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Westport Witch Trials

50 Years Before Salem,“Evil” Lurked in Connecticut

Article by Westport Museum for History and Culture

Originally published in Westport Lifestyle

Connecticut colonists lived in a dangerous time where fear—both real and imagined—caused panic across the colony.

Rival colonizers from the Netherlands vied for control over trade in the New World and raids from Dutch forces were a constant threat as well as Indigenous tribes—both allied with and against English forces.

While physical attack was possible, far more insidious was the possibility of injury or disease. A simple cut could be fatal before the discovery of antibiotics. Smallpox, yellow fever and influenza ravaged villages in Europe and traveled with the new colonists to New England.

Escalation of this fear culminated into the ruthless hunt of those believed to be witches in New England. Between 1647 and 1655 to be formally accused of witchcraft in Connecticut meant certain death for both men and women.

The first recorded execution of a witch in Connecticut occurred in May 1647. Alys Young was executed in Hartford, yet only a single line of text in the Colonial Governors' diary survives to tell historians of the event.

This period proved most deadly to those charged as witches, even more so than Salem, which would occur nearly fifty years later. Here in Connecticut, every person charged by the court for allegedly practicing witchcraft was executed.

The Westport area did not escape the Connecticut Witch Panic. In 1653, Deputy Governor Roger Ludlow accused the wife of a political rival Thomas Staples - Goodwife Mary Staples - of being a witch.

There are numerous iterations of this story. Essentially, Rodger and Mary had a verbal altercation (i.e., she disagreed with him) and, as she was both a woman and married to a powerful man of a “lesser class” than himself, Rodger determined to eke revenge.

He enlisted commoner Goodwife Knapp, also suspected of witchcraft, to implicate Goodwife Staples of being a witch. Knapp refused. At a dinner party after Knapp’s hanging, Roger told guests that Knapp confessed to him that Mary was a witch.

Rumors exploded.

Due to these dangerous allegations, Mary’s husband, Thomas Staples, sued Roger, resulting in a 1654 slander case heard in New Haven. Throughout the trial, statements were recorded from both sides not focusing on Roger’s actions but mostly about Mary’s actions on the day Knapp was executed. Neighbors stood by her, but many also brought stories of her outspoken nature and frequently cited her as saying she did not believe Knapp to be a witch.

In May of 1654, Roger was found guilty of slander and forced to pay damages to the Staples. The case may have saved Mary’s life as formal accusations of witchcraft were never brought against her, though it was much discussed by the community.

By the end of 1655, seven people had been executed for the crime of witchcraft in Connecticut. And while the executions stopped in 1655, Connecticut’s connection with witches was far from over.

From 1655 until 1661 no witches were executed in Connecticut. This is largely thought to be the work of one man, John Winthrop Jr., the colonial governor. John was a man of science, and while primary source evidence suggests he believed in witchcraft, he was not easily swayed by eye-witness testimony. During his governorship witch trials were held but did not result in hangings as John required more evidence than previously required. However, this reprieve ended in 1662.

In that year John left North America to negotiate a new colonial charter. During his absence, eight trials were held and ten formal accusations were laid during what is known as the Hartford Panic, resulting in four more hangings. But when the governor returned, he swept in a 25-year period when no accused witch was executed in the entire region of New England.

However, history would repeat itself in 1692 when not only Massachusetts but Connecticut once again found its residents amid witch hysteria. The infamous Salem Witch trials—resulting in the death of 20 people—coincided with trials in Connecticut. In what would become Westport, five more women—Mercy Disborough, Hannah and Mary Harvey, Elizabeth Clawson and Mary Staples—were accused of “familiarity with the devil.”

Once again Mary Staples came under suspicion, but she and the Harvey sisters were quickly acquitted. Elizabeth and Mercy were subjected to an insidious water test in the still-present dunking pond* on Fairfield Common. Both were found to float when tossed into the water, but only Mercy was found guilty when considering other testimony. However, the 17th century evidence shows that she was given a reprieve.

Connecticut would not execute any accused practitioners in the 1690s, the last person charged as a witch to be executed in the colony would be in 1662, and the final trial would take place in 1692. Despite what we would consider the fantastical nature of these supposed crimes, Connecticut colonists believed so fully in witchcraft that life and death hung in the balance.

(Editor’s note: Horace Staples, a descendant of Thomas and Mary Staples, founded Staples High School.)

  • Witches Dancing with Demons, 1626
  • Memorial for an executed "witch."
  • Witch trial.

*Most colonists were baptized at birth. This ceremony later allowed for a test to be performed should a person come under suspicion of witchcraft. The belief was that when a witch made a covenant with the devil, they denounced God and thus their baptism. When a witch was thrown into water, usually by a man of the church, the water would “reject” them as they rejected their baptism, and they would float. An innocent person would sink because the water would welcome them. To perform what was called the water test, or ordeal by water, a person was tied thumb to toe or placed into a “ducking chair” and lowered into the water.

The Malleus Maleficarum or Der Hexenhammer known as “The Hammer of Witches” published in 1487, was a treatise written by Heinrich Kramer that served as a witch hunter’s manual through the 16th century. Using the Christian bible and treatises like the Hammer of Witches, 40,000 to 60,000 people were executed as witches in Europe between 1300 and 1800. When Europeans traveled across the Atlantic these traditions followed.