Connecticut may be small, but from its most densely populated cities to its last wild woods, it’s crammed full of haunting stories. Everywhere you look, you can find evidence of the fears (some legitimate, like wild animals, disease, and Indian attacks, and others imagined) this region’s early English inhabitants lived with on a daily basis. The Puritans, and others who came later, believed – not at all metaphorically – in malevolent supernatural forces, like devils, demons, vampires, and witches. They named places after fears that seem fantastical now: Devil’s Den, Devil’s Hopyard, Satan’s Kingdom, Witch Meadow, Hell Hollow Road. (That last one is closed from December to March, in case the name alone didn’t scare you.) They named other places with a harsh practicality; several towns still have a Gallows Lane or a Gallows Hill. One of these, in Hartford, was rumored to be a place where witches were hanged. It probably wasn’t, but people were indeed hanged as witches in Connecticut, and no corner of the colony (or colonies, since Connecticut and New Haven were still separate at this time) escaped the frenzy.
Though many don’t realize it now, Connecticut was accusing women and men of witchcraft – and killing them for it – decades before the famous witch trials in Salem, MA. Connecticut’s witch trials began in 1647, 45 years earlier than those in Salem, making Connecticut the first colony in New England to try and execute a suspected witch. Experts, like state historian Walt Woodward, say the colony was once the most aggressive prosecutor of witches; about 45 people were accused, that we know of, and 11 were hanged. (Some escaped execution but were effectively banished instead.)
The accused came from East Hampton, Fairfield, Farmington, Hartford, New Haven, Saybrook, Stamford, Stratford, Wallingford, Wethersfield, and Windsor. The incidents included two so-called witch panics: one in Hartford in 1662, and one in Fairfield in 1692. Connecticut executed its last witch in 1662, but continued holding trials until 1697.
This chapter of Connecticut’s past has not been turned into a tourist attraction as it has in Massachusetts. (If you want to avoid the crowds, I recommend visiting Salem in the summer.) The Constitution State, to the extent that it remembers these events, tends to view them as dark and shameful, rather than kitschy and commercial. But there are sites related to Connecticut’s witchcraft trials that can still be visited today. It takes a bit of mental energy to imagine the days when people truly believed their neighbor could conspire with the devil to bewitch their cow. But the three destinations I’m sharing here are both historic and beautiful, making that imagining very easy to do.
The current location of the Old Statehouse (800 Main Street) was once the site of Hartford’s first meetinghouse, built in 1636. Today, the open area surrounding the historic building is lively with shoppers at the regular farmers’ market, office workers taking shortcuts, and tourists visiting the museum inside. (For other classic downtown Hartford attractions, see my post about my favorite Hartford things to do.) A statue of Hartford founder Thomas Hooker and plaques commemorating other notables in Connecticut’s past are dotted around the property. It was here, many believe, on Meetinghouse Square, that convicted witches were publicly hanged. It’s also said that Gallows Hill at Trinity College was used for hanging witches, but evidence suggests only a few Tories were executed there, during the Revolution. The precise location of these hangings (in Hartford or elsewhere) is not known; it may have been west of the city on Albany Avenue (Route 44.) Still, so much of the story of early American witch trials rests on unfounded beliefs and rumors – after all, there were no real witches – that regardless of historical facts, it is intriguing to stand on a spot so long thought to be a place of execution, and imagine what may have gone on so long ago.
Hartford’s Ancient Burying Ground (60 Gold Street) is possibly the best place to imagine this nearly-lost version of the city. The 17th century cemetery is situated between the modern Gold Building, which casts an autumnal glow on everything, and Center Church, founded by Thomas Hooker in 1636 (the current building dates from the early 1800s.) This early Hartford church provided a backdrop to the Hartford Witch Panic, with religious disagreements in the congregation contributing to personal rivalries and general instability in an already perilous society. Today, the Ancient Burying Ground is shaded and calm, set apart from the bustle of the city just steps away. The headstones tell the stories of contemporaries of witch trial victims, accusers, and judges, their world explained with names, dates, and eerie “death’s head” carvings. Everyone who died in the 17th and 18th century Hartford was buried here, rich, poor, famous, or obscure. “Witches,” however, were not; after execution, their bodies were probably given to their families to be interred in secret. Just outside the cemetery gate, near the statue of Reverend Samuel Stone, co-founder of the city, are bricks commemorating witch trial victims Alice (or Alse) Young of Windsor (more about her below), Mary Sanford of Hartford, and Mary Barnes of Farmington, the last person hanged for witchcraft in Connecticut.
Follow Main Street southward and you’ll find Barnard Park (Main and Wyllys Streets.) This was once the city’s South Green, used as common pasture land; it also gave its name to the current South Green neighborhood. Here, witches were believed to gather in ritual meetings called sabbats. Rebecca Greensmith, accused along with her husband Nathaniel, confessed in 1662 to attending such a meeting “under a tree in ye Green” where witches danced and drank a bottle of sack; she told the court “it was in ye night, & something like a catt cald me out to ye meeting.”
Wethersfield was home to several figures in the real life story of witchcraft in Connecticut. Mary Johnson was tortured until she confessed; Katherine Harrison was tried then freed, but because of the vehement objections of the townspeople she was then banished, “which…will be the most to her own safety and contentment of the people who are her neighbors;” and married couple Joanne and John Carrington’s case was one of a few involving accusations of nefarious interactions with Native Americans, who were already viewed suspiciously, in part due to their religious practices, which struck the English as Satanic.
But today, Wethersfield’s witch connection comes primarily from its association with a fictional witch trial. The town, especially the venerable and creepy-looking Buttolph-Williams House (249 Broad Street), was the inspiration for the setting of the novel The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. The house is managed by the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum, which conducts tours.
In town, visitors can also see other places that feature in the novel, places that would have been known to the real Wethersfield residents swept up in the real witchcraft trials. One of the most evocative of the past is Wethersfield Cove (533 Main Street), where trading ships once arrived from as far away as Europe and the West Indies. Today, the cove is peaceful and only small crafts dock here, but one hulking old warehouse still stands on a hill, a reminder of the town’s busy seafaring days.
If you visit in the fall, a stroll around the Old Wethersfield Historic District (centered around Broad Street and Main Street) will also reveal a penchant for Halloween decorations. The figures placed around the town center tend to blend seasonal fun with a touch of the uncanny, and if you squint, you can almost imagine a time when the people who walked these streets believed in cursed butter churns and shadowy familiars stalking the streets.
As Connecticut’s oldest English settlement, established in 1633, Windsor is known as Connecticut’s First Town. It is perhaps fittingly home to another first: a Windsor woman, Alice (or Alse) Young (sometimes Youngs), was the first person not only in Connecticut but in any of the American colonies to be executed on suspicion of witchcraft. At the center of the Town Green (Broad Street), commemorative bricks honor her and another local victim of the witch trials, Lydia Gilbert, sentenced to die for magically causing an accidental shooting, for which another man had already been punished, and at which she was not present.
The first English residents here lived on the banks of the Farmington River. Today, the Windsor Center River Trail (behind 45 Palisado Avenue) offers a place to sit or walk beside the river, with scenic views of the water and the stone arches of the Farmington River Railroad Bridge.
To get a broader sense of Windsor’s past – and see some lovely old homes – explore the Broad Street Green Historic District (around Broad Street) and the Palisado Avenue Historic District (around Palisado Avenue.)
The Windsor Historical Society (96 Palisado Avenue), maintains several historic buildings around Palisado Green, where the town’s white settlers set up a palisado, or fort, for protection during the 1637 Pequot War. In Connecticut (as in Salem), witchcraft accusations arose in the aftermath of a bloody conflict that left the community traumatized and unsettled. On the green is a statue of John Mason, a prominent Windsor man who led the 1637 raid known as the Pequot Massacre (or Mystic Massacre) that killed hundreds of Indians, including women and children. It’s a reminder both of the events that informed the locals’ mindset at the time of the witch trials, as well as the importance of learning about injustices and tragedies in Connecticut’s past.
Given how widespread witchcraft accusations were in the Connecticut and New Haven Colonies, and how many families were involved in some capacity, these are not the only sites related to this period in local history. To give just one example of another, a planned memorial to Goodwife (or “Goody”) Knapp of Fairfield will be located in the Black Rock section of Bridgeport, on the grounds of the Borroughs Community Center (2470 Fairfield Avenue.) Knapp was convicted of witchcraft and hanged near this spot in 1653. (At that time, this area was part of Fairfield.) A plaque honoring Knapp, dedicated in August 2019 and expected to be displayed permanently this fall, will be on a rock just outside the garden.
If you’d like to learn more about witch trials in early Connecticut, two books I enjoyed (and used in researching this post) are Walter W. Woodward’s Prospero’s America: John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606-1676, and Richard S. Ross’s Before Salem: Witch Hunting in the Connecticut River Valley, 1647-1663. I also liked the three-part podcast series on the topic done by Grating the Nutmeg last fall.