|Dramatized depiction of a witch trial|
Oddly, the ancestor in question, Christopher Comstock, has his own Wikipedia page, despite the greater trials in which he was involved not having one. Christopher was involved in the witch trials twice, firstly in 1653-1654 when he gave an affidavit about having visited Goodwife Knapp while she was in prison for witchcraft. Knapp was later executed. Secondly, he served on the grand jury investigating witchcraft in Connecticut in September 1692.
One of the reasons these trials kept cropping up was because every time someone was accused of witchcraft, they were pressured to "confess" and name others they knew of who were also witches. According to the author of "The witchcraft delusion in colonial Connecticut," from the moment Knapp was sentenced she "was made the object of rudest treatment, espionage, and of inhuman attempts to wring from her lips a confession of her own guilt or an accusation against some other person as a witch." Just as we might question a terrorist to confess who they are working with, this logic was applied to "witches" too in the 17th century. This is where my ancestor Christopher Comstock comes in. In 1653, Goodwife Knapp, whose first name is lost to history, was in prison in Fairfield for witchcraft. Comstock, along with Thomas Sheruington and Goodwife Baldwin, visited her in her cell where Baldwin questioned her about her fellow "witches". It sounds as though Comstock and Sheruington were merely there as witnesses. Knapp admitted that she knew some, or at least one person who had "received Indian gods that were very bright." Knapp was claiming her innocence so Baldwin asked her how she could know this if she weren't a witch herself, to which Knapp responded that the guilty party had told her so. It appears that Knapp did not reveal the name of the person who told her this though. During another questioning by Mistress Pell, Knapp insisted, "I have sins enough already, and I will not add this [accusing another] to my condemnation."
The court didn't believe her plea of not-guilty, because Knapp was convicted and executed by hanging. She went to the grave pleading her innocence. My ancestor's role in this was minor, he was merely witness to an interview with Knapp as prisoner. His affidavit was not even used at her trial, since it was actually written after the fact, to be used in another case the following year. Unfortunately, there are few details about Knapp's trial, we do not even know the specifics of what she was accused of, who accused her, what the testimonies against her included, etc. Most of what we know about Knapp comes from an investigation after her 1653 execution in which testimonies were given about Knapp's supposed accusations of another, Mary Staples, which is when Comstock wrote his affidavit.
After Knapp's execution, her body was desecrated when several individuals stripped it and searched it for marks of a witch. Mary Staples proclaimed there were no marks on Knapp's body that couldn't also be found on herself, an attempt to claim there were no witch's marks on Knapp's body. Later, Robert Ludlow claimed that just before her execution, Knapp had requested to speak to him privately, during which she told him that Mary Staples was a witch. This seems unlikely given the fact that she wouldn't name anyone under extreme pressure and duress in her cell. Why would she suddenly, on her own accord, decide to accuse Mary Staples, and furthermore, why would she do so privately, with no witnesses, if she wanted it known? It's believed Ludlow took Mary's comments not to mean Knapp had no witch's marks, but that both Knapp and Mary had them and that made Mary a witch too. But the conflict between Ludlow and Staples had been going on since at least 1651 when Ludlow won a law suit against Mary for slander, so Ludlow was likely looking for anyway he could to accuse her of anything else. Mary's husband, Thomas Staples, caught wind of Ludlow's tale, and in attempts to forestall the accusations against his wife, brought suit against Ludlow in 1654 for defamation of character, and there began the investigation in 1654, including Comstock's affidavit. There was also a witness account given by another of my ancestors, Rose Sherwood, then the wife of Thomas Barlow. Rose testified that after Knapp's execution, she was among those women who searched Knapp's body for marks. She claims at first they found nothing unusual, but then upon another look, they did.
Despite several testimonies against Mary Staples, in the end, the court saw reason and ruled in favor of her husband, awarding Ludlow with damages for defamation of character. It did not prevent a later trial against Mary for witchcraft though, in 1692, but Ludlow had left Connecticut by then and Mary was fortunately acquitted.
It is relieving to see that Comstock's affidavit did not contribute to any conviction or execution. He was merely an observer, witness of something Knapp had said, which was later used by others as an attempt to accuse someone else, but it failed. It's hard to say what he thought or felt about it. Comstock is believed to have been born about 1635, which would have made him only 18 at the time he witnessed the questioning of Knapp in 1653. If that's the case, he was quite young and his experiences in these trials must have helped shaped his development into an adult.
What else is known of Knapp is very little. In John Taylor's "The witchcraft delusion", all it says of Knapp herself is that she was "presumably a woman of good repute, and not a common scold, an outcast, or a harridan" and quotes other sources saying "she impresses one as the best woman" and that she was a "just and high minded old lady."
|John Winthrop Jr.|
|An engraving of one floating on water|
during ordeal by water (ie, guilty)
Apart from Mercy Disborough and Elizabeth Clawson, the others who were on trial in Fairfield in 1692, accused by Katherine Branch (a servant of Daniel Wescot/Westcott), included: Mary Harvey, Hannah Harvey, Goody Miller, and Mary Staples, the same Mary Staples whose husband sued Robert Ludlow for defamation of her character and won. Most of the other Connecticut cases took place in other towns, including Windsor, Hartford, Wethersfield, New Haven, East Hampton, Saybrook, Stratford, and Wallingford, though some of them were tried in Hartford instead.
Although the Connecticut cases were spread out over time and saw fewer executions than Salem, they still played an important role in the history of witch trials and should not be forgotten.
- The witchcraft delusion in colonial Connecticut, 1647-1697 by John M. Taylor
- Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England: A Documentary History 1638–1693, Second Edition by David D. Hall
- The Hanging of Goodwife Knapp 1653 by Laurence A Moran
- Connecticut Witch Trials
- Before Salem - Smithsonian
Also check out:
- Connecticut Witch Trials: The First Panic in the New World by Cynthia Wolfe Boynton
- Before Salem: Witch Hunting in the Connecticut River Valley, 1647–1663 by Richard S. III Ross
- Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692 (New Narratives in American History) by Richard Godbeer
- Witchcraft Trials of Connecticut by Richard G. Tomlinson