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.
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
- c. 1560: Dominique Phinot, queer composer
- 1788: John Price Posey, "superlative villain"
- 1928: Ben “Two Gun” Fowler, cinema shooter
- 2010: Chemical Ali
- 1971: Ousmane Balde, Barry III, Magassouba Moriba, Loffo Camara, Keita Kara Soufiana, and many others in Conakry
- 1911: Sugako Kanno, radical feminist
- 1996: Billy Bailey, the last American hanged
- Daily Double: Throwback Executions