The American Witch Hunt Three Decades Before Salem

When you think of witch trials in the United States what town springs to mind first? Your answer is more than likely Salem. However, some 30 years before the devastating witch trails in Salem came the witch panic in Hartford, Connecticut which would see the deaths of 4 people before its end.

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Witchcraft was 1 of 12 capital crimes decreed by Connecticut’s colonial government in 1642. The legal precedent cited by the devoutly Puritan colonists were passages from the Bible 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.’

The Puritans were members of a religious reform movement (Puritanism) which arose within the Church of England in the late 1500’s, they believed that the Church of England itself was too close to the Roman Catholic Church and ceremonies and practices that were not rooted in the Bible should be eliminated. It is because of their beliefs that the name “Puritan” was used by the movement’s enemies, they were portrayed as hair-splitters who savagely followed their Bibles as guides to every day life. While the Puritan attack on the established Church gained popularity especially in East Anglia and among the lawyers and merchants of London, under siege from both Church and Crown certain groups of Puritans migrated to New English colonies in the New World in the 1620s and 1630s, laying the foundations for the religious, intellectual and social ideals of New England.

Alse (Alice) Young

Alice was the first person to be convicted and hanged for witchcraft in colonial America on May 26th, 1647 in Hartford, 45 years before the Salem witch trials. No one knows where she came from or when she was born but thanks to a medical description of Alice sent to an alchemical physician, John Winthrop Jr. in 1652 we do know that she was married to a John Young.

There are no surviving trial records, but historians have speculated that she may have been the scapegoat for an epidemic of influenza or something similar. While no trial records service, we know that her execution was recorded in the Journal of Massachusetts Bay colony. In February of 2017, Alice was officially pardoned, and her name cleared by the Windsor Town Council.

Hartford, Connecticut

The spring of 1662 saw Connecticut’s witch hunting reach its peak in Hartford, set off by the death of 8-year old Elizabeth Kelly. Her parents distraught over their daughter’s death were convinced that she had been bewitched, this was only made worse by the conclusions of physician Bray Rossiter, who was asked by magistrates to conduct an autopsy on the child, concluding that she had died of supernatural causes unleashing a torrent of witchcraft accusations. The Kelly family believed that Goody Ayres had caused their daughters illness and death claiming that Elizabeth, who had visited the woman shortly before she became ill, had called out ‘Father! Father! Help me, help me! Goody 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!’

Shortly after the death of Elizabeth, Ann Cole suddenly became “afflicted” shaking violently and spouting blasphemy. Cole blamed her condition on Rebecca Greensmith and other members of the community suspected in the Kelly case.

Rebecca and Nathaniel Greensmith

The couple lived south of the Little River in Hartford on some 20 acres of land. Nathaniel also held other holdings on the road leading to Farmington. The couple were not well liked in Hartford. Nathaniel had several run-ins with the authorities when he was accused of stealing a hoe, 1 ½ bushels of wheat, lying in court and of battery. Rebecca was also viewed poorly in the community, her minister Reverend John Whiting described her as ‘lewd, ignorant and considerable aged.’ Rebecca was born Rebecca Steel in 1621 in Devon, England and by the time she met Nathaniel she had been married and widowed twice before. Her first marriage was to Abraham Elson with whom she had 2 children, Elson died in 1648 and she then married Jarvis Mudge and had a further 3 children but Mudge died in 1653 leaving her a widow again.

When Rebecca was accused by Ann Cole, she was jailed on suspicion of being a witch and was questioned by Reverend Joseph Haynes and Reverend John Whiting. Under their questioning she confessed that she had familiarity with the devil and that he had appeared to her in the form of a deer and that she along with Elizabeth Seager, Mary Barnes, Andrew and Mary Sanford [1] and William and Goody Ayres had danced with the devil in the woods. As well as her fellow townspeople Rebecca also implicated her husband saying that he could lift impossibly heavy objects and that he was followed around by animals, she also told the Reverends that she was afraid of him because of all the things that she had heard about him before they were married

On December 30th, 1662 a formal complaint was lodged against the couple and they were hanged on January 25th, 1663 following a trial where Rebecca confessed to the accusations, but her husband protested his innocence. Following their execution Ann Cole was reportedly restored to health.

Following these executions Goody Ayres and her husband fled the colony leaving everything, including their 8-year-old son behind them. Both Mary Sanford and Mary Barnes were sent to the gallows accused and convicted of witchcraft. Mary Barnes was to be the last to die in the Hartford witch hunt.
Detail from the book, England’s grievance discovered, in relation to the coal-trade… by Ralph Gardiner, 1655, “Many poor women imprisoned and hanged for witches” – New York Public Library Digital Collections, Rare Book Division

Elizabeth Seager

Elizabeth was one of the names given by Rebecca during her questioning and in 1665 she was convicted of witchcraft, but she would not be executed. Her husband Richard was born in Suffolk, England in 1595 and immigrated to America in the early years of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (an early English Puritan colony) and married Elizabeth (then Elizabeth Moody) in 1649. Elizabeth was born in Hartford to Deacon John Moody and Sarah Cox Moody in 1628. She married the 54- year old Richard when she was just 21 and had 5 children between 1650 and 1655. Elizabeth was indicted for witchcraft on January 6th, 1663 on the same day that Mary Barnes. Although Elizabeth was acquitted the suspicion and gossip continued and was indicted again on July 2nd, 1663.

The summer of 1663 saw a turning point in the witch hunt as Governor John Winthrop Jr. returned from England following his departure in 1661 to obtain a royal charter from Charles II. While he believed in witchcraft, he was highly sceptical of witchcraft allegations. Elizabeth was awaiting her trial when the Governor returned and was one of the first to benefit from his return, rather than being found guilty of witchcraft she was charged for the crime of adultery. But in the spring of 1665, she became a target for a third time and this time her accusers were determined to get a conviction for witchcraft, so Winthrop let the mob have their conviction, but he then refused to enforce it claiming that the conviction seemed ‘obscure and ambiguous´ deferring Elizabeth’s sentencing to a later date.

Winthrop did nothing for almost a year waiting for judicial reforms which would give the Governor the power to ‘impose, alter, change or annul any penalty and to punish, release, or pardon any offender.’ Just a week after this reform came into being Winthrop pardoned Elizabeth and set her free. This was the first time in Connecticut’s history that a convicted witch did not die.

Following the deaths of Nathaniel and Rebecca Greensmith, Mary Sanford and Mary Barnes Winthrop began to question the value of “evidence” in which trials as well as the possible agendas of the witnesses, as a result he established more objective criteria which required at least 2 witnesses for each alleged act of witchcraft and in some cases her personally intervened, overturned and reversed verdicts. Connecticut held its final witch trial in 1697, 50 years after it had killed its first accused witch. During that period there were 46 prosecutions and 11 executions. While Salem is the most expansive and punitive single episode of witch hunting in colonial New England the New England Puritans accused at least 100 people of witchcraft in the 50 years before the trials in Salem with at least 14 of them being executed.

Author- Emily Casson


Woodward, Walter W. 2003. ‘New England’s Other Witch-Hunt: The Hartford Witch-Hunt of the 1600s and Changing Patterns in Witchcraft Prosecution.’ OAH Magazine of History Vol 17 (4), pp. 16-20.

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