Tapping the Scales of Justice - A Dose of Connecticut Legal History
This brick engraved with Alice ‘Alse’ Young’s name is among the memorial bricks found beneath a flag pole near Town Hall in Windsor Connecticut.
In 1642, witchcraft was a capital offense punishable by death in the Colony of Connecticut.
Colony laws were based on the laws of Massachusetts Bay and England and additionally were backed
by Old Testament scriptures, i.e., Ex: 22, 18; Lev: 20, 27; Deu: 18, 10, 11. Connecticut laws
were later codified in the The Code of 1650.
In May of 1647, Alse Young (sometimes also referred to as Achsah or Alice) of Windsor, Connecticut was the first person executed for witchcraft in America. Alse was hanged at the gallows by Meeting House Square in Hartford on what is now the site of the Old State House. A journal of then Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop states that "One of Windsor was hanged." The second town clerk of Windsor, Matthew Grant also confirms the execution with the May 26, 1647 diary entry, "Alse Young was hanged."
Although Connecticut may not have experienced the same level of hysteria as Salem, Massachusetts experienced from 1692-1693, the panic over witchcraft in Connecticut began four decades earlier than in Salem and continued in the state for several decades. Alse Young was one out of dozens of people accused and one of over ten people hanged for witchcraft in Connecticut. Mary Johnson of Wethersfield was executed in 1648 after having confessed to entering into a compact with the devil, the earliest confession of this kind in the colonies. The first of several couples to be accused, Joan and John Carrington also of Wethersfield and prominent members of their communities, were executed in 1651. Some of the accused were acquitted or exonerated with damages, while others fled the colony.
John Winthrop Jr. became Connecticut’s governor and chief magistrate in 1657 and a few years thereafter was given the critically important assignment of attaining an official royal charter from King Charles III. This charter established Connecticut as an independent colony and amongst other privileges, granted Winthrop the right to pardon offenders. Winthrop was able to overturn the conviction of Elizabeth Seager of Hartford at her third witchcraft trial in 1666 and save Katherine Harrison from a death sentence in 1669. Harrison’s trial was notable in that it changed the way evidence is used in Connecticut, including determining that there should be a plurality of witnesses, at least two for every event. Additionally, Winthrop lead the way in determining that the burden of proof should be on the accusers rather than the accused and he lobbied to dismiss the use of spectral evidence (evidence based on dreams or visions). Over time Winthrop used his alchemist background to challenge the ideas of “diabolical magic”.
The last witchcraft trial in Connecticut happened in 1697, where the charges against Wallingford residents Winnifred Benham and her teenage daughter were dismissed. The last recorded accusation of witchcraft in the state is against Colchester resident Sarah Spencer, who was determined by magistrates to be innocent and awarded damages. The trial of Connecticut Colony laws were updated in 1715, at which time witchcraft continued to be listed as a capital crime. The crime of witchcraft disappeared from the list of capital crimes when the laws were next printed in 1750.
In 2008, Senate Joint Resolution No. 26 was introduced to exonerate the Connecticut residents who had been charged with witchcraft, but the resolution did not make it out of Judiciary Committee. Other efforts include requesting then Governor Malloy to sign a proclamation exonerating the victims in 2012 and calls to the Board of Pardons and Parole to issue posthumous pardons, but the attempts proved unsuccessful.
On February 6, 2017, Alyse Young was formally exonerated by the Windsor Town Council, along with Lydia Gilbert, another Windsor resident executed for witchcraft. On May 26, 2017, a memorial ceremony was held in Windsor for Alse Young and the other victims.
Sources of Information:
Cynthia Wolfe Boynton, "Connecticut Witch Trials: The First Panic in the New World" (2014)
Norma Buchanan, She Came from London to Live in Windsor; They Hanged her as a Witch, Hartford Courant Op-Ed., (2019)
George Lincoln Burr, editor, Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases 1648-1706 (1914)
Beth M Caruso, "One of Windsor: The Untold Story of America's First Witch Hanging" (2015)
Code of 1650, Colonial Records of Connecticut, lists witchcraft under "Crimes and Punishments"
Charter of Connecticut-1662, Avalon Project
Jennifer Coe, Windsor Passes Witch Execution Resolution, Hartford Courant, (2017)
David D. Hall, editor, "Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth Century New England", 2nd ed. (2005)
Matthew Grant’s Diary, Windsor Town Clerk, first known identification by name of Alse Young and her execution (1637-1654)
Richard S. Ross, III, "Before Salem: Witch Hunting in the Connecticut River Valley", 1647-1663 (2017)
John M. Taylor, The Witchcraft Delusion in Connecticut (1908)
R.G. Tomlinson, "Witchcraft Prosecution: Chasing the Devil in Connecticut", (2012)
R.G. Tomlinson, "Witchcraft Trials of Connecticut", (1978)
Winthrop’s Journal: History of New England 1630-1649, mention of a woman from Windsor hanged in Hartford, page 323
Victims of Witch Trials Remembered, Hartford Courant (2017)
For other sources of information on accusations and mentions of witchcraft in Connecticut:
Connecticut’s Witch Trials, Wethersfield Historical Society
Connecticut Witch Trials and Posthumous Pardons, Connecticut Office of Legislative Research Report
Elizabeth Clawson…Thou Deseruest to Dye, Ronald Marcus, Stamford Historical Society
Evidence from Invisible Worlds in Salem, Library of Congress blog, In Custodia Legis. Not specific to Connecticut, but covers the topic of spectral evidence, which was allowed in Connecticut witchcraft trials
Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions, Cotton Mather, includes mention of an early Connecticut witchcraft trial
Records of the Particular Court, CT Historical Society, indicates date and charges of witchcraft against John and Joan Carrington (1928)
Research Guide to Colonial Records, Connecticut State Library
Witchcraft in Connecticut, Connecticut History.org, a project of Connecticut Humanities
The Witchcraft Buried in Wallingford’s History, The Choate News, student newspaper of Choate Rosemary Hall
A Witched Hanged in Bridgeport, Bridgeport History Center at Bridgeport Library
For other accusations and mentions of witchcraft in the Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut:
Mr. Willis asked to go to Saybrook to examine suspicions of witchcraft
Witchcraft listed as a crime punishable by death in Connecticut’s Capitall Lawes
Mercy Disborough, Elizabeth Clawson, Goody Miller, Mrs. Staples
Water Test on Mercy Disborough and Elizabeth Clawson
For related Connecticut Doses of History:
The Charter Oak
The Code of 1650 or Ludlow's Code
Katherine Harrison and the Adoption of Rules of Evidence
Doses of Connecticut Legal History