Connecticut assesses exoneration for accused witches who were executed in 1600s: ‘It was wrong’

Decades before the infamous Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts, Alse Young was killed on the gallows in Connecticut, becoming the first person on record to be executed in the American colonies for witchcraft.

The Town Clerk of Windsor recorded the death as May 26, 1647, in a diary entry which read, “Alse Young was hanged.” Young was the first of nine women and two men executed by the Connecticut Colony for witchcraft over 15 years, a period during which more than 40 people were tried for having ties to Satan.

Now, more than 375 years later, amateur historians, scholars and descendants of the accused witches and their accusers are hoping Connecticut lawmakers will finally offer posthumous exonerations.

Witch exemptions
In this photo from Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023, a brick commemorating Alice ‘Alse’ Young is placed at a municipal Heritage Bricks facility in Windsor, Connecticut.

Jessica Hill/AP

While such claims aren’t new, they’ve grown stronger as many genealogy enthusiasts discover they have distant relatives involved in the lesser-known Connecticut Witch Trials.

“They talk about how it’s followed their families from generation to generation and they wish someone would just say, ‘Hey, that was wrong,'” Connecticut State Rep. Jane said. Garibay, who proposed an exoneration resolution after receiving letters from eighth and ninth generation relatives of accused witches. “And for me, it’s an easy thing to do if it gives people peace.”

Other states and countries have attempted to atone for a history of persecuting people as witches. Last year the Scottish Prime Minister issued a formal apology to the roughly 4,000 Scots, mostly women, accused of witchcraft up to 1736. Of the 4,000, around 2,500 were killed. Last year, a Scottish MP called for their posthumous pardon.

In 2022, Massachusetts lawmakers officially exonerated Elizabeth Johnson Jr., who was convicted of witchcraft in 1693 and sentenced to death at the height of the Salem witch trials. Johnson is believed to be the latest accused Salem witch to have her conviction overturned by lawmakers.

Lawmakers agreed to reconsider his case last year after a curious eighth grade civics class at North Andover Middle School took up his case and studied the legislative steps needed to clear his name.

In 2006, former Virginia Governor Tim Kaine granted an informal pardon to Grace Sherwood, a widowed midwife who was accused by neighbors of ruining crops, killing livestock and creating storms, then accused of being a witch. With her hands tied, Sherwood was thrown into a river to see if she floated, which was believed to indicate her guilt. She managed to break free and spent seven years in prison.

The Connecticut witch trials took place in the mid to late 1600s. In each of the New England colonies, witchcraft was considered a capital crime. According to the early laws of the Connecticut Colony, “every man or woman (who) becomes a witch, that is, has or consults a familiar spirit, he shall be put to death.”

According to Connecticut Judicial Branch Law Libraries, biblical references were used to assert the legitimacy of the crime. It was completely written out of the books in 1750.

Many historians believe that fear and anxiety among the religiously strict English colonists led to the witch trials, noting how very difficult life was, given epidemics, floods, cold winters and famine. Often the charges began with a quarrel, or the death of a child or a cow, or even butter that could not be churned.

Many of those executed as witches were poor single mothers.

Such was the case of Mary Johnson, a servant in Wethersfield, Connecticut, who was accused of “familiarity with the devil”.

For years she was tortured by a local minister who whipped her until she finally confessed to being a witch and admitted to “impurity with men”, according to Bridgeport author Andy Piascik, who wrote an article for Connecticut Humanities, an independent nonprofit affiliate. of the National Foundation for the Humanities. Johnson was reportedly hanged after giving birth to a child to a man she was not married to.

“It’s important to right the wrongs of the past so that we learn from it and move on and don’t repeat those mistakes,” said Joshua Hutchinson, of Prescott Valley, Arizona, who retraced his ancestry to accused witches in Salem and is the host of “Thou Shalt Not Suffer: The Witch Trials Podcast.”

He noted that even in recent decades people have been killed in several countries because they were suspected of being witches or wizards.

Beth Caruso, an author, co-founded the CT Witch Trial Exoneration Project in 2005 to clear the names of defendants. The group encourages people who have discovered, through genealogical research, that they are descendants of victims to contact Connecticut state lawmakers and urge them to support the exoneration legislation.

Connecticut State Senator Saud Anwar, who has also proposed an exemption bill, said he expects some people may laugh or scoff at the idea that the legislature take the time to erase the files of the accused witches. But he said the descendants felt “serious things” including a voter who called for the resolution.

“His wish was that if there was a way to give families some sort of closure,” Anwar said, “it would be a way for him to be able to say he’s done his part, even though his ancestors may not didn’t do the right thing.”

Witch exemptions
Connecticut Historical Society Collections Associate Julia Morrow displays an original 1669 letter of complaint against Katherine Harrison, Jan. 31, 2023, in Hartford, Conn. Harrison, of Wethersfield, Conn. was tried several times for witchcraft. The complaint against her detailed her infractions, including that a hat she wanted to buy was now giving the owner a headache.

Jessica Hill/AP


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