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Pardoning the Witches

By Wethersfield Historical Society on June 20, 2012 2:04 PM

Additional remarks by Jim Meehan

"Nobody thinks that were these women witches anymore, so what's the point? History proves they weren't witches."  (A modern day resident of Salem Massachusetts.)


Witch trials were held in Connecticut between 1647 and 1697 - five of them in the town of Wethersfield - Mary Johnson (1648), Joan & John Carrington (1651), Elizabeth & John Blackleach (1662-63), Katherine Harrison 1669), and Goody Burr (1678).   The legal process, at a general level, looked to be pretty much by the book.


"Although all proceedings appeared to have been documented, many of the trial records no longer exist. Of those that survive, historians have discovered that a formal complaint started the process. Following the complaint, local magistrates would collect evidence, usually consisting of depositions from witnesses and an examination of the accused. A single witness was all it took to support a witchcraft conviction prior to 1662 [the year of the last execution]. Beginning that year, Connecticut required simultaneous witnessing of the same incident by two or more people.


"Once gathered, the information was forwarded to higher courts authorized to try capital cases. The high court would refer the cases to a grand jury for indictment. Full consideration was given to the written evidence and, where possible, there was a personal reaffirmation of the testimony by the deponents. If indicted, cases went to a jury trial. The governor's assistant served as prosecutor and as such he shaped the jury's understanding of the case. The prosecutor and the accused called witnesses (it is unclear whether the accused were represented by counsel). Once all of the evidence was presented, the jury delivered its verdict and the magistrate (the governor) imposed sentence. If the jury returned a verdict with which the magistrate disagreed, he could overturn it."


Occasionally descendants of these convicted witches have sought official abrogation of the legal decisions levied against their ancestors.  Among the legal remedies could be pardon ("The action of an executive official of the government that mitigates or sets aside the punishment for a crime."); exoneration ("The removal of a burden, charge, responsibility, duty, or blame imposed by law.") or reversing a conviction "if the trial court made an error of law that patently or significantly contributed to the trial's outcome...[especially] types of errors that are so egregious that they are presumed harmful, such as the use of a coerced confession."


None of the Connecticut witches' guilt has yet to be repudiated, but three other states - Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Virginia - have mitigated the verdicts in  some of their witchcraft cases. 



On Oct. 17, 1711, an Order of Compensation reversed the "convictions, judgements and attainders" of 22 (listed below) of the 31 convicted in Salem, Massachusetts - in part because Queen Mary II and the newer General Court concluded that the Devil made them (the original accusers) do it.


ctwitchtrialspardoning220px-Queen_Mary_II-thumb-320x385-624.jpg"The Influence and Energy of the Evil Spirits so great at that time acting in and upon those who were the principal accusers and Witnesses proceeding so far as to cause a Prosecution to be had of persons of known and good reputation, which caused a great disatisfaction and a stop to be put thereunto until theire Majesty's pleasure should be known therein: And upon a Representation thereof accordingly made her late Majesty Queen Mary the second of blessed memory by Her Royal Letter given at her Court at Whitehall the fifteenth of April 1693. was Graciously pleased to approve the care and Circumspection therein; and to Will and require that in all proceedings ag't persons accused for Witchcraft, or being possessed by the devil, the greatest Moderation and all due Circumspection be used, so far as the same may be without Impediment to the Ordinary course of Justice.


"And some of the principal Accusers and Witnesses in those dark and severe prosecutions have since discovered themselves to be persons of profligate and vicious conversation.


"Upon the humble Petition and suit of several of the s'd persons and of the children of others of them whose Parents were Executed. Be it Declared and Enacted by his Excellency the Governor Council and Representatives in General Court assembled and by the authority of the same That the several convictions Judgments and Attainders.... Be and hereby are reversed made and d[eclared] to be null and void to all Intents, Constructions and purposes wh[atso] ever, as if no such convictions, Judgments or Attainders had ever [been] had or given. And that no penalties or forfeitures of Goods or Chattels be by the said Judgments and attainders or either of them had or Incurrd.


"Made and Pass'd by the Great and General Court or Assembly of her

Majestys Province of the Massachusets: Bay: in New England held atBoston the 17th day of october. 1711." 


Almost two and one half centuries later, on August 28, 1957, the Massachusetts General Court, at the urging of historians and editorial writers, declared in a formal resolution that Ann Pudeator, of Salem Town, and "certain other persons" 'may have been illegally tried, convicted and executed' and that consequently no disgrace attached to them or their relatives." (emphasis added) ("Andover: Symbol of New England" by Claude M. Fuess.)


"a resolve was made relative to the indictment, trial, conviction and execution of those found guilty, sentenced and executed in the year1692 (Chapter 143 of the Acts and Resolves of the General Court of Massachusetts) stating that 'if these proceedings were lawful under the Provincial Charter and the law of Massachusetts as it then was--were and are shocking and are superseded by our more civilized laws...that no disgrace or cause for distress attaches to the descendants by reason of said proceedings.'" (emphasis added)

Salem resident Paula Keene, one of the driving forces behind the movement to pardon said,  "Technically they are still hanging on Gallows Hill and it is time to cut the noose loose."


Then on November 1, 2001, acting Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift approved a bill that exonerated the remaining convicted witches not cleared by name in the previous amnesty resolutions: Susannah Martin, Bridget Bishop, Alice Parker, Margaret Scott, and Wilmot Redd.  House Bill No. 2752, amending the 1957 General Court Resolve to include the five names, was submitted by State Representative J. Michael Ruane on behalf of Paula Keene of the Salem State College History Department.  The bill failed.  However Amesbury House Representative Paul Tirone then "was instrumental in shepherding the bill through the legislative process straight to the Governor's desk.  With her signature, Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift set these five women free from 309 years of legalistic limbo."

New Hampshire


ctwitchtrialspardoninggoody13-thumb-320x594-626.jpgIn the State of New Hampshire Eunice (Goody) Cole was the only person in the town of Hampton ever to be accused of witchcraft.  Her story was the subject of John Greenleaf Whittier's poem "Wreck at Rivermouth."


In 1937, with the town's 300th anniversary the next year, townspeople formed "The Society in Hampton Beach for the Apprehension of Those Falsely Accusing Eunice (Goody) Cole of Having Familiarity With the Devil"  - aka the "Goody Cole Society"  - in order to clear her name.  A doll in her image was made and sold locally.


One year later, at Hampton's 300th Town Meeting, the citizens adopted the following resolution reinstating "Goody" Cole to her rightful place as a citizen of the town.  Certified copies of her court documents were burned, mixed with soil from her reputed final resting place, and deposited in an urn for future burial.  Instead of being interned, the vase was given to the Tuck Museum.


"8 MARCH 1938

"The 300th Annual Town Meeting of Hampton, New Hampshire.

"ARTICLE 16: To see if the town will vote to adopt the following resolution; Resolved: That we, the citizens of the Town of Hampton in the town meeting assembled do hereby declare that we believe that Eunice (Goody) Cole was unjustly accused of witchcraft and of familiarity with the Devil in the 17th Century, and we do hereby restore to the said Eunice (Goody) Cole her rightful place as a citizen of the Town of Hampton.


"It be further resolved that any such time as the Selectmen shall elect during the Tercentenary of the Town of Hampton, appropriate and fitting ceremonies shall be held to carry out the purpose of this resolution by publicly burning certified copies of all official documents relating to the false accusations against Eunice (Goody) Cole, and that the burned documents together with soil from the reputed last resting place and from the site of the home of Eunice (Goody) Cole be gathered in an urn and reverently placed in the ground at such place in the Town of Hampton as the Selectmen shall designate."



In July 2006 Governor Timothy Kaine of Virginia gave an "informal pardon" to Grace Sherwood, the "Witch of Pungo", one of that state's fourteen witches but the only convicted witch tried by the "ducking test". 


ctwitchtrialspardoning190px-Ordeal_of_water-thumb-320x480-628.jpg"On July 10, 1706, Sherwood was dropped into the Lynnhaven River and floated  - which was considered proof she was guilty because the pure water cast out her evil spirit, according to the belief system of the time. The theory behind the ducking test was that if she sank, she was innocent, although she would also drown." (http://www.washingtonpost.com)


The accused was tied right thumb to left toe, left thumb to right toe.  This was the normal manner in which the "test" was performed, and a position in which it is difficult for a person to sink. 


"With 300 years of hindsight, we all certainly can agree that trial by water is an injustice," Kaine wrote. 


The pardon was granted at a ceremony that included a partial reenactment of the water test - no one was actually dunked - featuring Danielle Sheets, the daughter of Belinda Nash who requested the governor to exonerate Grace Sherwood, as the accused witch.



At least two recent attempts to absolve our state's convicted witches.


In March 2008 the state legislature's judiciary committee discussed a resolution initiated by 14-year-old Adie Avery and her mother Debra -  8th and 9th generation descendants of convicted witch Mary Sanford of Hartford.


Judiciary Co-Chairman Rep. Michael Lawlor, D- East Haven, who helped draft the resolution with Sen. Andrew W. Roraback, R-Goshen, "noted that the resolution doesn't technically call for an exoneration or pardon, because doing so would imply that there was a crime to commit in the first place.


"Though it's 'not the most significant issue that the legislature will take up,' Lawlor said, the matter of the wrongly convicted still resonates today."


However blogger Warner Todd Huston took issue with the proposed resolution:


"You know, outrage can be a good thing. It is often times useful for people to get outraged over a past slight so that a community might be spurred to action to correct real societal ills. But is the hanging of a "witch" or two over 300 years ago something we should waste our time being outraged over now?


"This is the sort of outrage that is wasted energy. But it is the same sort of outrage we see constantly inveighed by people who want apologies for things that have been so well repudiated, things that even bring about revulsion now. Such absurd outrage causes people to wonder what the big deal really is at this late a date and serves to trivialize what really happened.

      "I do, however, think you owe all of us an apology. You should apologize for wasting our time and the tax money used to fund the government that wasted its time on your silly resolution. And you should apologize for forcing us all for taking time away from important matters."


The resolution was not enacted.


In April 2012 Tony Griego wrote on the blog "damnedct.com" ("All that's weird, unexplained and unusual in Connecticut") that, having been told by the governor and the Board of Pardons and Paroles that neither has the authority to pardon the convicted witches, "we have submitted a Governor's Proclamation request to Governor Dannel Malloy's office. It is our hope that the Governor will issue a Proclamation clearing the names of eleven named executed people for the colonial crime of Witchcraft I believe that this would be fitting in light of the fact that Connecticut has appealed the death penalty.


"The Governor's office called and stated that they were reviewing my request but had not yet made a decision."


Legalistic limbo or wasted energy - what's your opinion?





[Connecticut] People Accused of Witchcraft / Accusation Date and Place /

Verdict or Sentence

Alice Young / 1647 Windsor / Hanged

Mary Johnson / 1648 Wethersfield / Pressured into a confession and probably executed

John and Joan Carrington / 1651 Wethersfield / Guilty, executed

Goodwife Bassett / 1651 Fairfield / Convicted and hung

Goodwife Knapp / 1653 Fairfield / Convicted and hung

Elizabeth Goodman / 1653 and 1655 New Haven / Charged with Slander in 1653. In 1655, acquitted of witchcraft and released with a reprimand and warning.

Mary Staples / 1654 New Haven / Slander

Lydia Gilbert / 1654 Windsor / Probably executed

Nicholas Bailey & wife / 1655 / Acquitted and banished

William Meaker / 1657 New Haven / Slander

Elizabeth Garlick / 1658 Easthampton* / Acquitted

Katherine Palmer / 1660 and 1672 / Slander

Nicholas & Margaret Jennings / 1661 Saybrook / Acquitted

Judith Varlet / 1662-63 Hartford / Probably acquitted

Goody Ayres / 1662 Hartford / Fled the colony with her husband, who also appears to have been accused

Rebecca Greensmith / 1662 Hartford / Hanged

Nathanial Greensmith / 1662 Hartford / Hanged

Mary Sanford / 1662 Hartford / Probably hanged

Andrew Sanford / 1662 Hartford / Acquitted

Mary Barnes / 1662-3 Farmington / Hanged

Elizabeth and John Blackleach / 1662-3 Wethersfield / Complaint filed

James Wakeley / 1662 and 1665 Hartford / Fled both times

Elizabeth Seager / 1663 Hartford / Tried twice and acquitted both times

Mary Hall / 1664 Setauket* / Indicted

Elizabeth Seager / 1665 Hartford / Convicted, however the governor reversed the verdict

Ralph and Mary Hall / 1664 Setauket* / Acquitted

Hannah Griswold / 1667 Saybrook / Slander

William Graves / 1667 Stamford / Complaint filed, probably indicted

Katherine Harrison / 1669 Wethersfield / Guilty, however verdict was overturned and Harrison left Connecticut

Goody Messenger / 1673 Windsor / Slander

Goody Burr / 1678 Wethersfield / Slander

Goody Bowden / 1689 New Haven / Slander

Mercy Disborough / 1692 Fairfield / Subjected to the water test** and later convicted and sentenced to death, however given a reprieve by the General Assembly

Elizabeth Clawson / 1692 Stamford / Subjected to the water test** and acquitted

Mary Staples / 1692 Fairfield / Indicted

Mary Harvey / 1692 Fairfield / Indicted

Hannah Harvey / 1692 Fairfield / Indicted

Goody Miller / 1692 Fairfield / Accusation

Winifred Benham / 1692 Wallingford / Indicted

Hugh Croasia / 1692 Stratford / Indicted

Winifred Benham / 1697 Wallingford / Acquitted


* This town in Long Island, which today belongs to New York, was initially within the jurisdiction of the Connecticut Colony.


* ** Suspected witches were sometimes dropped into a body of water to determine if they possessed evil spirits. The theory behind the so-called "ducking test" was that if the person sank she was innocent but if she floated she was guilty because the pure water cast out her evil spirit.

Convicted Witches Mentioned in the Reversal of Attainment, October 17, 1711

George Burroughs of Wells; John Procter, George Jacobs, John Willard, Giles Core, and his wife, Rebecca Nurse, and Sarah Good all of Salem; aforesaid Elizabeth How of Ipswich; Mary Eastey, Sarah Wild and Abigail Hobbs all of Topsfield; Samuel Wardell, Mary Parker, Martha Carrier, Abigail Falkner, Anne Foster, Rebecca Eames, Mary Post and Mary Lacey all of Andover; Mary Bradbury of Salisbury; and Dorcas Hoar of Beverley.


by John Greenleaf Whittier

Rivermouth Rocks are fair to see,

By dawn or sunset shone across,

When the ebb of the sea has left them free

To dry their fringes of gold-green moss:

For there the river comes winding down,

From salt sea-meadows and uplands brown,

And waves on the outer rocks afoam

Shout to its waters, "Welcome home!"


And fair are the sunny isles in view

East of the grisly Head of the Boar,

And Agamenticus lifts its blue

Disk of a cloud the woodlands o'er;


And, southerly, when the tide is down,

"Twixt white sea-waves and sand-hills brown,

The beach-birds dance and the gray gulls wheel

Over a floor of burnished steel.


Once, in the old Colonial days,

Two hundred years ago and more,

A boat sailed down through the winding ways

Of Hampton River to that low shore,

Full of goodly company

Sailing out on the summer sea,

Veering to catch the land-breeze light,

With the Boar to left and the Rocks to right.


In Hampton meadows, where mowers laid

Their scythes to the swaths of salted grass,

"Ah, well-a-day! our hay must be made!"

A young man sighed, who saw them pass.

Loud laughed his fellows to see him stand

Whetting his scythe with a listless hand,

Hearing a voice in a far-off song,

Watching a white hand beckoning long.


"Fie on the witch!" cried a merry girl,

As they rounded the point where Goody Cole

Sat by her door with her wheel atwirl,

A bent and blear-eyed poor old soul.

"Oho!" she muttered, "ye're brave to-day!

But I hear the little waves laugh and say,

'The broth will be cold that waits at home;

For it's one to go, but another to come!' "


"She's cursed," said the skipper; "speak her fair:

I'm scary always to see her shake

Her wicked head, with its wild gray hair,

And nose like a hawk, and eyes like a snake."

But merrily still, with laugh and shout,

From Hampton River the boat sailed out,

Till the huts and the flakes on Star seemed nigh,

And they lost the scent of the pines of Rye.


They dropped their lines in the lazy tide,

Drawing up haddock and mottled cod;

They saw not the Shadow that walked beside,

They heard not the feet with silence shod.

But thicker and thicker a hot mist grew,

Shot by the lightnings through and through;

And muffled growls, like the growl of a beast,

Ran along the sky from west to east.


Then the skipper looked from the darkening sea

Up to the dimmed and wading sun;

But he spake like a brave man cheerily,

"Yet there is time for our homeward run."

Veering and tacking, they backward wore;

And just as a breath from the woods ashore

Blew out to whisper of danger past,

The wrath of the storm came down at last!


The skipper hauled at the heavy sail:

"God be our help!" he only cried,

As the roaring gale, like the stroke of a flail,

Smote the boat on its starboard side.

The Shoalsmen looked, but saw alone

Dark films of rain-cloud slantwise blown,

Wild rocks lit up by the lightning's glare,

The strife and torment of sea and air.


Goody Cole looked out from her door:

The Isles of Shoals were drowned and gone,

Scarcely she saw the Head of the Boar

Toss the foam from tusks of stone.

She clasped her hands with a grip of pain,

The tear on her cheek was not of rain:

"They are lost," she muttered, "boat and crew!

Lord, forgive me! my words were true!"


Suddenly seaward swept the squall;

The low sun smote through cloudy rack;

The Shoals stood clear in the light, and all

The trend of the coast lay hard and black.

But far and wide as eye could reach,

No life was seen upon wave or beach;

The boat that went out at morning never

Sailed back again into Hampton River.


O mower, lean on thy bended snath,

Look from the meadows green and low:

The wind of the sea is a waft of death,

The waves are singing a song of woe!

By silent river, by moaning sea,

Long and vain shall thy watching be:

Never again shall the sweet voice call,

Never the white hand rise and fall!


O Rivermouth Rocks, how sad a sight

Ye saw in the light of breaking day!

Dead faces looking up cold and white

From sand and seaweed where they lay

The mad old witch-wife wailed and wept,

And cursed the tide as it backward crept:

Crawl back, crawl back, blue water-snake!

Leave your dead for the hearts that break!"


Solemn it was in that old day

In Hampton town and its log-built church,

Where side by side the coffins lay

And the mourners stood in aisle and porch.

In the singing-seats young eyes were dim,

The voices faltered that raised the hymn,

And Father Dalton, grave and stern,

Sobbed through his prayer and wept in turn.


But his ancient colleague did not pray,

Under the weight of his fourscore years

He stood apart, with the iron-gray

Of his strong brows knitted to hide his tears;

And a fair-faced woman of doubtful fame,

Linking her own with his honored name,

Subtle as sin, at his side withstood

The felt reproach of her neighborhood


Apart with them, like them forbid,

Old Goody Cole looked drearily round,

As, two by two, with their faces hid,

The mourners walked to the burying-ground.

She let the staff from her clasped hands fall:

"Lord, forgive us! we're sinners all!"

And the voice of the old man answered her:

"Amen!" said Father Bachiler.


So, as I sat upon Appledore

In the calm of a closing summer day,

And the broken lines of Hampton shore

In purple mist of cloudland lay,

The Rivermouth Rocks their story told;

And waves aglow with sunset gold,

Rising and breaking in steady chime,

Beat the rhythm and kept the time.


And the sunset paled, and warmed once more

With a softer, tenderer after-glow;

In the east was moon-rise, with boats off shore

And sails in the distance drifting slow.

The beacon glimmered from Portsmouth bar,

The White Isle kindled its great red star;

And life and death in my old-time lay

Mingled in peace like the night and day!










Google Books; Bridget Bishop by Paula Keene

Essex County Archives, Salem -- Witchcraft Vol. 2 Page 63


Greg Cunningham | July 16, 2012 8:08 AM | Reply

Excellent work Jim!! If another "proclamation" effort to clear the names of the "acused" happens I would gladly get involved on behalf of James Wakelee.

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