Witch scare in Connecticut: Accusations, hangings and acquittals

When most people think of witch trials and hangings in Colonial America, they focus on Salem, Mass. But the first hanging for witchcraft in the newly settled world was in Connecticut in 1647, according to Richard G. Tomlinson, author of the book “Witchcraft Prosecution: Chasing the Devil in Connecticut.”

From that year to 1663 in Connecticut, 21 people were accused of being witches and 11 were hanged — nine women and two men.

The Salem witchcraft scare didn’t happen until 1692.

Tomlinson, during a recent talk at a local library, described Salem as “an anomaly” that “kind of distorts the whole picture of what witchcraft trials in New England were all about.”

In Salem, many accused witches were put to death in a short period of time. In Connecticut, the witchcraft hysteria was drawn out over a number of decades, lasting from the 1640s to the early 1700s, Tomlinson said.

Fear peaked in the early 1660s

The fear in Connecticut reached a peak in the early 1660s with the “Hartford Witch Panic,” and the last execution for witchcraft in Connecticut was in 1663. Other major witch cases involved suspects from Fairfield and Wethersfield.

Tomlinson said while it now may seem easy to be judgmental about those who accused others of being witches, “put yourself in the frame of mind of these people. They were very, very human.”

According to publicity material for Tomlinson’s book, modern views of witchcraft prosecutions in colonial New England have been shaped by stereotypes. “The reality is more complex and much more interesting,” states the publicity material. “Humanity, credulity, courage, stupidity, virtuosity, viciousness, wit and intelligence are all on display.”

The retired United Technologies Corp. research scientist is a director and founding member of the Connecticut Society of Genealogists. He spoke at the Edith Wheeler Memorial Library in Monroe.

Witchcraft law

In 1642, the Connecticut colony established 12 crimes that could lead to the death penalty. Witchcraft was one of them. The witchcraft law was gone from Connecticut statutes by the mid-1700s.

Tomlinson said people at the time were afraid a witch could harm them and that witches were scheming with the devil against Christianity.

Many accusations would begin with quarrels between people, with one side then accusing the other side of being a witch. Young women would sometimes accuse adult women of being witches and causing them harm.

Grounds for suspicion

Some of the grounds for suspicion included having unusual body marks (“witch marks” were believed to have been made by the devil); causing mischief upon someone after a quarrel; having an offspring, servant or friend who was a convicted witch; and the testimony of a convicted witch.

People were convicted based on voluntary confessions, or the testimony by two witnesses that the accused had done acts “above the course of nature.”

Tomlinson said some of those who gave confessions suffered from mental illness and “were clearly insane.” Many of the confessions were secured by ministers or groups of women.

The water test

One of the primary ways to determine if someone was a witch was the so-called water test. This meant putting a person in water and seeing if they would float.

The test was controversial and not accepted by courts as evidence for conviction, but the general public believed it was an accurate means for determining suspicion, Tomlinson said.

Some of those accused would ask to undergo the water test. He said some accused women would float on water because of the airy dresses they wore.

Hartford Witch Panic

Some of the major witchcraft trials in Connecticut were the Hartford Witch Panic in 1662 and 1663, Katherine Harrison of Wethersfield in 1668, and Mercy (Holbridge) Disbrow in Fairfield in 1692.

The Hartford Panic began when a group of young girls claimed they were being tormented. An ill 8-year-old died after saying a woman was choking her. Due to suspicions, the girl’s body was subject to what may have been the first autopsy in Connecticut, according to Tomlinson. Examiners found the young girl’s body was not normal.

A husband and wife and another woman were all hanged together for being witches in January 1663 in Hartford. Those involved in the case claimed a small group “had meetings in the woods where they danced and drank,” and “a red thing” (the devil) would follow them, Tomlinson said.

Wethersfield trial of unpopular neighbor

In the Wethersfield case, neighbors didn’t like widow Katherine Harrison and claimed she was destroying their crops and maiming their livestock.

Harrison, a farmer who Tomlinson said had “a sharp tongue,” was tried and convicted in 1668. But the verdict was overturned by a gubernatorial review panel of ministers, and Harrison was freed and moved to New York state.

This was followed by mostly acquittals in future witchcraft trials in Connecticut.

Tomlinson refers to Harrison as “the courageous widow.”

The case in Fairfield

The Fairfield witch frenzy happened around the same time as those in Salem, when a young woman claimed she was having fits due to the actions of two women. The two women then failed the water test, and their bodies were inspected for witch marks.

One of the two women — Mercy (Holbridge) Disbrow — was eventually convicted and sentenced to hang, but a panel of ministers overturned her conviction.

Tomlinson said the ministers concluded the water test had no legal standing, witch marks should require “an able physician’s opinion,” the accuser was suspected of faking her claims, and “accidents and illnesses after a quarrel are thin grounds” for proving witchcraft.

Important historical document

The written reprieve of Mercy Disbrow in the 1690s is an important historical document that emphasized the need for “due process” for individuals accused of witchcraft, Tomlinson said.

“That was very forward thinking,” he said. “To me, it was astonishing.”

The author’s background

Tomlinson became interested in the state’s witch history because an ancestor, Lydia Gilbert, was hanged in 1654 for being a witch. He previously published another book on the subject, “Witchcraft Trials of Connecticut.”

He said the history of witchcraft trials in Connecticut is “poorly understood.”

Tomlinson is a director and founding member of the Connecticut Society of Genealogists. He is a retired research scientist at United Technologies Corp.

Some of Tomlinson’s family members were involved in the settlement of Derby. He now lives in the greater Hartford region.

The Wyllys papers

An important course of information for Tomlinson has been the legal papers of Samuel Wyllys, a Hartford judge in the late 1600s when witchcraft trials were taking place. He described Wyllys, the son of a governor, as “a liberal thinker.”

There have been recent efforts to offer pardons to those convicted of being witches in the 1600s, Tomlinson said, with legislative hearings held on the issue at the state Capitol.