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 not only intensely religious, but were also 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 were recruited by the Devil to cause harm within their communities.
In the colonial settlements of the New World, 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 harsh religious, social, and personal standards of the community.
Women were more often targeted as witches than were men, for a number of 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 were blamed for sickness, death, and problems with childbirth.
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 the core beliefs of the Puritan society. This manifested itself into a distrust of women who were married but had no male offspring, who were in line to inherit their husband’s 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 the hands of their neighbors. 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, as well as 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 the actions of Mercy Disborough and Elizabeth Clawson. This accusation was followed by several others 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 the years of 1647 and 1697, there were over 40 accusations of witchcraft in Connecticut and 11 people were executed.
See Next Page for People Accused Of Witchcraft In Connecticut.