Witchcraft, Wethersfield and The Witch of Blackbird Pond

 

The Witch of Blackbird Pond, By Elizabeth George Speare

Witchcraft, Wethersfield and The Witch of Blackbird Pond

Witch Trials in Connecticut were among the first in New England; happening long before the more famous trials in Salem, Massachusetts.  Connecticut heard 43 witchcraft cases between 1648 and 1668, with 16 ending in execution. 

 Mary Johnson of Wethersfield, Connecticut was the first recorded confession of witchcraft in the colonies.  In 1648 Mary worked as a house servant and had been convicted two years earlier on two separate occasions of thievery (first in Hartford and then in Wethersfield) and whipped.  In her case there was no trial or even a documented accusation.  She confessed under pressure from Reverend Samuel Stone (and after extended whipping).  Mary confessed that she was guilty of witchcraft (or, as it was called, “familiarity with the Devil”) and described her crimes including using the Devil to help her with her household chores.

 Three years later, John and Joan Carrington (a married couple) were accused of and executed for witchcraft, but even less is known about this couple or the circumstances surrounding their ordeal.

 Documentation surrounding this history is slim and piecing the story together is challenging at best.  Many court records are either incomplete or missing and those that do exist offer biased accounts.  Since most victims were poor, personal belongings left behind for historians to study are few and far between; much of what we know comes from the trials themselves.

 Interestingly enough, the most prominent source of information about Wethersfield’s witchcraft history comes from Elizabeth George Speare’s 1958 classic, The Witch of Blackbird Pond.  In it, Wethersfield meadows and cove and several real people from that time are described; making it seem biographical.  This novel, while thoroughly researched and beautifully written, contains much misinformation and is more fiction than fact.  For instance, the witch of Blackbird pond is a Quaker (while Quakers were viewed as dissidents, they were not persecuted in Connecticut as witches).

 The trial of Wethersfield resident, Katherine Harrison, helped bring closure to this period of sordid Connecticut history.  The Harrison trial, where she was found guilty in 1669, provoked a major revision of Connecticut trial law.  Governor John Winthrop, Jr, who maintained a strong interest in the occult as it pertained to alchemy, mining and industry and was an avid astronomer (bringing the first telescope to the colonies) sought clarification of the standard for evidence in witchcraft cases.  This inquiry led to the development of a set of standards that strengthened the evidentiary requirements for conviction including requiring a plurality of witnesses to testify to the same fact.

 Harrison’s death sentence was overturned and she was released with the recommendation that she leave town for her own safety.  Accusations, trials and even convictions would continue for several more decades, including a second Connecticut panic in Fairfield, but never again would a witch be executed in the state of Connecticut.

 

Happy Halloween…..

 ** Many thanks to the Wethersfield Historical Society for information posted