Witch hysteria took hold in Connecticut 45 years before Salem, Mass., began its own orgy of witch killing,
On May 26, 1647, Connecticut hanged its first citizen for witchcraft, a woman from Windsor named Alse Young. As in all the witch hysteria, she died on the basis of flimsy evidence. She went to the gallows on the site of the Old State House.
The Connecticut witch hysteria lasted at least more than a decade. It never received as much attention as the Salem witchcraft trials, mostly because Connecticut officials swept the whole sad chapter under the rug.
In 1908, John M. Taylor wrote a book called The Witchcraft Delusion in Colonial Connecticut, 1647-1697. “The true story of witchcraft in old Connecticut has never been told,” he wrote. “It has been hidden in the ancient records and in manuscripts in private collections, and those most conversant with the facts have not made them known, for one reason or another.”
Connecticut Witch Hysteria
Connecticut executed nine men and two women as witches between 1647 and 1663. The witch hysteria peaked during the “Hartford Witch Panic” of the early 1660s. It started when a young Hartford girl died after claiming a neighbor tormented her.
Eight-year-old Elizabeth Kelly visited Goodwife Ayres, in March of 1662. The next day Ayres visited her home and shared a bowl of broth with her. Elizabeth then got sick, and for five days suffered intense stomach pains. The delusional girl screamed, “Father! Father! Help me, help me! Goodwife Ayres is upon me.”
Elizabeth cried that Goodwife Ayres choked her, kneeled on her belly, pinched her and tried to ‘break her bowels.’
A Guilford physician conducted an autopsy on the dead girl in what is believed to be the first postmortem in American history. Unfortunately, the physician knew very little about what he was looking at. He concluded the girl suffered unnatural harm.
Goodwife Ayres and her husband sensibly skipped town, but the Hartford court tried eight more people before the witch hysteria died down.
More accusations followed for the next 50 years in the Connecticut River towns of Hartford, Windsor, Farmington and Wethersfield. Most, however, resulted in acquittals as Connecticut judges came to their senses.
John and Joan Carrington of Wethersfield weren’t among the lucky ones. They were hanged in 1651. Mary Barnes of Farmington was another unfortunate victim. She was hanged in Hartford in 1663 for “having entertained familiarity with Satan, the grand enemy of God and mankind.”
By 1715, the law making witchcraft a capital offense was off the books, and the witchcraft hysteria died down. But unlike Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Virginia, Connecticut did not clear the names of the accused. Connecticut, in fact, didn’t even acknowledge that it happened.
In 1799, historian Benjamin Trumbull wrote History of Connecticut. In the preface he explained he could find no records of witchcraft trials.
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.
A hundred years later, another Trumbull — Jonathan — wrote an introduction to a reprint of the book. He had no doubt that Connecticut hanged people for witchcraft. The executions, though, stayed out of the official record.
“[T]he 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,” he wrote.
Should Connecticut Apologize?
The descendants of the Carringtons and Mary Barnes tried to bring the Connecticut witchcraft hysteria to light in the 21st century.
Mary Barnes’ great-great-great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter, Bernice Telian, spent five years writing a book titled, My Grandmother Mary Was Hanged. She was part of the effort to get Connecticut to clear the names of the 11 people unjustly executed for witchcraft. So was Patricia Borris, the great-granddaughter, 10 generations back, of the Carringtons. She believed the state’s refusal to apologize was a travesty of justice.
The state Legislature introduced bills to express regret in 2008 and 2009, but they died in committee. Then members of the Connecticut Wiccan and Pagan Network joined the cause. They pushed Gov. Dannel Malloy to issue a proclamation apologizing for the witch hysteria.
They then sent postcards to Malloy reading, “I am a Pagan/Witch and I vote. Clear the names of Connecticut’s eleven accused and executed witches.”
They finally succeeded. On May 26, 2023, Connecticut’s state Senate passed a resolution exonerating the accused witches and apologizing to their families. The House had already approved the measure.
This story about the Connecticut witch hysteria was updated in 2023. Image of old Statehouse By Citizen Mira – user on Flickr.com – https://www.flickr.com/photos/citizenhelder/2545933449/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4410970.