by Sophia Mego
The History of Witch Trials in Colonial Hartford
Connecticut, known for its many historical landmarks, is home to a unique colonial history, one being the first and only colony to establish its own charter. However, a less known fact about its history is the infamous Hartford Witch Trials – the very first one that predated the notorious witch trials of Salem, Massachusetts.
The History of Witch Accusations
The accusations of witches became popular throughout the mid-1600s beginning with Europe’s environmental crisis. The failure to fix the disrupted agricultural production led to political unrest. Communities lacked an explanation and as a result, the demonization of other groups occurred. Witch trials were introduced with a new type of fear lingering the New World.
The Very First Accused Witch in America
Alse Younges, Hartford county resident from Windsor, CT was accused of being a witch in 1647. However, Younges’ life details, her trial, and the consequence of her accusation are unknown. She is assumed to be the wife or daughter of John Younges but there is no concrete evidence. It was not until 1904 when historians found a statement in Windsor’s second town clerk’s diary, Matthew Grant, reading: “May 26, 47Alse Younges was Hanged.”
The Hartford Witch Panic
The examination of a witch was classified under a strict document written by William Jones, governor of Connecticut from 1692 – 1698. The document stated things such as paying close attention to fellow witches who “give testimony in his examination or death that such a person is a witch” and that “notorious defamation by a common report of the people is a ground of suspicion” (Tolminson 24). Connecticut’s panic began with the first documented witch trial of Goody Ayres. Elizabeth Kelly of Hartford and neighbor of Goody Ayres, claimed to have been bewitched by her. Upon her encounter with Ayres, Elizabeth fell sick and awakened throughout the night crying for help against Goodwife Ayres. Days had gone by and Elizabeth’s cries continued until she passed away. Shortly after her death, a “reddish tawny spot had suddenly appeared on the child’s cheek next to the side where Goody Ayres had stood” (Tolminson 85). According to Tolminson, although illness and mischief were considered grounds for suspicions, it did not necessarily lead to convicting someone of witchcraft as this extract of the examination of a witch reads:
[I]f after curses and threats, mischief follow or if a sick person like to die take it on his death that such a one has bewitched him, these are strong grounds of suspicion for strict examination, but not sufficient for convictions” (Tolminson 90).
Regardless, the accusation of Goody Ayres provoked intense fear amongst Connecticut and prompted the Ayres couple to flee.
After a witch had been accused, they were brought to trial and if found guilty:
[T]he accused would be ‘cross bound,’ right hand to left toe and left hand to right toe. Then the accused was laid on the surface of the water in a shallow pond to see if he or she would float. One theory was that the witch, having made a covenant with the devil, had renounced baptism and therefore was rejected by the pure element water (Tolminson 90).
In order to test this theory, women accused were dropped into a pond for a ‘water test’; if they floated, they were witches, if they sank, they were human. The accuracy of this theory was questionable therefore, hanging was the primary execution in Connecticut.
Goody Ayres’ trial set the stage for witch accusations to come. With execution strategies like the water test and hanging, eleven people in total were accused of witchcraft in Hartford’s witch panic; four of which were executed. But, there were also those who escaped or survived the ordeal: “Judith Varlet, Goody Ayres, Andrew Sanford, James Wakeley, and Elizabeth Seager, all from Hartford” (Boynton 49).
The End of Fear
Katherine Harrison’s trial marked the beginning of an end of Connecticut’s witch scare. Katherine was a housewife married to farmer and trader, John; together, they had three daughters. Unfortunately, his life was short lived and died in 1666, leaving Katherine inheriting his estate and fortunes he left for his daughters. Jealous neighbors began accusing her of ‘wicked’ secrets and filing lawsuits against her. One neighbor wrote the court saying that seven or eight years earlier, Katherine had stolen milk from his cows, but when he attempted to stop her, an invisible force held him stiff until Katherine was gone (Boynton 74).
Catherine explained to the court that many of her neighbors were torturing her animals and property; one of her cows was beaten until two ribs were broken, her crops destroyed, and two of her oxen were assaulted. At the same time, her neighbors were “working behind her back to collect written depositions that would accuse her of witchcraft” (Boynton 74). Harrison pleaded not guilty and her trial was placed on hold. Upon Governor Winthrop Jr.’s return, he was uncomfortable sentencing a woman to death. Winthrop was a man who studied alchemy and used science and reason – new to this time period. He asked Harrison to write a confession responding to every accusation made against her. The court reviewed her statements and the case was dismissed after she was found not guilty of the witch accusations. After Katherine Harrison’s trial, cases of witchcraft eventually stopped in Connecticut. Unfortunately, witch panic would continue in the neighboring colony of Massachusetts, where the infamous Salem Witch Trials occurred between 1692 and 1693.
“Ayres: 1662 Mar 31” (1662). Brown Archival & Manuscript Collections Online. Brown Digital Repository. Brown University Library. https://repository.library.brown.edu/studio/item/bdr:211562/
Boynton, Cynthia Wolfe. Connecticut Witch Trials: The First Panic in the New World. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2014.
Connecticut’s Old State House Facebook Page, https://www.facebook.com/pg/CTOldStateHouse/photos/
Grant, Matthew (Diary). “A list of persons who were hanged, page 95b.” Connecticut State Library, ca. 1637-1654. http://cslib.cdmhost.com/digital/collection/p15019coll14/id/307
Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. “A Map of the Colonies of Connecticut and Rhode Island, Divided into Counties & Townships, from the Best Authorities”. The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1758. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/4cce9160-3276-0134-6cda-00505686a51c
Tolminson, R.G. Witchcraft Prosecution: Chasing the Devil in Connecticut. Rockland, ME: Picton Press, 2012.
Woodward, Walter W. “New England’s Other Witch-Hunt: The Hartford Witch-Hunt of the 1660s and Changing Patterns in Witchcraft Prosecution.” OAH Magazine of History 17, no. 4 (2003): 16-20. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25163616
Wyllis, Samuel (Papers), 1663-1728. Connecticut State Library Online. http://cslib.cdmhost.com/digital/collection/p15019coll10
For more information:
Norman-Eady, Sandra and Jennifer Bernier. “Connecticut Witch Trials and Posthumous Pardons”. Connecticut State Library, 2006. https://www.cga.ct.gov/2006/rpt/2006-R-0718.htm
“Case of Katherin Harrison (Katherine Harrison). Testimony of Thomas Waples (Thomas Whaples) 1668 Aug. 7” (1668). Connecticut State Library, State Archives, RG 000, Classified Archives, Samuel Wyllys papers, call no. 974.6 fW97. http://cslib.cdmhost.com/digital/collection/p15019coll10/id/149/rec/3