The History of Connecticut Witch Trials

Sam Carlson


When you talk about our ancestors and their behavior it’s important to keep in mind that the people of our past are a people for whom magick is real. For whom evils walked and made milk sour. For whom the supernatural skulked in the forest outside their timbers, and lay ready to collaborate. As it had back in the old world, the ratcheting pressure of daily life eventually snapped the puritans into the need for a scapegoat, and the Connecticut witch trials began.

The Connecticut witch trials were the first and longest in the colonies, beginning in 1647 half a century before the hunt in Salem, MA. Between 1647 and 1663, more than thirty women and men from throughout the colony were accused, and eleven executed. The players are people you know, or at least live near the memory of. They have schools named after them like Staples and Ludlowe, streets like Knapp and Mather, and even an ice cream parlor in the case of poor Goody Bassett.

The religious framework of day to day life in our early colonies meant constant reinforcement that not only was god real, but the Devil as well. Puritan beliefs held that nothing that happened to you was by chance. If you were prosperous it was because you deserved it. If harm came to you it was because either you or someone else had made it so. The hard winters of the little ice age, constant fighting with the indigenous population, and a smallpox outbreak that ripped through the population from 1647-1648 had primed the population to see itself as hexed.

Women, being already oppressed in the society, were an easy scapegoat. A witch might be someone who behaved oddly like Elizabeth Godman of New Haven who was known for muttering about Devils teats under her breath, or someone close to a tragedy like Lydia Gilbert, an ancestor of Noah Webster who was close with a man who had died when a gun accidentally discharged. Often it was a woman with property or holdings that could be seized from them like Katherine Harrison, a former maid who became wealthy after inheriting her husband’s estate.

The first to be accused and executed was Alse Young of Windsor. No record of her trial exists, but thanks to the journal of Mass Governor John Winthrop we know that she was executed in Hartford on may 26th, 1647. The scaffolding would have been erected in Meeting House Square, and the execution would have been public; both for entertainment and propaganda. Trial records are vague beyond names and dates, but methods can be inferred based on practices known at the time; primarily those outlined in the manual The Witches Hammer, and the work of British con-man and self proclaimed Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins.

Signs of the accused’s guilt included birthmarks, getting angry at questioners, speaking out against other trials, and having appeared in someone's dream. A suspected witch would be put to the test by physical examination to see if they had any “Devil’s marks,” a spot which would not bleed and often appeared as a birthmark or extra nipple. The accused would be stripped, searched, and occasionally proded by pins. Famously another common method was dunking. According to Hopkin’s handbook The Discovery Of Witches, the witches had renounced their baptism and the water would reject them. Women were known to have been dunked at Edward’s Pond in Fairfield, now fittingly a dry pit near the town green.

Things didn’t get any more reasonable once the suspect made it to court and spectral evidence was used regularly. The theory gained broad support thanks to famed historical mixed bag, Cotton Mather (early proponent of vaccination AND driving force behind the Salem Witch trials). Spectral evidence hinges on the idea that witches could astrally project into the minds of their victims and attack as phantoms unseen by anyone else. This could mean causing seizures, burning sensations, or horrifying visions like those experienced by Catherine Branch of Fairfield. Branch claimed to have had visions of talking cats inviting her to a banquet, a hooded figure outside her window at night, and an old woman with a fire-branded forehead. She also exhibited symptoms of what today we would call Epilepsy.

The high water mark of the CT Witch Trials was the Hartford Witch Panic of 1662 - 1663. Stories of Devil worship and woodland orgies shook the community. There were claims of “works beyond the course of nature” like using black magick to torment victims, murder family members, or in one peculiar case cause the afflicted to speak with an accent. Ultimately four were executed, and more were let off due to flimsy evidence. Around the same time in Fairfield a particularly interesting series of trails occurred that seems to show the sea change away from Witch hunting in CT.

Goody Knapp first came under suspicion during the trial of Goody Bassett in neighboring Stratford. After being brought in for questioning she was defended ardently by Mary Staples (truly one of CT Histories best and bravest) who insisted to the authorities that “Knapp has no more teats than any woman.” The accusers, a group of local men and women including Fairfield founder Roger Ludlow, tried to force Goody Knapp to name Staples as an accomplice, but Knapp refused to condemn her. Goody Knapp is believed to have been executed in what is now the Black Rock section of Bridgeport, going to her death without having given any other women up to the hunters. After the hanging Mary Staples rushed the gallows and tore the clothes from the body, demanding that the committee of witch hunters show the crowd the Devil’s marks and calling them out by name. Ludlow, likely not happy with being called out by Staples, accused her of being a witch and said that the now deceased Goody Knapp had named her before the execution. The Staples family promptly sued Ludlow for libel and won. Ludlow left CT promptly after losing the libel suit, allegedly taking records from the trials in Fairfield with him. He went back to the UK where he wound up working as a property lawyer in Ireland for Oliver Cromwell (if you needed any more of an idea of the kind of guy Roger Ludlow was).

The Ludlow libel trial seemed to herald the end of Connecticut's witch scares, as did the increased influence of John Winthrop. Winthrop was considered a shrewd judge of witchcraft cases because of his dabbling in alchemy and his time spent with John Dee, the famous court magician to Elizabeth I, who was himself a falsely accused witch. As magical thinking began the witch trials, so too did it wind them down. Winthrop often made sure that accused witches were not executed, and established a rule that an act of witchcraft had to have multiple simultaneous witnesses to be considered. The increased skepticism within the community stemmed the flow of accusations and the trials came to an unofficial end in 1670 with the release of Katherine Harrison.

The past is a foreign country, and one well worth visiting. If you’re interested in knowing more about CT’s witch trials I recommend Connecticut’s Witch Trials: The First Panic in The New World, by Cynthia Wolfe Boynton. There is also an excellent episode of the CT native Podcast Ain’t It Scary? With Sean & Carrie.