It’s amazing how times
have changed. How we are as a culture today as opposed to the way we were 350 years ago. Ghost Hunters be grateful. Be grateful
that you did not live in Connecticut in the mid 1600’s. Because if you did, you would have probably been executed. In
that time, the crime of witchcraft was one of the most serious crimes one could commit, and if convicted, almost always punishable
by death. The definition of witchcraft was so broad, that it would take a lot less than looking for ghosts to be accused,
and Connecticut was one of the worst places to live as far as risk of being accused, and convicted.
When most people think of
witch trials, or witch hunts, the first thing that comes to mind is the infamous Salem Witch Trials that took place in 1692.
However what most people do not know, Connecticut in that time period was even more strict. The Salem Massachusetts witch
trials over-shadowed Connecticut in the history books because of the amount of hysteria that took place. In the scientific
field, it literally defined the term and condition of “Mass Hysteria” Why the people of Salem were so overly panicked
is still up for debate, most historians have their theories. Ergot poisoning from moldy rye bread contaminating Salem’s
crops is currently the most popular theory, but this still cannot be proven. Although
Connecticut didn’t have this hysteria, it did have even more convictions, and more executions to the crime of witchcraft,
than Salem did.
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).
The very first recorded execution of a witch in New England was
a woman named Alse Young Of Windsor CT. She was
brought to and hanged at Meeting House Square in Hartford, (Now the site of the Old State House in Hartford) which started what historians now call “The Hartford Witch
Trials.” A 21 year period in time (1647-1668) in which 29 people was indicted for witchcraft, and of those 29 people
11 were put to death. They may have been even more, however over time; a lot of the records have been lost or destroyed.
In the mid 17th century it didn’t take much
to be convicted of the crime of witchcraft. The first step in the process was a single accusation, this got the ball rolling
for the beginning of what deemed another famous term “Witch Hunt” After the accusation took place, local magistrates
would then take over. These local magistrates would then gather evidence, and question witnesses. They would sometimes use
brutal tactics to try to obtain a confession from the accused. One method used to prove witchcraft was the water test. A test
in where they would bind and tie your arms and legs and throw you into a body of water, if you sunk to the bottom your innocent of the crime, while the guilty ones would float. Once all the evidence was
gathered, the local magistrates would then refer everything to the high court. The Court would decide if the case was worthy
for a grand jury. A person from the Governors office would serve as prosecutor, and most of the accused didn’t get a
lawyer of there own. Once everything was presented at trial, a jury would deliberate for a verdict. If the high court disagreed
with any decision made by the jury they could overturn the decision at any time. This all makes me glad we now have a constitution.
The Hartford Witch Trials peeked in the years 1662-63. A famous
case in 1662 was one of when a Hartford woman Ann Cole apparently suffered from demonic possession. She blamed multiple people
as responsible for her ailment. Rebecca Greensmith was one of the accused; she eventually admitted to “Have familiarity
with the devil” and made statements against her husband as well. She admitted she and her husband had attended meetings
in the woods with several people. As a result, both Rebecca and her husband Nathaniel Greensmith were both hanged at Meeting
House Square. Along with the Greensmith’s, more people were executed in conjunction of this case. Mary Barnes of Farmington
was also hanged and it was believed that Mary Sanford of Hartford was as well; her Husband Andrew Sanford was accused and
later on acquitted. Goodwife Ayres was named by Rebecca Greensmith as one of the people, she met in the woods. Ayres was also
accused in a separate case of where John and Bethia Kelly claimed she had pricked their daughter Elizabeth with needles causing
her illness, and died as a result. Before Ayres ever went to trial, her and her husband both escaped to New York, her husband
was accused as well.
The Case of 1662-63 prompted Connecticut Governor John Winthrop
to push for reform in witchcraft law. Winthrop was a physician, chemist, and an astronomer, overall he was considered to be
a well educated man in the world of science. He made it so by the end of 1663; it was now law that someone needed more than
one accuser to be tried for witchcraft. Winthrop also pardoned Elizabeth Seager who was convicted on witch craft twice in
two different trials. One of which was the 1662-63 case mentioned before, and another case was in 1665. Seager was convicted,
however Winthrop refused to carry out sentence, his reasons today are still not clear. What is clear is that Winthrop was
a harsh skeptic of the witchcraft water test, and didn’t always believe in people's accusations. Perhaps Governor Winthrop
realized then that accusations of witchcraft could possibly be motivated for other reasons. If you don’t like someone
or someone does you wrong, just accuse them of witchcraft, even if it wasn’t true, it would make for a good way to get
rid of someone. It is said if it were not for his skeptism and his push for reform; Connecticut might have executed even more
people for this crime.
The crime of witchcraft remained on Connecticut’s law books
until 1750. The last trial held in Wallingford in 1697 where Winifred Benham was acquitted. Many other states also followed
suit. In fact, some other states like Massachusetts, and Virginia granted posthumous pardons. This type of pardon is a way
of overturning a conviction many years after the person has died to clear their name. On October 1, 2001 Massachusetts added
five extra people to its list of executed people in the Salem Witch Trial of 1692.