Early on, Puritan Connecticut was divided into two colonies: Connecticut and New Haven. Witchcraft officially became a crime in Connecticut in 1642, with the law stating: “If any man or woman be a witch—that is, hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit—they shall be put to death.” In New Haven, a similar law was enacted in 1655, stating, “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.”
Those accused would go through a formal criminal prosecution, including a jury trial.
The Puritans of Connecticut were connected with the Massachusetts and Plymouth colonies and like them, fled England primarily due to religious persecution. In America, they desired to create a “nation of saints” and were intensely religious and serious, conservative, thoroughly righteous, and intolerant of other beliefs or religions. Though they had left behind their former lands in Europe, they brought with them the Old World belief in witches who the Devil recruited to cause harm within their communities.
In the New World’s colonial settlements, the Puritans experienced a great deal of hardship, including epidemics of illness, difficult winters, the death of livestock, starvation, and Indian attacks. Looking for something or someone to blame for these maladies, witchcraft was often the scapegoat. Their eyes would often turn to anyone who did not strictly conform to the community’s harsh religious, social, and personal standards.
Women were more often targeted as witches than were men for several reasons.
At that time, women were viewed as second-class citizens in the patriarchal communities and generally bore the brunt of social and religious intolerance. They were expected to be quiet, submissive, and live under a male head of the household. Those who didn’t fit within this mold were subjugated and were at higher risk of being accused of witchcraft.
Because of their roles as food preparers, animal tenders, and midwives, they blamed them for sickness, death, and childbirth problems.
The majority of those women accused as witches, both in Connecticut and elsewhere, were poor women, single mothers, widows, women over the age of 40, and those living on the margins of society. For these women, their communities saw them as having no specific purpose.
Widows were a specific concern to Puritan leaders, especially if they had inherited land and money, which went against Puritan society’s core beliefs. This manifested itself into a distrust of married women with no male offspring, who was in line to inherit their husbands’ estates should they outlive them. Alternatively, if the wife died before her husband and without producing a male heir, the man’s property would go to the community upon his death.
At this time, it took only a single witness to support a witchcraft trial and conviction.
In 1647, Alse Young of Windsor, Connecticut, was the first person executed for witchcraft in the 13 colonies. She was followed by Mary Johnson of Wethersfield, Connecticut, who was the first to confess to witchcraft and was executed in 1650 at Hartford. Several more cases were to follow in the succeeding years, the vast majority of whom were women who were envied, disliked, or lived on the edge of society’s margins.
In the spring of 1662, Connecticut’s witch-hunting reached its peak with the Hartford Witch Panic, which was set off with the death of eight-year-old Elizabeth Kelly, whose parents were convinced that their neighbor Goody Ayres had caused their child’s death through magic. Soon, several other people in Hartford came forward, claiming to have been “afflicted” by demonic possession at their neighbors’ hands. It ultimately resulted in 12 people being accused of witchcraft and four executions.
Following these deaths in 1662, the Colonial Governor, John Winthrop, Jr., began to question the value of the “evidence” in these witch trials and the possible agendas of the witnesses. As a result, he established more objective criteria for witch trials that required at least two witnesses for each alleged act of witchcraft, and in some cases, he personally intervened and overturned or reversed verdicts.
At that time, executions stopped, but the witch hunts continued.
In 1692, at the same time of the witch hysteria in Salem, Massachusetts, another frenzy occurred in Fairfield, Connecticut. It began when a young servant girl named Catharine Branch claimed she was having fits due to Mercy Disborough and Elizabeth Clawson’s actions. Several others followed this accusation, and though there were several indictments, there were no more executions.
Afterward, witchcraft remained a capital crime in Connecticut into the 18th century, but there were very few prosecutions after the Fairfield panic.
Between 1647 and 1697, over 40 accusations of witchcraft were made in Connecticut, and 11 people were executed.
People Accused Of Witchcraft In Connecticut
Alse Young – Accused in Windsor in 1647 and hanged.
Mary Johnson – Accused in Wethersfield in 1648 and hanged in 1650.
John Carrington – Accused in Wethersfield in 1651 and hanged.
Joan Carrington – Accused in Wethersfield in 1651 and hanged.
Goodwife Bassett – Accused in Fairfield in 1651 and hanged.
Goodwife Knapp – Accused in Fairfield in 1653 and hanged.
Elizabeth Goodman – She was accused twice in New Haven in 1653 and 1655. She was acquitted with a warning the first time. On the second accusation, records are conflicting as to whether she was prosecuted.
Mary Staples – Mary was accused twice of witchcraft, the first time in 1654 in New Haven when she was exonerated and awarded damages for slander. The second time she was accused in Fairfield in 1692. On this occasion, she was indicted, but records are conflicting as to whether she was prosecuted.
Lydia Gilbert – Accused in Windsor in 1654, she was convicted, but fate is not written in any known record. She was most likely hanged.
Nicholas Bailey – Accused in New Haven in 1655 and was acquitted and banished along with his wife.
Goodwife Bailey – Accused in New Haven in 1655 and was acquitted and banished along with her husband.
William Meaker – Accused in 1657 in New Haven. He was acquitted and charged his accuser with slander.
Elizabeth Garlick – Accused Easthampton in 1658 and acquitted. Though Easthampton is on Long Island, New York, it was initially within the jurisdiction of the Connecticut Colony.
Katherine Palmer – She was accused twice in Wethersfield in 1660 and 1662. The first time the case was dismissed with a warning. In 1662, she fled to Rhode Island.
Nicholas Jennings – He and his wife were accused in Saybrook in 1661. They both were acquitted.
Margaret Jennings – She and her husband were accused in Saybrook in 1661. They both were acquitted.
Judith Varlet – Accused in Hartford in 1662, she was acquitted.
Goody Ayres – Accused in Hartford in 1662, she fled the colony with her husband, who also appears to have been accused.
Rebecca Greensmith – Accused in Hartford in 1662, she, along with her husband, was hanged in January 1663.
Nathanial Greensmith – Accused in Hartford in 1662, he, along with his wife, was hanged in January 1663.
Mary Sanford – She, along with her husband, was accused in Hartford in 1662. She was found guilty, and though no record of Mary’s execution has ever been found, she was probably hanged.
Andrew Sanford – He, along with his wife, was accused in Hartford in 1662. He was acquitted.
Mary Barnes – Accused in Farmington in 1662 and hanged.
Elizabeth Blackleach – Accused in Wethersfield in 1662. She was suspected but not charged and filed a slander suit against her accuser.
John Blackleach – Accused in Wethersfield in 1662. He was suspected but not charged and filed a slander suit against his accuser.
James Wakeley – He was accused twice in Hartford in 1662 and 1665. He fled both times.
Elizabeth Seager – She was accused twice in Hartford in 1663 and acquitted the first time but convicted of adultery the second time. She was then accused and tried again in 1665 when she was convicted of witchcraft. After spending a year in prison, her conviction was reversed, and she was released.
Mary Hall – She and her husband were accused in 1664 in Setauket and acquitted. Though Setauket is in Long Island, New York, it was initially within the jurisdiction of the Connecticut Colony.
Ralph Hall – He and his wife were accused in 1664 in Setauket and acquitted. Though Setauket is in Long Island, New York, it was initially within the jurisdiction of the Connecticut Colony.
John Brown – Accused in New Haven in 1665, he was released with a warning.
William Graves – Accused in Stamford in 1665. Though a complaint was filed, he was never prosecuted.
Hannah Griswold – Accused in Saybrook in 1667. She was exonerated and awarded damages for slander.
Sarah Dibble – Accused in Windsor in 1673. At the trial, the jury was hung, and she moved to New York.
Katherine Harrison – Accused in 1669 in Wethersfield. She was exonerated and awarded damages for slander.
Goody Messenger – Accused in 1669 in Windsor. She was exonerated and awarded damages for slander.
Mary Burr – Accused in 1678 in Wethersfield. She was exonerated and awarded damages for slander.
Goody Bowden – Accused in 1689 in New Haven. She was convicted but given a reprieve on a technicality.
Mercy Disborough – Accused in 1692 in Fairfield, she was acquitted.
Elizabeth Clawson – Accused in 1692 in Stamford. Records are conflicting as to whether she was prosecuted.
Mary Harvey – Accused in 1692 in Fairfield. Records are conflicting as to whether she was prosecuted.
Hannah Harvey – Accused in 1692 in Fairfield. Records are conflicting as to whether she was prosecuted.
Goody Miller – Accused in 1692 in Fairfield, she fled to New York.
Winifred Benham – Accused in 1692 in Wallingford, she was released on insufficient evidence.
Hugh Croatia – Accused in 1692 in Stratford, he was not indicted and was released.
Boynton, Cynthia Wolfe, Connecticut Witch Trials: The First Panic in the New World; The History Press, 2014.
Connecticut State Library
Demos, John Putman; Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England; Oxford University Press, 2004.
Witchcraft in Puritan History