Witch Delusion in America 1600’s

“It was not to be expected of the colonists of New England that they should be the first to see through a delusion which befooled the whole civilized world, and the gravest and most knowing persons in it. The colonists in Connecticut and New Haven, as well as in Massachusetts, like all other Christian people at that time–at least with extremely rare individual exceptions–believed in the reality of a hideous crime called witchcraft.” PALFREY’S “New England” (Vol. IV, pp. 96-127).

“The truth is that it [witchcraft] pervaded the whole Christian Church. The law makers and the ministers of New England were under its influences as–and no more than–were the law makers and ministers of Old England.” “Blue Laws–True and False” (p. 23), TRUMBULL.

“One —- of Windsor Arraigned and Executed at Hartford for a Witch.” WINTHROP’S “Journal” (2: 374, Savage Ed., 1853).

Here beginneth the first chapter of the story of the delusion in Connecticut. It is an entry made by John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in his famous journal, without specific date, but probably in the spring of 1647.

It is of little consequence save as much has been made of it by some writers as fixing the relative date of the earliest execution for witchcraft in New England, and locating it in one of the three original Connecticut towns.

What matters it at this day whether Mary Johnson as tradition runs, or Alse Youngs as truth has it, was put to death for witchcraft in Windsor, Connecticut, in 1647, or Martha Jones of Charlestown, Massachusetts, was hung for the same crime at Boston in 1648, as also set down in Winthrop’s Journal?

“It may possibly be thought a great neglect, or matter of partiality, that no account is given of witchcraft in Connecticut. The only reason is, that after the most careful researches, no indictment of any person for that crime, nor any process relative to that affair can be found.” (“History of Connecticut”, 1799, Preface, BENJAMIN TRUMBULL, D.D.)

“A few words should be said regarding the author’s mention of the subject of witchcraft in Connecticut…. It is, I believe, strictly true, as he says ‘that no indictment of any person for that crime nor any process relative to that affair can be found.’

“It must be confessed, however, that a careful study of the official colonial records of Connecticut and New Haven leaves no doubt that Goodwife Bassett was convicted and hung at Stratford for witchcraft in 1651, and Goodwife Knapp at Fairfield in 1653. It is also recorded in Winthrop’s “Journal” that ‘One —- of Windsor was arraigned and executed at Hartford for a witch’ in March, 1646-47, which if it actually occurred, forms the first instance of an execution for witchcraft in New England. The quotation here given is the only known authority for the statement, and opens the question whether something probably recorded as hearsay in a journal, may be taken as authoritative evidence of an occurrence…. The fact however remains, that the official records are as our author says, silent regarding the actual proceedings, and it is only by inference that it may be found from these records that the executions took place.” (Introduction to Reprint of “Trumbull’s History of Connecticut”, 1898, JONATHAN TRUMBULL.)

The searcher for inerrant information about witchcraft in Connecticut may easily be led into a maze of contradictions, and the statement last above quoted is an apt illustration, with record evidence to the contrary on every hand. Tradition, hearsay, rumor, misstatements, errors, all colored by ignorance or half knowledge, or a local jealousy or pride, have been woven into a woof of precedent and acceptance, and called history.

As has been already stated, the general writers from Trumbull to Johnston have nothing of value to say on the subject; the open official records and the latest history–”Connecticut as a Colony and a State”–cover only certain cases, and nowhere from the beginning to this day has the story of witchcraft been fully told.

Connecticut can lose nothing in name or fame or honor, if, more than two centuries after the last witch was executed within her borders, the facts as to her share in the strange superstition be certified from the current records of the events.

How may this story best be told? Clearly, so far as may be, in the very words of the actors in those tragic scenes, in the words of the minister and magistrate, the justice and the juryman, the accuser and the accused, and the searcher. Into this court of inquiry come all these personalities to witness the sorrowful march of the victims to the scaffold or to exile, or to acquittal and deliverance with the after life of suspicion and social ostracism.

The spectres of terror did not sit alone at the firesides of the poor and lowly: they stalked in high places, and were known of men and women of the first rank in education and the social virtues, and of greatest influence in church and state.

Of this fact there is complete demonstration in a glance at the dignitaries who presided at one of the earliest witchcraft trials—men of notable ancestry, of learning, of achievements, leaders in colonial affairs, whose memories are honored to this day.

These were the magistrates at a session entitled “A particular courte in Hartford upon the tryall of John Carrington and his wife 20th Feb., 1662” (See “Rec. P.C.”, 2: 17): Edw. Hopkins Esqr., Gournor John Haynes Esqr. Deputy, Mr. Wells, Mr. Woolcott, Mr. Webster, Mr. Cullick, Mr. Clarke.

This court had jurisdiction over misdemeanors, and was “aided by a jury,” as a close student of colonial history, the late Sherman W. Adams, quaintly says in one of his historical papers. These were the jurymen:

Mr. Phelps           John White           John More

Mr. Tailecoat       Will Leawis           Edw. Griswold

Mr. Hollister       Sam. Smith           Steph. Harte

Daniel Milton       John Pratt           Theo. Judd

Before this tribunal–representative of the others doing like service later–made up of the foremost citizens, and of men in the ordinary walks of life, endowed with hard common sense and presumably inspired with a spirit of justice and fair play, came John Carrington and his wife Joan of Wethersfield, against whom the jury brought in a verdict of guilty.

It must be clearly borne in mind that all these men, in this as in all the other witchcraft trials in Connecticut, illustrious or commonplace–as are many of their descendants whose names are written on the rolls of the patriotic societies in these days of ancestral discovery and exploitation–were absolute believers in the powers of Satan and his machinations through witchcraft and the evidence then adduced to prove them, and trained to such credulity by their education and experience, by their theological doctrines, and by the law of the land in Old England, but still clothed upon with that righteousness which as it proved in the end made them skeptical as to certain alleged evidences of guilt, and swift to respond to the calls of reason and of mercy when the appeals were made to their calm judgment and second thought as to the sins of their fellowmen.

In no way can the truth be so clearly set forth, the real character of the evidence be so justly appreciated upon which the convictions were had, as from the depositions and the oral testimony of the witnesses themselves. They are lasting memorials to the credulity and superstition, and the religious insanity which clouded the senses of the wisest men for a time, and to the malevolence and satanic ingenuity of the people who, possessed of the devil accused their friends and neighbors of a crime punishable by death.

Nor is this dark chapter in colonial history without its flashes of humor and ridiculousness, as one follows the absurd and unbridled testimonies which have been chosen as completely illustrative of the whole series in the years of the witchcraft nightmare. They are in part cited here, for the sake of authenticity and exactness, as written out in the various court records and depositions, published and unpublished, in the ancient style of spelling, and are worthy the closest study for many reasons.

It will, however, clear the way to a better understanding of the unique testimonies of the witch witnesses, if there be first presented the authoritative reasons for the examination of a witch, coupled with a summary of the lawful tests of innocence or guilt. They are in the handwriting of William Jones, a Deputy Governor of Connecticut and a member of the court at some of the trials.



“1. Notorious defamacon by ye common report of the people a ground of suspicion.

“2. Second ground for strict examinacon is if a fellow witch gave testimony on his examinacon or death yt such a pson is a witch, but this is not sufficient for conviccon or condemnacon.

“3. If after cursing, there follow death or at least mischiefe to ye party.

“4. If after quarrelling or threatening a prsent mischiefe doth follow for ptye’s devilishly disposed after cursing doe use threatnings, & yt alsoe is a grt prsumcon agt y.

“5. If ye pty suspected be ye son or daughter, the serv’t or familiar friend, neer neighbors or old companion of a knowne or convicted witch this alsoe is a prsumcon, for witchcraft is an art yt may be larned & covayd from man to man & oft it falleth out yt a witch dying leaveth som of ye aforesd heires of her witchcraft.

“6. If ye pty suspected have ye devills mark for t’is thought wn ye devill maketh his covent with y he alwayess leaves his mark behind him to know y for his owne yt is, if noe evident reason in can be given for such mark.

“7. Lastly if ye pty examined be unconstant & contrary to himselfe in his answers. “Thus much for examinacon wch usually is by Q. & some tymes by torture upon strong & grt presumcon.

“For conviccon it must be grounded on just and sufficient proofes. The proofes for conviccon of 2 sorts, 1, Some be less sufficient, some more sufficient.

“Less sufficient used in formr ages by red hot iron and scalding water. ye pty to put in his hand in one or take up ye othr, if not hurt ye pty cleered, if hurt convicted for a witch, but this was utterly condemned. In som countryes anothr proofe justified by some of ye learned by casting ye pty bound into water, if she sanck counted inocent, if she sunk not yn guilty, but all those tryalls the author counts supstitious and unwarrantable and worse. Although casting into ye water is by some justified for ye witch having made a ct wth ye devill she hath renounced her baptm & hence ye antipathy between her & water, but this he makes nothing off. Anothr insufficient testimoy of a witch is ye testimony of a wizard, who prtends to show ye face of ye witch to ye party afflicted in a glass, but this he counts diabolicall & dangerous, ye devill may reprsent a pson inocent. Nay if after curses & threats mischiefe follow or if a sick pson like to dy take it on his death such a one has bewitched him, there are strong grounds of suspicon for strict examinacon but not sufficient for conviccon.

“But ye truer proofes sufficient for conviccon are ye voluntary confession of ye pty suspected adjudged sufficient proofe by both divines & lawyers. Or 2 the testimony of 2 witnesses of good and honest report avouching things in theire knowledge before ye magistrat 1 wither yt ye party accused hath made a league wth ye devill or 2d or hath ben some knowne practices of witchcraft. Argumts to prove either must be as 1 if they can pve ye pty hath invocated ye devill for his help this pt of yt ye devill binds withes to.

“Or 2 if ye pty hath entertained a familiar spt in any forme mouse cat or othr visible creature.

“Or 3 if they affirm upon oath ye pty hath done any accon or work wch inferreth a ct wth ye devill, as to shew ye face of a man in a glass, or used inchantmts or such feates, divineing of things to come, raising tempests, or causing ye forme of a dead man to appeare or ye like it sufficiently pves a witch.

“But altho those are difficult things to prove yet yr are wayes to come to ye knowledg of y, for tis usuall wth Satan to pmise anything till ye league be ratified, & then he     nothing     ye discovery of y, for wtever witches intend the devill intends nothing but theire utter confusion, therefore in ye just judgmt of God it soe oft falls out yt some witches shall by confession discour ys, or by true testimonies be convicted.

“And ye reasons why ye devill would discover y is 1 his malice towards all men 2 his insatiable desire to have ye witches not sure enough of y till yn.

“And ye authors warne jurors, &c not to condemne suspected psons on bare prsumtions wthout good & sufficient proofes.

“But if convicted of yt horrid crime to be put to death, for God hath said thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

The accuser and the prosecutor were aided in their work in a peculiar way. It was the theory and belief that every witch was marked—very privately marked–by the Devil, and the marks could only be discovered by a personal examination. And thus there came into the service of the courts a servant known as a “searcher,” usually a woman, as most of the unfortunates who were accused were women.

The location and identification of the witch marks involved revolting details, some of the reports being unprintable. It is, however, indispensable to a right understanding of the delusion and the popular opinions which made it possible, that these incidents, abhorrent and nauseating as they are, be given within proper limitations to meet inquiry–not curiosity–and because they may be noted in various records.

A standard authority in legal procedure in England, recognized in witchcraft prosecutions in the New England colonies, was “Dalton’s Country Justice”, first published in 1619 in England, and in its last edition in 1746.

In its chapter on Witchcraft are these directions as to the witch marks: “These witches have ordinarily a familiar, or spirit which appeareth to them, sometimes in one shape and sometimes in another; as in the shape of a man, woman, boy, dog, cat, foal, hare, rat, toad, etc. And to these their spirits, they give names, and they meet together to christen them (as they speak)…. And besides their sucking the Devil leaveth other marks upon their body, sometimes like a blue or red spot, like a flea-biting, sometimes the flesh sunk in and hollow. And these Devil’s marks be insensible, and being pricked will not bleed, and be often in their secretest parts, and therefore require diligent and careful search. These first two are main points to discover and convict thosewitches.”

These methods were adopted in the proceedings against witches in Connecticut, and it will suffice to cite one of the reports of a committee–Sarah Burr, Abigail Burr, Abigail Howard, Sarah Wakeman, and Hannah Wilson,–“apointed (by the court) to make sarch upon ye bodis of Marcy Disbrough and Goodwif Clauson,” at Fairfield, in September and October 1692, sworn to before Jonathan Bell, Commissioner, and John Allyn, Secretary.

“Wee Sarah bur and abigall bur and Abigail howard and Sarah wakman all of fayrfeild with hanna wilson being by order of authority apointed to make sarch upon ye bodis of marcy disbrough and goodwif Clauson to see what they Could find on ye bodies of ether & both of them; and wee retor as followeth and doe testify as to goodwif Clauson forementioned wee found on her secret parts Just within ye lips of ye same growing within sid sumewhat as broad and reach without ye lips of ye same about on Inch and half long lik in shape to a dogs eare which wee apprehend to be vnvsuall to women.

“and as to marcy wee find on marcy foresayd on her secret parts growing within ye lep of ye same a los pees of skin and when puld it is near an Inch long somewhat in form of ye fingar of a glove flatted “that lose skin wee Judge more than common to women.” “Octob. 29 1692 The above sworn by the above-named as attests


SOURCE: The Witchcraft Delusion In Colonial Connecticut 1647-1697: By John M. Taylor


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.