"Mr Willis is requested to goe downe to Sea Brook, to assist ye Maior in examininge the suspitions about witchery, and to act therin as may be requisite." - At a Session of Gen: Court, Hartford, June 15:1659
Among the 12 capital crimes established by the General Court of the Colony of Connecticut on the first of December, 1642, is this:
2. Yf any man or woman be a witch (that is) hath or consulteth with a familliar spirit, they shall be put to death. Ex: 22.18 : Lev: 20.27 : Deu : 18. 10,11. (Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut prior to the Union with the New Haven Colony, May, 1665, pg. 77; Hartford: Brown and Parsons, 1850)
The New Haven Colony cited the same biblical injunctions without further justification nor felt the need to define the crime of witchcraft in its law code, stating simply:
"If any person be a witch, he or she shall be put to death according to" Exodus xxii, 18; Leviticus xx, 27; Deuteronomy xviii, 10, 11. (New Haven Colonial Records, Vol. II, p. 576, Cod. 1655).
Nearly half a century prior to the infamous witch hunt centered around Salem Village in Massachusetts, the Colonies of Connecticut actively brought numerous suspected witches to trial, and in fact had the first recorded hanging of a witch in New England in 1647: a Windsor woman named Alse Young. Little is known about her, but thirty years after Young was executed, her daughter Alse Young Beamon was likewise accused of witchcraft in Springfield, MA.
What is clear from the Colonial records, according to State historian Walt Woodward, is that the Connecticut and New Haven Colonies did not hesitate to prosecute accused witches. In fact, between 1647 and 1655 "every single person tried and found guilty [of witchcraft] was executed." In a 21 year period in the colonies of Connecticut (1647 to 1668), it is believed that at least 29 people were indicted for witchcraft and 11 were condemned and put to death.
Viewed with modern eyes and sensibilities, Connecticut's experience is but an earlier chapter of the delusional witch hysteria at Salem, incomprehensible to us today except perhaps as a metaphor for subsequent persecutions of those outside the political mainstream. We note that it was largely women and often those envied, disliked or on society's margins who were accused of witchcraft, but have a harder time seeing that those who accused their neighbors of capital crimes might be motivated by something other than manipulating the law to settle old scores. Feuds, gossip, and a culture that demanded conformity to rigid social norms certainly played their part, but these secular explanations are easier for us moderns to accept than the sacred, and the two were inextricably linked in 17th-century New England.
In the mid-1640s, the English colonies of Connecticut and New Haven were young, tenuous establishments without Royal Charters. They were Puritan bastions on a savage frontier, uncomfortably close to the new Amsterdam Dutch and in direct competition with them on both sides of Long Island Sound. A savage war had recently been waged against the powerful Pequot nation, and beyond the coast and the Connecticut River was the Devil's country, a heathen wilderness, the last place reached by the Word of God. Puritan New England communities warned out strangers without visible means of support and denied them sanctuary, and sometimes banished religious dissenters outright from their colonies. An outsider in these frontier communities was potentially an economic, physical or spiritual threat, and the ultimate outsider was Satan who worked through his minions both in wilderness and town.
There were no further executions of witches in Connecticut after 1662, but the Hartford witch trials of that year had been bad enough. The Hartford Witch Trials of 1662-1663 eerily foreshadow the great witch hysteria at Salem. Up to 11 people in Hartford and surrounding communities were accused of witchcraft at this time and as many as 4 were executed (the records are inconclusive regarding one of the accused, Mary Sanford, who is thought to have been hanged). Several accused witches fled prosecution (James Wakeley did so on two separate occasions three years apart). Two of those who escaped were William Ayres and his wife, who were put to the water test to see if they floated when bound hand and foot - a sign that they denied their baptism - or sank and were deemed free from the taint of witchery. Their survival was due not to acquittal, for they floated, but their subsequent escape from prison.
Fear was a primary motivator of those who accused others of witchcraft, and also the desperate acts of some of the accused to deflect the charge from themselves against others. William Ayes himself turned witch accuser, confirming charges against Mary Sanford and Rebecca Greensmith that each woman had "disturbed" Ann Cole, a woman who raved and claimed to be tormented by witches. Nathaniel Greensmith accused William Ayres of slander but soon found himself on trial. He had acquired something of a wrap sheet beforehand, having once been convicted of the theft of a hoe. Rebecca Greensmith's confession affirmed that she and other named persons - including her husband - had familiarity with the Devil.
"Rebecca Greensmith testifieth in court January 8, 1662.
1. 'That my husband on Friday’ night last, when I came to prison, told me that now thou hast confest against thyself let me alone and say nothing of me and I will be good unto thy children.'
2. 'I do now testify that formerly when my husband hath told me of his great travail and labor, I wondered at it how he did it; this he did before I was married, and when I was married I asked him how he did it, and he answered me, he had help that I knew not of.'
3. 'About three years ago, as I think it, my husband and I were in the woods several miles from home, and were looking for a sow that we lost, and I saw a creature, a red creature, following my husband, and when I came to him I asked him what it was that was with him, and he told me it was.a fox.'
4. 'Another time when he and I drove our hogs into the woods beyond the pound that was to keep young cattle, several miles off, I went before the hogs to call them, and looking back I saw two creatures like dogs, one a little blacker than the other; they came after my husband pretty close to him, and one did seem to me to touch him. I asked him what they were, he told me he thought foxes. I was still afraid when I saw anything, because I heard so much of him before I married him.'
5. 'I have seen logs that my husband hath brought home in his cart that I wondered at it that he could get them into the cart, being a man of little body and weak to my apprehension; and the logs were such that I thought two men such as he could not have done it.'
'I speak all of this out of love to my husband’s soul, and it is much against my will that I am now necessitate to speak against my husband. I desire that the Lord would open his heart to own and speak the truth.'
'I also testify, that I being in the woods at a meeting, there was with me goody Seager, goodwife Sanford and goodwife Ayres. And at another time there was a meeting under a tree in the green by our house, and there was there James Walkicy, Peter Grant’s wife, goodwife Ayres, and Henry Palmer’s wife, of Wethersfield, and goody Seager; and there we danced and had a bottle of sack. It was in the night and something like a cat called me out to the meeting, and I was in Mr. Varlet’s orchard with Mrs. Judith Varlet, and she told me that she was muth troubled with the marshal, Jonathan Gilbert, and cried; and she said if it lay in her power she would do him a mischief, or what hurt she could.'
Taken upon oath in court."
Both husband and wife were subsequently condemned and hanged, along with Mary Barnes of Farmington who was implicated along with Elizabeth Seager.
A belief in the Devil and witchcraft does not necessarily preclude rational, objective thinking. Connecticut's great 17th Century governor, John Winthrop, Jr, was a physician and a pious man of science, a skilled chemist and astronomer who in 1664 used a telescope to observe what he took to be a fifth moon orbiting Jupiter (a fact not confirmed by science until 1892). He also intervened in witch cases - though he was absent seeking a Royal charter for Connecticut during the great Hartford witch hunts - and later established objective criteria for witch trials that required two witnesses for each alleged act of witchcraft and greatly diminished the likelihood of a witch case proceeding from inquiry to trial. Were it not for his efforts, it is likely that Connecticut would have condemned and executed more of its citizens as witches than it ultimately did.
While there were some besides Winthrop who doubted whether methods such as the swimming test were not simply "superstitious and magical", witchcraft remained a crime punishable by death in Connecticut until the capital laws were rewritten in 1750. There are some today, including descendants of some who were condemned as witches, who are seeking posthumous pardons for these all but forgotten unfortunates.