Righting the wrongs of Connecticut’s witch trials

It was 12:30 pm on a beautiful and unseasonably warm Saturday in mid-October. A few dozen people were gathered at the center of the Ancient Burying Ground cemetery in downtown Hartford, all seeking to satisfy a desire for some local history sprinkled with a bit of Halloween spookiness. At the center of the crowd was author Richard Ross III.

Clad in a brown tweed jacket, Ross took the assembled crowd on a journey through the history of witch trials, from the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum in the 1400s to the persecutions in Europe and through to the very first witch trial here in the American colonies. An event that took place not in Salem, as one might assume, but only blocks from where Ross stood in Central Connecticut.

Forty-five years before the witch hysteria of Salem, on May 26, 1647, Alse Young (sometimes referred to as Alyse or Alice), a resident of the town of Windsor, Connecticut, was accused by her neighbors, tried by her community, and hanged outside Meeting House Square in Hartford, the current site of the Old State House. A notation in the diary of then-Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop is one of the few pieces of historical evidence that the event even occurred. It reads: “One — of Windsor was hanged.”

Hartford’s Old State House is reportedly the site of several of the state’s witch hangings

“A lot of historians have speculated that it was because of a huge influenza epidemic that came through Windsor that year,” says Beth Caruso, author of One of Windsor, a historical novel about Alse Young. Caruso says from her research, she agrees with historians that the influenza outbreak was likely the precursor to her accusation. 

“It turned out that there were four children right next door to Alse Young who died that year that she was hanged, and the death rate was more than quadruple that year, and some of the other people in town who were really important also lost children,” she says. “So that influenza epidemic and her being blamed for it made total sense, especially when the largest cluster of children who died were right next door.”

During the next few decades, dozens of men and women would face trial for accusations of witchcraft. Ten would follow Alse to the gallows.

Back in the cemetery, as Ross came to the conclusion of his initial presentation, a member of the crowd asked whether there were any efforts to exonerate the accused. On that, there is good news. A growing number of people are petitioning the state for that very thing.

Path to Exoneration

Tony Griego became heavily involved in the movement to exonerate Connecticut’s witches in 2009 but the effort had been in full swing for at least a few years already. In 2005, state historian Walter Woodward held a talk in Torrington where he educated the audience about the state’s history of witch trials. Members of the crowd asked him whether anything had been done to correct what took place and when he said no, Griego says they formed an ad hoc committee to try to do it themselves.

Unfortunately, they would suffer years of disappointment. An attempt in 2008 to get a proclamation through the state legislature never made it out of committee, despite what Griego says was at least 45 minutes of testimony from descendants of the accused and other members of the public.

In 2010, when still nothing had been done, Griego decided to see if he could get the state – or some other entity – to issue official pardons.

“I wrote to the Board of Pardons and Paroles. They sent me a nice letter, but they basically said to me that ‘We don’t pardon dead people.’ So, then I started to write two different elected officials,” he recalls. “I wrote to the Queen of England. I did get a letter back from her staff, which basically said that they would have to re-open all the witchcraft cases, which I know would be almost impossible because many of the records have disappeared.”

 Many figures associated with the state's witch trials are buried at the Ancient Burying Ground in Hartford
Many figures associated with the state’s witch trials are buried at the Ancient Burying Ground in Hartford

Finally, Griego had the idea to raise money to erect a stone memorial. The plan was to place the memorial, which would cost around $7,000, at one of three locations in Hartford significant to the state’s witch trial history. These included the Old State House, the South Green (now called Barnard Park), and, of course, the Ancient Burying Ground.

Griego says he presented the idea to the board of the Ancient Burying Ground Association and that they were receptive to the idea.

“The problem at that time was that the Ancient Burial Ground is not owned by the Church, which is located on the property. The burial ground is owned by the city of Hartford,” he says, adding that the other two locations are also city property. “So, I try to make contact with Hartford or the mayor, and it just never went anywhere.”

Stalled on a location and forced to return funds they were able to raise at the time, Griego, who had teamed up with Beth Caruso, decided to change tactics. They set up a Facebook Group aimed at educating members about each of the 40 or so people accused of witchcraft and tried to generate renewed interest in justice.

For Alse Young, there has been a small amount of justice already. In 2017, the Windsor Town Council unanimously passed a resolution “restoring the good names” of both her and Lydia Gilbert, another Windsor resident who was hanged for witchcraft in 1654.

There has been no such justice, however, for the nine others executed or the dozens more accused. For Griego, nothing short of recognition by the State of Connecticut will suffice. 

“I think the state should make, whether it be an expression of regret, change the pardon system, or just come out with a proclamation clear and their names,” he says definitively.

Historic Horrors

The idea of witches and witchcraft, of curses and hexes and of mysterious women sneaking out at night to lay with Satan and bring untold horrors upon the town may seem like the stuff of campfire stories to us today, but in colonial New England, those beliefs were very real. 

Speaking to Yale News in 2015, historian John Putnam Demos, who traced his own family back to a notorious witch hunter said witchcraft “did not shape the culture; it was a central part of the culture, all mixed up with religion, and community life. If you stopped people on street in New Haven in 1660, everyone would have things to say — and stories to tell — about witchcraft. It was a part of everyday life, no more and no less.”

As witch hysteria spread, it would become easier to accuse a neighbor than risk being accused yourself, as John M. Taylor wrote in his 1908 history The Witchcraft Delusion in Colonial Connecticut (1647-1697):

“An accusation of witchcraft was a serious matter, one of life or death, and often it was safer to become an accuser than one of the accused. Made in terror, malice, mischief, revenge, or religious dementia, or of some other ingredients in the devil’s brew, attached are the stages of suspicion, espionage, watching, and searchings, to the formal complaints and indictments which follow the testimony of the witnesses, and their madness and delusion hot-foot to tell the story of their own doing, they’re grotesque imaginings, their spectral visions, they’re suffering is at the hands of Satan and his tools, and all aimed at people, their neighbors and acquaintances, often wholly innocent, but having marked personal peculiarities, or of irregular lives by the Puritan and standard, or unpopular in their communities, who are made the victim of one base passion or another and brought to trial for a capital offense against person and property.”

Connecticut’s own witch trials would later go on to inform the process in Salem and, oddly enough, would rewrite the way trials themselves were conducted in the young colony.

In 1657, ten years after Alse Young’s execution, John Winthrop Jr. became Connecticut’s governor and with it, its chief magistrate. A few years into his tenure, he was sent back to England to obtain a royal charter that would establish Connecticut as a separate colony, able to make its own laws and give Winthrop the power to grant pardons.

Winthrop, at the time, had grown distasteful of the practice of hanging witches, and upon his return with the charter, he put an end to the executions by inserting himself into the trials themselves to ensure they wouldn’t end in death. Connecticut residents could still be tried for witchcraft, but they would no longer be hanged. 

In 1666, the General Court of Connecticut over which he presided ordered that any testimony provided in any case in any court must be recorded in writing and preserved. Writes Taylor, “the later generations owe their opportunity to judge aright in the matter to the foresight of the men of chief note in the communities who saw vital necessity of record evidence.”

Additionally, Winthrop helped establish a rule that any act of witchcraft would need to be witnessed by multiple people at the same time to be admissible in court.

In his new role, Winthrop presided over the trial of Katherine Harrison in 1669, and thanks to the new rules, the accusations against her were recorded in detail. In reprinting them in the pages of his book, Taylor called these accusations “the drivel, the travesties of common sense, the mockeries of truth, which fell from the lips of the witnesses in their testimonies.”

Katherine was found guilty by a jury, but further inquiry and her own appeal allowed her to leave prison after paying several fines and agreeing to leave her home of Wethersfield. She moved to Westchester, New York, but the accusations followed her. Her new neighbors accused her again, but the court in New York found her not guilty and allowed her to stay or go as she wished.

Effects Deeply Felt

Even though the majority of Connecticut’s accused witches were not executed for their crimes, many of them, like Katherine, still paid dearly.

“I think these people should also be acknowledged for the suffering they went through,” says Beth Caruso. “I know a lot of times, maybe they didn’t get convicted, but they still were forced to sell their property and leave town, they were banished where they had lived their whole life, things like that.”

That’s one of the reasons some supporters of the cause believe descendants of the witch trial victims are owed some kind of recompense, even now nearly 400 years after they were put on trial. For those supporters who can trace their lineage back to these victims, it is impossible to comprehend or assess how their families were affected. Many of the accused owned land, which was surrendered or sold, and some families were separated.

Richard Ross III leads a tour about Connecticut's witch trials at the Ancient Burying Ground in Hartford
Richard Ross III leads a tour about Connecticut’s witch trials at the Ancient Burying Ground in Hartford

For some, knowing your ancestors were persecuted brings with it a meaningful shared history.

Sarah Jack is one such descendant. Years ago, while doing a genealogy project for school, she learned that one of her ancestors, Rebecca Nurse, and her sister, Mary Eastey, were among the 19 people executed in Salem in 1692. It wasn’t until some time later that she learned another ancestor, Winifred Benham, was indicted in Wallingford that same year. She was later acquitted.

Jack says that she has benefitted from a large family association that has grown from her Salem ancestors (whose maiden names were Towne).

“I have valued that. When I have met other researchers that are also related to the Townes, we have that common piece,” she says. “And I wanted there to be something for the Connecticut descendants, because not only is there not a lot of information, there just wasn’t a social aspect to it for them.”

Jack says they have found some of that camaraderie online. They have established a Discord server, which has allowed descendants across the country to find each other, ask questions, and better understand this part of their family history.

“The Discord was a really key component because it allowed many people to come together,” says Jack. “And I’m so glad that that happened because I really think it was a strong tool to help us all get to know each other and be able to discuss pertinent information without these emails flying back and forth.”

Now, Jack and fellow supporter Josh Hutchinson are branching out their exploration of witch trials across the country with a new podcast called Thou Shalt Not Suffer. They’re hoping to shed light on just how widespread these persecutions really were.

“We still have a lot to learn from these trials. We see the same behaviors, the way that we treat other people in our country today. There are still metaphorical witch hunts that happen, and they’re driven by the same types of fear that drove the witch trials historically,” says Hutchinson. “And there are countries, especially in Africa and Asia, where they’re still hunting, witches. There are lynchings. There are sort of trials and a lot of people are tortured or killed because of witchcraft beliefs still going on today.”

Here in Connecticut, families of the accused are still pushing for state action. Through their efforts and outreach, Rep. Jane Garibay (D-Windsor) has decided to take the issue back to the General Assembly in the upcoming legislative session. She’s meeting with the Judiciary Committee to come up with a plan and believes the issue has a chance in the assembly.

“I know that Majority Leader Rojas called me. He’s in full support of it, so I think there is support,” she says. “It’s the time when women are facing losing what we consider rights, that women that lost those rights years ago, and I know it was the time and it was different, but it was horrible.”

As Richard Ross lead the assembled group through the cemetery earlier this month, you couldn’t help but feel like those who had been accused were once again victims of a story not their own. The gravestones visited by the tour were not of those who were tried and convicted — all too often they were buried in unmarked graves or cast off to the side of the road. Instead, these were the graves of their judges, juries, and executioners, prominent men whose families were able to bury them with dignity.

For their victims, Connecticut’s accused witches, it will still be a long road from initial interest to a written referendum to a vote on the floor. There will likely never be a pardon, but recognition, at least, is possible. 

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An Emmy and AP award-winning journalist, Tricia has spent more than a decade working in digital and broadcast media. She has covered everything from government corruption to science and space to entertainment...

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