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Beyond Salem: New England's other witch hunts were in Connecticut

A memorial brick for Alse Young, the first known American victim of witch hangings.
Davis Dunavin
/
WSHU Public Radio
A memorial brick for Alse Young, the first known American victim of witch hangings.

Real witches aren’t supernatural monsters from horror movies. They’re people like Elizabeth La Barca. Full disclosure — she’s a friend of mine. She’s also the high priestess of a pagan coven.

“It’s the same thing like you would think of as a priest,” La Barca says. “Somebody who runs a ministry, someone who is a faith leader, somebody their community members come to when they need guidance or support.”

La Barca says there are lots of misconceptions about witches and witchcraft. For one thing, witches can be both women and men. And this religion is not devil worship. It’s based on folk traditions that are thousands of years old in some cases.

“When people see you wearing a pentacle, they think you’re a devil worshipper,” she says. “In a lot of religions, there is a devil. We do not have that in our religion. So it would be silly to say that we worship the devil, because we just do not believe in that. We are polytheistic. There’s many gods, many deities that we give tribute to and honor to.”

If you go back as far as the 1500s in Europe, there have probably been tens of thousands of people executed on charges of witchcraft. And it still happens in parts of Africa. The most famous in America — by far — were in Salem in the 1690s, in which 19 women and men were hanged and dozens more were accused. The town of Salem put up a memorial to them a few years ago at Proctor’s Ledge, where the hangings took place.

But Salem wasn’t the only place. At least 11 people were executed for witchcraft in Connecticut. And they’re far less remembered than the victims of Salem.

The first woman hanged for witchcraft

Beth Caruso is a historian in Windsor, Connecticut. She co-founded a group called CT Witch Memorial in 2016. The group wants the state to officially exonerate — or at least acknowledge — those 11 men and women and honor them with a permanent memorial.

“We had talked about efforts to get the state to recognize Connecticut’s witch trial victims and we realized that in order for there to be a push to make that happen, the public needed to know about the Connecticut witch trials, because most of the public didn’t even know about them,” Caruso says.

In fact, the first woman hanged for witchcraft in the U.S. lived in Connecticut, not Massachusetts. Her name was Alse Young, pronounced “Alice.” She was forgotten to history, until a librarian found her name in an old church record from Windsor, where Young lived. The record, also known as the Matthew Grant Diary, listed the hanging of Alse Young and the date — 1647, almost 50 years before Salem.

Better-documented cases of witchcraft accusation also took place in Wethersfield and Hartford, and most of the actual hangings took place in Hartford, including Young’s hanging. But we still don’t know much about Alse Young other than her name and her supposed crime of witchcraft. Caruso’s own research into local history led her to a pretty good hypothesis about what happened in the small colonial hamlet of Windsor.

“This was after a long winter of an influenza epidemic,” she says. “The deaths in Windsor more than quadrupled in the same year that she was hanged. And through my research, I was able to see that a lot of those deaths were young children.”

Some of those children died right next door to Alse Young. But Alse’s daughter lived. Caruso thinks the people of Windsor were looking for a scapegoat, so they chose Alse.

Nobody knows how they determined “evidence” for Alse’s charges. But women accused of witchcraft would often go through terrible ordeals before they even went to trial.

“Part of the list of what they might do is tie you to a chair and then see if your familiar would come up to you,” Caruso says. “And a familiar would be any animal … They would keep you awake for 24 hours, deprive you of sleep. This was real torture.”

Caruso wanted the town of Windsor to recognize Alse Young and another local victim named Lydia Gilbert. Caruso spurred the town council to pass a resolution in 2017 clearing their names. Windsor Mayor Donald Trinks and the first church of Windsor also worked with the council.

Alse Young and Lydia Gilbert are remembered in a few small ways in Windsor. Most prominently, two bricks feature their names in Windsor’s town square. But Caruso says she’d like to see a proper memorial.

“Because these were witch trial victims, they were probably thrown in a ditch after their hanging,” she says. “They did not have a proper gravesite. For many of their descendants who are learning about them now, who want to pay their respects, they have nowhere to go.”

Caruso formed CT Witch Memorial in 2016 with Anthony Griego, a retired police officer and practicing pagan.

“We started to pursue efforts to get a memorial, recognition or expression of regret for the Connecticut witch trials,” he said. “To be honest, we’ve been unsuccessful.”

Griego wrote to then-Governor Dannel Malloy and learned that Connecticut, like many other states, doesn’t allow governors to pardon anyone. So he went to the board of pardons and paroles and they told him they don’t pardon dead people.

So he asked for a “non-binding proclamation” recognizing the trials — but that never happened, either.

“The elected officials, and some of the officials in Hartford, just don’t seem to be doing anything,” he said.

Efforts for a memorial have been similarly difficult. Originally, Griego says he conceived of a granite stone memorial briefly outlining the 11 people who lost their lives. But he says he has struggled to find a place that would allow the memorial.

The memorial for Goodwife Knapp

One memorial went up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 2019, for a woman named Goodwife Knapp — Goody for short.

I was there that day to report for WSHU. The ceremony opened with a solemn air on the bagpipes. Reverend David Spollett of Fairfield’s First Church Congregational read the invocation. His predecessor, the church’s first pastor, led Goody Knapp up the gallows to die.

“As we honor the memory of Goody Knapp, we give thanks for her life, for her honorable end in not accusing others, but bearing the great injustice which was visited upon her with grace and with courage,” Spollett said.

We know a little more about Goody Knapp than we do about Alse Young. One of the speakers at the day’s event, Cynthia Wolfe Boynton, told me she was pressured to name other women as witches, but she refused.

“She was really fearless,” Boynton said. “It would have been very easy for her to cry and say, yes, I am a witch, please forgive me, but she didn’t do that. She stood her ground even though she knew she was going to be hanged.”

At the end of the ceremony, people placed sprigs of herbs on a stone bearing a plaque with Knapp’s name on it. Among them, some of Goody Knapp’s descendants and members of the Black Hat Society — a group of present-day Connecticut witches.

There’s one important difference between practicing witches like my friend Elizabeth La Barca and people like Alse Young and Goody Knapp. The victims of the witch hunts were probably not practitioners. They were perhaps women, mostly, with eccentricities or traits that marked them as outsiders.

Still, La Barca feels a kinship with them.

“To be seen as something that’s other and to be cast aside — and we’re pretty much doing the same thing today, just with different groups of people, sadly,” she says.

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Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.