It’s October and Halloween is coming soon. That means I’m researching historical anecdotes about this time of year and also doing research for my next Deadly Force novel. Some of this research includes studying the history of witchcraft accusations in early colonial America that pre-date the Salem Witch Trials which occurred in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692.

The Salem Trials were an important milestone in my research because they were the last of the successful witchcraft accusations that led to executions. Many historians believe that the accusations stopped after the Salem Trials because the rest of the colonies were so shaken by what had happened in that the small New England town. And, about twelve years after the Salem Trials, Nicholas Trott (the Chief Justice of the South Carolina colony) wrote a treatise (often called “Eight Charges”) regarding how witch trials should be held. This treatise made it difficult to accuse anyone due to the amount of evidence required. This treatise made going to trial so difficult that the colonies began ignoring accusations. Nicholas Trott’s rules eventually were codified into law by the U.S. Supreme Court.

I don’t want to go into the legal effects the Salem trials had on the colonies–it’s just important to understand that the Salem Trials were the final act of witch trials in the U.S. that began in 1642 in Connecticut and the surrounding colonies. Another quick note: In Europe, accused witches (men and women) were burned because witchcraft was a crime against the church (i.e. heresy). In the early American colonies, due to the number of Puritan settlers who had distanced themselves from the European churches, witchcraft became a crime against the state. That meant colonial death penalties included hanging, pressing, or drowning. According to my research, there’s no evidence an accused witch was ever officially put to death by burning in American colonies.

Anyway, In 1642 in the Connecticut colony, witchcraft became punishable by death (by the state). In 1647 in Hartford, CT, a young woman named Alse Young was supposedly the first person executed as a witch. I say supposedly because no records from her trial (or any earlier trials) have survived, and the secondary sources regarding her death are sketchy. What historians do know is that she was accused of beginning an epidemic in a nearby community and executed as a witch.

Life in the colonies was really hard. The Puritan settlers suffered terribly from exposure, hunger, disease, and all sorts of other horrible events. Winters were long and they lived in darkness that it would be tough for modern people to understand. Due to their difficult situations, the Puritans blamed many of these difficulties on the Devil and his minions who wreaked havoc through witchcraft. Between 1647 and 1697, approximately 36 people in New England (mostly in Connecticut) were accused of witchcraft, charged, and executed. The numbers may be off because so many court records have been lost. But we do know that of those 36 named witches, 11 were hanged (9 women and 2 men). Two men were also hanged along side their wives. It’s unclear what happened to the other people who were charged. They were either executed or banished to the wilderness which was considered an even harsher death sentence.

In 1648, Connecticut hanged their second witch, a woman named Mary Johnson. Mary had been arrested, imprisoned, and tortured for years. Finally, after being brutally tortured, she admitted to “familiarity with the Devil”. (ConnecticutHistory.org.) Mary’s “confession” is the first legally recorded confession of witchcraft in the American colonies. Years later, her confession would be torn apart by Chief Justice Nicholas Trott and used as an example his treatise on how to handle (and not handle) witchcraft cases.

Beginning in 1642, only one person’s testimony was needed to bring a charge of witchcraft against another. Although people complained to no avail, the law stated that one witness could bring about the conviction and execution of another with no physical evidence. (Again, these cases ended up being the fuel Chief Justice Nicholas Trott used to mostly end the witch trials in all of the colonies). The problem with this type of evidential requirement is evident. Anyone, for any reason, could charge another. Neighbors who fought over land rights, or people who became jealous of others’ financial success, wreaked havoc in small rural towns. While it seems silly now to think that neighbors would fight over a dead ox (probably killed by a mountain lion or something else), the consequences of these laws became deadly. More and more people began to accuse each other leading right up to the witch frenzy in Salem in 1692.

In 1662, Connecticut suffered from what historians call the “Hartford Witch Panic”. Three people were accused, charged, and executed within a few weeks. Even though the rules had changed and now multiple witnesses were required, people began to revolt. So Connecticut’s colonial governor, John Winthrop the Younger, changed what kind of “evidence” was needed to arrest someone and put forth a requirement that witnesses had to be vetted for other agendas. The governor also allowed people who’d been accused, and acquitted, to sue their accusers for slander.

By 1668, rules about torturing witches to get a confession began to change as well. Hot irons were considered cruel and unusual punishment, and courts began acquitting more people than they executed. But still the witch frenzy continued in smaller, more remote towns. Then in early 1692 (before the Salem trials began), the small town of Fairfield, CT had a number of high-profile witchcraft accusations that resulted in all acquittals. By this point, the populace was divided. Some believed that all the accusations were due to malice and family feuds, while others still believed the Devil was behind all of the calamities that kept occurring in the colonies.

There is even a story about a Connecticut man, in 1693, named Hugh Croatia who claimed he made a pact with the Devil and practiced witchcraft. But the court called him an “ignoramus” and made him pay a fine and set him free. So by the time the Salem accusations began, things all throughout New England were very tense. People were divided on how they felt about this issue, including judges, lawyers, and people within family units.

Luckily for historians, the records for the Salem Trials are intact including all of the legal arguments and witness statements. It’s clear from the documents that the level of fear and paranoia that consumed Salem was incredibly intense. More intense than any other town in all of the American colonies. It was as if those people who truly believed the Devil was causing mischief were taking their last stand to keep the old rules in place. In less than four months, 20 people were executed for witchcraft. But those executions had the opposite result. People were done with accusations and executions, and laws were passed to stop these trials. It took another twelve or so years before the last witch was formally accused in the U.S. (there were others later in the 19th century, but they were all thrown out of court thanks to Nicholas Trott’s treatise). While what happened in 1692 was a tragedy, the Salem Trials were the beginning of the end of witchcraft trials in the American colonies.


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