The 1662 Hartford Witch Trials

Hartford Cemetery
Hartford with the site of 1662 witch trial. Photo Credit: Richard Cummins/Lonely Planet/Getty Images

Mention witchcraft in America, and people immediately think of Salem. After all, the famous (or infamous, depending on how you look at it) trial of 1692 went down in history as a perfect storm of fear, religious fanaticism, and mass hysteria. What most people don’t realize, however, is that three decades before Salem, there was another witchcraft trial in nearby Connecticut, in which four people were executed.

In Salem, twenty people were put to death – nineteen by hanging, and one pressed with heavy stones – for the crime of witchcraft. It is, by far, one of the best-known legal debacles in American history, in part because of the sheer number of people involved. Hartford, on the other hand, was a much smaller trial and tends to get overlooked. However, it’s important to talk about Hartford, because it did set a bit of a legal precedent for witchcraft trials in the Colonies. 

Background of the Hartford Trials

The Hartford case began in spring 1662, with the death of nine-year-old Elizabeth Kelly, a few days after she visited a neighbor, Goodwife Ayers. Elizabeth’s parents were convinced that Goody Ayers had caused their child’s death through magic, and according to The History Channel’s Christopher Klein, “The Kellys testified that their daughter first took ill the night after she returned home with her neighbor, and that she exclaimed, “Father!

Father! Help me, help me! Goodwife Ayres is upon me. She chokes me. She kneels on my belly. She will break my bowels. She pinches me. She will make me black and blue.”

After Elizabeth died, several other people in Hartford came forward, claiming to have been “afflicted” by demonic possession at the hands of their neighbors.

One woman, Anne Cole, blamed her illnesses upon Rebecca Greensmith, who was known in the community as a “lewd, ignorant, considerably aged woman.” Much like what we see in the Salem case, thirty years later, accusations flew, pitting townsfolk against those they had known their entire lives.

Trial and Sentencing

At her trial, Greensmith confessed in open court, and testified that not only did she have dealings with the Devil, but that she and as many as seven other witches – including Goody Ayers – met in the woods at night to plot their nefarious magical attacks. Greensmith’s husband Nathaniel was also charged; he maintained that he was innocent, even though his wife was the one who implicated him. The two of them were subjected to the dunking test, in which their hands and feet were tied and they were tossed into the water to see if they would float or sink. The theory was that a real witch wouldn’t sink, because the Devil would keep him or her afloat.

Witchcraft had been a capital crime in Witchcraft since 1642, when a statute was enacted reading, "If any man or woman be a witch—that is, hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit—they shall be put to death.” Both of the Greensmiths, along with Mary Sanford and Mary Barnes, were hanged for their alleged crimes.

Goody Ayres was convicted in part due to the testimony of Goodwife Burr and her son Samuell, who told the court, “Such an expression as this, being both together in my house, that goody Ayers sayd when she lived at London in England that there came a fine young gentleman a-suiting to her, and when they were discoursing together the young gentleman made her promise him to meete him at that place another tyme, the which she engaged to do so, but looking downe upon his foote she perseived it was the devil. She then she would not meete him as she promised him, but he coming there and found her not. She sayd that he caryed away the iron barrs.”

Ayers – the first of the accused in Hartford – managed to flee the town, and thus avoided execution.

Aftermath

After the 1662 trials, Connecticut continued to hang many of those convicted of witchcraft in the colony.

In 2012, descendants of the victims and members of the Connecticut Wiccan & Pagan Network pushed Gov. Dannel Malloy to sign a proclamation clearing the names of the victims.

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Wigington, Patti. "The 1662 Hartford Witch Trials." ThoughtCo, Feb. 27, 2016, thoughtco.com/1662-hartford-witch-trials-3939049. Wigington, Patti. (2016, February 27). The 1662 Hartford Witch Trials. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/1662-hartford-witch-trials-3939049 Wigington, Patti. "The 1662 Hartford Witch Trials." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/1662-hartford-witch-trials-3939049 (accessed October 22, 2017).