The Year: 1662
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, made it a capital offense.
The largest witch-hunt in mid-seventeenth century New England occurred in Hartford, Connecticut. After the execution of John and Joan Carrington of Wethersfield in 1651 and Lydia Gilbert of Windsor in 1654, a witchcraft tragedy took place among Hartford’s residents.
The Hartford Witch Hunt
There are in every community those who for one cause or another unfortunately incur the dislike and suspicion of their neighbors, and when belief in witchcraft prevailed such persons were easily believed to have familiarity with the devil.
In the spring of 1662, the daughter of John Kelley, eight years old, died after a short illness. In her delirium, she cried out that a neighbor had afflicted her. Her parents and some of the neighbors thought the child was bewitched to death.
About that same time, another girl, Ann Cole, was taken with strange fits, during which she talked, or it was believed that the devil talked through her. Her examination by four local ministers, only increased the mystery and augmented the excitement.
Crimes and Immorality
Those who were implicated in these alleged acts of witchcraft were a group of local acquaintances, some of whom had a reputation for misdemeanors or immorality. Their names were Nathaniel and Rebecca Greensmith, Elizabeth Seager, Andrew and Mary Sanford, William Ayres and his wife, Judith Varlett, and James Walkley. These were the leaders. Others were condemned by the company they kept.
Rebecca and Nathaniel Greensmith lived in Hartford on a lot of about twenty acres, with a house and barn. Rebecca had two daughters from her first marriage, who were about seventeen and fifteen years old at the time of this tragedy.
The couple weren’t well liked, and they suffered criticism and animosity from their neighbors. A complaint was made to the town that the Greensmith barn was on community land. Nathaniel had twice been convicted of theft, and the court had once censured him for lying. Elizabeth Seager left a record of shameless crime, being found guilty of blasphemy and adultery.
One night, Rebecca and her ragtag group had a merry-making, under a tree on the green near the Greensmith house. James Wakeley, Goodwife Ayres, and Elizabeth Seager were present. They all danced and had a bottle of sack. Other nocturnal gatherings were held, and suspicions were awakened in the neighborhood.
A formal charge of witchcraft started the legal process, then local magistrates collected evidence, normally depositions from witnesses and an examination of the accused. This information was forwarded to a higher court authorized to try capital cases. That court referred the case to a grand jury for indictment. If indicted, the case went to a jury trial.
The governor’s assistant served as prosecutor, and he shaped the jury’s understanding of the case. The prosecutor and the accused were allowed to call witnesses. Once all of the evidence was presented, the jury delivered its verdict, and the magistrate imposed a sentence. If the jury returned a verdict with which the magistrate disagreed, he could overturn it.
A Formal Complaint
Gossip and rumor culminated in a formal complaint against the Greensmiths on December 30, 1662, at a court held at Hartford. Both were indicted in the same formal charge. While Rebecca was in prison under suspicion, she was interviewed by two ministers, the Reverends Haynes and Whiting, as to the charges brought by Ann Cole, her next door neighbor, all of which she confessed to be true.
The ministers’ account of that interview:
She (Rebecca) forthwith and freely confessed those things to be true, that she (and other persons named in the discourse) had familiarity with the devil. Being asked whether she had made an express covenant with him, she answered she had not, only as she promised to go with him when he called (which she had accordingly done several times).
But that the devil told her that at Christmas they would have a merry meeting, and then the covenant should be drawn and subscribed. Thereupon Mr. Stone with much weight and earnestness laid forth the exceeding heinousness and hazard of that dreadful sin; and therewith solemnly took notice of the devil’s loving Christmas.
A person at the same time present being desired the next day more particularly to enquire of her about her guilt, it was accordingly done, to whom she acknowledged that though when Mr. Haynes began to read she could have torn him in pieces, and was so much resolved as might be to deny her guilt, yet after he had read awhile, she was as if her flesh had been pulled from her bones, and so could not deny any longer.
She also declared that the devil first appeared to her in the form of a deer or fawn, skipping about her, wherewith she was not much affrighted but by degrees he contrived talk with her, and that their meetings were frequently at such a place, (near her own house) that some of the company came in one shape and some in another, and one in particular in the shape of a crow came flying to them. Amongst other things she owned that the devil had frequent use of her body.
Had Rebecca been content with purging her own conscience, she alone would have met the fate she had invoked, but out of “love to her husband’s soul” she made an accusation against him, which secured his conviction of the same offense, with the same dire penalty.
The Greensmiths were convicted and sentenced to suffer death. On January 6th, 1663, Mary Barnes of Farmington was indicted, and was also found guilty of witchcraft.
Hanged as a Witch
Rebecca and Nathaniel Greensmith and Mary Barnes were hanged on Gallows Hill in Hartford on January 25, 1663. Gallows Hill afforded an excellent view of the execution to a large crowd on the meadows to the west, a hanging being then a popular spectacle and entertainment.
It was the last time any witches were hung in Connecticut, and thirty years before the Salem witchcraft trials. The crime of witchcraft disappeared from the list of capital crimes in Connecticut, and was not prosecuted after 1715.