NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WTNH) – We usually think of Salem Massachusetts when we think of witch trials, but Connecticut has it’s very own witch trial history.
Cynthia Wolfe Boynton who wrote “Connecticut Witch Trials: The First Panic in the New Word” joins Jim on set to talk about her book.
Written by award-winning journalist Cynthia Wolfe Boynton and published at the end of September by The History Press. It uses newspaper clippings, court records, letters and diary entries to tell the story of Connecticut’s witch hunt, which began almost 50 years before Salem’s more infamous one.
Connecticut’s witch hunt was the first and most ferocious in New England, yet few know it ever occurred. Why is this?
It’s likely because Connecticut’s took place in a relatively calm manner over an extended period of time — 1647 and 1697 — and following all the judicial procedures of the day, while Salem’s consisted of a wild, intense and hysterical seven months in 1692, where few judicial processes were followed. In Connecticut, witchcraft was a crime like robbery or murder. You committed it, you were arrested and tried. Today, the idea seems sensational, but it wasn’t in the 17th century. They believed the devil walked the earth and was as much a threat to the public that needed to be stopped as, say, a uncaught killer is today.
How many people were executed?
Eleven women and men were executed, beginning with Alse (Alice) Youngs of Windsor. Her hanging in Hartford on May 26, 1647 was the first witchcraft execution to occur in New England and the new world. Most were women, but there were also men and a handful of couples were accused, a few of them executed together.
Was writing this book easy? Was there a lot of information for you to go off of?
No. It wasn’t easy. There are no known diaries or first-person accounts from those who witnessed the trials. And the majority of court ledgers and other documents from the period no longer exist.
The few delicate, handwritten court papers and depositions that do remain are housed in archives at the Connecticut State Library, Connecticut Historical Society and at Brown University’s John Hay Library in very fragile condition — torn, yellowed and often incomplete. What’s there, however, does provide insightful details. There’s also been a few reference books about Connecticut’s witch trials that were written that were just invaluable to me. Connecticut State Historian Walter Woodward is probably the state’s upmost expert on the topic, so I attended several lectures he gave on the topic, and just worked really hard to dig and piece together whatever I could from the very scattered bits of information that exist.
Isn’t the classic children’s book The Witch of Blackbird Pond about Connecticut’s witch trials?
It is. It’s a book published in 1958 that was inspired by Wethersfield’s witchcraft history, and it’s widely popular, used in language arts curriculums in middle schools around the country. It’s a wonderful story, but factually it’s inaccurate. It’s fiction. But when I wrote my book, I tried to keep The Witch of Blackbird Pond in the back of my mind and remember that people love it, and it’s remained popular for so many years, because it’s so well written and presented as a wonderful story. I tried to write my book the same way–to present what happened during Connecticut’s witch trials as not just a conglomeration of names, dates and fact, but as a story that would draw people in and enjoy.
Were there any people from this time in Connecticut history who especially impressed and stuck with you?
John Winthrop Jr. He was one of Connecticut’s governors during this period and instrumental in saving the lives of several accused witches, as well as bringing Connecticut’s witch trials to an end. Winthrop wasn’t just a politician. He was a physician, an astronomer, and an alchemist. And he knew that not everything in life was as cut and dry as Puritans believed. Winthrop understood that not everything was unexplainable was caused by witchcraft or the devil, and he worked very hard to make Connecticut’s leaders at that time, and the people who lived in the Connecticut Colony, to see and understand that too.
The book was published last month, but you’re having a launch party this week?
Yes. The Barnes & Noble in Milford is hosting a launch this Tuesday, Oct 28, at 7 pm, which I’m very grateful and excited for.