The Cunning Woman

Wethersfield, 1669

Three years after the great Hartford witch hunt, another woman was brought to trial in Wethersfield. Her name was Katherine Harrison, and the records strongly suggest that she was the daughter or niece of  Windsor’s accused witch (16   ), Lydia Gilbert. Formerly maidservant to Hartford’s Captain John Cullick, in 1669 Katherine was a widow whose husband, a well to do farmer and Wethersfield’s town crier, left an estate of nearly 1000 pounds to his wife and three daughters. This inheritance made Katherine the wealthiest woman in town.

In New England, there was always the possibility of trouble with legacies to which there was no male heir, and conflicts, disputes, and legal challenges were frequently pursued by more distant relatives of the deceased. Evidently, this was the problem in the Harrison case. Katherine petitioned the courts several times to seek damages for vandalism to her property and animals. Her oxen were beaten and livestock killed, and her corn and hops crops were destroyed. Although her losses were verified by others, no recompense was granted to the widow. Then, in 1668, she was sued for slander, for calling Goody Griswold a “savage whore”, and the court ruled against Mrs. Harrison. She also lost a suit charging her with “unjust detaining of land.”

In the interval spanning 1668 and 1669, hostilities burgeoned into accusations of witchcraft. Two of Katherine’s accusers were the men who had initiated the lawsuits.

The following trangressions were laid at Katherine’s feet:

  • Lying and breaking the Sabbath
  • Telling fortunes that often came to pass
  • Spinning yarn better and faster than other women
  • John Wells saw her bending over his cow with a pail, but for some strange reason, he was unable to move to stop her.
  • Predicting the deaths of two men
  • Thomas Bracy asserted that Katherine, along with James Wakely (of the Hartford trials), stood by his bedside and threatened to cut his throat. Katherine restrained Wakely, saying, “No, why don’t you strangle him?” She then fell upon Thomas, choking him and pulling the skin from his bones. Bracy also reported seeing a red calf on top of the Harrisons’ hay wagon, which then changed into a human form as he stared at it.
  • A baby died under Goody Harrison’s care.
  • She was seen, with her black dog, hovering near a sick person.
  • A teenaged boy was temporarily paralyzed when he spied Katherine milking a cow not her own.
  • She was seen and heard calling, “Hoccamock, come Hoccanock”, at the edge of the swamp. (Hockamock was an Algonquin word for “devil”.)
  • Mary Hale saw her apparition, in the form of an ugly black dog with Katherine’s head, hovering over her bed and sitting on her legs and chest, preventing her from breathing.

At a Court of Assistants held at Hartford on May 11, 1669, presided over by Deputy Governor Major John Mason, Katherine Harrison, after an examination by the court on a charge of witchcraft, was committed to the common jail until she could be tried. From the outset, there were problems. One jury was unable to reach a verdict. Another convicted her, but the magistrates dissented, because most of the evidence was spectral, that is, visible only to the accusers. The court assembled a panel of ministers to assist in establishing proper rules of evidence in cases of suspected witchcraft; in effect, in Connecticut colony, admission of spectral evidence was forbidden.

At a special court of assistants held May 20, 1670, to which the General Assembly had referred the matter, the court disagreed with the jury’s verdict, which would have resulted in a death sentence for Katherine. They released her from her prison, where she had been held for twelve months. She paid her court fees, and was ordered to leave Wethersfield, both  to appease her neighbors, and for her own safety.
Katherine  moved her family to Westchester, New York. Being under suspicion of witchcraft, her presence there was unwelcome, and although complaints against her were repeatedly made, she was never again brought to trial.

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That Other New England Witch Hunt

Prior to 1692, the year of the infamous trials in Salem, Massachusetts, the town of  Wethersfield, Connecticut found itself at the epicenter of a witch hunt. It resulted in at least fourteen indictments, involving eleven individuals, with three, or possibly four, executions. The accusations came from two sources, Elisabeth Kelley and Ann Cole.

Hartford, 1662-63

The bewitchment of Elisabeth Kelley

The story begins with a visit of one Goodwife Ayres, who was paying a visit to the Kelley family. Goody Ayres surprised her hosts by spooning kettlesboiling broth out the kettle and eating it without waiting for it to cool. According the the parents, the visitor  somehow required their eight year old daughter, Elisabeth, to do the same. Ignoring   parental cautions about getting burned, little Betty ate her broth, from the same bowl used by Goodwife Ayres. Initially all was well, until a few hours later, when Betty complained of a stomach ache, which her mother treated with angelica root. Betty felt better and attended meeting that afternoon.

In the evening, however, Betty, asleep in the bed with her father, suddenly sat up, crying, “Goodwife Ayres is upon me she chokes me, kneels on my belt, pinches me, she will make me black and blue.” Mr. Kelley comforted her and tried to convince her to lie down again. But Betty, continuing to fuss, demanded that her father kill Goody Ayres with and axe. If he could not find his broad axe, she begged, he should fetch the narrow one.

That disturbing night finally passed, but Betty remained stricken. Goodwives Ayres, Whaples, and Greensmith, hearing of her illness, came to express their good wishes, and the little girl seemed to improve. Tuesday night, however, Betty confided in her mother that Goody Ayres had asked her why she spoke against her. If she would stop, she offered, she would give Betty a piece of fine lace.  The child’s fits resumed that night, plaguing her until the following evening, when she died. Betty’s last words were, “Goodwife Ayres chokes me,” upon which she became speechless.

Goodwives Ayres and Whaples helped the bereaved parents lay out their daughter’s small body. When the corpse was examined, her arms were found to be black and blue from elbows to shoulders. Even worse, a bright reddish spot appeared on Betty’s cheek on the side where Ayres was standing.

Goody Ayres soon stood accused of causing Betty’s illness and death by witchcraft. Here is the testimony of her neighbors:

  • Years earlier, a fine young man had visited a younger Ayers as a suitor, and turned out to be the devil. Ayres refused to go with him, but he carried her off.
  • She was seen dancing in the woods, circling a kettle with Goodwives Seager and Greensmith and two black creatures like Indians, with a bottle of sack.
  • Mr. Ayres was questioned. He named Rebecca Greensmith and Mary and Andrew Sanford as witches. They were also arrested.

Rebecca Greensmith, as she appears in the records, seems to have been emotionally disturbed. Widowed twice, she had lived in Wethersfield and Hartford. Her third husband, Nathaniel Greensmith, owned land in Wethersfield. During the investigation, the Reverend John Whiting described her as “a lewd, ignorant, and considerably aged woman.” Rebecca, during questioning, implicated her own husband and several other Hartford residents. She was thrown into prison.

At this point, the community was firmly in the grip of fear, and the process took on a life of its own.

The bewitchment of Ann Cole

Ann Cole, daughter of John Cole, a godly man who lived next to the Greensmiths, had for some time been struggling with fears about her spiritual state. In 1662, she began experiencing strange fits, in which she would  “hold discourse” for lengthy periods. In the presence of two ministers who tried to help her, Ann claimed that “A company of familiars of the evil one (who she named in the discourse that passed from her) were conspiring how to carry on their mischievous designs against some, and especially against Ann herself.” The general tenor of the familiars’ threats was that they would afflict her body, spoil her name, and hinder her marriage. After several hours of Ann’s “discourse”, the familiars decided to “confound” her language so she could tell no more tales. Now Ann’s language “passed into the Dutch tone.” (a Dutch family had recently move into town.) She proceeded to describe the afflictions of the woman who lived next door to the Dutch family, who was pinched and t ormented.

The ministers summoned to assess Ann’s “possession” held that it would be impossible for someone, like Ann,  not familiarly acquainted with the Dutch, to so exactly imitate the “Dutch tone” in the pronunciation of English.

Ann repeated her performance on numerous occasions, at times “very awful and amazing to the hearers.” Often she was seized by extremely violent bodily motions, “even to the hazard of her life in the apprehensions of those that saw them.”  Frequently, “great disturbance was given in the public worship of God by her and two other women who had also strange fits.”

A day of fasting and prayer was observed for Ann Cole, who attended the meeting house with her neighbors. Suddenly, Ann cried out dramatically against Elisabeth Seager and Rebecca Greensmith, naming them as witches. Goody Seager reacted immediately with indignation, calling the accusation nothing but a lot of “hodgepodge.” But Goodwife Miggat added accusations of her own, claiming that Seager had appeared in the night to her, striking her in the face and preventing her from waking her husband. Then she saw Seager fly away.

Goody Greensmith was already safely walled up in the town gaol, and with these latest outbursts, the court was ready to act. They sent for the ministers to read to her what they had written about her crimes, and “she freely confessed those things to be true, that she (and other persons named in the discourse) had familiarity with the devil.” Asked whether she had made an express covenant with him, Greensmith answered that she had not, only having “promised to go with him when he called (which she had accordingly done on several occasions.) But the devil told her that at Christmas they would have a merry meeting, and then the covenant should be drawn and subscribed.”

Rebecca later explained that she had confessed because, when the deposition was being read, she felt as if her flesh were being pulled from her bones. She went on to declare that the devil first appeared to her “in the form of a deer or fawn, skipping about with her, wherewith she was not much afrighted, but by degrees he contrived to talk with her; and that their meetings were frequently at such a place, (near her own house); that some of the company came in one  shape and some in another, and one in particular in the shape of a crow came flying to them.” She also owned that the devil had frequent use of her body.

Goody Greensmith went on to implicate her own husband, Nathaniel, saying he could do such things as lift heavy weights that even two men foxcould not manage. She alleged that he was followed around and sometimes touched by wild animals that he told her were foxes. Rebecca felt afraid of him because of all the things she had heard about him before their marriage. “I speak all of this out of love to my husband’s soul, and it is much against my will that I am now necessitated to speak against my husband. I desire that the Lord would open his heart to own and speak the truth.”

Nathaniel Greensmith made no confession. As happened so often in many other cases, he had a history of conflict with neighbors, having been convicted of stealing a hoe and a bushel and a half of wheat, of lying to the court, and of  battery.

Having thoroughly discredited her husband, Rebecca enlarge upon the meetings in the woods where she danced with Goodwives Seager, Barnes, and Ayres. Once she happened upon James Wakely, Goody Grant, and Goody Palmer dancing and drinking more sack. On yet another night, “Something like a cat called me out the the meet, and I was in Mr. Varlet’s orchard with Mrs. Judith Varlet. “ (The Varlets were none other than the Dutch people so ably imitated by Ann Cole.)

Nathaniel and Rebecca Greensmith were tried and convicted of familiarity with the devil,  and met death by hanging in January, 1663, along with Mary Barnes.

Judith Varlet escaped trial by the intervention of Peter Stuyvesant, Governor of the colony of New Netherland. She fled to Rhode Island, a haven for misfits and nonconformists of many varieties.

Elisabeth Seager did go on trial and was acquitted, only to be accused again, that same year,  of adultery and witchcraft. Convicted of adultery, she was exonerated on the witchcraft charges. In 1665, she was tried once more for and convicted of witchcraft, but to her good fortune, Governor John Winthrop, Jr. released her due to the quality of the evidence against her. Finally, Elisabeth had had enough, and she too fled to Rhode Island.

On June 13, 1662, Mary Sanford was indicted for having had “familiarity with Satan and by his help having acted, and also come to the knowledge of secrets, in a preternatural way beyond the ordinary course of nature.” The jury found her guilty, but what became of her is not known.

Swimming a witch

The case of the Greensmiths was considered by Increase Mather, who, taking into account the circumstances of her confession, deemed that this was “as convictive a proof of the reality of witchcraft” as he had encountered. Mather went on to relate a story about a man and a woman mentioned in Ann Cole’s discourse (probably William Ayres and his wife), who were put to the infamous water test. Because water was thought to be sacred, people believed it would reject evil. The accused evil doer was bound,  tied to a stone, and dropped into a pond or river. If the person floated, the water was ejecting her, proving that she was a witch and deserving of hanging. If she sank to the bottom and drowned, she was innocent (may God have mercy on her soul.) The Ayres couple floated, and, having no doubt that the noose would choke them to death even if the water did not, made their escape to Rhode Island. Mather condemns this method of “proving” a witch as superstitious and unlawful.

Witches in Connecticut

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.

The Problem of Evil

The Problem of Evil

God was not alone in having supernatural powers. The Bible made this very clear. Satan and his minions were an ever constant presence, and everyone had to guard at all times against falling into their snares. Satan was very adept at selecting the weakest individuals, women, children, and the mentally disordered, to assist him in his work. Those who accepted his blandishments were considered to become witches. Every Puritan knew that witches were real, because the Bible said as much: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”, from Exodus, and the story of the Witch of Endor, from Samuel. Technically, to doubt the existence of witches was no less than heresy.

But what is a witch? In Puritan society, a witch was someone who received supernatural powers from the devil. Foremost among these was the ability to perform maleficium, literally, doing evil. Maleficium is the ability to harm others via supernatural means. Witches were believed to fall under the influence of the devil because of their deep sense of discontent with their lot in life. They desired to do so due to pride, envy, or greed, and they fell prey to the devil’s wiles through his seductive promises to fulfill their needs.

Forms of maleficium are endless, but each witch was believed to specialize in certain types. Some caused illness or death. Some put spells on unsuspecting individuals, causing them accidents or temporary blindness, confusion, paralysis, or memory loss. A witch was capable of “overlooking” animals, making them sick or compelling them to run off or stop producing milk or fleece. At times witches were blamed for spoiled batches of beer or butter, hindering the spinning of wool and flax, causing miscarriages or infertility, or inducing “monstrous” birth defects. Storms, droughts, and crop damages could be laid at the feet of witches, who could also bedevil people by night, hovering or standing over the bed, making sleep impossible, or causing strange physical sensations. They were also very good at provoking ment into adulterous thoughts. The powers of a witch were indeed formidable.

The ways in which a witch could impose an infliction were many. Looking, touching, pinching, cursing, or threatening were common face to face methods.  From a distance , a witch could employ his/her familiar, a non-human creature that did his/her bidding. The best known of these today is the cat, but bats, mice, dogs, toads, birds, wolves, and snakes were commonly suspected.  The witch could fly, of course, shift her “shape” into that of an animal or another person, and be in several places at one time. He or she might also make a poppet, a crude doll meant to represent the intended victim.

Many people believed that it was possible to defend oneself against evil acts by means of countermagic, although that could be risky because it was frowned upon by the church. An example of countermagic still in existence today is the mounting of a horse shoe over a door to deflect the entrance of evil.

The Accused


Who was the “typical” witch? In at least three quarters of cases, an accused witch was female. Women were regarded as flawed, a perception prevalent in the Bible: as Eve was tempted by the serpent, so all women were easily tempted by the devil. But witches could be male or female, young or old, rich or poor; even ministers, small children, and  well respected community members have been indicted from time to time. The average age of those accused was between 40 and 60 years. The majority were or had been married, with few or no children. They often but not always had abrasive and contentious personalities, becoming involved in conflict with neighbors and/or family. Many had previously  committed petty crimes, especially slander, theft, or threatening. Often they practiced medicine of some sort, usually as healers or midwives; after all, the power to heal is also the power to harm. Sometimes the accused had recently com into possession of wealth or coveted property. Sometimes they were simply nonconformist, or challenged the religious or social status quo. And often, they were related to other accused witches.

The process by which people were accused was simple and rarely varied:

  • Witch and Victim contend over some matter of mutual concern.
  • Victim perceives anger in the Witch and feels afraid.
  • Victim suffers harm of some sort and blames the Witch.
As others corroborate the suspicions of the “Victim”, the likelihood of indictment and trial increases.

The 17th Century Mind

The 17th  Century Mind

The first recorded execution for witchcraft in the New World took place not in Salem, Massachusetts, but in Hartford, Connecticut. The date was May 26, 1647, and the victim was hanged on what is now the site of the Old State House, then called Meeting House Square.

To understand the witchcraft phenomenon, it is necessary first to understand some things about the way most people who lived during the 1600’s viewed their world. The Puritans who settled New England inhabited a psychological universe that we in the 21st century might describe as “enchanted”. Everything that occurred was considered either natural or supernatural in terms of its origin and significance. If an event could not be explained in light of what was commonly known about nature, that event would probably be viewed as supernatural. Incidents that today are taken for granted as natural (although we sometimes refer to them as “acts of God”), three hundred years ago were experienced as mysterious, unpredictable, fearsome, and threatening. Earthquakes, thunderstorms, droughts, floods, and meteors were unusual enough to be granted special significance in the Puritan mind.

To make things even more frightening, death could happen to anyone at any time, and frequently did. Medical science was primitive. Weather was often harsh. Wild animals threatened, mental illness was incomprehensible, and conditions of war often existed between the newcomers and the indigenous people. Death was often sudden and shocking, or prolonged and foreboding.

This was a world full of wonders, possibilities, and dangers. There was a general belief that nature was somehow animate. Dreams could be real. Trumpets could sound, even if no one in town possessed such an instrument. Ghosts appeared in the night, and voices spoke from heaven. Sometimes, people and animals could fly, be in two places at once, or even change their shape.

Stories of such wonders circulated widely, some published in books and pamphlets, telling of Remarkable Providences. One quite common report was of the appearance of multiple suns. New Haven was disturbed by the repeated presence of a phantom ship in the harbor.

To illustrate how pervasive this world view was even among the educated, consider the following story related by the president of Harvard College, Urian Oakes, to a group of students:

“A child that was borne at Norich last Bartholomew Day… being in the nurses arms last Easterday…being about 30 weeks old spake these words (This is an hard world): the nurse, when she had recovered herselfe a little from her trembling and amazement at the Extraordinariness of the thing said Why deare Child! thou hast not known it: the Child after a pause, replied, But it will be an hard world and you shall know it.” (Italics added for clarity.)

Always, wonders evidenced the will of God, who communicated directly with the Puritans, generally on a daily basis. And God was frequently displeased. But his messages, then as now, were usually in need of interpretation. The key concepts guiding any interpretation were sin and judgment. If lightening destroyed the tree next to the Meeting House, God was considered to be unhappy. But with what? With whom? The minister? The entire congregation? Similarly, if your ten year old child drowned in the pond, God must be punishing you for something you did or failed to do. And Puritans were trained to regard themselves as very sinful.

But you did have some guidance in interpreting signs and omens. You had the Bible, understood in its literal sense, and you could also turn to your clergyman. The minister in turn could consult with other more prominent men of the cloth, and their published writings. One of the preeminent Puritan clergymen of the century was Boston’s  Cotton Mather. A prolific writer, Mather’s books, Wonders of the Invisible World and the Tryals of Several Witches, were widely read and discussed, and therefore were enormously influential. Mather wrote detailed descriptions of all manner of strange happenings, freely offering his own opinions, which tended to be harshly judgmental.