Witches in Connecticut
First to die
The first recorded execution for the crime of witchcraft in all of North America took place in Connecticut, fifty five years before the now famous Salem hysteria. The date was May 26, 1647. What little is known about the momentous event comes from two small, obscure diary entries:
John Winthrop, Jr., governor of Connecticut Colony, recorded in his journal :One ________of Windsor arraigned and executed at Hartford for a witch.” Apparently, Winthrop did not know the name of the unfortunate woman’s name, and for 200 years, her identity remained a mystery.
Finally, in 1904, a researcher working in Windsor came across the following terse notation scribbled inside the cover of the diary of then town clerk Matthew Grant: “May 26,47 Alse Young was hanged.” Little additional information about Alse’s (Alice’s) life has ever been discovered. Windsor town records indicate that she was middle aged, probably married to John Young, a land owner, and the couple had one child. Their daughter, Alice Young Beaman, was herself accused in Springfield, Massachusetts, thirty years after her mother’s death.
Mary Johnson, Wethersfield, 1648.
The next unhappy victim of society’s witchcraft delusions was a servant, Mary Johnson, who resided in the home of employer. Mary’s troubles appear to have begun in 1646, when she was convicted of theft and publicly whipped, probably at Hartford. This incident was repeated only a month later in Wethersfield.
On December 7, 1648, a jury indicted Mary Johnson for familiarity with the “Deuill”. Under pressure from minister Samuel Stone, in the first recorded confession of witchcraft in the colonies, Mary fully described her crimes. Cotton Mather wrote soon afterward that “her confession was attended with such convictive circumstances that it could not be slighted.”
Mary’s confession is an odd one. She said, “A devil was sont to do me many services”. When her master, for instance, chastised her for not carrying out the ashes, “a Devil did clear the Hearth for me afterwards.” When her master sent her “into the Field to drive out the Hogs that used to break into it, a Devil would scowre them out, and make her laugh to see how he feazed ’em about.” Mary then confessed that “she was guilty of the Murder of a child, and that she had been guilty of Uncleanness with Men and Devils.” For some reason, she was never indicted for murder or fornication. The charge of familiarity with the devil stuck, however, and on the strength of her own admissions, she was sentenced to death. For several months before her execution, she was imprisoned in Hartford, under the care of the jailer. She gave birth to son before her hanging, so evidently, her confession of “uncleanness with Men”, or at least a man, was true. It is not clear whether the death sentence was postponed due to pregnancy, but this circumstance did often occur under these circumstances. The jailer’s son, Nathaniel, offered to bring up Mary’s child and educate him, which the court sanctioned. It is said that before she died, under the counseling of Reverend Stone, Mary Johnson repented of her evil ways.
The jailer was paid six pounds, ten shillings for twenty four weeks of services, ending June 6, 1650, which is assumed to be the execution date. According to Mather, Mary died “in a frame extremely to the satisfaction of them that were spectators of it”.
John and Joan Carrington, Wethersfield, 1651
The very next year, John Carrington had the distinction of being the first man to be executed as a witch. At 49 years of age, John was a carpenter, and one of the poorest men in Wethersfield. Prior to this incident, he had been fined for bartering a gun with an Indian. His second wife, Joan, already had a reputation as a witch.
The circumstances of their case are frustratingly sketchy. Accused of “entertaining familiarity with Satan and by his help doing works above the course of nature”, both husband and wife were tried and found guilty in March, 1651, and shortly thereafter, both were hanged.
Lydia Gilbert, Windsor, 1653
Picture a brisk autumn day, Windsor green, during militia training exercises. Suddenly, there is a fatal accident. Thomas Allen, a young recruit, cocks his musket and inadvertently knocks it against a tree. It fires, mortally wounding Henry Stiles, an older man. Allen is tried, found guilty of homicide by misadventure, and fined for his neglect and carelessness. But this is not the end of the matter.
As it happened, Stiles, the dead militia man, had been boarding at the home of Lydia Gilbert, and there is some evidence suggesting that she owed him some money. Other than this unsubstantiated possibility, nothing is known about the specific events that lead to her prosecution. Nevertheless, in 1653, Lydia Gilbert was indicted for having, by witchcraft, caused Thomas Allen’s gun to off on that fateful training day. She was gound guilty and hanged the following year. During this affair, the town minister preached a sermon in which he averred that the townspeople en masse were responsible for the influence of Satan in their midst, particularly for neglecting their daily duties, spending too much time in taverns, and “nightwalking”.
Elizabeth Godwin, New Haven, 1655
Elizabeth Godwin was a widow who resided at the home of Stephen Goodyear, deputy governor of New Haven Colony. Goodyear was a relative who had inherited the estate of Elizabeth’s family because their were no other male heirs, making it likely that she was now financially dependent upon him.
After minister John Davenport preached that “a forward, discontented fromae of mind is a subject fitting for the devill to work upon,” several of her neighbors decided that Elizabeth was behaving in such a spirit. The initial accusation took place in 1653. Goodyear claimed that she had flung herself out of the room when he was talking to her about a particular Bible passage. Elizabeth grew angry, he charged, ranting that “she liked it not but it was against her.” She also cast him a “fierce look” that caused him nearly to faint.
Others had overheard Goody Godwin expressing annoyance that those suspected of witchcraft were not permitted to enter church, asking why people so enjoyed provoking them. The accusations grew more and more malicious. Several people said that Elizabeth had lain with the devil and that Hobbomock was now her husband. (Hobbomock was the Algonquin name for the spirit of disembodied souls. Natives and Africans were associated with magic and witchcraft in the Puritan mind.)
Elizabeth was arrested, but, not one to suffer in meek silence, she demanded a hearing to clear her name – a sure sign that she was associating with Satan – and for the time being, was released.
Once a suspect, always a suspect, and within two years, the rumors resurfaced. This time, people whispered that Goody Godwin was causing miscarriages, and that she knew things that no normal woman could know. Mrs. Atwater claimed that Elizabeth knew she had figs in her pocket without her telling her, and that she had eaten pease porridge for dinner. Mrs. Ball charged that Elizabeth had asked her for some buttermilk, and when told to be gone, she retorted, “What will you save it for but your pigs? It will do them no good.” Thereafter, Goody Ball could churn no butter. Elizabeth was also alleged to bewitch cattle, sheep, and chickens. When Goodwife Thorpe would not sell her a chicken, Elizabeth went away, but, one by one, all the chickens on the Thorpe farm died.
But after all was said and done, Elizabeth Godwin was one of the lucky ones. In spite of all this damning evidence, the judges ruled that it was not sufficient to warrant depriving her of life. She was released on condition that she go to live with one Thomas Johnson and stay away from others. She was also required to post fifty pounds to secure her good behavior in the future. Thomas Johnson must have been a courageous man!
Goodwives Basset, Knapp, and Staples, Fairfield, 1651-53
Fairfield’s records list in spare language, the 1651 execution of Goodwife Bassett of Stratford. Her first name is not noted, nor are there any details about the circumstances of her case. Judging from other documents, it can be inferred that, before dying, Goody Bassett named another witch, active in Fairfield.
In 1653, the records, list the execution of Goodwife Knapp – again there is no given name, and no indication of why or what she did. This woman is probably the witch to whom Goody Bassett had referred. After her conviction, numerous townsfolk visited Goody Knapp, urging her to do as Mrs. Bassett had, and help “discover” other witches. Initially, Mrs. Knapp insisted that she must avoid wronging anyone. Under the constant pressure, however, she began to relent. “The truth is you would have me say that Goody Staples is a witch. I know nothing by Goody Staples and I hope she is an honest woman.” The other goodwives threw up their hands. “Did you hear us name Goody Staples’ name since we came here?” Goody Knapp retorted, “You hold your tongue. You do not know what I know. There is another woman in town who is a sitch and will be hanged within a twelve month.”
After she had been executed, among the group of women who examined Goody Knapp’s corpse for witch marks was none other than Mary Staples. (A witch mark, also known as a devil’s mark or witch’s teat, was a supposed mark on the body indicating that the woman was a witch. Witches’ marks commonly included moles, scars, birthmarks, or superfluous “nipples”. Those under suspicion were usually carefully scrutinized over their entire bodies for witches’ marks, which were thought to indicate a completed pact with Satan). After the examination, Goody Staples, a brave but foolhardy woman, said, “If these be the marks of a witch, I am one. These be no witch’s teats, but such as myself have, and other women, and so have you if you search yourself.” The others, deeply shocked, rebuked Mary, who dropped the issue and went home.
Mary Staples must have realized the trouble she was in. Several years earlier, a neighbor, Roger Ludlow, had sued Mary’s husband for slander, and won the suit. In 1654, Ludlow told people that Mary Staples made a trade of lying and was probably a witch. Now her husband sued Ludlow for slander. At this hearing, Ludlow called witnesses to prove that Goody Knapp had come down from the ladder at her hanging and told him that Goody Staples was a witch. Others testified that Mary had repeatedly questioned whether Knapp’s conviction was properly obtained. Some reported that Mary had told them that she did not believe that Knapp was a witch and doubted there were witches at all. Hester Ward testified that Goody Knapp had confided that Mary possessed two little “Indian Gods” that were going to make her rich.
In the face of such explicit and damning testimony, the case of Mary Staples had a surprisingly sensible outcome. John Davenport spoke in her favor, and that swayed the court toward acquittal. As for Roger Ludlow, he was fined fifteen pounds.
There is a sequel to this story. In 1692, Mary was accused yet again, this time in company with her daughter and granddaughter. She obtained another acquittal.