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State historian to speak on Hartford witch trials

by Karen Singer - October 17, 2005

Nearly half a century before the Salem witch trials made an indelible imprint on history, the first American was executed for the crime of witchcraft. Her name was Alse Young and she was hanged in Hartford, Conn., in 1647.

“Most people know about the Salem trials, but what most do not know is that when New England began to prosecute these cases, Connecticut was the most aggressive witch prosecutor,” says Walt Woodward, state historian and an assistant professor of history at UConn. Between 1647 and 1655, in the colonies of Connecticut and New Haven “every single person tried and found guilty was executed.”

Woodward will give a lecture on “New England’s Other Witch Hunt: The Hartford Witchcraft Trials of the 1660s,” at the Torrington campus on Friday, Oct. 21.

“One of the things I’ll try to answer in my talk is how people could be so frightened of a neighbor – usually a cranky older woman – they could kill her,” he says. “It’s extremely hard for people in our world to imagine how such action could not only be deemed possible, but necessary.”

Between 1647 and 1663, Connecticut’s magistrates and Puritan ministers fervently prosecuted alleged witches, a pattern disrupted by Connecticut Gov. John Winthrop Jr., who, in his role as chief court magistrate, defused the deadly impact of some of those trials.

Among his many accomplishments, Winthrop was a physician and alchemist, “who worked to see that witches were not convicted and executed,” says Woodward, who is writing a book about the governor.

In 1661, Winthrop went to England seeking a new charter for Connecticut. That year, the Hartford witch hunt began when an eight-year-old girl died after claiming that a local woman, Goody Ayres, was pricking her with pins.“

That was when the accusations really began to fly,” Woodward says. By the time Winthrop returned in 1663 (“bringing a charter making Connecticut the most independent colony in the Americas”), there had been eight trials and four women executed.

Five other accused witches, including Goody Ayres, “fled the colony in terror.”

In 1669, Winthrop intervened in another witch case, and worked with another alchemist “to define diabolical magic in such a way that no witch was ever executed in the state again,” Woodward says.

In Colonial times, a witch was defined as a person who had made a compact with the devil. Accused witches were urged to confess by ministers and magistrates “who essentially browbeat them and badgered them,” Woodward says, “fearing the devil was aiding the suspect.”

At least once, suspects were bound hand and foot and thrown into a pond “as a confirming technique.

“If you sank, you weren’t a witch; if you floated you were, which created a series of problems for the innocent.”

What Winthrop did was change the criteria for conviction “to a standard based on the principle of having two witnesses to the same act of witchcraft,” Woodward says. “And that almost never happened.”

There were no accused witches put to death in New England between 1663 and 1688, when the Massachusetts execution of Mary Glover became the harbinger of the sensational 1692 Salem events.

Woodward believes the Hartford witchcraft trials provide a cautionary tale for contemporary Americans.

“I do think there are lessons in studying this,” he says. “Fear of witches was very real when everyone believed magic existed and it worked. People will also look back on our time and ask why we did certain things. Societies sometimes overreact to their fears.”

Woodward’s lecture, part of the Tri-Campus American Studies program, begins at 7 p.m. in the Francis C. Hogan Lecture Hall at the Torrington campus.

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