OLR Research Report

December 18, 2006




By: Sandra Norman-Eady, Chief Attorney

Jennifer Bernier, Librarian

You asked a series of questions about Connecticut's witch trials, including whether any witches have been pardoned posthumously. You also wanted to know if any other state has granted a witch a posthumous pardon. We answer each question separately below based on records and accounts of local historians. We relied primarily on works by John M. Taylor, author of The Witchcraft Delusion in Colonial Connecticut 1647-1697; Connecticut historian Walter W. Woodard, author of soon to be published Prosperos America: John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy and the Creation of New England Culture 1606-1676; and John Putman Demos, author of Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England.

What is the Origin of the Crime of “Witchcraft?”

The crime of witchcraft was included in laws enacted by the parliament of England during Queen Elizabeth I's reign (1558-1603). Witchcraft and its penalty were thought to be the express law of God as stated in Exodus 22:18 (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”), Leviticus 20:27 (“A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them”), and Deuteronomy 18: 10 (“There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch” (quotes from the Holy Bible, King James Version).

In each of the New England colonies, witchcraft was a capital crime that involved having some type of relationship with or entertaining Satan. The earliest laws of Connecticut and New Haven colonies, the Blue Laws, make it a capital offense for “any man or woman [to] bee a Witch, that is, hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit, they shall bee put to death.” Although the witchcraft crimes did not require any harm to result from this relationship or entertainment, in practice there had to be harm that warranted the effort and expense of a formal proceeding. In addition to a formal witchcraft charge, allegations of witchcraft were often the bases for civil suits for slander.

When were Connecticut's Witch Trials Held and What Gave Rise to Them?

Connecticut's witch trials were held in the mid to late 1600's, between 1647 and 1697. However, no alleged witches were executed after 1662. Although historians cannot say with absolute certainty what gave rise to the witch trials, many believe that fear was the primary caused. The colonists held strong religious beliefs and years of fighting Native Americans, floods, and epidemical sickness may have caused them to look for someone (Satan) to blame for their hardships.

Describe the Legal Proceedings

Although all proceedings appeared to have been documented, many of the trial records no longer exist. Of those that survive, historians have discovered that a formal complaint started the process. Following the complaint, local magistrates would collect evidence, usually consisting of depositions from witnesses and an examination of the accused. A single witness was all it took to support a witchcraft conviction prior to 1662. Beginning that year, Connecticut required simultaneous witnessing of the same incident by two or more people.

Once gathered, the information was forwarded to higher courts authorized to try capital cases. The high court would refer the cases to a grand jury for indictment. Full consideration was given to the written evidence and, where possible, there was a personal reaffirmation of the testimony by the deponents. If indicted, cases went to a jury trial. The governor's assistant served as prosecutor and as such he shaped the jury's understanding of the case. The prosecutor and the accused called witnesses (it is unclear whether the accused were represented by counsel). Once all of the evidence was presented, the jury delivered its verdict and the magistrate (the governor) imposed sentence. If the jury returned a verdict with which the magistrate disagreed, he could overturn it.

Did the Equivalent of Today's General Assembly Have Any Role in the Trials?

No, the then-General Court did not have a role in the trials.

Names of People Tried as Witches and Case Outcomes

Many court records have been lost or destroyed; thus, there are varying accounts of the number of witch trials in Connecticut. Table 1 shows the names of people who were accused of witchcraft as reported by John Putman Demos in his book Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England. If they were tried as witches, the table shows the years the trials were held and outcomes where known. The table includes cases of slander brought by suspected witches. If the suspected witches did not go to trial, the table also shows those (1) accused, which includes cases for which there is evidence of witchcraft accusation or suspicion but no record of any court action, or (2) indicted, which means they appeared in court before trial.

Table 1: People Accused Of Witchcraft In Connecticut

People Accused of Witchcraft

Accusation Date and Place

Verdict or Sentence

Alice Young

1647 Windsor


Mary Johnson

1648 Wethersfield

Pressured into a confession and probably executed

John and Joan Carrington

1651 Wethersfield

Guilty, executed

Goodwife Bassett

1651 Fairfield

Convicted and hung

Goodwife Knapp

1653 Fairfield

Convicted and hung

Elizabeth Goodman

1653 and 1655 New Haven

Charged with Slander in 1653. In 1655, acquitted of witchcraft and released with a reprimand and warning.

Mary Staples

1654 New Haven


Lydia Gilbert

1654 Windsor

Probably executed

Nicholas Bailey & wife


Acquitted and banished

William Meaker

1657 New Haven


Elizabeth Garlick

1658 Easthampton*


Katherine Palmer

1660 and 1672


Nicholas & Margaret Jennings

1661 Saybrook


Judith Varlet

1662-63 Hartford

Probably acquitted

Goody Ayres

1662 Hartford

Fled the colony with her husband, who also appears to have been accused

Rebecca Greensmith

1662 Hartford


Nathanial Greensmith

1662 Hartford


Mary Sanford

1662 Hartford

Probably hanged

Andrew Sanford

1662 Hartford


Mary Barnes

1662-3 Farmington


Elizabeth and John Blackleach

1662-3 Wethersfield

Complaint filed

James Wakeley

1662 and 1665 Hartford

Fled both times

Elizabeth Seager

1663 Hartford

Tried twice and acquitted both times

Mary Hall

1664 Setauket*


Elizabeth Seager

1665 Hartford

Convicted, however the governor reversed the verdict

Ralph and Mary Hall

1664 Setauket*


Hannah Griswold

1667 Saybrook


William Graves

1667 Stamford

Complaint filed, probably indicted

Katherine Harrison

1669 Wethersfield

Guilty, however verdict was overturned and Harrison left Connecticut

Goody Messenger

1673 Windsor


Goody Burr

1678 Wethersfield


Goody Bowden

1689 New Haven


Mercy Disborough

1692 Fairfield

Subjected to the water test** and later convicted and sentenced to death, however given a reprieve by the General Assembly

Elizabeth Clawson

1692 Stamford

Subjected to the water test** and acquitted

Mary Staples

1692 Fairfield


Mary Harvey

1692 Fairfield


Hannah Harvey

1692 Fairfield


Goody Miller

1692 Fairfield


Winifred Benham

1692 Wallingford


Hugh Croasia

1692 Stratford


Winifred Benham

1697 Wallingford


* This town in Long Island, which today belongs to New York, was initially within the jurisdiction of the Connecticut Colony.

** Suspected witches were sometimes dropped into a body of water to determine if they possessed evil spirits. The theory behind the so-called “ducking test” was that if the person sank she was innocent but if she floated she was guilty because the pure water cast out her evil spirit.

Has Connecticut's Board of Pardons and Paroles Ever Granted a Pardon, Posthumously?

No. According to the board, there is no procedure for granting such a pardon.

Has any Other State Granted a Posthumous Pardon?

It appears that two states (Massachusetts and Virginia) have granted witches posthumous pardons. On October 17, 1711, the governor and General Court reversed the conviction against several people tried as witches in 1692 and ordered restitution. Years later, on August 28, 1957, the General Court of Massachusetts issued a resolution (attached) (1) finding that Ann Pudeator and others executed for witchcraft in 1692 may have been illegally tried, convicted, and sentenced; (2) declaring its belief that witchcraft trials were shocking and the result of a wave of popular hysterical fear of the Devil in the community; and (3) declaring that the resolution did not (a) bestow rights that did not exist before its passage, (b) authorize any suits or deprive anyone of a suit or defense that existed before its passage, (c) alter property rights, or (d) require or permit the remission of any imposed penalty, fine, or forfeiture.

On October 1, 2001, the Massachusetts legislature amended the 1957 resolution by adding the names of the five other people executed for witchcraft in 1692. Those added were Bridget Bishop, Susannah Martin, Alice Parker, Margaret Scott, and Wilmot Redd. We have attached a copy of the amendment.

On July 10, 2006, the governor of Virginia granted an informal or ceremonial pardon to Grace Sherwood, who 300 years ago became the only person in that state convicted as a witch tried by water. The pardon, which restored Sherwood's good name, was in the form of a letter to the mayor of Virginia Beach, the site of the water trial.

In addition to the two states, one town has posthumously exonerated a witch. In 1938, the Town of Hampton, New Hampshire, by resolution (attached), exonerated the one person in the town who had been accused of witchcraft. The town declared its belief that Eunice (Goody) Cole was unjustly accused of witchcraft and familiarity with the devil in the 17th century. It restored her rightful place as a citizen of the town and ordered the selectmen to burn certified copies of all official documents relating to the false accusations.

Although New York has not posthumously pardoned witches, the state recently (2003) pardoned Comedian Lenny Bruce, who was convicted of giving an obscene performance in 1964 during a Greenwich Village performance. Bruce died of a drug overdose two years later.