Journalist and local author Cynthia Wolfe Boynton has written a new book Connecticut Witch Trials: The First Panic in the New World. She recently was kind enough to chat with us about the Connecticut witch trials and the compelling legacy left behind.
Damned CT: Can you tell us a little bit about why you decided to cover this subject and write this book?
Cynthia Wolfe Boynton: Well, it didn't really have a straight path. I've been a journalist since, oh gosh, the 1980s and now that I'm in midlife—I'm in my late-40s—I've really felt the past few years that I wanted to focus my writing as much as possible on stories that I thought that really mattered. And I've been writing stories about women, particularly from history who I felt had just been lost to time—women who did these amazing things, who were revolutionaries in their day.
I wrote a book before this called Remarkable Women of Hartford, which was published by the History Press in March 2014. And before I had started writing that book, I had heard about the Connecticut witch trials and I was surprised because I had no idea that Connecticut had witch trials. Like so many people, I thought they were centered around Massachusetts. But as I was writing this book Remarkable Women of Hartford, I thought, "Gee, I bet there were some remarkable women that perhaps should be recognized," and I started looking into it, and that's what really led to this book.
Damned CT: I love the way that you purposely use the words "witch trials"—that's one of my sticking points in this whole thing because everyone commonly refers to these people as "witches" and I kind of see it as "innocent people who were kind of murdered by innocent people in cold blood."
Boynton: [laughs] Yes, I would have to agree with you. You know, it's hard sometimes when I give talks it's hard to not refer to some of these people—who were both men and women—as just witches. But you're right.
I tried really hard when writing this book to not be extremely harsh or judgmental on the people of the time because although their beliefs were so different from what we believe today, they were really just doing what followed their beliefs at the time.
Back in the early 1600s, these Puritans who were living in Connecticut and throughout New England, they truly felt that the Devil walked the Earth. And just like today how our society might be deathly afraid of a serial killer or a rapist or someone who was at large who was terrorizing a community, back in the 1600s, Connecticut's Puritans felt the same way about the Devil, that the Devil was truly a risk not just to their lives on Earth but their afterlives. So witches were the human form of the Devil, so they couldn't take any risks.
Many religions today, they focus on living good lives so people can go to Heaven afterward. For the Puritans, it was, "You're never going to be good enough, you're probably never going to get into heaven, but ultimately, that's what you should be striving for, and you're hopeless if you don't. You're going to end up in Hell and damnation. These people were really, really scared, and it kind of goes along that they would have this understandable fear of witches.
There's a term called—it's called "presentism" and it's the idea of looking at the past through our present-day lens. I'm sure there are many instances in history where it's important to keep this idea in mind, but I think the Connecticut witch trials are a very important period. You can't judge by today's standards.
Damned CT: I also enjoy that in the title you mention that it's "the first panic in the New World," and going back to what you were saying earlier, it's interesting that the Salem trials get a lot of coverage but what happened in Connecticut happened well before what went down in Massachusetts.
Boynton: Yeah, in Massachusetts, the Salem trials took place in 1692; Connecticut's trials went on from roughly 1647 to the early 1700s. You know, that was a long time. It went on for close to half a century. They began 45 years before the Salem witch trials.
I've given a lot of thought as to why Salem gets all the attention and why no one really knows that the Connecticut witch trials occurred at all, and I think it's because of two things. One, because the Salem trials were just so incredibly unusual. They really didn't follow any kind of normal judicial protocol. They were also the last witch trials that took place in the New World, so they really stayed at the forefront of people's minds. Perhaps, even more important, because Connecticut did execute the very first witch in young America—which you would think someone would know about.
In Connecticut, the witch trials, it really was business as usual. That's not to say that I agree with what happened at all—because as you mentioned before, I think it was horrible, I think a lot of ignorance, a lot of naiveté and perhaps a lot of downright meanness led to many, many people unnecessarily dying—but Connecticut, when it came to finding, trying, prosecuting, carrying out sentences on accused witches, we really did do it by the book.
So it really was . . . I don't know . . . a day in the life of Connecticut magistrates.
Damned CT: I find it interesting too—and you talk about this in your book—that there was a book to kind of follow for the whole process of finding a witch, making sure they were a witch . . .
Boynton: Yeah, that's kind of crazy. It's called The Discovery of Witches, and you can actually get it many places online where you can read the whole book for free. It was written in 1600s England—maybe it was 1500s England. I tend to get my dates mixed up sometimes, and I don't have them right in front of me.
But the Puritans who came to New England, and specifically who came to Connecticut, they had come from the Essex region of England. And England, and all of Europe as I'm sure many people know, for hundreds and hundreds of years, witch trials took place there, and men and women were burned at the stake . . . thankfully, no burnings took place in Connecticut or New England.
But the Puritans who came and settled this area were from Essex, England, where at the time that the Puritans came here for religious freedom, the witch trials in Essex were in high gear. So the people who settled this area came with that mindset that witches are bad, witches are someone who can harm you, harm your livelihood, harm your family, so they came with that understanding, they came with this book and other resources that told them the steps they needed to ensure their own safety.
So it's really kind of crazy. It's an interesting book. It's a little hard to read because it's in Old English but it gives you very specific instructions on how to tell if someone is a witch or not including . . . I'm sure most people have heard of the very famous water test where first you would bind a person. You would bind their right thumb to their left ankle, and their left thumb to their right ankle, and you'd throw them into a flowing river, and if they sank to the bottom that meant that they were not a witch because the waters were believe to be blessed by God, so the waters wouldn't accept the person if they were a witch or demonic in any way. Unfortunately, a lot of innocent people drowned this way. If they threw someone in and they started to float, the water was rejecting them.
So there were lots of tips. Another thing the book instructed was watching and waiting, which basically was condoning or encouraging torture in the sense of isolation. You know put someone in a room with just a bench or no bench, lock the door and don't give them any human contact, don't give them any food and no water, and watch their reactions. If they start to get antsy, if they start to get upset, if this, that or the other thing starts to happen, then they are almost assuredly a witch. So it was kind of crazy.
Damned CT: I particularly love the water test because it's like if you're innocent, you die, and if you're guilty, you die again, but it's more horrible. So really, you're almost better off drowning than being executed. You know what I mean? It's like a no win, it seems.
Boynton: You are absolutely right. Actually, there were a couple of accused witches in Fairfield County who said, "You know what? Give us the water test. We want to prove to you that we're not witches." And both of them actually floated, which was kind of crazy, but thankfully neither of them ended up being executed.
Damned CT: In the book you do a good job documenting all the different cases. I think there are 34 known accused in Connecticut, and the number was 10 or 11 who were hanged. Do you think it was bigger than the records or do you think it was exaggerated?
Boynton: I don't think the numbers are exaggerated. I think if anything, they were probably larger. Unfortunately, they weren't really great record keepers back in the 1600s. There are some records that exist for those times, but a lot of them have been lost for a variety of reasons over the years. Fire, mismanagement—I mean, just think of all the reasons why the records could be lost. There were so many reasons. A lot of times, the records were kept in the form of diaries. So the head magistrate might have all the information in his personal diary rather than something that was kept in, let's say, the New Haven clerk's office at the time.
So discovering more about the Connecticut witch trials at this point, all of us who are interested in it are kind of hoping that at some point, sooner than later, people are going to be going through ancient chests or things in their attics or basements and discovering these old diaries that have the information because papers that are surviving from normal sources that you'd expect—court documents and clerk documents—they're kind of scattered and there aren't that many left. So really, the hope now is on descendants finding things from their ancestors.
Damned CT: Talk about the current records—obviously, it forces you to go all over to research to track down information, and you've done a lot of research—what's some of more surprising or unusual thing you found out while you were researching for this book?
Boynton: I think the one that stuck out the most for me was what I found out about John Wintrop Jr. John Winthrop Jr. was a governor of Connecticut during the trials, he was the son of John Winthrop Sr., who was one of the founders of Massachusetts. But John Winthrop Jr., he really can be given the credit for bringing the Connecticut witch trials to an end.
He wasn't just a politician. He was a physician, he was an alchemist, and he was the guy who stepped up and said, "You know what? Maybe not everything we don't understand is diabolical. Isn't it possible that we just don't know why some things occur in this world?" Because, for example, if you always made the best cheese in the community and all of a sudden your cheese one year, it all went bad. No one would think at all, "Oh, maybe there's a new strain of mold that caused it." Everyone would say, "Oh my goodness, someone bewitched your cheese! Someone put a hex on your cheese!" Or if you were walking down the street and someone gave you a funny look, and then the next day you woke up very sick, it wouldn't be, "Oh, you must've had something brewing," it was, "The person who looked at you funny put a hex on you."
So he was the one who said, "Hey look, not everything has to do with witchcraft." He really took great pains and did a lot of behind-the-scenes work with the magistrates at the time, the judges and the legislators at the time, to try and lobby support for this idea. It was his belief and his work that saved the lives of several women, and ultimately changed the mindset here in Connecticut.
Interestingly, by 1692, when Salem's witch trials started, Connecticut, mentally, was already done with that. We had already decided that not everything unexplainable was diabolical, so it was interesting that this panic went on in such near proximity when we were staring to chill about the whole thing.
So actually, a state historian, Walter Woodward, he wrote a wonderful book about John Winthrop the Younger, which really chronicled this guy's amazing life. But that surprised me most—that this man, and actually he worked close with a number of women, most especially a woman named Katherine Harris, who was an accused witch, to help prove his case. So that was kind of neat.
Damned CT: The example you just cited—it's amazing how flimsy some of the "evidence" was against these people that brought it to trial—"Someone looked at me the wrong way and my cow died." It goes back to what you were talking about earlier. It seems crazy today but at the time, it was the culture. It was how they really believed things worked.
Boynton: It was. And one of the very significant things that John Winthrop Jr. did is that he changed the way the system worked in terms of trying people. He had some other people who believed as he did. At the beginning of the time period of the Connecticut witch trials, it was the job of the accused to prove that they were not guilty, but by the end of the witch trials, by the end of that 45-year period, it was the job of the accuser to prove that the accused was guilty.
So during that whole period of the trials, our magistrates really looked at how we were determining innocent and guilt, and are we doing it in a fair manner. At the beginning of the witch trials, in the early 1600s, the 1640s, 1650s, 1660s, you only needed one person to accuse someone of being a witch. Actually, you could say that "This accused witch appeared as a ghost to me in my room and I'm the only one who saw it," and that person could still go and be convicted and executed.
But by the end, by the late 1600s, early 1700s, it was changed so that one person could no longer claim spectral evidence, that at least two people had to see this spiritual being appear. That at least two other people had to witness this event happen. So I think that's really, really significant that it went from people having to prove that they were innocent to prosecutors having to prove that they were guilty. That's radical, and that's how our entire judicial system is set up today, and we really led the way in that.
Damned CT: That is remarkable. When you read through some of the records and you see some of the witness accounts, some of the psychology in there is amazing. Because you start reading about people saying, "Oh, I saw her flying on a broomstick." Literally saying that. Or that "They appeared to me with the Devil," which absolutely sounds like the ramblings of crazy people or delusional people.
Boynton: Yeah, it's nuts. I have no doubt in my mind—and I know other historians say the same thing—that during that period, people used the hysteria in order to get revenge on other people.
Damned CT: And to settle grudges.
Boynton: Absolutely. To settle grudges, vendettas. Unfortunately, misogyny ran rampant at the time. When women who married men with money or men with property, and then the men died, when the women inherited that land—especially if the woman was considered not worthy, maybe she was of a lower class when she married that man—neighbors would say, "Well, look. She's just a former maid. She doesn't deserve to own a farm. I deserve to own a farm. I deserve to own more land. My family has owned the farm next door for 50 years, or for 40 years. I deserve that land. Let me accuse her, get rid of her, and then take over that land."
So yeah, a lot of dirty dealings went on. And interestingly, a lot of husbands accused their wives. So that says a lot right there. [laughs]
Damned CT: Yeah, I guess it does! One of the things that I think is kind of interesting about this thing, we talked earlier about how well-known Salem has become about the witch trials—they've really made quite the dark tourism business out of it. Why do you think we haven't capitalized on it the same?
Boynton: The clearest reason is that nobody knows about it. So few people know that Connecticut had witch trials.
The second reason is that there's no real place in Connecticut to visit. In Salem, they have Salem Village where people can go visit, and they have the Salem Witch Museum and they have all those attractions related to the witch trials there. Connecticut, we don't have anything like that. We don't have any sites, any central locations where people can visit. We don't even know where the accused witches were hanged.
We have some speculation. We're pretty sure that one of the gallows was set up in the Black Rock of Fairfield near where I-95 is now. We're pretty sure another gallows was set up in Stratford somewhere near the vicinity of where the Stratford Library is now, near of the exits off of I-95. Most of the people were hanged in Hartford, near what we think was the Dutch Point section, but we're not really sure.
It's believed that the first woman, or the first person to be executed altogether in 1647, Alyse Young, that she probably hanged at a gallows that set up where the Old State House is. But we're not really 100 percent sure.
And their graves are unmarked. Once you were condemned as a witch, you could not be buried in a cemetery because cemeteries were considered to be sacred places. So we have no place for people to visit.
Damned CT: To backtrack for a moment. You just brought up one of my favorite stories, the execution in Stratford of whom I believe was Goody Bassett for witchcraft. I always laugh because in Stratford, there's an ice cream place called Goody Bassett's Ice Cream, which I think it's horrible or ironic—I'm not sure what the right word to describe it is—but I wonder if when she was getting ready to be executed, she could take comfort in knowing that some day she'll be known for a delicious treat that hasn't really been invented yet.
Boynton: [laughs] I know, it is very ironic, and definitely kind of sad. But there used to be a rock, there used to be a giant boulder near where I-95 is. When I-95 got expanded years ago, I guess that boulder got demolished, but legend had it that you could see Goody Bassett's fingernail marks, and that when she was taken to the gallows, she went kicking and screaming, and she was holding on to that rock. And then when they pulled her off that rock, that she just dug so deep into it, she just scratched right across it.
I've had lots of adults in Stratford tell me that when they were kids, one of the things that kids dared each other was to be brave enough to go touch her stone, and put your fingers where her fingers allegedly were.
Damned CT: Obviously, we appreciate the darker sides of the stories, you know, the mythical sides of the stories. Why do you think we're so fascinated with all that?
Boynton: You know, witchcraft is magic, and magic is fascinating! Magic opens all kinds of possibilities, and it also taps into our dark side, right? We just fascinated with all things that are dark, and with things we don't understand, and things that are diabolical, and things that we'd never do, but "Oh my gosh, what if I gave it a try? What if I had magical powers? Would I be Glenda the Good, or would I be the Wicked Witch of the West?"
We've always had this fascination, and now there are so many programs. Look at the past decade or so. Witches have become these very glamorous creatures, and now on TV they date sexy werewolves and they hook up with vampires. So now you have that really interesting mix, I think, from being these forbidden creatures to being these sexy, desirable "I can do anything" kind of creatures that just capture our attention.
Damned CT: It really is fascinating. I've read a lot of different history books, and I enjoyed your book because it wasn't a straight break down of case by case, which you do a bit, but you go into the history around it, the culture and what happened afterward—you really did a good job. I did enjoy it.
Boynton: Thank you! One of my goals was to try and tell a story because there's only a handful of books about the Connecticut witch trials out there, and the ones that are out there are really superb, but they're reference books. They don't tell a story. So that was part of what I wanted to do, I wanted to give it some context. And I have to say, your Damned Connecticut website was one of the places that I went to, and you're listed in the bibliography.
Damned CT: So where can people get Connecticut Witch Trials: The First Panic in the New World?
Boynton: They can get it anywhere, which is wonderful. You can buy it directly from the History Press website, which is the publisher. You can get it from any independent or online bookstore, etc. It just went into its second printing—the first printing sold out. So I'm really, really excited about that. I also have a Facebook page for the book, and I try real hard to keep that relatively updated as possible. I have quite a few events going on over the next few months in Connecticut, and I really, really enjoy meeting people and signing books.
Actually, one of the neatest things since the book was published is to hear from the descendants of these accused witches. It's just been fascinating. I got an email out of the blue from someone in Iowa saying, "Hey, my great-great-great-great-great going back 11 times was so-and-so. How awesome that you wrote about her!" So that's been really exciting. I love that.
Damned CT: Thanks again for taking the time, we really appreciate it!
Boynton: My pleasure!