Modern Historians Explain
In 1647, the Capital Crime in America was witchcraft.
The first to die was a woman named Alice Young of Windsor, Connecticut. She was hanged on a warm spring day in 1647. Her execution is mentioned only briefly – a single sentence – in Governor John Winthrop’s journal.
“One of Windsor was hanged,” he writes in an entry dated May 26th, 1647.
Little is known of Alice. Her age, appearance, and even the exact reason for her hanging have eluded written record. The only fact known with certainty is that her death would mark the beginning of a grim time in American history that would see the murder of thirteen women and two men. This number may or may not include Alice.
Mary Johnson was the second. A servant from Wethersfield, she was executed the following year in 1648 after confessing to involvement with witchcraft. The official reason for her hanging was “familiarity with the devil.”
“She confessed that she was guilty of the murder of a child, and that she had been guilty of uncleanness with men and devils,” the famous Cotton Mather writes.
Her official crime, then, was the rejection of her two assigned roles: mother and sexual subservient.
The New England Witch Hunts, modern historians explain, were produced by the collision of religion, magic, and reality.
But what if they had nothing to do with religion, magic, or reality?
Witch hunting in Connecticut reached its peak in 1662 when “at least” eight people were accused, and “at least” three executed. During this notorious witch hunt, the suspected were given the swim test – that is, they were tied up and casted into the river. If they sank, they were innocent, though dead. If they floated, they were witches rejecting their baptism.
An obsession with cleansing can usually be traced to an inner knowing that oneself is dirty.
The infamous Salem Witch Trials occurred much later and were given far more attention than those that took place in the neighboring state of Connecticut. By the time accused “witches” were being executed in Salem in 1692, Connecticut had already grown weary of the practice.
The word “witch” was derived from the old English word “wicca,” meaning wise woman.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a witch as “an ugly or unpleasant woman,” or “a woman thought to have magical powers, especially evil ones, popularly depicted as wearing a black cloak and pointed hat and flying on a broomstick.”
The “evil power” that a witch possess, then, is wisdom. Her “unpleasantness” and “ugliness” is her agency and independence.
Perhaps the hanged women of Connecticut were witches, then, in the true sense of the word.
Perhaps the Connecticut Witch Hunts were not rooted in fear of the devil at all, but fear of something else.
Perhaps this fear has never really gone away.
When the laws were rewritten in 1750, Witchcraft was no longer considered a capital crime in America.
But it is, nonetheless, a crime.