by Andy Piascik
It was one of the most shameful episodes in the long history of Connecticut. It was a period when superstition, patriarchy, and religion-fueled repression were bedrock features of colonial life. It lasted several decades and preceded the more famous cases in Salem, Massachusetts, by almost fifty years. This was witchcraft and witch-hunting in 17th-century Connecticut.
Witchcraft as a Crime in Connecticut
While witchcraft had been practiced around the world for centuries, there was no formal mention of it in the colony of Connecticut until it became a crime punishable by death in 1642. Historical interpretations and general theories as to why people targeted others as witches tend to focus on the difficulty of life in the New World. Settlers from England had, by 1642, experienced a great deal of hardship that fed feelings of hostility toward the natural world, as well as to anyone within the community who did not strictly conform to harsh social and personal mores. Disease epidemics, starvation, and winters colder and longer than those experienced in England were just some of the problems settlers faced. Perhaps more important, though, were the relations with local indigenous peoples which sometimes fueled violent encounters and promoted fear and anxiety within colonial settlements.
For its part, patriarchal views of women as second-class citizens sometimes manifested itself in accusations of witchcraft. The majority of those executed as witches, both in Connecticut and elsewhere, were poor women, sometimes single mothers, living on the margins of society. Although men committed the overwhelming percentage of crimes (moral and otherwise), legislation pertaining to moral crimes largely directed itself at policing the behavior of women. Legislators and religious figures were, by definition, all men, and it was women who bore the brunt of social and religious intolerance. Female sexuality was especially contested terrain and it was around the expression of any degree of independence and sexual freedom by women that many of the charges of witchcraft arose.
There is some evidence that accusations of witchcraft against women were also, at least in part, founded on greed. In many cases, for example, the women accused were married but did not have male offspring, which meant they were in line to inherit their husband’s estates should they outlive them. In the event a woman died before her husband and without producing a male heir, the man’s property, upon his death, went to the community. Some of these elements factored into the case of Alse Young, purported to be the first person in colonial America executed as a witch.
The Cases of Alse Young and Mary Johnson
Very little is known about Alse Young (she is sometimes referred to as Achsah Young or Alice Young). She was born around 1600 and was a resident of Windsor, Connecticut, married a man named John Young, and gave birth to a daughter Alice. She was accused of witchcraft in 1647 and hanged in Hartford in May of that year, with her husband surviving her. Thirty years later, her daughter, Alice, stood accused of being a witch in Springfield, Massachusetts. Although Alice did not hang, the historical records are sketchy as to what punishment she actually received.
In 1646, a Connecticut servant named Mary Johnson was accused of being a witch. Her period of travail dragged on for years, during which time authorities tortured her by whipping and a local minister tormented her until she finally confessed. Under these circumstances, Johnson admitted to being a witch and, perhaps more importantly, of “uncleanness with men.” Authorities hanged her after a delay during which she gave birth to a child by a man to whom she was not married.
Though the vast majority of those accused of witchcraft were women, two men in Connecticut also hanged as witches: John Carrington and Nathaniel Greensmith, both of whom died along with their wives. The execution of the Greensmiths came amid the Hartford Witch Panic in which authorities killed three people as witches in a span of a month in the early 1660s. Those three killings brought an end to the disgraceful episode in Connecticut history, as shortly thereafter Governor John Winthrop Jr. established more stringent evidentiary requirements for establishing guilt. After that the executions ceased. The Connecticut residents who died as witches, however, set both a legal and moral precedent that led, in part, to the more famous Salem Witch Trials of 1692-93.
Bridgeport native Andy Piascik is an award-winning author who has written for many publications and websites over the last four decades. He is also the author of two books.