Salem has nothing on Connecticut; witchcraft trials started in this state
In May 1647, Alice Young of Windsor mounted the gallows erected in Hartford's Meeting House Square, later the site of the Old State House. As she dropped, the force of gravity from the fall caused the rope to tighten and her life to end. Young is thought to have been the first person executed for witchcraft in the 13 colonies.
When people think of witches in America, their first thoughts are invariably of Salem, Mass. Beginning in early 1692, more than 150 people were accused of witchcraft in and around Salem. Twenty were executed. Prior to the infamous episode in Salem, however, Connecticut was ground zero for the phenomenon of witchcraft allegations.
Connecticut's ordeal began earlier, lasted longer and was arguably more severe. Between 1647-63, some 11 people were executed in the state for the crime of witchcraft, more than all of the other American colonies combined prior to the Salem executions.
Cases arose in almost every settled area of Connecticut. Mary Johnson, a Wethersfield servant accused of theft admitted not only the theivery but a series of other crimes, including murder of a child, adultery and employing the Devil to assist her with chores. It was her trifling with the Devil that earned her a death sentence in 1650.
In 1662, Rebecca Greensmith was accused of causing her neighbor to have strange fits. Rebecca admitted attending meetings in the woods, and "familiarity with the Devil." She also implicated her husband. Mary Sanford, mother of five, was found guilty of witchcraft, largely upon evidence that she was seen drinking wine and dancing around a bonfire. She was hanged in Hartford in 1662, as were the Greensmiths and Mary Barnes. These may have been the last executions carried out in Connecticut for witchcraft.
The accusations, however, did not stop. Another group of cases implicating seven women was brought in 1692, perhaps in reaction to the Salem cases. Among the accused was Mercy Disborough of Westport. Records from Mercy's trial reveal much about the process of witchcraft trials, especially the troubling "evidence" often permitted.
Much of the testimony against Mercy involved what was known as "spectral" evidence, based upon dreams or visions. John Barlow testified that Mercy had appeared to him as he lay in bed, and had pinched his feet. Neighbors testified that after arguments with Mercy, livestock suddenly died or children became ill.
Mercy's trial also included the infamous "water test." Mercy and another defendant were bound hand and foot and put into the water. When they floated, this was taken as evidence that Satan was helping them, or that the pure water had rejected their tainted souls.
Mercy was convicted in October 1692 and sentenced to death. Around this time, authorities were beginning to have serious regrets about the Salem executions. Prominent ministers in Connecticut began to question the legitimacy of spectral evidence. Mercy was ultimately pardoned.
Witchcraft remained a crime in Connecticut until about 1750. However, strong public reactions to the Salem hangings led to a substantial drop-off in cases after 1693. The last recorded witchcraft trial in Connecticut, in 1697, ended in acquittal.
It is difficult to understand how otherwise civilized people could have turned against their neighbors to the point of executing them for what today might be considered eccentric behavior or even mental illness.
Certainly in some cases evidence of witchcraft was wholly falsified to settle a personal score. In others, deeply religious people were simply overcome by fear of being harmed or corrupted by Satan. The execution of witches was thought to be sanctioned in the Bible. Exodus 22:18 states "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live."
In 2006 a teenage girl who is a descendant of Mary Sanford, one of the women hanged in Hartford in 1662, began an effort to have the legislature exonerate those executed for witchcraft in Connecticut. The proposal died in committee in March 2008.
Richard P. Regan is an attorney and writer in Washington, D.C., and Old Lyme.