Names cleared in centuries-old witchcraft cases


“We are grateful to descendants, advocates, historians, legislators of both parties.”

— CT Witch Trial Exoneration Project

“Alse Young was hanged.”

— Windsor town ledger, May 26, 1647

The year was 1692 and the location was Salem, Massachusetts. That same year Essex, Suffolk and Middlesex counties had been scandalized by the arrest of more than 150 persons on accusations that they were witches. Five of them would die behind bars and between that year, and the following year, 26 more would go to trial and all would be convicted of afflicting others with witchcraft or making an unlawful covenant with the devil. Nineteen were hanged immediately for witchcraft. Two others were pregnant, and their hangings were delayed until after they had given birth.

Such was the mass hysteria in Massachusetts and the surrounding colonies. But the Salem Witch Trials were hardly the earliest example of New England residents being tried, convicted, and executed for witchcraft. Three hundred and seventy-six years ago, the town of Windsor, Connecticut, tried Alice Young (referred to as ‘Alse’ in the town ledger) for witchcraft and hanged her — the first such execution in Connecticut. Over the succeeding five decades, a dozen more citizens of that colony were put to their deaths after witch trials.

The names of the accused — both the executed and the exonerated — read like a cliché of the period: Goodwife Bassett, Judith Varlet, Goody Messenger and Mercy Disbrough. Sometimes tried more than once, they were often also subjected to bizarre “tests” to determine their guilt. Giles Corey had been accused of being a warlock and another local resident, under arrest for murder, corroborated that story. Corey refused to enter a plea and so was subjected to peine forte et dure (French for “hard and forceful punishment) in which heavy stones were piled on him until he could no longer breathe. After two days he was asked again to plead and, again refusing, stated, “more weight.” His request was granted and he soon died. He wife was among those hanged for witchcraft. (Mr. Corey is immortalized as a character in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.”)

Thomas Lutherland was arrested for murder and his case, Rex et Regina v. Lutherland came to trial in 1692. The jurors were unable to reach a conclusion about Lutherland’s guilt and not wanting the murder to go unsolved, they suggested to the judge that the ancient Law of the Bier be applied. A bier is a stand on which a corpse or coffin will be placed and the Law of the Bier is a New World superstitious belief that if a dead body was touched by its murderer, the body would bleed, confirming the murderer’s guilt.

Clark’s rotting, decaying corpse was wheeled into the courtroom in full view of the assembled crowd, the judge and the jury. Lutherland was pushed forward toward the corpse and instructed to touch it. Court records and private journals of the time say that Lutherland touched the body only briefly and then jumped away. The body (not surprisingly) did not bleed, but Lutherland was so overcome by the sight of his murder victim that he collapsed in convulsions and confessed his crime to the assembled crowd. After signing a full confession, he was hanged.

We now recognize the hysteria involved in these trials, and seek to right the wrongs done. As early as 1711, Massachusetts reversed several convictions, and its legislature passed acts in 1957 and 2001 expanding that list. In 2006, the governor of Virginia pardoned a convicted witch. In 1938, a New Hampshire town reversed the conviction of a convicted witch there.

Connecticut, however, had always held that pardon was not available under state law to those who had been convicted of witchcraft. Just two weeks ago, the state’s legislature passed a bill to formally exonerate all of those convicted of witchcraft. The bill passed the Connecticut Senate by a vote of 33-1, and its House by a vote of 121-30.

Alice Young was the first person convicted of witchcraft in the New World. Now, nearly four centuries later, her descendants, and those of others convicted in Connecticut, have seen their names cleared. The wheels of justice may grind slowly, but they do, indeed, grind exceedingly fine.

David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has served as magistrate, court administrator, and now judge, since 2003. He has written a weekly column on law and history for The Gazette since 2005.

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