Historical Society hosts program on New England's other witch hunt

By Colin Rajala - Staff Writer
Suffield - posted Fri., Nov. 16, 2012
Dr. Walter Woodward talks to guests about the Hartford witch hunt, which began more than 30 years before the Salem witch trials. Photos by Colin Rajala.
Dr. Walter Woodward talks to guests about the Hartford witch hunt, which began more than 30 years before the Salem witch trials. Photos by Colin Rajala.

Witches have not always been known as green-skinned hags with pointed noises who fly around on broomsticks in long black cloaks and matching pointed hats.  At one point in time, witches were neighbors, community members, even friends and family. Neither were all the condemned witches in the 17th century executed in Salem, Mass. On Nov. 15, the Suffield Historical Society presented "New England’s Other Witch Hunt," a presentation by Dr. Walter Woodward about a witch hunt that took place right here in Connecticut.

“The audience here is knowledgeable, interested, and they asked extraordinarily good questions,” Woodward said. “They are the kinds of questions that I would expect to find from students who are taking a course in witchcraft or from people who have studied the subject for a long time. I am going to go away and think a lot about questions they asked me. Its questions like this that help me learn.”

Woodward’s presentation brought to life the story of the Hartford witch trials and executions of the 1660s and explained how Connecticut was New England’s most aggressive witch prosecutor more than 30 years before the Salem witch trials began. Before speaking about the trials, Woodward shaped the context of the witch hunts, explaining that in Europe more than 150,000 people were purged as witches because of social control, social chaos, connection to devil-worshipping and the effects of the Protestant Reformation, compared to New England’s witch trials, which executed 35 people.

It was believed by many during that time, both in Europe and in New England, that witches gained their power by signing the devil’s book, creating a pact to obtain their magical power. Woodward explained that signing the devil’s book in the 17th century was comparable to friending the devil on Facebook today.

The fear of witches was brought to the colonies by the Puritans from England because they believed they had the power to control love and weather, harm livestock, alter natural processes, inflict illness and shape-shift. Most witches from the hunt were more than 40 years old, and one out of every five were men.

The Hartford witch trials did not begin until Gov. John Winthrop went back to England to handle business, resulting in eight trials in eight months immediately following his leave. Upon his return two years later, he stopped the mess with his logic and reasoning as an alchemist. More trials would ensue, and Winthrop could not exonerate witches without the help from a senate report which required two eye witnesses to go forward with the capital punishment of witches.

“Witchcraft in New England was a very important part of their early culture, and Connecticut’s role in that was much more important than people have ever imagined,” Woodward said. “Connecticut played a central role both in defining witchcraft and saving a lot of people from dying, and that’s a story that’s been all but forgotten. The women who stood up for themselves and combated the accusations were truly heroes."

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