Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Forgotten Witch Trials of Connecticut, 1647-1697

Dramatized depiction of a witch trial
I recently discovered that I had an ancestor involved in the witch trials of Connecticut and of course immediately went to look up more information on this subject. I was very surprised to find that while there are a lot of articles about it around the internet, none came from the popular Wikipedia. There are only a few books which detail the Connecticut events and fewer still which are dedicated entirely to them. Even history buffs often admit to not knowing about the Connecticut witch trials, in spite of the fact that the very first ones in the colonies occurred in Connecticut. It's safe to say they are greatly eclipsed by the Salem witch trials, which perhaps receive more attention because they occurred over a much shorter time period. Salem was very much a frenzied hysteria with the executions of 20 people within just over a year (February 1692 to May 1693), whereas the trials in Connecticut resulted in 35 cases and just 11 executions over the course of 50 years (1647-1697). Salem certainly deserves the attention it gets, but it should not be at the cost of forgetting other important witch hunts too.

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.
Fast forward to 1692. Salem is in its height of witch trial hysteria and Connecticut isn't far behind, with the trials of six women in Fairfield, all accused by the same servant girl, Katherine Branch. Fortunately, unlike in Salem, none were executed. After Hartford saw the trials of nine people and the executions of four of them in 1662, the Connecticut governor John Winthrop Jr made it necessary for two witnesses for each alleged act of witchcraft to be required for a conviction, rather than only one. This made convictions much more difficult and resulted in no further executions of witches in Connecticut after 1662. Winthrop appears to have been the saving grace of Connecticut, and something of an antithesis to Salem's Cotton Mather, often personally overturning or reversing convictions. He may have been the main reason Connecticut had fewer executions of witches overall than Salem, and none at all during Salem's mass of them in 1692. However, that's not to say the Fairfield trials in 1692 didn't results in any convictions at all. Of the six women accused, three were acquitted, two never went to trial (jury found no bill, meaning there wasn't enough evidence to go to trial), and one, Mercy Disborough, was convicted. She was never executed though, as she was later pardoned. Christopher Comstock was on the jury that convicted Mercy, but also acquitted and found no bill for the other five women. So my ancestor was (partially) responsible for the conviction of Mercy Disborough on the charge of witchcraft, but fortunately not for her death.

An engraving of one floating on water
during ordeal by water (ie, guilty)
Although Katherine Branch made the initial accusation, there were numerous testimonies against Mercy, so it seems she ruffled more than enough feathers, though nothing that should warrant her execution. Most of the accusations were ridiculous to think they could be related to Mercy, including one unnamed young woman prone to seizures who accused Mercy of being responsible for them. Mercy was subjected to being searched naked for marks of the devil, and even to the water test, or ordeal by water. This is the notorious test where one's hands and feet are bound together before being thrown into the water and if they sink, they are considered innocent, and if they float, they are considered guilty. The basis of this was the ridiculous theory that witches floated because they had renounced baptism and therefore were being rejected by the water. Another idea was that witches were supernaturally light weight. In any case, naturally, they were pulled out of the water before they drown, by a rope which was tied to them. The idea that this sort of test meant the individual on trial would die whether found innocent or guilty (drown if innocent, executed if guilty) is a modern misconception. Mercy, along with another accused (Elizabeth Clawson), were tied up and thrown into the water on September 15, 1692, where two witnesses (Abram Adams and Jonathan Squire) claimed they floated like corks, and even when pressed down into the water, they bounced back up. However, this test obviously wasn't the deciding factor in the trials, since although Mercy was convicted, Elizabeth was not, despite both of them floating. That suggests enough people at the time were skeptical of the authenticity of such a test that its results weren't taken into great consideration.

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.


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

1 comment:

  1. Love this post! Mary and Thomas Staples are my 9th great Grandparents.