Thirty years before the infamous Salem witch trials, America’s first witch hunt hysteria swept through another colonial New England town. Find out about the accusations and trials that rattled Hartford, Connecticut, 350 years ago. In late March 1662, John and Bethia Kelly grieved over the body of their 8-year-old daughter inside their Hartford, Connecticut, home. Little Elizabeth had been fine just days before when she returned home with a neighbor, Goodwife Ayres. The distraught parents, grasping at any explanation for their loss, saw the hand of the devil at work. The parents were convinced that Elizabeth had been fatally possessed by Goody Ayres. The Kellys testified that their daughter first took ill the night after she returned home with her neighbor, and that she exclaimed, “Father! Father! Help me, help me! Goodwife Ayres 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.” After Elizabeth’s death, accusations of bewitchment flew, and fingers were pointed at numerous townspeople. Hysteria gripped Hartford, a town that a generation before had witnessed the first execution of a suspected witch in the American colonies. Alse (Alice) Young of Windsor, Connecticut, was sent to the gallows erected in Hartford’s Meeting House Square, now the site of Connecticut’s Old State House, on May 26, 1647. Witchcraft was one of 12 capital crimes decreed by Connecticut’s colonial government in 1642. The legal precedent cited by the devoutly Puritan colonists was of a divinely higher order: biblical passages such as Exodus 22:18 (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”) and Leviticus 20:27 (“A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death”). After Young’s public hanging, at least five other Connecticut residents met a similar fate. However, it was in Hartford in 1662, 30 years before the infamous Salem witch trials, that a witch hunt hysteria took hold, resulting in seven trials and four executions. Shortly after Elizabeth Kelly’s death, the pious Ann Cole suddenly became “afflicted,” shaking violently and spouting blasphemy. According to one contemporary account, Cole was “taken with strange fits, wherein she (or rather the devil, as ‘tis judged, making use of her lips) held a discourse for a considerable time.” Cole blamed her bewitchment on neighbor Rebecca Greensmith, described by one townsperson as “a lewd, ignorant, considerably aged woman,” and others already suspected of witchcraft in the Kelly case. The accused began to accuse others, and even their spouses, of being the true witches. In what became a vicious circle, neighbors began testifying against neighbors. Goody Ayres’ husband, perhaps in an attempt to save his wife, joined in the chorus of Greensmith’s accusers. The most damning testimony supposedly came from Greensmith herself, who reportedly admitted to having “familiarity with the devil” and said that “at Christmas they would have a merry meeting” to form a covenant. Greensmith implicated her husband and said she had met in the woods with seven other witches, including Goody Ayres, Mary Sanford and Elizabeth Seager. Neighbors testified that they saw Seager dancing with other women in the woods and cooking mysterious concoctions in black kettles.
Two of the suspects, likely the Greensmiths, were subjected to the swimming test in which their hands and feet were bound and they were cast into the water to test the theory that witches are unable to sink. After they were tried, the Greensmiths were indicted “for not having the fear of God before thine eyes; thou hast entertained familiarity with Satan the grand enemy of God and mankind and by his help hast acted things in a preternatural way.” The court’s verdict: “According to the law of God and the established law of this commonwealth, thou deserves to die.” Rebecca Greensmith had confessed in open court. Nathaniel Greensmith had protested his innocence. But they both met the same fate: the noose. Sanford was also sent to the gallows. After their executions, Cole reportedly was “restored to health.” Ayres fled Hartford, while Seager was finally convicted of witchcraft in 1665, although the governor reversed the verdict the following year. Mary Barnes of Farmington, Connecticut, was also swept up in the region’s witch hunt and executed alongside the Greensmiths. The four executions of suspected witches in Hartford were to be Connecticut’s last. Another hysteria broke out in Fairfield, Connecticut, in 1692, but none of those convicted met death. Connecticut held its final witch trial in 1697, a half century after Alse Young’s execution. During that period, there were 46 prosecutions and at least 11 executions. Descendants of some of those 11 colonists are seeking posthumous pardons and apologies similar to those that occurred in Massachusetts for victims of the Salem witch trials. Previous resolutions in the Connecticut legislature, however, have not come out of committee, and the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles also has a policy of not granting posthumous pardons. The descendants are now pressing for a gubernatorial proclamation to clear the names of their ancestors. Long before the much more famous trials at Salem, Massachusetts, Connecticut's witch trials were held in the mid-1600's, mainly between 1647 and 1697, although no alleged witches were executed after 1662. In his book “The Witchcraft Delusion in Connecticut 1647-1697”, John M. Taylor lists thirty-five cases between 1647 and 1697, as well as two more in the 18th Century, of which a total of eleven resulted in executions.
In the colonies of New England, witchcraft was a capital crime under the so-called “Blue Laws” and, although the crime of witchcraft did not require any harm to result, in practice there had to be some harm that warranted the effort and expense of a formal proceeding. Prior to 1662, a single witness was all it took to support a witchcraft conviction. Although the proceedings appear to have been documented, many of the trial records no longer exist. Many historians believe that years of fighting Native Americans, floods and epidemical sickness may have caused the colonists (who generally held strong Puritanical religious beliefs) to look for someone to blame for their hardships.
Alse Young (sometimes called Alice Young or Achsah Young) of Windsor, Connecticut, became the first person in the records executed for witchcraft in the thirteen American colonies when she was hanged in May 1647 in Hartford, Connecticut (there is no further record of the trial or the specifics of the charge). Although she had a daughter, Alice Young Beamon (who would herself be accused of witchcraft in nearby Springfield, Massachusetts, some 30 years later), she had no son when the accusation was lodged, which implied that she would be eligible to receive through inheritance her husband's estate, and it is thought that this may have been a factor in the accusation. It also appears that there may have been some sort of epidemic in the town of Windsor in early 1647. The first recorded confession of witchcraft in Connecticut was given under duress by Mary Johnson in 1648. Mary was a servant whose legal troubles began around 1646, when she was accused of theft. Under pressure from the minister, Samuel Stone, and after extended whipping, Mary confessed that she was guilty of witchcraft (or, as it was called, “familiarity with the Devil”) and fully described her crimes, including using the Devil to help her with her household chores. She admitted to “uncleanness with men and Devils” and even to the “murder of a child”, although she was not indicted for murder or adultery. However, the charge of “familiarity with the Devil” stuck and, on the strength of her confession, she was sentenced to death. She gave birth to a baby boy while awaiting her sentence in jail in Hartford, Connecticut. The execution was delayed, probably due to her pregnancy, until June 1650, when she was hanged. Several more cases were to follow in the succeeding years, some ending in convictions and some in acquittals, and there are also records of several cases of slander brought by suspected witches. Many of the accused were banished or fled the colony. As usual, it was largely women, and often those envied, disliked or on society's margins who were accused. Among those convicted and executed for witchcraft were John and Joan Carsington (from Mary Johnson’s hometown of Wethersfield, found guily and executed in 1651); Goodwife Bassett and Goodwife Knapp (both from Fairfield, Connecticut, convicted and hung in 1651 and 1653 respectively); Lydia Gilbert (from Windsor, probably executed in 1654); Rebecca and Nathaniel Greensmith, Mary Sanford and Mary Barnes (all from Hartford, and all hanged in 1662 in the notorious Hartford Witch Trials). In 1662, Connecticut’s Governor, John Winthrop Jr, established more objective criteria for witch trials, requiring at least two witnesses for each alleged act of witchcraft, greatly diminishing the likelihood of a witch case proceeding from inquiry to trial. In some cases, he personally intervened and overturned or reversed verdicts. As late as 1692, a servant girl in Stamford, Connecticut, accused six women of afflicting her with fits, although those accused were given reprieves as the evidence against them was considered flimsy, sinful and unlawful.