Beyond Salem – Witch trials in America

We do know a lot about American colonial conceptions of witchcraft, if only because it led to a lot of drama and death. But in 1658, predating the Salem Witch Trials, there was Elizabeth “Goody” Garlick, Long Island’s Witch of Easthampton (modern-day East Hampton), who had been accused by an ill 16-year-old mother right before the teenager died. The local magistrates—even then overwhelmed by the gossiping and pettiness of their constituents—deferred to Hartford, Connecticut’s court (at the time, Long Island had administrative ties to Connecticut). Luckily for Goody, the Governor of the colony was John Winthrop, Jr., who saw these accusations of witchcraft as mere community pathology—a viewpoint he carried throughout all the witch trials he oversaw over the next decade.

Witchcraft was one of 12 capital crimes decreed by Connecticut’s colonial government in 1642. The legal precedent cited by the devoutly Puritan colonists was of a divinely higher order: biblical passages such as Exodus 22:18 (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”) and Leviticus 20:27 (“A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death”).

Thirty years before the infamous Salem witch trials, America’s first witch hunt hysteria swept through another colonial New England town. Find out about the accusations and trials that rattled Hartford, Connecticut, in 1662.

The first recorded confession of witchcraft in Connecticut was given under duress by Mary Johnson in 1648. Mary was a servant whose legal troubles began around 1646 when she was accused of theft. Under pressure from the minister, Samuel Stone, and after extended whipping, Mary confessed that she was guilty of witchcraft (or, as it was called, “familiarity with the Devil”) and fully described her crimes, including using the Devil to help her with her household chores. She admitted to “uncleanness with men and Devils” and even to the “murder of a child”, although she was not indicted for murder or adultery. However, the charge of “familiarity with the Devil” stuck and, on the strength of her confession, she was sentenced to death. She gave birth to a baby boy while awaiting her sentence in jail in Hartford, Connecticut. The execution was delayed, probably due to her pregnancy, until June 1650, when she was hanged.

Alse Young (sometimes called Alice Young or Achsah Young) of Windsor, Connecticut, became the first person in the records executed for witchcraft in the thirteen American colonies when she was hanged in May 1647 in Hartford, Connecticut (there is no further record of the trial or the specifics of the charge). Although she had a daughter, Alice Young Beamon (who would herself be accused of witchcraft in nearby Springfield, Massachusetts, some 30 years later), she had no son when the accusation was lodged, which implied that she would be eligible to receive through inheritance her husband’s estate, and it is thought that this may have been a factor in the accusation. It also appears that there may have been some sort of epidemic in the town of Windsor in early 1647.

In late March 1662, John and Bethia Kelly grieved over the body of their 8-year-old daughter inside their Hartford, Connecticut, home. Little Elizabeth had been fine just days before when she returned home with a neighbor, Goodwife Ayres. The distraught parents, grasping at any explanation for their loss, saw the hand of the devil at work.

The parents were convinced that Elizabeth had been fatally possessed by Goody Ayres. The Kellys testified that their daughter first took ill the night after she returned home with her neighbor and that she 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.”

After Elizabeth’s death, accusations of bewitchment flew, and fingers were pointed at numerous townspeople. Hysteria gripped Hartford, a town that a generation before had witnessed the first execution of a suspected witch in the American colonies. Alse (Alice) Young of Windsor, Connecticut, was sent to the gallows erected in Hartford’s Meeting House Square, now the site of Connecticut’s Old State House, on May 26, 1647.

Photo by h.koppdelaney

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