Effed Up History: The Connecticut Witch Trials
Hello history nerds and historians!
Welcome to the first official segment of Effed Up History. I’ve embedded the youtube and podcast link above, but for anyone who wants to read about this thrilling subject, you’ve come to the right place. So sit back, relax, and practice your “Oh, good gods what the fuck” faces. You can look at the youtube video above to see what mine looked like while researching this story.
Now, I bet you might be thinking, Krystina, did you say the CONNECTICUT witch trials? I never knew there was such a thing as the Connecticut Witch Trials.
But that’s OKAY. I didn’t either until about a year and a half ago and found that there are even people in Connecticut who didn’t know this was a thing… like Benjamin Trumbill, the author of the 1818 book, The Complete History of Connecticut who said that there was never a witch trial to happen in Connecticut ever. Which obviously isn’t the case because I’m sitting here writing about it and you’re sitting wherever you are reading about it.
But it isn’t completely his fault. The documentation of the Connecticut Witch Trials is really sparse and, as we will see the people who were supposed to document all of this… weren’t very good at their job. Not like Salem.
Those bitches had their shit together when it came to documenting what happened. I mean, everyone knows about Salem. Happened in spring of 1692. Lasted about 7 months. And during that time over 200 people were accused of being a witch. Of those people, 25 died in total: 19 were hanged, 5 died in jail, and one man was crushed to death when they were trying to press him for information and a confession.
The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 has become iconic to not only American history but World history. While witch trials have been happening for hundreds, if not thousands of years, Salem was so explosive that it was surprising. And crazy. Wow, how could something like this happen and thank the Gods it was an isolated incident in American history,
Except for the fact that it wasn’t.
The Beginning of the Witch Trials and those lovely not at all extreme Puritans…
The first mass witch trials in America happened in Connecticut beginning in the mid 1600s. During that time, 34 people were accused and 11 of them were executed. Now, I know that that doesn’t seem like a lot in the grand historical context what with all the massacres and genocides. But, when compared to the iconic and crazy Salem, over half of the amount executed. And to further compare with Salem: in Salem, you had a 1 in 10 chance of being executed if you were accused. In Connecticut, it was 1 in 3.
Honestly, I’d much rather take my chances in Salem.
To give a little bit of a background on the accusers and accused in both Connecticut and Massachusetts, we can look first to the Puritans who settled New England in 1620. Puritans, a more extreme faction of Christianity, came to the American colonies to escape religious persecution only to then become the persecutors themselves.
In Puritanical New England, it was literally illegal to practice anything other than Puritanism. Like Mary Wright, who in 1660 was accused of being a witch, which she was later acquitted of. However, she was also accused of being a Quaker and was later convicted of this and banished from the colony completely.
Puritans followed the bible literally. So in turn, many of the reasons that people were accused had to do with the bible. This included reasonings like, if you had a proud look, a lying tongue, a heart that devised wicked deeds, and feet that ran swiftly towards mischief. Other reasons that didn’t have to directly do with the bible included if two people accused you, if you got angry when people were questioning you, or if something weird happened that you may have been involved with or were in the general vicinity of possibly.
This was especially true if you were an outspoken, middle aged woman of low financial standing…. But those in higher social standings were also often accused.
So you pretty much just couldn’t win.
And this is not to say that there weren’t also men that were accused of being witches. But it was mostly women. Or husbands of women who were accused.
Testing for Witchcraft (read: how it was pretty much impossible to not be convicted)
Now, to test these accused witches, investigators used a variety of different methods. Often the first one was just making the accused sit in a room for 24 hours without access to food, water, or toilet to see if a familiar would come and suckle from their witch teats. If there were no witch teats visible for these familiars, investigators would strip down the accused and shave off all their hair to see if they could find the hidden ones. If they were still invisible, the investigators would start poking them with knives, needles, and sharp pins to encourage them to appear.
Another method would to be to take a dull knife and run it along the arm of the accused. If they didn’t bleed they were a witch. Because, I don’t know about you but literally any time I use a butter knife, I need stitches.
The last method that I’m going to write about is probably one of the most popular and most well depicted in popular culture: the water test. This is when they would strap the accused to a chair and throw them in a body of running water. If they floated, the water was rejecting them and they were a WITCH. If they sank, then they were deemed innocent…. But probably also dead because of that pesky inability to breathe under water.
The first person to be accused of witchcraft in the American colonies was a woman named Grace Dutch, in the early 1600s. All of the sources I’ve found so far just say “16??” when it comes to the date so it was some time after 1620 but before 1647. After Grace there were a few people who were accused but none went through the whole trial to be convicted and executed.
The First Executions with barely an explanation
Until May 26, 1647 when Alse Young was hanged for being a witch.
For those of you, like me, that are terrible at math: that’s FOURTY FIVE YEARS before Salem. We know this from a note written by the first governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, who wrote, “One Alse Young of Windsor arraigned and executed for a witch.” This is later confirmed by a clerk, Matthew Grant who wrote, “Alse Young was hanged.”
And that’s it.
That’s all we know.
There are no details about her trial. There’s no background info about what led up to her accusation. There’s not even a lot of information about her life. She may have been married to a man named John Young because there are land records that kind of match up during that time. Some historians think that they had a daughter also named Alice who, in one account that I read, said that she was later accused of being a witch in Massachusetts, but I couldn’t find anything about that. Historians also think that there was an especially deadly flu season that year that the people in Connecticut blamed her for. Which is fine. It’s all fine. We don’t need to know why a woman was executed. It’s fine. I’m fine.
The next person to be executed for witchcraft, is the first that actually confessed to being a witch. She gets a single sentence in the Connecticut records that states, “the jury finds the bill of indictment against Mary Johnson that by her owne confession shee is guilty of familiarity with the devil.” And that’s all.
But we can thank Cotton Mather of later Salem Witch Trial fame. He wrote more about her and her trial. Mary claimed that the devil did her many services like cleaning out ashes from the fire place and driving the hogs out to the field. Who knew the devil was so handy with household chores?
But her main confession was that she murdered a child and was “unclean with men and devils.” Now while this seems cryptic and supernatural, this most likely meant that she got pregnant out of wedlock and either had a miscarriage or terminated the pregnancy. But because of her extreme religious beliefs, she interpreted this to be the greatest of sins and was under the influence of the devil. She was executed in 1648.
Next up we have the first of seven couples to be accused and the first of two to be executed. Their names are John and Joan Carrington. They were charged with “familiarity with Satan” and “works above the course of nature” whatever the fuck that means. They were executed in 1651 but not much more is known about them.
Next up we have Goody Basset who we know even less about because, like Alse, there are no records other than that she was executed in 1651. Although, apparently, she told investigators and magistrates that there was another witch in town.
This is what lead to Goody Knapp getting accused. According to court records, she had witch teats and marks all over her body and was executed in 1653.
Next up we have Lydia Golbert who was probably executed as a witch? Literally the sources that I read says “probably witchcraft.”
Elizabeth Kelley: devils, autopsies, and super hot witch broth, OH MY! ~or~ Super wonderful examples of parenting that you should totally implement immediately
After these first seven deaths, it was pretty quiet for a few years until 1662 when an eight year old girl named, Elizabeth Kelly, died suddenly. And the cause?
Which lead to what is known as the Hartford Witch Panic of 1662.
Unlike pretty much everything else that has to do with this story, her story is actually pretty well documented but it is all told by her father so… how reliable is that really?
But allegedly, a woman named Judith Ayers, also known as “Goodwife Ayers” or “Goody Ayers”–because “Goody” is the puritan version of “Mrs”– required Elizabeth to drink hot broth. Later that night, Elizabeth started experiencing horrible stomach cramps so her parents gave her some angelica root for her gastrointestinal issues and went to bed.
Later that night, Elizabeth sat up and screamed, “Father! Father! Help me, help me! Goodwife Ayers 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. Oh father, will you not help me?”
Her father, upon hearing her screams, told her to be quiet and go back to bed so that she did not disturb her mother. Great parenting. Surprisingly this wonderful example of parenting only calmed her for a little while and she started again later screaming out, “She torments me. She pricks me with pins. She will kill me. Oh father, set on the great furnace and scald her. Get the broad axe and cut off her head. If you cannot give me the broad axe, get the narrow one and chop off her head.”
Because, while they may have not been flexible in their beliefs and religious toleration, puritans were flexible with how they committed their beheadings and decapitations.
Apparently, Judith came to visit Elizabeth the next day to see if she was alright and to ask her why she was pinning all of this on her. She also told her that if she just shut the fuck up about it, she would buy her some beautiful lace and that was all that was needed to calm her down.
But later that night, Elizabeth began calling out again and asked for Goody Ayers to be punished then screamed loudly, “Goody Ayers, she chokes me.”
In addition to starting this panic, she was also the first autopsy performed in Connecticut and the first in the colonies to be performed in association with a witch trial. This was mainly because her father refused to bury her until he knew for sure if it was due to witchcraft or not. So her autopsy was carried out five days after her death and there were significant supernatural findings…
That are super similar to things that happen naturally when a body is left decomposing and exposed to the elements for five days (there were no refrigerated morgues in 17th century Connecticut, you know.)
A month later, Judith Ayers was officially accused and exclaimed, “this will take away my life.”
During her trial, the main evidence was a story told by her neighbors. They claimed that Judith had told them this story about how years before there was a man who courted her in London and they set up a date to meet in the park. But when she looked down, cloven hooves were where feet should be and she stood him up. When he found out he was so angry that he tore up an iron fence.
This was enough to convict her.
However, she was not executed. She fled to Rhode Island with her husband who was accused of stealing livestock, leaving their two children, aged five and eight, behind.
200 years later, chief medical examiner H. Wayner Carver II, which is a badass name, reviewed the case and came to the conclusion that Elizabeth’s affliction was not witchcraft but a mixture of pneumonia and sepsis which caused her delirium and later death.
But I still like to think it was the super hot witch broth.
Hartford Witch Panic, continued and the most petty revenge of this whole story
While Judith was not executed for her conviction, there were four other people who were.
The first is Mary Sanford who, surprise, we know very little about.
The next are the second couple to be executed in Connecticut for the conviction of witchcraft, Nathaniel and Rebecca Greensmith. This is also the most incredibly petty revenge that I’ve ever read about.
Rebecca and Nathaniel were both accused but Nathaniel was acquitted and Rebecca was convicted. While in jail, she decided instead of trying to fight it, knowing that her chances were slim, she embraced it and confessed. She said that she was in fact guilty and often went off and danced and had sexual relations with the devil BUT she had not yet given the devil her soul because she was waiting until Christmas. BUT she was not alone when she was doing all this with the devil. Her husband was with her the whole time and did everything that she did, too. She also stated that she constantly saw small unnatural creatures around him and he was able to cut wood that no man should be able to cut on his own.
When Nathaniel heard about this, he confronted her in prison and asked her to recant her statements. He promised her that if she did, he would continue to take care of her two teenage children from her previous marriage and she could die with happy thoughts knowing that they would be taken care of.
Rebecca told the investigators just that but twisted his exact words in such a way that there was no other conclusion that they could come to other than that he was also a witch and they were executed together in 1662.
Next we have Mary Barnes who was a servant who may have been named by someone else trying to escape their own execution. She was executed in 1663 but was the last person to be executed during this panic and also the last to be executed in Connecticut period.
This elimination of executions was largely due to the efforts of John Winthrop, Jr.
John Winthrop, Jr.: Connecticut Governor, Philanthropist, and WITCH?!!!!!
John Winthrop, Jr. was the eldest son of the first governor of Massachusetts also named John Winthrop and mentioned above in association with Alse Young. Perhaps seeing this made him the way he was.
He was the governor of Connecticut in 1657 and again in 1659-1676. He was widely renowned for his “first hand knowledge of natural magical practices associated with alchemy” which is an early chemistry where alchemists attempted to transform organic compounds to precious stones and metals.
It was also said that he was an astronomer and was known for his uncanny healing abilities. It was said that he could cure someone of an illness that he had never seen before with remedies he had never used before.
He spoke out to his constituents that he believed that there WERE actually witches in Connecticut but that there was a distinction between natural magic and diabolical magic and Puritans were way too quick to jump to the Satan argument.
And that’s because HE WAS A FUCKING WITCH. Witchcraft is not about worshipping the devil and sacrificing babies and dancing naked under the full moon while giving your soul to Satan. I mean, there are people that do that but they are definitely in the minority. Real witchcraft is working with herbs or the cosmos and healing and working with energy. So… pretty much everything that Winthrop did.
He also argued that spectral evidence, like what we saw (or rather didn’t see) with Elizabeth Kelly, was no longer sufficient evidence and there needed to be concrete proof and multiple people stating that they personally witnessed the same thing. This completely changed how witch trials were won and led to significantly less convictions and no more executions in association with witchcraft.
In fact, during the whole Hartford Witch Trial panic of 1662 and 1663, Winthrop was in England fighting for a charter to separate Connecticut from Massachusetts as its own separate colony.
The hysteria died down a lot until 1692 (which is just a terrible years for witches in general).
The OTHER Witch Trials of 1692: Seizures, Dancing Cats, and Floating like a Fucking Cork
In 1692, a 17-year-old French servant named Catherine Branch was picking herbs in the field when she started feeling a prickling in her chest which were followed by convulsions and swallowing her tongue. Which I know sounds a lot like epilepsy but it is NOT, it was definitely witchcraft.
Then she began having visions. First she saw cats talking to her, inviting her to banquets where they would shower her with gifts and if she did not come, they would throw rats at her.
Then she started seeing a woman in a silk hood and blue ribbon standing outside which later became an old hag that wore a homespun wool cloak with two firebrands on her forehead. Then they started becoming women from the town. Which led to multiple women being accused.
Two of the main women that were accused were Mercy Disborough and Elizabeth Clawson. The reason why they are so well accounted is because they were both subjected to the water test.
Mercy actually asked to do the water test because she was so sure that she would sink because she was innocent and, even if she drowned, she would be absolved of any sins. But when they put her in the water, she floated like a fucking cork. Even when they tried to push her under the water she still popped right back up.
Elizabeth also floated and was found to have multiple witch teats and marks all over her body including a one inch growth by her “nether lips.”
However, Elizabeth was so well loved that, even though there were many tell tale signs that pointed to her guilt, 76 people from the town came and spoke in her defense and she was acquitted.
But, there was no mercy for Mercy and she was convicted. But she received a stay of execution and was later pardoned.
The Final Witch Trial of Connecticut: Winifred, Winifred, and a Shot to the Face
The final witch trial in Connecticut happened in August of 1697 when Winifred Benham and her daughter Winifred Benham were both accused. This was the third time that the elder Winifred was accused and the family was so over it that Winifred’s husband threatened to shoot the accuser in the face with two bullets.
However, all evidence was deemed spectral and speculative and the case was dismissed.
Now this was not the last witch accusation to happen in Connecticut but it was the last that was brought to trial.
In 1750, witchcraft was removed from the laws as a capital offense entirely. The conversation that led to this decision was not well documented but, after Salem, witch trials in general put a really bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Salem was regarded as a “miserable toil” and a “great noise” and no one wanted to be associated with them.
That concludes the Connecticut Witch Trials. Thanks so much for reading.
If you have any stories about history or mythology that you’d be interested in seeing me discuss, please reach out. On the “Contact” page there is a widget to make a recommendation.
And remember, friends, history may be watching. So don’t fuck it up.