expert Elizabeth Reis called a "world of wonders, where earthquakes, comets, floods, thunderstorms and everything [unexplainable was] the mysterious workings of either God or the devil." They believed that on a daily basis, the devil and his minions tested humans' faith and will, looking for new recruits to join their evil army.
Ministers preached that only strong-minded men and women who strictly followed God's teachings and were committed to living simple, pious lives could resist the devil's often-appealing temptations. Those with weak resolve, lack of faith or more interest in having a pleasurable life than a pleasurable afterlife were at risk of diabolical influence and falling. Women's nature made them particularly vulnerable, Puritans believed, as proved in the first chapter of the Bible and how easily the devil, in the guise of a serpent, pulled Eve away from God by convincing her to eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.
Women and men who, like Eve, became lost to God to serve the devil as witches and masters of the supernatural world needed to be stopped, ministers said, before they had the chance to harm or influence others.
A HISTORY OF FEAR
For centuries, witchcraft was a feared practice known to exist in cultures and countries throughout the world. At the time the Puritans left England for the New World, witch hunts believed necessary to protect the good and faithful were as much a part of community life as beliefs that witches rode through the night on brooms. Similar to how New England Puritans believed they needed to leave England to "purify" the Anglican church of crucifixes, incense and other signs of Catholicism, Christians throughout Europe believed they needed to purify their villages by ridding them of witches who held secret sabbats, had orgies with the devil and used the fat of murdered children to cast spells.
If Puritans settling the Connecticut Colony in 1636 believed the threat of witchcraft did not exist in this new land, they learned they were wrong fairly quickly. Just eleven years after Puritan minister Thomas Hooker and Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop Sr. brought one hundred men to present-day Hartford to found Connecticut, the colony executed both Connecticut's and young America's first convicted witch, Alse (Alice) Youngs of Windsor.
No records of Alse's life, indictment, trial or execution are known to exist. In fact, her dark distinction as the first person in New England and the New World to be convicted and hanged for witchcraft might have been lost altogether if not for a vague — but essential — single line in Winthrop's journal from the spring of 1647. It read: "One — — of winsor arrayned & executed at Hartford for a witche." The name of the person executed remained a mystery until 1904, when historians found an entry in the diary of colonial Windsor's second town clerk, Matthew Grant, which stated that: "May 26, 47 Alse Younges was Hanged."
Assumptions based on these slim records and other facts known about the time period include that Grant incorrectly added an "e" to Alse's last name. It's also believed that she was either the wife or daughter of a man named John Youngs, who purchased land in Windsor in 1641 and sold it two years after Alse's death to move to Stratford.
Since in seventeenth-century Connecticut the village of Hartford was home to the colony's Particular Court, which met every three months and tried all serious crimes, Alse's trial and execution almost assuredly took place there. Many believe the gallows used to hang her were erected in Meeting House Square, the location of today's Old State House on Main Street, though the majority of later hangings most likely occurred in the Hartford Colony's south pasture, in the vicinity of today's Dutch Point, near where Irving Street meets Albany Avenue. "The spectacle was very important in colonial days, so it had to be in a spot where everyone would see the hanging," said Trinity College librarian Richard Ross, who has taught courses at the Hartford university about Connecticut's witch trials.
Because Connecticut had no capital laws in place until December 1642, it's unlikely that anyone was executed for witchcraft prior to Alse, although lack of records from the period allows the possibility to exist. Countless questions about Connecticut's witch trials also exist, including exactly what Alse Youngs did to bring about witchcraft suspicions. Unfortunately, until a lost diary or forgotten records are unearthed, there is no way to know for sure. "One of the problems of that time period is that there wasn't a lot of consistent and systematic record-keeping," added Ross. "There are no known writings about the hangings, and we don't have any first-person accounts. For some of the cases, there are detailed accounts of the indictments and convictions. But over time, many papers from seventeenth-century events like the witch trials have disappeared."
What is known, however, is that, like it was in England, witchcraft in Connecticut and all the New England colonies was a capital offense punishable by death if convicted by a court of magistrates. All twelve of the "Capitall Lawes" created by the Connecticut Colony's "Generall Court" were based on literal interpretations of the Bible, with the number one offense being to "worship any other God but the Lord God." Often referred to as "Mosaic" crimes because of their similarity to the ten commandments Moses brought down from Mount Sinai in the Old Testament, the number two offense was that "any man or woman be a Witch" or to "hath or consulteth w'th a familliar spirit."
Sprung from medieval European folklore, familiar spirits — more commonly referred to as "familiars" — were believed to be demons that appeared in the form of cats, rats, snakes, birds and other common animals to carry out a witch's work and help pass messages to and from Satan, ghosts and other diabolical creatures. Puritan lawyer and minister Nathaniel Ward wrote about the threat of familiars in the witchcraft law he crafted for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which the Connecticut Colony adapted. Based on a 1618 English judicial treatise called The Country Justice, the law said:
These Witches have ordinarily a Familiar or Spirit, which appeareth to them sometimes in one shape, sometimes in another; as in the shape of a Man, Woman, Boy, Dog, Cat, Foal, Hare, Rat, Toad &c. And to these Spirits they give names, and they meet together ... Their said Familiar hath some big or little Teat upon their body, and in some secret place, where he sucketh them. And besides their sucking, the Devil leaveth other marks upon their body, sometimes like a blue spot or a red spot, like a flea biting, sometimes the flesh sunk in and hollow (all which for a time may be covered, yea taken away, but will come again to their old form). And these Devils' marks be insensible, and being pricked will not bleed, and be often in their secretest parts, and therefore require diligent and careful search.
Physically examining accused witches for a "witches teat," or other body mark from which it was believed the devil or his minions could feed, was a routine part of Connecticut witchcraft's investigations. Thankfully, The County Justice's recommendation that those who practice "Witchcraft, Enchantment, Charm or Sorcery" be burned on a stake was not enacted in Connecticut or anywhere in New England. There is, in fact, no sign that any Connecticut person charged with witchcraft was tortured with red-hot irons, scalding water, iron collars, kneecap vices or any of the other heinous methods used during the European witch hunts that so greatly influenced New England Puritans' mindset.
"Searching," "waiting" and applying a mix of sleep deprivation, isolation and intense psychological pressure were the primary means of interrogation in Connecticut, though in a handful of cases, the infamous water test was used to prove whether "ye witch [had] made a pact with ye devil ... [and] renounced her baptism." For the water test, before being dropped into a lake or river, the accused was cross-bound with rope, the right thumb tied to the left big toe, and the left thumb tied to the right big toe. If the suspect sank, she was proclaimed innocent. If she floated, she was proclaimed guilty, her evil spirit rejected by what ministers said was pure water. Another theory was that each time the devil or one of his minions sucked a witch's teats, he infused her with a venom that made her buoyant.
"The seventeenth-century era of the witchcraft prosecutions was a much different time than our own," said Lisa Johnson, executive director of the Stanley-Whitman House museum in Farmington, which has dedicated a section of its library to Connecticut's witch trials. Explained Johnson:
Even educated people believed that witches were to blame for natural disasters and personal tragedies. But the critical factor that pushed early Connecticut colonists into community-wide witchcraft panics was fear. Consider where and how they lived. Connecticut was a strange new land, far from home, and they were surrounded by unfamiliar people, in an unfamiliar climate that at times felt more than just a little unwelcome. They also practiced a religion that offered no comfort, based on the belief that they had to prove their worthiness of God's love. Life was difficult, and to quote Puritan theologian Cotton Mather, it was a society "wherein the least known evils are not to be tolerated."
Indeed, fear was an inexorable part of early New England life. Living on small farms that required their owners to work from dawn to dusk, colonists were at constant risk of losing goats to wolves and crops to floods along the Connecticut River. In 1647 and 1648, influenza and smallpox epidemics led to the deaths of dozens of settlers. And the capture and killing of nine Wethersfield colonists by Pequot Indians in 1637 made the threat of a Native American–led "massacre" as much a constant threat as Satan himself.
Food was scarce, each season in this new world brought about a new challenge, and the Puritans had few pleasures to amuse or distract them. There was also religious dissent among members of several Connecticut colonies, leading to cries for ministers' ousters and some settlers to pick up and move to Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Amsterdam (New York) and other colonies. Those who stayed sat through long, terrifying sermons that each Sabbath reminded them how wickedness and suffering were manifestations of God's "Holy Anger." Since everyone was predestined to salvation or damnation, begging for mercy or forgiveness was senseless. And no one could predict who might be, or become, a witch. Out in the woods, Indians' practices of what Puritans saw as maleficium or sorcery only exacerbated fears.
"We keep only a tenuous link today with a past when personal and collective misfortunes were apt to be explained by the malign presence of devils and spirits," said Carol Seager Fuller, descendant of accused Connecticut witch Elizabeth Seager, in her self-published booklet An Incident at Hartford: Being an Account of the Witchcraft Trials of Elizabeth Seager and Others. "To read the records of the [Connecticut] trials 300 years later is to recognize that, in the 17 century, every day was Halloween."
In an "Early History" included in a 1906 book published to mark the 100 anniversary of the founding of Meriden, Connecticut, author George Munson Curits muses on what "to us would be intolerable" aspects of Puritan life, particularly how when it came to criminal charges being lodged, emotion and imagination could overrule fact. "Everyone felt at liberty to spy upon the acts of his neighbor, and that this was thoroughly done no one will doubt who has made an examination of early church records," Curits said. "What to-day is considered the act of a scandalmonger and busybody was then felt to be part of conscientious man's duty. It can easily be imagined that life in such a community was not pleasant."
Guidelines for whether a person living in seventeenth-century Connecticut might be practicing witchcraft were based on those created in Europe four hundred years earlier and included those excerpted here. For those interested in reading the entire document, one of the best sources is John M. Taylor's The Witchcraft Delusion in Colonial Connecticut (1647–1697), which can be downloaded for free from several Internet sources that provide access to copyright-free documents in the public domain. According to this treatise, justifiable reasons for suspicion of witchcraft include the following:
Grounds for the Examination of a Witch
1. Notorious defamation by a Common report of the people is a ground for suspicion.
2. A further ground for strict examination is if a fellow-witch give testimony in his examination or death that such a person is a witch. But this is not sufficient for conviction or condemnation.
3. If after cursing there follows death or at least mischief to ye party.
4. If after quarrelling or threatening a present mischief doth follow for parties devilishly deposed after cursing do use threatenings and that also is a great presumption against them.
5. If ye party suspected be ye son or daughter, the servant or familiar friend, near neighbors or old companions of a known or convicted witch, this also is a presumption for witchcraft ...
6. If ye party suspected have Devils marks ... [and] no evident reason can be given for such mark.
7. Lastly, if ye party examined be unconstant and contrary to himself in his answers.
Simply translated, if you were a seventeenth-century Connecticut Puritan, a formal witchcraft investigation could be launched against you if:
At least two neighbors said they suspected you of being a witch.
Someone already convicted of witchcraft testified that you were a witch, too.
After you threatened or argued with another person, that person suddenly got sick, or their cow died, or a candle led to their house burning down, or another unexpected event occurred for no apparent reason. "Anything unexplainable was blamed on witchcraft," said Connecticut state historian Walter Woodward.
A close family member or friend is suspected of being a witch.
You were born with an extra nipple or have an unusual birthmark that could be mistaken for a witch's teat.
While being questioned, you get angry or contradict anything you previously said.
Women were also particularly at risk. In colonial New England, as it was in Europe for centuries before, most accused witches were women. They were also generally middle-aged, had a relatively low social position and were known for being outspoken, stubborn, contentious or frequently "out of line." Married women accused of witchcraft often had relationships "marred by trouble and conflict" and, frequently, were accused by their husbands, said author John Demos in his book Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England. Most Puritans also held the longtime European belief that women possessed dangerous occult and sexual powers. Widows — especially those who had inherited large estates from their husbands — were most vulnerable.
Women who spoke out against the trials also immediately came under scrutiny. Said Woodward:
Connecticut was New England's fiercest witchcraft prosecutor. The Puritans' actions seem irrational to us now. But to them, they were being absolutely smart and rational. New England was a new, dangerous place, and life was tenuous. There were no police, hospitals or social services. There was a government in place, but no real safety net. People put their faith in God and relied on each other. To them, religion, science and magic were all intertwined. Satan was as real as God, and everyone believed in the power of both.
Thus, to the Puritans, when God said in Exodus 22:18 "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," his words were final.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Connecticut Witch Trials"
Copyright © 2014 Cynthia Wolfe Boynton.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Emerging Out of Salem's Shadow 11
1 Cauldron of Fear: Connecticut Executes First Accused Witch in America 17
2 Conjuring Hysteria: Beliefs About Witchcraft hi the 1600s 27
3 Dark Spell: The Impact of Mary Johnson's Confession 34
4 Dangerous Brew: The Hartford and Fairfield Witch Panics 41
5 The Devil's Familiars: Some of the More Infamous Connecticut Witchcraft Cases 59
6 New Incantation: A Quiet Cry to Stop the Witch Hunts 71
7 Wicked Democracy: Government and Gallows in Connecticut 81
8 The Wallingford Witch: Connecticut's Final Witchcraft Trial 90
9 Bewitched: Myths and Mistruths About Connecticut's Witch Trials 97
Afterword: Descendants Petition for Posthumous Pardons 105
Timeline: Connecticut Witch Hysteria 111
Chart: Connecticut Residents Accused of Witchcraft, 1647 1724 115
About the Author 125