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Before Salem: The Bewitching History of America’s First Witch Hunt

Decades before the Salem witch trials, nearly a dozen individuals were put to death in colonial Connecticut for suspected sorcery.

Nearly a half-century before the famed Salem witch trials of 1692 and 1693, similar hunts, hearings, and executions took place in nearby Connecticut. While this dark chapter is often overlooked in history’s telling, its impact was no less profound. From 1647 to 1697, 46 individuals were tried in the Constitution State for witchcraft, resulting in at least 11 executions.

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In 1642, Connecticut colonists officially made witchcraft one of the state’s 12 capital crimes: “If any man or woman be a witch—that is, hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit—they shall be put to death.” The Puritanical law had roots in biblical passages like Exodus 22:18—“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,”—and Leviticus 20:27—“A man also or a woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death.”

Just five years later, the Puritans would have their first opportunity to put their law into action. Alse (or Alice) Young of Windsor was accused of consorting with Satan, becoming the first woman to be tried, convicted, and executed for the crime. She was hanged in Hartford’s Meeting House Square on May 26, 1647. Little else is known about Alse, though it is believed that she had a daughter, Alice Young Beamon, who herself would be accused of witchcraft some 30 years after her mother.

Succeeding trials occurred throughout the state after Alse’s hanging, resulting in five more executions. Then, in 1662, a young Hartford girl named Elizabeth Kelly died mysteriously after visiting a neighbor, Goodwife Ayres. Elizabeth’s parents were convinced Ayres was a witch and had killed their daughter through possession.

witch trials

As news of the young girl’s death spread throughout the community, additional residents claimed that they too were victims of witchcraft. Soon, Hartford was consumed by a witch hunt hysteria, with violent tests used to prove the guilt or innocence of those accused. Among these tests, was the infamous dunking trial, in which defendants were bound and tossed into water. Those who sank were considered pure, while those who floated were convicted of practicing dark arts.

That same year, the governor of Connecticut, John Winthrop Jr., concluded that the requirements for witchcraft accusations were too weak and subjective. He established a new rule that each charge needed to be backed by at least two witnesses. Prior to this, it only took one witness for a trial to take place, and thus allegations ran rampant.

The last witch trial in Connecticut occurred in 1697, a half-decade after that of Alse Young, and four years after the infamous trials in Salem. By then, 46 individuals were charged of witchcraft, resulting in at least 11 executions.

While the hysteria in Connecticut eventually subsided, the sentences handed down at these witch trials remained on the books for hundreds of years. Then, in 2006, the descendants of the accused finally received justice. Governor Dannel P. Malloy officially pardoned all those in Connecticut’s history who had been accused of or were executed for being a witch.

Painting of "Examination of a Witch" by Thompkins H. Matteson / Wikimedia Commons; Lithograph of "The Witch no. 3" by Joseph E. Baker / Wikimedia Commons

Published on 07 Oct 2015

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