Everyone knows about the Salem witch trials of 1692, but the first person executed for witchcraft in the United States wasn’t from Salem. She was a young woman from Windsor, Connecticut, and her name was Alse Young. In 1647, she was accused of witchcraft and put on trial. It is not known what Alse did to cause her neighbors to make such wicked accusations. But what we do know is that she was found guilty of witchcraft, and that she was executed by hanging in Hartford, Connecticut on May 26, 1647 and buried in an unmarked grave.
The Connecticut witch trials, also known as the Hartford witch trials, occurred from 1647 until 1663. They were the first large-scale trials of their kind in the American colonies. During that time period at least 34 people were accused of witchcraft in Connecticut, of which eleven were put to death -- just nine fewer than the number of people executed for witchcraft in Salem.
The Connecticut witch panic and trials are almost unknown to most people, but they are an extremely important and dark part of American history. Whereas the Salem witch panic lasted just seven months, Connecticut’s spanned several decades. And the witch trials in Connecticut were proportionally far more deadly than Salem’s. In Salem, they executed 20 of the 180 women and men brought up on formal witchcraft charges, while in Connecticut 11 out of 34 were executed. In other words, eleven percent of those accused of witchcraft were put to death in Salem, and 32 percent of those accused in Connecticut were executed. So, you had a much better chance of being put to death for witchcraft in Connecticut than in Salem.
But why were people so afraid of witches in colonial times, and why did they even believe in them in the first place? I mean, let’s face it, the thought of women riding around on broomsticks, putting hexes on people, and having animals at their beck and call who did their dirty work seems like nothing more than a bunch of dark fairy tales. But keep in mind, the first settlers in America came from England, and in Europe approximately 40,000 people were put to death for witchcraft over a 200 year period.
Belief in witchcraft was common in England. In fact, ‘white witches’ and ‘white wizards’ known as cunning folk or blessing witches were well respected in many English communities. In an age where medicine was largely unknown or unavailable, practitioners of white witchcraft were often successful in healing the sick by using folk-remedies and herbs. White witches were also called upon to help identify enemies in the community through various methods of divination.
While white witches were credited with curing sick children and animals, ‘black’ witches were thought to inflict sickness and death. One function of a white witch was to protect the community from the evil doings of black witches. They did this through the use of dolls stuck with pins. The dolls were called poppets and the pins weren’t meant to actually harm the black witch. They were used to neutralize her spells and to protect the community from further harm.
The Puritans were fiercely religious, conservative, and intensely intolerant of other beliefs or religions. They also suffered many hardships in the New World including epidemics, starvation, death of livestock, hard winters, and Indian attacks. Witchcraft was often the scapegoat for these hardships because belief in witchcraft was as common as the belief in God. If you believed in God, then you had to believe in the devil; and people firmly believed that witchcraft was just one way that Satan wielded his power.
Today, a lot of evidence must be shown before someone is put on trial for a crime. But in colonial times, a single accusation of witchcraft was enough to get the ball rolling. Very little was known about medicine in the seventeenth-century, so witchcraft was often blamed for people getting sick or dying. Women were midwives, so if a mother or child died in childbirth, the midwife was often to blame, and sometimes she was accused of being a witch.
In colonial times, livestock was the most important possession a person could have. If livestock behaved oddly or died, it was thought that there had to be a reason. Sometimes it was blamed on witchcraft. During one Connecticut trial, it was said that a woman came into the yard of her neighbor. When asked what she wanted, the woman said that she just wanted to see their new calf. At the time, the calf was reported to have been secured to a heavy post that was driven into the ground, but after the woman left it somehow pulled the post from the ground and ruined a crop of corn. Because of this, the woman was accused of being a witch. Of course, any logical person would suppose that it wasn't her fault; most likely, the post just wasn’t secured deep enough in the ground. But this was the mindset of suspicious Puritan communities.
It’s one thing to be accused of being a witch when crops fail or animals go loose, but God help those with mental illness in colonial Connecticut. One of the accused had a habit of talking to herself. She was a feisty old woman, and probably not very nice. One of her neighbors testified that she once heard the old woman muttering to herself. When she asked her who she was talking to, the old woman snapped back, “I was talking to you”. Now, obviously this was a snarky reply meant to imply, “Mind your own business”, but it was taken as a sign that the ‘witch’ was attempting to put a curse on the woman. Today, when we read the details of her neighbors’ testimonies, it’s obvious that the old woman was mentally unstable or suffering from dementia. But back then, such behavior branded her as a witch.
Alse Young was the first person in Connecticut to be put to death for witchcraft. The second person to be convicted, and the first to confess, was Mary Johnson of Wethersfield.
Mary was working as a house servant in Hartford, Connecticut in 1646, where she was accused of theft. She moved to Wethersfield, where she also worked as a house servant, but in 1647 she was once again accused of stealing and she was whipped for her crime by the local minister. During her punishment, Johnson confessed that “a devil was wont to do her many services”. She also confessed to “uncleanness with men and Devils” and that she had murdered a child. She was convicted on December 7, 1648 for “familiarity with the Devil” and imprisoned in Hartford, Connecticut. While in prison awaiting her execution, it was discovered that she was pregnant. Her execution was delayed, and after the birth of her son she was hanged in June of 1650.
Why did Mary Johnson confess if she wasn’t actually a witch? Religion was so ingrained in people’s lives that any moral weakness was viewed as a sin. Women often confessed that they were tempted by Satan to do things that were considered morally wrong. Men, on the other hand, rarely aired their inner conflicts and guilty feelings.
In colonial times, women were sexually repressed. Today, a woman who has a healthy sexual appetite is considered perfectly normal, but Mary probably considered her sexual thoughts to be sinful and therefore worthy of punishment. When she confessed to “uncleanliness with men”, she was in all likelihood confessing to having sex outside of marriage. In colonial times, pre-marital sex was deemed a mortal sin, and adultery was often blamed on the devil’s influence.
As for Mary’s confession of murdering a child, it is likely that she felt responsible for the death of a child who was in her care, and that she considered it murder. Or, it’s possible that she had had a miscarriage and that she blamed herself for the child’s death.
Less than three years after Mary Johnson was put to death, the first husband-and-wife couple were accused of witchcraft, Wethersfield residents John Carrington and his wife Joan. Details of the accusations against the couple are scarce, but the indictment read: “Thou art indicted by the name of John Carrington of Wethersfield, carpenter, that not having the fear of God before thine eyes thou hast entertained familiarity with Satan, the great enemy of God and Mankind; and by his help has done works above the course of nature, according to the laws of God and the established laws of this commonwealth thou deservest to die.” The same indictment was handed down to his wife.
The only clues we can glean from the indictment is that the couple were accused of “not having the fear of God” and of doing “works above the course of nature”. This could have been as simple as not attending church services on a regular basis, and being blamed for their neighbor’s crops failing. Whatever the reason, the couple was found guilty of witchcraft on March 6, 1651, and they were hanged together in Hartford.
In 1664, Lydia Gilbert of Windsor, Connecticut was charged with witchcraft. The accusations against her were outlandish to say the least. In 1651, Lydia and her husband Thomas took in a boarder named Henry Stiles. Henry was Thomas’ employer, and Lydia also once kept house for him.
On November 3, 1651, Henry and a neighbor named Thomas Allyn were participating in training exercises with a group of militiamen. During the exercises, Allyn’s gun went off accidentally. The bullet hit Henry and killed him. A trial was held, and Allyn was found guilty of “homicide by misadventure”. He was fined 20 pounds and ordered not to bear arms for one year.
Although this seemed to be the end of the story, it wasn’t. After the trial, the people of the community continued to try to understand how such an accident could have occurred. Soon, rumors began to spread and Lydia Gilbert was accused of playing a part in Henry’s death. On March 25, 1654, a full three years after Henry’s accidental death, Lydia was accused by her neighbors of practicing witchcraft, and that she had used her evil powers to cause the musket of Thomas Allyn to discharge.
A trial was held, and a panel of jurors were assembled. Six of those on the panel were residents of Windsor who were well aware that Thomas Allyn had been convicted of accidentally killing Stiles, but Lydia was still found guilty. Though there are no written records that tell Lydia’s ultimate fate, most historians believe that she was hanged at Hartford. This is due to the fact that records show that shortly after her trial, her husband, Thomas Gilbert, moved to Glastonbury, Connecticut and quickly remarried.
We often hear of the witchcraft panic that swept across seventeenth-century New England, but what exactly is a panic? A panic is defined as a “number of linked cases forming a chain reaction”. By 1662, witchcraft accusations in Hartford had spread at an alarming rate and that year alone the witch hunting hysteria culminated in seven trials and four executions.
It all started on March 23, 1662 when 8-year-old Elizabeth Kelly died. She had been in good health until after spending a day with a neighbor, Goodwife Ayers also known as “Goody” Ayers. The next day, Ayers came to the house and shared a bowl of broth with the girl. That night the girl became sick, most likely with bronchial pneumonia, and her high fever made her delusional. She reportedly exclaimed, “Help me! Goodwife Ayres is upon me. She chokes me. She kneels on my belly. She will break my bowels. She pinches me. She will make me black and blue.” The little girl’s parents, John and Bethia Kelly, suspected that the devil was at work, and they became convinced that their daughter had been struck down by witchcraft at the hands of Goody Ayers.
The Kelly’s brought their concerns about Ayers to the town officials and she was summoned to the side of the dead girl who was laid out in her parents’ home. The corpse was examined, and it was found that there were bruises on her shoulders and upper arms. These bruises seemed to correspond to the child’s ravings when she said that Goody Ayers “willed me me black and blue”. According to reports, during the examination of the body, a red spot appeared on the dead child’s cheek nearest to where Ayers was standing. Of course, this was taken as a sign of Ayers being a witch.
The local magistrates summoned physician Bray Rossiter to examine the body. Because of the distance he had to travel, it took several days for the autopsy to take place. Onhand was an assistant and six witnesses. The doctor concluded that Elizabeth had not died of natural causes. He stated that the body was pliable without any of the stiffness that should have been present. He reported that the girl’s throat contained a large amount of blood, and it was stiff and hard. In his medical report, he concluded that Elizabeth Kelly had suffered “unnatural harm”. Hartford residents interpreted this to mean that Goody Ayers was a witch.
For whatever reason, Goody was not immediately imprisoned, so she and her husband William wasted no time in skipping town to avoid a certain death sentence. They abandoned their eight-year-old son and left behind all of their possessions. The couple most likely fled to New York or Rhode Island since neither state had an extradition treaty with Connecticut.
Around this same time a Hartford resident named Ann Cole began to behave strangely. Although she had always been a pious woman, she began convulsing and spewing curses and blasphemy. According to one account Ann “had taken with strange fits wherein she--or rather the devil, as ‘tis judged made use of her lips--held a discourse for a considerable time.” But Ann wasn’t accused of being a witch; she claimed that she was under the spell of her neighbor, Rebecca Greensmith.
Now, the Greensmiths were not well liked by the townspeople. Rebecca was described by her minister, Reverend John Whiting, as being “lewd, ignorant and considerably aged”. Nathaniel Greensmith wasn’t well liked either. He had had several run-ins with the law. He was accused of stealing a hoe, of stealing one-and-a-half bushels of wheat, of lying in court, and of battery.
Based solely on Ann Cole’s accusations, Rebecca Greensmith was charged with witchcraft and thrown into prison. Ann also gave the names of other people in town who she said were bewitching her. Soon, the accused women began to accuse other women of the town of being the real witches.
In January, 1663, Rebecca Greensmith confessed in court to having “familiarity with the devil”. Based on her testimony and behavior in court, the woman was clearly mentally unstable. Among other things, she said that at Christmas she and the devil had “a merry meeting” to form a covenant. Greensmith said that she met in the woods with seven other witches who would often come in the form of cats, crows, or other animals. These included Goody Ayers, Mary Sanford, and Elizabeth Seager. She also said that the devil came out of the woods in the form of a deer that skipped around her.
Rebecca also confessed that her husband Nathaniel was involved in witchcraft, and that strange animals or familiars would follow him about in the woods. She claimed that Nathaniel possessed impossible strength; that he could easily place large logs on his wagon, a job that would normally require help from several men. At the trial, neighbors testified that they saw Elizabeth Seager, one of the women Rebecca accused of also being a witch, dancing with other women in the woods at night, and that they were cooking something mysterious in a large black kettle.
Although Rebecca Greensmith confessed to being a witch in court, her husband continued to protest his innocence. But it was no use. Because Rebecca had openly confessed to being a witch, everything she said at the trial was considered to be true. On January 25, 1663, Rebecca and Nathaniel Greensmith were both executed by hanging. Joining them at the Hartford gallows that day was Mary Barnes of Farmington who had also been found guilty of witchcraft. A few days later, Mary Sanford was sent to the gallows. After the executions, Ann Cole was reportedly “restored to health” which only fueled the belief in the community that witchcraft had been the root cause of her malady.
Elizabeth Seager--the woman Rebecca Greensmith accused of being a witch--was also put on trial that same year. She was indicted for witchcraft, blasphemy, and adultery. She pleaded not-guilty to all of the accusations. During the inquiry a neighbor testified:
“I saw this woman, Elizabeth Seager, in the woods with three more women, and with them I saw two black creatures like two Indians but taller. I saw likewise a kettle there over a fire. I saw the women dance around these black creatures. I looked up at the women and smiled at them. One of the women saw me and said, “Look who is yonder!” and then they ran away up the hill. I stood still and the black things came towards me and then I turned to come away.” The witness admitted that he never actually saw the women’s faces, but testified that “I knew the persons by their habits or clothes, having observed such clothes on them not long before.”
Elizabeth was convicted of witchcraft and adultery in 1665 and she was sent to prison to await execution. Luckily, she was eventually set free “on the grounds that the jury’s decision to convict was legally indefensible. The jurymen were furious, and those who believed that Elizabeth Seager was a witch, of whom there were many, made it clear that they felt betrayed.” (*) After her release, the couple and their three children moved to Rhode Island.
The four executions in 1663 of suspected witches in Hartford were to be Connecticut’s last. Although another witch panic broke out in Fairfield in 1692, only two of the six accused went to trial, and neither were put to death.
Connecticut held its final witch trial in 1697, fifty years after Alse Young’s execution. The trial occurred in Wallingford where Winifred Benham and her teenaged daughter were accused of witchcraft to cause physical harm to three children of prominent Wallingford families. They were also accused of killing another child by causing her to have ‘spots’ on her body. We now know that the child most likely died of measles. The jury returned a verdict of “not proven” and the case was dismissed.
People continued to accuse their neighbors and relatives of being witches, but these accusations usually ended up with the accused suing for slander, and winning. In 1750 witchcraft was finally taken off of the list of capital offenses in Connecticut.
The executions for witchcraft don’t seem real, do they? Reading about the trials and executions may be disturbing, but because it happened so long ago it almost feels like we’re reading a work of fiction. These poor, innocent men and women don’t seem like real people when we read about them -- but they were. It was reported that as one woman was led to the gallows, she broke free and wrapped her arms around a large boulder, pleading for her life. As she was forcibly dragged away, the skin on her fingers were ripped off leaving bloody trails on the stone. The poor woman continued to cry and plead for her life right up until she dropped through the gallows floor to her death. Just imagine how devastating it must have been to the spouses and children of those executed for witchcraft. I’m sure that husbands fought tooth and nail for their accused wives, trying to talk some sense to the court, but ultimately failing and being forced to watch them hanged for no reason.
In October 2012, descendants of those executed for witchcraft petitioned the Connecticut government to posthumously pardon the victims, but the motion was not passed.
On February 6, 2017, the town of Windsor unanimously passed a resolution to symbolically clear the names of the town's two victims, Alse Young and Lydia Gilbert. Memorial services were held for the victims of the witch trials in Windsor in June of 2017. The service marked the 370th anniversary of Alse Young's execution.
Please remember in your prayers the eleven Connecticut residents who were unjustly executed as witches so long ago: Alyse Young (1647), Mary Johnson (1648), Joan Carrington (1651), John Carrington (1651), Goody Basset (1651), Goody Knapp (1653), Lydia Gilbert (1654), Mary Sanford (1662), Rebecca Greensmith (1662), Nathaniel Greensmith (1662), and Mary Barnes (1662)
The European Witch Hunt (book)