While most people are familiar with the Salem Witch Trials in the U.S. and even abroad, which took place in Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693, this was not the first period of such persecution in the U.S. Almost 50 years prior to the famous Salem Witch Trials, very similar pursuit, torture and executions occurred in the adjacent state of Connecticut. Although these trials are frequently overlooked in the history of America, their influence on the new country was just as significant as the more famous trials that took place a half a century later. While perhaps not as bloody as the late Witch Craft Trials in Salem, over 50 people were accused of which at least 11 were executed. Although it is commonly accepted that the Salem Witch Craft Trials were the product of mass hysteria that occurred in teenage girls and then spread to the community the first series of witch craft accusations were caused by a different set of circumstances. (Kamensky).
The witch trials that occurred in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 and 1693 are recollected as a terrible chapter in American history. These trials are often classified as a unique and solitary escalation of European superstitions that had been brought to American colonies by only a small number of settlers. However, upon examination of these times, it becomes clear that the fear of sorcery, witch craft and consorting with the devil was an inherent part of New England culture and that it served many complicated functions. Most of these functions had to do with settlers attempting to establish themselves within the top echelon of the fledgling country as they hadn’t been able to do while still residing in England (Davies).
Although belief in witchcraft and consorting with the devil was common in all the American colonies, official trials and executions took place only in those communities that were Puritan in nature which were found in the northeastern New England colonies. The reason for this was that the Puritans had a unique sense of their mission in America based on their fervent religious beliefs. While in England the Puritans were members of Protestant religious groups that protested certain practices of the Church of England, led by King James I from 1566 through 1625. Although the Church of England was considered Protestant, many of the practices followed continued to be based on the Roman Catholic Church. The Puritans opposed the use of items and images they believed to represent idol worship and pagan practices they linked to worship of the devil. The perception of the Church of England in general and the King in particular was that the Puritans were overly devout and excessively troublesome. These perceptions coupled with their constant protests against the church led both King James I and his successor King Charles I who ruled from 1600 through 1649 to force the Puritans to leave England.
The Puritans first came to the American colonies in 1620, settling in New England. Calling themselves the Pilgrims they founded the Plymouth colony in Massachusetts with the purpose of instituting their image of God’s Kingdom on Earth believing themselves to be God’s chosen people. After almost ten years another group of Puritans founded the adjacent Massachusetts Bay Colony. Among their other religious beliefs they brought with them European superstition regarding witches, sorcery and consorting with the devil. These beliefs included the notion that women were inferior. This belief along with their belief in specific superstitions involving witchcraft played critical roles in the later witch crafts persecution which resulted in the large number of indictments and over two dozen executions (Lilibeck).
Since the Puritans believed they were God’s chosen people, they saw themselves as having been sent to the New World to instigate a war against the devil and his minions. They viewed anyone different from them and any unpredictable force of unexplainable influence as agents of Satan. Thus, the saw Native Americans, European settlers of different faiths, and the unpredictable forces of nature as the devil’s servants and thereby a rejection of the will of God and of God himself. Establishing a highly rigid, structured and controlled society with rules based on the Christian Bible used to govern every aspect of life, the saw anything that went again a rule as a sin interpreting sins as acts of treason against God and the entire community. Sinful behavior therefore jeopardized the entire colony as it allowed Satan to gain a stronghold in this world and each sin caused him to gain in power. The ultimate fear was that the Devil would ultimately overthrow the Puritan community which was seen by its members as the only true defenders of God, and the Colonies would become the home for evil in this world which would eventually spread throughout the rest of the world’s nations. To protect against such an outcome the Church kept a tight hold on how its members behaved in every situation, outlawing all pursuits that they believed would lead to sin including any form of games or physical activities, dancing, regular bathing and any social functions that were held outside of the Church. Anyone who strayed from the rules even minutely was suspected of potential sinful behavior associated with following the ways of the devil. Puritans were also concerned by any differences that occurred in others which the believed to be signs of evil for example anyone who was crippled, suffered symptoms of old age, was poor, eccentric, deformed, or who was seen as sickly. People with visible or well- known flaws were not just viewed as being followers of the Devil but as his actual offspring (Lillack).
Women were granted almost no freedom or power under the Puritan laws. Any woman who attempted to attain any type of position of power such as a widow without sons who petitioned to keep her dead husband’s land and belongings was seen as an aberration. While a male adulterer would be pardoned after asking for forgiveness, a female who was even suspected of adultery could be put to death without ever allowed to speak for herself in any court proceedings. Puritans believed that the only way a woman could obtain any type of power, position, wealth or independence was through consorting with Satan.t women could gain access to power only through communion with the devil. This is why women with strong personalities or opinions who were independent or unmarried were the most commonly accused of being witches. Once accused, even if not executed, alleged witches were tortured as a means of supposedly trying to free them of the devils influence the first step of which was to confess. Of course, anyone who actually confessed to being a witch was automatically sentenced to death. This was viewed as a mercy because it was the ultimate manner of cleansing the soul of the devils influence (Kamensy).
As would be expected, witch craft in New England was a capital offense which the law assured would result in speedy execution. Additionally, before 1662, only a single witness was required to prove that someone was a witch resulting in a conviction. While the witch trials in Connecticut were believed to have been recorded most of the documents no longer exist. While the Puritan’s rigid religious beliefs and strict control of all members’ actions overseen by hypervigilant leaders of the community who often saw sin in everyday activities was largely blamed for the Connecticut Witch Trials historians believe there were other causes as well which differed from the causes of the Salem Witch Trials. In particular it is thought that the lengthy period of constant fighting the Native Americans, floods and droughts which led to disease epidemics that could not be treated and resulted in numerous deaths, and unpredictable seasons leading to further destruction of crops despite fervent prayers caused the Puritan’s to look for someone to blame. Since they could not blame God they instead blamed the weakest members of the society, the women, for the devastation, the events of which were seen as connected to the devil (Lillback).
While some men were also convicted they were married to convicted witches and believed to be in league with their wives. When the difficult circumstances prevalent in the colony did not diminish with the conviction, banishments and executions of alleged witches, the fervor for continuing to identify and persecute supposed witches began to die down. In 1662, the Governor of Connecticut began to require more objective proof for witch trials, demanding there be at least two witnesses for each act of witchcraft of which an individual was accused. This made it very unlikely that a case could even be tried. Finally, in 1692 a young female servant accused six other women in the community of leading the devil to possess her however, none of the women were tried as the evidence was not considered believable. At this point, the focus of the Puritans shifted to begin viewing those who falsely alleged that others were witches as sinful and illegal until finally the first American Witch Trials drew to an end, events that would not flare up again for almost 50 years (Davies).
- Davies, R. Trevor. Four centuries of witch beliefs. Vol. 2. Routledge, 2011.
- Kamensky, Jane. “Words, Witches and Woman Trouble: Witchcraft, Disorderly Speech, and Gender Boundaries in Puritan New England.” New Perspectives on Witchcraft, Magic and Demonology 4 (2013): 196-217.
- Lillback, Peter A. “The New England Puritans and Their Teachers on the Doctrine of the Covenant.” Hapshin Theological Review 4 (2015): 167-186.