Elizabeth Kelly – “Killed” by Witch Goody Ayres

Puritan Woman

Puritan Woman

The first witch hunts in the American colonies did not start as many people think, in Salem, Massachusetts. Rather, they began decades earlier in Connecticut in 1647 and lasted intermittently until 1697.

This madness peaked in Connecticut in the spring of 1662 with the Hartford Witch Panic which was set off with the death of eight-year-old Elizabeth Kelly (or Kelley), whose parents were convinced that their neighbor Goody Ayres had caused their child’s death through magic.

After an illness of several days, now thought to have been bronchial pneumonia, Elizabeth Kelly died on March 23, 1662. Just days before, she had been fine when she returned home with a neighbor, Goodwife Ayres. The next day, Ayres visited the Kelly home and shared a bowl of broth with the young girl. That night, Elizabeth took ill and for the next five days suffered from prolonged stomach pains and was delusional, screaming about how Goodwife Ayers was hurting her.

Sick child

Sick child

Grasping at any explanation for their loss, Elizabeth’s parents saw the hand of the devil at work and were soon convinced that Elizabeth had been fatally possessed by Goody Ayres and accused her of strangling their daughter through the use of black magic.

They would later testify that during their daughter’s illness, that she had 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. Goodwife Ayres torments me, she pricks me with pins, she will kill me! Oh Father, set on the great furnace and scald her, get the broad ax and cut off her head.”

By the time that Elizabeth died, everyone in town was aware that she had been in pain for days and had heard about the accusations the young girls had made against Goody Ayres. Adding fuel to the fire were rumors that Ayres enjoyed “spreading stories of encounters with the devil.”

Shortly after the little girl’s death, her parents brought their concerns about Ayres to official attention. During the inquest, Ayres was summoned to the side of the dead girl, who had been laid out in her parents’ home. The sleeves on the corpse were rolled up, revealing bruises on her upper arms and shoulders. And, according to reports, a red spot appeared on the dead child’s cheek nearest to where Ayres was standing, which proved ominous to those present.

Due to the suspicions, the local magistrates turned to physician Bray Rossiter, who conducted what may have been the first autopsy in Connecticut. Rossiter lived in Guilford, Connecticut, about 20 miles from Hartford and it was several days before he arrived at the gravesite. He was assisted by the schoolmaster, William Pitkin, with at least six others witnessing the procedure.

Colonial Autopsy

Colonial Autopsy

In the end, the doctor found that Elizabeth had not died of natural causes, but of preternatural causes. His autopsy notes stated that the whole body was pliable without stiffness or contraction, much of the skin appeared bruised, that the throat contained a large amount of blood, and the gullet was contracted like a hard fishbone. Though Rossiter’s medical report did not state that Goody Ayers was a witch, he swore that Elizabeth Kelly had suffered unnatural harm. Hartford residents read between the lines, interpreting that the autopsy proved Goodwife Ayers was a witch.

Afterward, Goodwife Ayers and her husband, William Ayres, abandoned their eight-year-old son, left behind all their possessions, and skipped town, avoiding a sure death sentence. They probably fled to New York or Rhode Island, which, unlike Massachusetts, did not have an extradition treaty with Connecticut.

Seven months later, the court took possession of Ayres’ estate, and their son was placed as an apprentice to James Ensign, to learn the trade of cooper.

The death of Elizabeth Kelly and Rossiter’s autopsy unleashed panic in Hartford and in the next year, 10 more ”witches” would be accused, with four of them put to death.

Years later, the notes of the autopsy were examined by professionals, who would state that the symptoms Rossiter described are common to corpses that are several days old. In 1925, Dr. Walter R. Steiner reviewed the autopsy notes, stating that Rossiter “mistook the signs of beginning decomposition for something supernatural.”

Eight-year-old Elizabeth was the daughter of John and Bethia Kelly. Though little is known about John Kelly, Bethia was born to Samuel Wakeman and his wife Elizabeth in about 1634 in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Her parents had immigrated to the United States during the Puritan Great Migration in 1631. When Bethia grew up she married John Kelly and the two were living in the Puritan colony of Hartford, Connecticut, where John worked as a freeman. They lived on the south bank of the Little River, now the Park River. After they lost their child, Elizabeth, in 1662 John Kelly also died. She married for a second time to David Phillips in 1665. Sometime later, the townspeople of Hartford offered her second husband, £10 if he would leave Hartford taking his wife Bethiah with him.

Goody Ayres was originally from London and was described at the time as a friend to other women accused of witchcraft. One of those was Elizabeth Seager, a woman who was also charged with blasphemy and adultery. Seager was tried twice for witchcraft, once in 1663 and again in 1665. She was acquitted the first time and the second time she was convicted, but the governor reversed the verdict. She was also said to be friends with Rebecca Greensmith, who would say at her own trial that she, along with Ayres and several others held a meeting in the woods where they “danced and had a bottle of sack.” Greensmith and her husband, Nathaniel, were hanged in January 1663.

© Kathy Weiser-Alexander/LegendsOfAmerica updated March 2021.

Historic Hartford, Connecticut

Historic Hartford, Connecticut

Also See:

Puritans of New England

Salem, Massachusetts Witchcraft Hysteria

Witchcraft in America 

Witch Hunts in Connecticut


Footnotes in the Wilderness
Hartford Courant
Woodward, Walter; New England’s Other Witchhunt: The Hartford Witch-hunt of the 1660s and Changing Patterns in Witchcraft Prosecution, Magazine of History, July 2003.
Taylor, John M.; The Witchcraft Delusion in Colonial Connecticut, 1647-1697; Grafton Press, New York, 1908.