While it wasn’t as famous as the Salem witch trials that occurred in 1692, the Connecticut Witchcraft panic that lasted from 1647 to 1697 was a great part of American history. These trials foretold the later series of events that happened in Salem, but the manner of how the trials ended opened the door for more rational and logical examinations of supposed supernatural happenings.
The First Recorded Confession
During the mid-17th century, a single witness was all that it took to get someone tried for practicing witchcraft. Sometimes all that was needed was one accusation from a prominent member of society. In 1648, Mary Johnson was tortured into confessing that she was involved in witchcraft.
Two years before that, Johnson was a servant who was accused of theft. A local minister named Samuel Stone believed that Johnson was guilty of more than mere theft, so he whipped her until she said that she had dealings with the Devil. Johnson claimed that she had conspired with the Devil to complete her household chores, sleep with several men and even kill a child. In December 1648, Johnson was executed for these crimes.
While she was in prison awaiting her trial, Johnson gave birth to a son who was quickly indentured as a servant to Nathaniel Rescew, the boy would remain under Rescew’s tutelage until the age of 21.
Johnson Was Not the First to Die
Contrary to popular belief, Mary Johnson was not the first to die during the Connecticut Witch Trials. That honor goes to a woman by the name of Alse Young. On May 26, 1647. Young was hanged at the Meeting House Square in Hartford (which is the site of today’s Old State House) after her brief trial.
There is very little known about Young, it is believed that she was born in England around 1600. Her husband was a man named John Young, who settled in the town of Windsor between the years of 1630 and 1640. It is likely that Young was executed for the crime of making herbal folk remedies for her fellow settlers. Alice Young Beamon, Young’s daughter, would later be accused of witchcraft as well while living in Springfield, Massachusetts.
The Events in the Town of Wethersfield
There were several individuals who were hanged for supposedly practicing witchcraft throughout Connecticut during the early 1650s. The convicted included John and Joan Carrington, who were both executed in 1651, Goodwife Bassett and Goodwife Knapp, executed in 1651 and 1653, and Lydia Gilbert who was executed in 1654. Others, Rebecca and Nathaniel Greensmith, Mary Sanford and Mary Barnes were all hanged in 1662.
While some of these individuals came from places such as Hartford, Fairfield and Windsor, others came from the town of Wethersfield. Another “witch” by the name of Katherine Harrison, was a medical practitioner in Wethersfield.
Because of this fact and because Wethersfield was the hometown of Mary Johnson, the term “Wethersfield witches” has been used by many historians and amateur scribes alike. The Carringtons and Johnson, all of whom were from Wethersfield, were active members of their communities prior to the allegations against them.
In colonial America, many accused witches were neither beneficial members of their community nor were they easily classifiable as “outcasts” or “misfits”. This was certainly the case in Wethersfield.
The Great Hartford Panic
Between the years of 1662 and 1663 the City of Hartford, Connecticut became overwhelmed with the idea of witchcraft hysteria. It all began in March of 1662 when Anne Cole found widespread support from her community when she accused Rebecca Greensmith and Elizabeth Seager of using magic to torment her. When an eight-year-old Elizabeth Kelly died after suffering prolonged stomach pains, her parents accused a woman named Goody Ayres of strangling their daughter through the use of black magic.
Many of these tales from Hartford were extremely bizarre. One woman claimed that Satan had caused her to speak with a Dutch accent, while there was one eyewitness who claimed that she saw her neighbors transform into large black hounds during the nighttime. Everything told, three accused witches were executed.
The Harrowing Saga of Katherine Harrison
As mentioned previously, Katherine Harrison was a practicing physician in Wethersfield during the same time she was accused of being a witch. Harrison was accused of practicing astrology and using her spectral familiars (including a black dog and a calf’s head) to visit the houses of her neighbors on moonlit nights. Harrison was formally indicted in May 1669.
Despite being accused of witchcraft by approximately 30 witnesses, Harrison was acquitted after a jury could not reach a verdict. She returned back home to Wethersfield, but several residents signed a petition urging that she be sent back to prison. Finally, in May of 1670, Harrison was once again released from prison after the colonial governor and several clergymen challenged the evidentiary standards used in Harrison’s case.