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History Corner: Witches Are People Too…

History Corner: Witches Are People Too…

Well, I guess that depends on where and when you meet them. If you were in Europe in the 17th century, over 100,000 witches were executed. New England, however, had the lowest rate of deaths due to this persecution but nevertheless, the fear of being identified as a witch was ever-present. The number of witches, both women and men numbered 35 in the colonies. Local witch stories can chill a body’s soul, especially at this time of the year if one lets their imagination run in that direction. However, no one disputes the tale of Hannah Cranna, the witch of Monroe who did not earn the reputation until her husband died. Yes, Hannah behaved in the strangest manner and folks began to think that he came to his demise in her hands.

You see, her husband, Capt. Joseph Hovey, familiar with the area around his home was walking one night and was found by hounds at the bottom of a cliff the next morning. Hannah had become a most disagreeable woman cursing her neighbors when denied free food or firewood. Wanting a fresh-baked pie and being told she couldn’t have it, Hannah cast a spell on the woman saying she would never bake a fine pie again. And you know what? She couldn’t to the day she died. No sir…not a crust. Men had always crossed her property to fish in the stream that ran through her land. Knowing of her anger one fisherman dared to set his line in this most lucrative stream only to have Hannah yell obscenities saying he would never catch another fish again. And? You guessed it, nary a fish was ever caught by that fisherman again.

Hannah only had one friend and it was her pet rooster, old Boreas. After awhile, Old Boreas died, leaving Hannah distraught. After giving him a proper burial, Hannah went into a deep depression and near death she gave her neighbors explicit instructions as to her burial. Because everyone feared old Hannah, her instructions were followed to the letter; well not exactly. This is how it went down. Her coffin was to be carried, by hand to the cemetery, but not before sundown. Due to a heavy snowstorm and the cemetery up a steep hill, the coffin had to be strapped to a sled with ropes and horse drawn to the top of the hill. Well, if this don’t beat all. The straps broke and the casket slid all the way down the hill. Yes, readers, all the way down to the bottom, practically near her doorstep.

Not wanting a reoccurrence, they strapped the coffin with heavy chains and trudged on up the hill once more. Several men sat upon the coffin to insure that it stayed put. Well, lo and behold, the coffin began to shudder and shake, throwing the men clear to the ground. Keep in mind a good bit of “antifreeze” was consumed at this event but the men were determined to carry out her original wishes, trudging up the hill once more through the now heavily snow-covered path. Once she was placed in the ground, the group started down the hill only to see her house ablaze, thus ends the life and times of Hannah Cranna.

So, now let’s get down to the stories of other Connecticut witches. The crime of witchcraft was included in laws enacted by parliament in England during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign (1558-1603). Witchcraft and its penalty were thought to be the law of God as stated in Exodus 22:18, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”. Witches were burned at the stake but in the colonies, they were hanged. In New England it was a capital crime having some type of relationship to Satan having consulted with a familiar spirit. Although witchcraft crimes did not require any harm, in practice there had to be harm that caused the effort and expense of a formal proceeding.

Connecticut’s witchcraft trials were held in the mid to late 1600s, between 1647 and 1697; however, no alleged witches were executed after 1662. It is believed that fear was the basis for most allegations. They endured many hardships, floods, sickness, Native Americans and to say nothing of harsh winters, so it was easy to find someone to blame and “Satan” in the guise of a real person, was “it”. A formal complaint started the process with evidence being collected by local magistrates usually consisting of depositions from witnesses and an examination of the accused. Today, we would call it pure and simple gossip or in some cases unadulterated jealousy.

Initially, only one witness was required, but in 1662 two or more people were required to get the rope ready. Many court records, if even written, have been destroyed or lost but a list complied by John Putman Demos, stating their name, location and verdict can put chills down your spine, just thinking about the guilty but then again “witches are people too”. Oh, before you read the list, Goodwife was used as we use Mrs. today. So here goes: Alice Young 1647 Windsor, hanged, Mary Johnson 1648 Wethersfield, pressured into a confession and probably executed, although one source indicates that adultery was her crime, not witchcraft. John and Joan Carrington, 1651 Wethersfield, guilty and executed. Goodwife or Goody Bassett 1651 Stratford, convicted and hung. It’s really hanged. Goody Bassett’s tale is well known in Stratford being sung by Connecticut’s former troubadour, Mike Kachuba, a rather grim little story, set to music.

Elizabeth Goodman 1653 New Haven was charged with slander and acquitted of witchcraft and released with a reprimand. Who did she know on the jury? Eh?

William Meaker was accused of slander in New Haven in 1657 and poor Goodwife Knapp was hanged in Fairfield in 1653. You can see, none of the witches were burned at the stake. This was not considered humane in New England. Yipes could anyone have said that with a straight face? The list continues; Hartford seems to have had its share of witches with Judith Varlet 1662, Goody Ayres 1662 who fled the colony of Hartford with her accused husband, Rebecca Greensmith and her husband Nathanial hanged in 1662, Mary Sanford, probably hanged, and Mary and Andrew Sanford hanged 1662.

As the years go past 1662, the crimes against women amounted to slander and convictions being overturned by the governor or subject to the water test. Now here is a real laugh and a half. A woman suspected of being a witch was dropped into a body of water. IF she sank to the bottom, she was innocent, if she floated, she was guilty. Both Mercy Disborough of Fairfield and Elizabeth Crawson of Stamford were tested in this manner. Mary sank to the bottom and was acquitted. Poor Mercy floated to the top, was convicted but later given a reprieve by the General Assembly. Me thinks Mary had some rocks in them there bloomers. Either that or she ate a kettle full of hasty pudding.

Witchcraft has been one of the most intriguing subjects for both the serious and amateur sleuths. Witchcraft was real and between the years 1647 & 1663 Connecticut executed between 9 and 11 people for witchcraft, more than all of the American colonies collectively. An analysis of official charges against women who were found to be witches show that a witch appeared most often as an “ill-tempered” old woman plagued by younger, superstitious neighbors.

Happy Halloween Folks!

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  1. Tony Griego

    Pretty good article basically, however some more facts should be noted. It is fairly well know that the Colony of Connecticut more than likely hanged eleven people between 1647 and 1662/3. Nine women and two of their husbands. Mary Sanford was hanged as a witch, her husband Andrew, although found guilty as a witch, was not hanged, After his wife’s execution he moved to Milford and remarried. His stone can be found in Milford cemetery. Since 2007 a group of descendants and interested people have been working to convince the State of Connecticut that these eleven hangings were wrong. We have tried to convince the State to recognize this, that eleven people lost their lives unjustly. We cannot rewrite history however we can acknowledge that a judicial wrong was committed. Witchcraft law disappeared off the law books by 1750. It is more likely that these eleven people were Christians who were caught up in the fear of the times. Governor Dannel P. Malloy and other elected officials have never responded to our efforts. We are continuing to lobby for a Day of Remembrance, possible May 26, this being the date of the first person hanged in America for witchcraft, Alse Young May 26, 1647.

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