Hartford's Witches-from the Colonial History of Hartford

Hartford's Witches
from the Colonial History of Hartford

The most serious indictment that has ever been brought against our early criminal courts is for their action in the witchcraft delusion, the explanation of which has been often made and is here left to others. It was an episode in New England history that should be judged in view of similar beliefs then current in the old world. In Connecticut, all the cases where the condemned were executed occurred between 1647 and 1662. 2 They were, therefore, tried in the Particular Court. Of the seventeen in the river towns who ere charged with witchcraft during this period, nine were residents of Hartford. Three of these were executed. As the prison where all criminals of Hartford, Windsor, Wethersfield and Farmington were confined was located in Hartford, it is probable that the entire number from these towns, which were hung in this delusion, suffered in Hartford.

2 The Witchcraft Delusion in Colonial Connecticut, by John M. Taylor.

Alse Young of Windsor was the first unhappy victim, but the court records give us no information concerning her trial. On the cover of Mathew Grant's Diary, Dr. J. Hammond Trumbull discovered the record "May 26. 47 Alse Young was hanged." This supplies the blank in Winthrop's History: "One --of Windsor arraigned and executed at Hartford for a witch."1 So far as known, this was the first execution for witchcraft in New England.

The next victim was Mary Johnson of Wethersfield. In 1646, she had been sentenced to be whipped for theft, probably at 'Hartford, which was to be repeated a month later at Wethersfield. -On her own confession, she was indicted by a jury December 7, 1648, as guilty of "familiarity with the Deuill." Mather says, "Her confession was attended with such convictive circumstances that it could not be slighted."2 She confessed, he says, that she had murdered a child, and committed other faults of licentiousness. For some months before her execution, she was imprisoned at Hartford, under the care of William Ruscoe. A son was born to her while there. Nathaniel Ruscoe, the jailor's son, agreed with her before her death to bring up and educate the child, which agreement was afterward sanctioned by the court. The jailor was paid 96 10s. for twenty-four weeks' charges to June 6, 1650, from which fact it is inferred that she was executed on that date. Rev. Samuel Stone ministered to her while in prison, and it is said that she became a penitent woman. She was evidently a poor, misguided creature, who accounted for her fault according to the superstition of the age.

After the execution of John and Joan Carrington of Wethersfield in 1651, and Lydia Gilbert of Windsor in 1654, a witchcraft tragedy was enacted among Hartford residents. It is one story and has been written and published by Dr. Charles J. Hoadly.3

1 Annie Eliot Trumbull, in The Hartford Courant, Dec. 3, 1904; Winthrop's History, II: 374.
2 Mather's Magnolia, Bk. VI, pp. 71-78.
3 "A Case of Witchcraft in Hartford" in Connecticut Magazine, Nov., 1899, pp. 557-561.

Nine persons were involved, largely through the statements of Rebecca Greensmith. She had been the wife of Abraham Elsen of Wethersfield, who died in 1648. Then she married Jarvis Mudge, and was a widow when she married the unfortunate Nathaniel Greensmith. Those who were implicated constituted a group of local acquaintances, some of whom had a repute for misdemeanors or immorality. Their names were Nathaniel and Rebecca Greensmith; Elizabeth, the wife of Richard Seager; Andrew Sanford and Mary his wife; William Ayres and his wife; Judith Varlett and James Walkley.

Of Rebecca Greensmith, Rev. John Whiting wrote to Increase Mather that she was " a lewd, ignorant and considerably aged woman." Her husband had twice been convicted of theft. The court had once censured him for lying. Elizabeth Seager left a record of shameless crime, being guilty of blasphemy and adultery. These were the leaders. The others kept such company. One night they had a merry-making, under a tree on the green near Rebecca Greensmith's house. James Walkley, Goodwife Ayres and Goody Seager were present. They all danced and had a bottle of sack. Other nocturnal gatherings were held. Suspicions were awakened in the neighborhood.

Nathaniel Greensmith had a small home-lot, house and barn, recently purchased. It was located just south of our present Barnard Park, on which green the dance of the witches was doubtless held.1 Complaint had been made to the town that he had set his barn on common land. James Walkley had a house-lot on the north side of the road from George Steele's to the South Meadow. Sanford and Ayres apparently lived on North Main Street. The crisis came in the spring of 1662, with the accusations of a young daughter of John Kelley, uttered in the delirium of sickness. The child died. Immediately, the neighborhood was busy with reports that she had been bewitched unto death. The magistrates examined several of those accused. Nathaniel Greensmith then sued William Ayres for slandering his wife. She and her husband were soon arrested. The, defendent Ayres, his wife, and James Walkley, took refuge in flight. Ann, the daughter of John Cole, had strange fits about that time.

1 Conn. Col. Rec., II: 91; Original Distribution, pp. 268, 269.

Her examination by the ministers, Samuel Hooker of Farmington, Samuel Stone, Joseph Haynes and John Whiting of Hartford, only increased the mystery and augmented the excitement. On June 6th, Andrew Sanford was indicted for witchcraft. The jury disagreed. I A week later, Mary Sanford was indicted and found guilty. This action furthered the ultimate indictment of Nathaniel and Rebecca Greensmith, which occurred December 30, 1662. They were both found guilty.' The woman's testimony implicated her associates. On January 6th, Mary Barnes of Farmington was indicted, and was also found guilty. The tragic scenes, which closed this horrible episode of our local history, can be all too clearly imagined. Mary Sanford was convicted first, and was not long detained in jail. Like some weird spectre of the spirit world, she disappeared. Goodwife Barnes was confined three weeks, for which Daniel Garret, the jailkeeper, was allowed 21s., to be paid by Goodman Barnes. The jailor was also allowed 6s. a week for keeping Nathaniel and Rebecca Greensmith, to be paid out of his estate. His inventory states that he was executed January 25, 1662-3.2 Hutchinson quotes the diary of Goffe, the regicide, under the date January 20th, as saying "three witches were condemned at Hartford."

1 The indictment reads: "Nathaniel Greensmith, thou art here indicted by the name of Nathaniel Greensmith for not having the feare of God before thine eyes; thou hast entertained familiarity with Satan, the grand Enemy of God and Mankind, and by his help hast acted things in a preter naturall way beyond human abilities in a naturall course, for which according to ye Law of God and ye established laws of this Commonwealth thou deserveth to die." The form of the information, used in the Superior Court for many years, assigned all crimes to the instigation of the Devil. The magistrates at this trial were as follows: Mr. [Mathew] Allyn, moderator, Mr. [Samuel] Wyllys, Mr. [Richard] Treat, Mr. [Henry] Woolcot, Danll Clark, See., Mr. Jo. Allyn. The jury were: Edw. Griswold, Walter Ffiler, Ensign [Nicholas] Olmstead, Samll Boreman, Good-[Gregory] Winterton, John Cowles, Samll Marshall, Samll Hale, Nathanill Willet, John Hart, John Wadsworth, Robert Webster. The execution of criminals then devolved upon the Marshal, who was Jonathan Gilbert. One of the accused is said to have seen this worthy official in a dream, which seemed to presage the end. He was the first of three appointed to settle Greensmith's estate. Jonathan Gilbert succeeded Thomas Stanton in this office, and was followed by George Grave.

2 January 25th was a Sabbath, and we can not think the execution would have occurred on that day. Perhaps the court met on the 20th and they were executed on the 23rd, the latter date being incorrectly copied.

On this date the Particular Court met. He also says of Rebecca Greensmith: "Upon this confeffion the was executed, and two more of the company were condemned at the same time."1 The scene was doubtless accompanied by the public sensation, common to such occasions in England. It was the last time any witches were hung in Connecticut, and forty years before the excitement over the Salem witchcraft.

Elizabeth Seager was indicted on the same day with Mary Barnes, and twice later. In 1665 she was convicted, but the Court of Assistants found a way to release her, after a year's imprisonment. it seems probable that the witches were executed outside of the town-plot, on the road from the Cow Pasture into the Country. There the gallows of early times was located. On March 10, 1711-12, John Read sold to John Olcott a tract of about seven acres, bounded south on the "highway leading out of Hartford town towards Symsbury," now Albany Avenue. It is described in the deed as "near the houfe lately built by Joseph Butler, near where the Gallows ufed to stand." 2 The place is near enough identified as on the north side of the avenue, on the east end of the present Goodwin lot. There, a large elm tree on a rise of ground might well memorialize the place where this tragedy of Hartford's early history was enacted.

The usual place of punishment for minor offenses was in the meeting-house yard. Near the church were the stocks, the pillory and the whipping-post. The stocks was a timber frame in the holes of which the feet, or feet and hands of criminals, were confined. In the pillory, the head and hands were held, the victim being often compelled to stand. To the whipping-post the criminal was fastened while the lash was applied. All these punishments were very common. It was not so much the pain as the disgrace that was depended on for correction. On lecture day, just before the ringing of the first bell, the criminal was put in the stocks or pillory, where the congregation could see him. The passer-by sometimes railed at him, and the children pointed their fingers at him. An old writer says, "The jeers of a theatre, the pillory and the whipping-post are very near akin."

1 Hutchinson's History, II: 17.
2 Hartford Land Records, 2:228