1992: Ricky Ray Rector, “a date which ought to live in infamy for the Democratic Party” 2007: Iwuchukwu Amara Tochi, “the burden thus shifted to him”

1663: Nathaniel Greensmith, Rebecca Greensmith and possibly Mary Barnes, Connecticut “witches”

January 25th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1663,* a husband and wife were hanged for witchcraft in colonial Connecticut.

Salem, Mass. gets the publicity — and the tourism — but it was actually the Constitution State where the colonies’ first witch hangings took place, only a few years after the earliest European settlements were established.

As in the Old World, witch purges in New England took place episodically. It had been nearly a decade since any (documented) witchcraft execution when the witch-hunt erupted in Hartford that would claim this day’s victims.

The persecutions began with the deathbed ravings of an 8-year-old girl, who accused a certain Goodwife of the town, the latter preserving herself only by escaping detention and fleeing the colony with her husband.

A familiar cycle of indictments, denunciations, and extracted confessions ensued, as narrated by a 19th century historian.

The reasons for witch persecutions have been extensively and inconclusively debated. As the indispensable Walking the Berkshires blog observes, “Feuds, gossip, and a culture that demanded conformity to rigid social norms certainly played their part, but these secular explanations are easier for us moderns to accept than the sacred, and the two were inextricably linked in 17th-century New England.” It is achingly pitiable to suppose that when Rebecca Greensmith denounced her husband in her confession, she might have been in earnest:

I speak all of this out of love to my husband’s soul, and it is much against my will that I am now necessitate to speak against my husband. I desire that the Lord would open his heart to own and speak the truth.

Nathaniel Greensmith did not “own and speak the truth,” but he shared his wife’s fate this day. They may have been executed with a third accused witch as well, but the documentary trail for Mary Barnes’ case seems less certain. Though she, and perhaps another woman, may have been hanged after the Greensmiths in this particular spasm of supernatural paranoia, the Hartford witch trials of 1662-63 would mark the last witchcraft executions in Connecticut.

The Greensmiths left behind 15- and 17-year-old daughters, a modest estate, and community lore of the miraculous post-execution recovery of the party they were supposed to have been afflicting.

Noted colonial pietist Increase Mather would subsequently retail this latter point further to the fraying credibility of witch-hunting:

After the suspected Witches were either executed or fled, Ann Cole was restored to health, and has continued well for many years, approving her self a serious Christian.

The instance of the witch executed at Hartford, considering the circumstances of that confession, is as convictive a proof as most single examples that I have met with.

David Hall’s Witch-Hunting in Seventeen-Century New England reprints many of the original documentary fragments relating to the Connecticut witch trials, as does an acerbic century-old volume in the public domain, The Witchcraft Delusion in Colonial Connecticut, 1647-1697.

* Sometimes recorded as 1662 or 1662/3, since January 1 was not the legal beginning of the new year.

Update: A resolution officially clearing Connecticut’s “witches” is being mooted, thanks to the pressure of 8th- and 9th-generation descendants of one of the victims. The bill expired in committee in 2008, but could come up again in future sessions. (Thanks to Melisende for the story.)

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Connecticut,Hanged,Milestones,Notable Sleuthing,Public Executions,USA,Witchcraft,Women

15 thoughts on “1663: Nathaniel Greensmith, Rebecca Greensmith and possibly Mary Barnes, Connecticut “witches””

  1. Fiz (UK) says:

    I wish I could say something that doesn’t sound judgemental, but a very interesting book I read a couple of years ago nominated ergot in rye bread to explain the “flying” often described, hysteria in schoolgirls who didn’t have enough to do, and often envy and greed in the accusers who wanted their victims land or property.

  2. Headsman says:

    Witchcraft trials invite judgment. In which proportions these ingredients, do you think? And are they enough to account for the whole sweep of witch trials, even in colonial America — let alone in Europe?

  3. Fiz (UK) says:

    Quite possibly – or just (in Europe) poor old ladies with a cat which they spoke to in their isolation.

  4. this is so not like cool

  5. lawguy says:

    The link about the attempt in the state legislature not succeeding didn’t work, although the last one did.

  6. Phillip (Green)Smith says:

    No surprise this, however at the 350 year mark Connecticunt will cease to exist :)

  7. Kath says:

    “A resolution officially clearing Connecticut’s “witches” is being mooted, thanks to the pressure of 8th- and 9th-generation descendants of one of the victims.”

    Seriously? The “victims” were liars.

  8. Kath says:

    Lest, of course, the victim referred to here was a “witch,” in which case I don’t even begin to understand why his/her distant descendants would stop a resolution clearing him/her…

  9. Michele says:

    I’m an 8th generation descendant of Rebecca Greensmith and I would love for her name to be cleared. Her daughter Micah was my 7th great grandmother. However, Nathaniel was a second husband and not Rebecca’s daughters’ father.

  10. Lex Wolf says:

    I AM a Witch & Proudly from ConnectiCUT. Maybe these “Victims” should have been PROUD of their art & heritage, rather than escape into compkete DENIAL.

  11. Lex Wolf says:

    I’m also an English teacher & Author; so yes, that was a TYPING error = comPLETE. Let’s end this utter nonsense about the assinine notion of “Satan”. He doesn’t EXIST and any sound Witch already knows that. Be PROUD of what your ancestors died for – it’s just a shame each and every one of them DENIED it. In my eyes? Not admitting or denying their Religion certainly has its repercussions – as you can ALL today see…… ~So Mote It Be~.

  12. friend says:

    Hello Lex, MM :)

    I just noticed your comment “it’s just a shame each and every one of them DENIED it. ” and just wanted to correct you on that fact. In fact, there were a number of accused who never did deny it. Rebecca Greensmith actually gave her confession without being pushed into it at all. It is stated in many accounts that she freely admitted to her actions and never recanted.

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