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New Discoveries of Witchcraft Accusations in Connecticut Brought to Light

Dr. Katherine Hermes in Hartford’s Ancient Burying Ground at the gravesite of Samuel Wyllys,

a magistrate on several notorious witchcraft trials in the 1600s.

Credit: Julie Winkel

Hartford, Conn. (September 29, 2023)— Though Connecticut’s witch trials pre-dated those in Salem, Massachusetts, by 30 years and ended in 1697, new research shows that the specter of witchcraft continued to haunt some Connecticut residents into the 18th century, according to historian and publisher, Dr. Katherine Hermes.

Hermes outlined newly discovered witchcraft accusations in the Fall 2023 issue of Connecticut Explored, the magazine of Connecticut history, and notes that 50 years after the state’s last executions for witchcraft, people still made accusations. “It was dangerous time to be a woman who defied social norms or was perceived as contentious.” Hermes says. “Often accusers had no other way to exercise power over the person they were accusing, so they used the court in the same way that some people today use social media, to lash out. ”

One of the articles published in Connecticut Explored notes research at the Connecticut State Library that reveals a case in Guilford in 1742, where an elderly widow, Elizabeth Gould, sued Benjamin Chittenden for slander for claiming she was a witch. Chittenden’s accusation was graphic: “he did believe She... was a Witch and had Reason to believe it because She... rode down here... & came in & got upon my Breast... & Lay upon me so hard as to make the Blood flie out at my Mouth & Nose.” Gould alleged that Chittenden was “Envious at the Happy Estate of the Plaintiff & minding to vex & grieve her unjustly, & her to Slander.” She poignantly described how his accusation rendered her an outcast in their community, bringing her into “Disgrace Contempt, & Abhorrence, as well as [depriving] her of the Society Traffick & both Pleasant & Necessary Converse of her Neighbours.”

Unfortunately, the court found Gould’s plea “insufficient” and awarded Chittenden the recovery of his court costs. Gould’s status as a widow likely damaged her credibility. Hermes remarks, “Elizabeth Gould fit a stereotype of a witch—old, long-widowed, and in possession of property that other people wanted. It seems incredible to us today that a woman of nearly 70 years would be vulnerable to charges of immorality or even witchcraft.”

In another example, Hermes cites a 1716 transcript of testimony by 16-year-old Susannah Howard of Wethersfield. Howard’s allegations against Dr. Alexander Williamson, who had “treated” her father for eight months, included: “Sometime in the last summer past I heard Doctor Williamson say at my father's house that he could charm a snake to death in speaking a few words…And further he said that in England in a by-place there was a circle and he went into it, and he had a book that he read in, and after he had read awhile he raised the devil and the devil strove [fought] with him for the book…” Assuming Susannah’s testimony was accurate, its transcript is the first document in Connecticut demonstrating an admission to practicing witchcraft that was not coerced or produced under duress.

As with other witchcraft cases, one might question the motivations of the accusers. Susannah Howard watched her father waste away while racking up a hefty doctor's bill. “The convergence of circumstances—a failed healer, a torturous death, and a legal fight over money—were not unusual in accusations of witchcraft,” Hermes explains.

Hermes’ publication of the new research findings follows the May 2023 official apology by state legislators that absolved the dozens of women and men who were accused, convicted, and even executed for the crime of witchcraft in the 1600s. The resolution notes that misogyny played a large part in the trials and the denial of defendants' rights and dignity.

In the fall edition of Connecticut Explored, Windsor resident Beth M. Caruso outlines her motivation and involvement in forming the Connecticut Witch Trial Exoneration Project. The “Resolution Concerning Certain Witchcraft Convictions in Colonial Connecticut” crafted by the group was passed by Connecticut legislators on May 25, 2023, on the eve of the 376th anniversary of the execution of Connecticut’s first witch-trial victim, Alice Young. Caruso notes that those accused of witchcraft, most of them female and many of them leaving vulnerable children behind, were victims of superstition and an unjust legal system.

Hermes will also detail the new research in an upcoming episode of the “Grating the Nutmeg” podcast produced by Connecticut Explored, on November 1, 2023.

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