Literary New England
One of the few surviving papers from the Fairfield, Conn., panic.
Nicknamed “Witch City,” the almost 400-year-old city of Salem, Massachusetts, has become synonymous with witchcraft in New England and young America. Yet even if the Salem trials never occurred, colonial New England would still have a stunningly long, fierce and complex history of witchcraft panics, which started in nearby Connecticut. This excerpt from Connecticut Witch Trials: First Panic in the New World explains:
Connecticut’s witch hunt was the first and most ferocious in New England. Yet few know it ever occurred.
Puritans throughout young, colonial America accused at least 100 people of witchcraft before Salem’s infamous, and now internationally known, witch hysteria. Maine, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and New York all conducted witchcraft trials during the 17th century, though Connecticut holds the dark honor of carrying out young America’s first witchcraft execution in 1647, 45 years before Salem hanged Bridget Bishop or crushed Giles Corey.
Connecticut also holds the dubious distinction of having a witch panic that spanned several decades years versus Salem’s seven months and, ultimately, a witch hunt that was proportionally much more deadly. Salem executed just 20 of the roughly 180 women and men brought up on formal witchcraft charges, while Connecticut executed 11 out of 34.
“In other words, a charge of witchcraft in Connecticut meant that you would very likely die,” said Connecticut State Historian Walter Woodward at a lecture in Stratford, Conn. In that coastal city roughly 360 years earlier, a woman listed in court records as Goody Basset confessed to witchcraft in May 1651 and was hanged, most likely from crude gallows erected near what’s now the West Broad Street exit off of Interstate 95, in the area of Sterling Park and the Old Congregational Burying Ground.
Although court records are scant, those that exist show that while Goody Basset maintained her innocence throughout her trial, whatever courage she had left disappeared as she walked to the gallows: “Bursting from the procession of … magistrates, ministers and all the dignitaries of the neighborhood, the unfortunate woman threw herself upon a large rock by the roadside,” one historian wrote. “She clutched it so desperately that, when at length she was forcibly detached, bloody marks like fingerprints were seen upon it.”
While most of Connecticut’s witchcraft cases occurred in Hartford and Fairfield, the colonies of New Haven, Wethersfield, Saybrook, Windsor, Wallingford, Easthampton, Farmington, Setauket and Stamford all had “outbreaks” of women and men believed to be in league with the devil.
From the trial of Katherine Harrison of Wethersfield, Conn., 1669.
After Goody Basset, Stratford became involved in Connecticut’s witch trials a second time in November 1692 when a man named Hugh Crotia said the devil told him to hold down and assault a young girl. Judges dismissed the charge, calling Crotia’s case not one of witchcraft, but of “ignoramus,” which in the 17th century did not, as it does today, describe a person who’s an idiot or a fool. In the 1600s, “ignoramus” was a legal term for “we are ignorant of,” meaning judges were not able to determine what exactly happened between Crotia and the girl. So rather than him being bodily punished, he was released with a fine.
Unfortunately, just as judges in 1692 were ignoramus of what happened between Crotia and the young girl, most people today are ignoramus of Connecticut’s witch trials.
Part of the reason is a lack of records. There are no known diaries or first-person accounts from those who witnessed the trials. And the majority of court ledgers and other documents from the period no longer exist. The few delicate, handwritten court papers and depositions that do remain are housed in archives at the Connecticut State Library, Connecticut Historical Society and within the Samuel Wyllys Papers at Brown University’s John Hay Library. Many of these sheets are torn and yellowed, though the Wyllys Papers—while incomplete—include insightful details about several of Connecticut’s accused women, men and couples.
Through the slow, painstaking work of dedicated historians and the ancestors of those accused, details about the lives of some of these “witches” have begun to take shape over the years, as snips of information found in long-unopened files and town records have been matched with those scrawled onto pages of family
Bibles, letters and scrapbooks. But still, Connecticut’s witch trials are unknown to most. Although a handful of plays and stories have been written about the time period, Connecticut has had no Nathaniel Hawthorne, Arthur Miller or other famed storyteller to bring the trials to vivid or widespread life.
In 1958, Massachusetts author Elizabeth George Speare wrote the Newbury Medal-winning The Witch of Blackbird Pond inspired by Wethersfield, Conn.’s witchcraft history. But despite being part of language arts curriculums in middle schools around the country, Blackboard Pond has never brought to Connecticut the kind of historical recognition that Salem received from Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, Miller’s The Crucible or countless other works.
While most witches convicted in the Hartford area were likely hanged from gallows erected in the Hartford Colony’s south pasture, located somewhere in the vicinity of today’s Dutch Point, some may have also been hanged in Meeting House Square, now the location of the Old State House.
Connecticut’s role in colonial witchcraft history has, in fact, been so well hidden over the centuries that when Yale-educated historian and theologian Benjamin Trumbull wrote A Complete History of Connecticut in 1818, he incorrectly stated in its preface: “It may, possibly, be thought a great neglect or matter of partiality, that no account is given of witchcraft in Connecticut. The only reason that is, after the most careful researches, no indictment of any person for that crime, nor any process relative to that affair, can be found.”
Of course, we now know this wasn’t the case. Through the scant accountings that exist, we know at least 50 Connecticut colonists were suspected of witchcraft, though only 34 were formally accused. Historians believe that number may actually be higher. However, knowing what could very likely be their fate, many of those accused fled to Rhode Island, New York and elsewhere before they could be formally charged.
Sadly, details about most of those colonists who stood trial for witchcraft will, in all likelihood, remain as scant and mysterious as information about those who escaped prosecution.
One person hoping to change this is Lisa Johnson, executive director of the Stanley-Whitman House in Farmington, Conn. Featuring exhibits and programs designed to educate visitors about the state’s earliest days, the museum has become an “unofficial center” for reference materials related to Connecticut’s witch trials, Johnson said, as well as the home base for “anything and everything” about Farmington resident Mary Barnes, whose witchcraft execution in January 1663 was Connecticut’s last.
Annual commemorations at the Stanley-Whitman House dedicated to Barnes include a month-long witchcraft trials exhibit, the performance of an original play about Barnes and, on milestone years like the 350th anniversary of her death in 2013, a symposium that brings together colonial New England history and witchcraft experts for panels and other discussions.
With the help of a grant from the Connecticut Humanities Council, Johnson and a team of volunteers have also compiled a survey of all known primary and secondary sources, including their locations. “It was fun. We went from city to city, meeting lots of great people and pulling together a lot of great findings. There’s a wealth of information at the local level,” Johnson said. “And what we hope will happen is that people will use these materials to erase some of the mythology that’s built up around witch trials. It seems that in too many instances, we like the mythological stories more than we like the actual ones, but I happen to think that real life is better than fiction.
“The only way to bust the myths is to get the true stories out there,” Johnson continued. “There are a number of people and agencies quietly doing this work, but we’re a drop in the bucket compared to what needs to be done. I hope that one day, some kind of widely-viewed happening occurs, or item is created, to accurately tell and connect all of the state to Connecticut’s witchcraft story.”
This book attempts just that.
But the Nutmeg State can also be credited with casting skepticism on the evidence that was being allowed to lead to guilty verdicts. Led by level-headed Governor John Winthrop Jr. who believed people were too quick to attribute unexplainable but “natural misfortunes” to witchcraft, Connecticut evolved from being New England’s most aggressive witch hunter and executioner to its most tolerant.
Connecticut Witch Trials: First Panic in the New World is written by long-time journalist at Literary New England Radio Show host Cindy Wolfe
But before we delve into the full story, a note about vocabulary and mindset of the time: It’s imperative to understand that the witch “hunts” that took place in Connecticut and all of the colonies were not actual pursuits of people already identified as witches. Rather, the hunts consisted of efforts to identify colonists who were secretly living as witches. They were searches or hunts—generally conducted only after public suspicion was raised—to find individuals in league with devil who, the Puritans believed, had the power to shape-shift, control the weather, cause accidents and kill. For Puritans who lived by absolute rules in a world where there was only right and wrong, black and white, witches were people who needed to be destroyed before they could destroy the livelihoods and lives of others. There could be no other choice.
Ruthless. Cruel. Fascinating. Forgotten. Connecticut’s overlooked and largely-unknown witch trials are long overdue to be brought into the forefront. It’s a riveting period in American history. There are important lessons to be learned from better understanding this period; important reminders of where fear, greed and ignorance can lead us. Learning about Connecticut’s witch trials give us the opportunity to consider not just who were once were, but who we want to be.
Connecticut Witch Trials: First Panic in the New World is written by long-time journalist at Literary New England Radio Show host Cindy Wolfe Boynton and was published last year by The History Press.
If you follow us here or on Facebook or Twitter, you know today is the last day of Literary New England’s 5-day Witch-A-Thon. It ends tonight at midnight. Check out earlier posts to see all the frighteningly wonderful things we’ve had going on!
Many young people learn their first facts about young America’s witch trials through the Newbury Medal-winning The Witch of Blackbird Pond, written in 1958 by Massachusetts author Elizabeth George Speare. Inspired by Colonial Wethersfield, Connecticut’s witchcraft history, the novel is part of language arts curriculums in middle schools around the country. It’s also, however, one of greatest sources of mistruths about both Connecticut’s witch panic and those that took place throughout young America.
An excerpt from Connecticut Witch Trials: First Panic in the New World explains:
Partly based on fact, the book tells the story of orphan Kit Tyler who, after her grandfather dies, travels by ship from her home in Barbados to live with her Aunt Rachel and Uncle Matthew in Connecticut’s Wethersfield Colony. The only place she feels free in this strict, Puritan community are the meadows, where she makes friends with an old Quaker woman known as the Witch of Blackbird Pond. When Kit’s friendship with the “witch” is discovered, Kit is accused of witchcraft.
Comparing fiction versus fact, the latter occurrence makes much sense. Being a “companion … of a known or convicted witch” was one of the colony’s Grounds for the Examination of a Witch and often employed. Other details and circumstances, however, don’t add up to reality, said Wethersfield Historical Society volunteer Martha Smart, who for 14 years worked at the Connecticut Historical Society as a reference librarian.
“Although it happens in the book, no one accused of witchcraft in Wethersfield was actually tried in Wethersfield,” said Smart, who several times a year leads historical tours of downtown Wethersfield that include a stop at the Buttolph-Williams House on Broad Street, which is featured in the novel. She and other docents there also tell the story of Mary Johnson, the Wethersfield woman and first colonist to admit to witchcraft (who is the focus of Chapter 3 of Connecticut Witch Trials: First Panic in the New World, written by long-time journalist at Literary New England Radio Show host Cindy Wolfe Boynton).
“Unlike the ‘witch’ in The Witch of Blackbird Pond, no woman in any Puritan community would be allowed to live alone,” Smart continued, “even if she were considered strange or an outcast. Married women were required to live with their husbands, and unmarried women to live with family members. Also, Quakers and Puritans did not mix. They lived in separate communities. But even though Puritans saw Quakers as dissidents, they would not persecute them as witches on religion alone. Remember that the Puritans left England for religious freedom, so even though they did not agree with the Quakers, they certainly did not attack them. Blackbird Pond is a great story, but it needs to be treated as such—as a story. It doesn’t portray the truth of Connecticut’s struggles with witches, though it can be used to teach tolerance and the need to be more accepting of those who are different.”
Also important is the fact that The Witch of Blackbird Pond is set in 1687: the last year of what Connecticut State Historian Walter Woodward called “a quarter-century of silence where witch hysteria faded and not a single witchcraft execution occurred.”
Fanciful facts about Connecticut’s witch trials that are true?
- Sir Winston Churchill, former English prime minister and one of the most significant world leaders during World War II, is a descendent of Mary Staples of Fairfield, Connecticut. Mary was accused of witchcraft in 1654, exonerated, and may have been charged again in1692, though records are inconclusive.
- Lexicographer and textbook creator Noah Webster, whose name in the United States has become synonymous with “dictionary,” is a descendent of Lydia Gilbert of Windsor, Connecticut, who was tried and hanged in 1654.
If you didn’t already know, Literary New England is in the midst of a 5-day Witch-A-Thon. Check out earlier posts to see all the frighteningly wonderful things we have going on! The Witch-A-Thon ends tomorrow at midnight.
Old women are frequently portrayed as crones or witches—even in young children’s books. This Victorian-era image is believed to have accompanied a little-known Mother Goose nursery rhyme that goes like this:
There was an old woman tossed up in a basket
Seventy times as high as the moon;
Where she was going I could not but ask it,
For in her hand she carried a broom.
“Old woman, old woman, old woman,” said I,
“O whither, o whither, o whither so high?”
“To sweep up the cobwebs from the sky,
And I’ll be with you by and by!”
If you’ve enjoyed this post, check out the others we’ve created as part of Literary New England’s 5-day Witch-A-Thon, April 1-5. Through Sunday, we’ve got witch book giveaways and lots of other frighteningly wonderful things going on!