Connecticut's witch trials: Three stories to know

In between Fairfield’s Sullivan Independence Hall and the Fairfield Museum and History Center, there is a shallow depression in the ground. It’s an unassuming little patch of greenery, scattered here and there with tall trees.

From the outside, no one would ever know it was once a pond used to determine the validity of witchcraft. 

Women accused of witchcraft were bound and dunked in the pond. Townspeople would attempt to submerge the women, according to Dr. Anna Lawrence,  a professor at Fairfield University.

“If they fought back and they floated — if they survived — they were then accused of witchcraft because clearly they had the devil’s help with floating,” Lawrence said. Lawrence has phDs in early American history and women’s history and specialties in religion and race in America. 

Connecticut has a rich history when it comes to witch trials. According to Lawrence, 11 out of the 15 witch executions that took place between 1647 and 1663 were in Connecticut.

“Whenever we think about witches, we of course think about Salem and the witch trials of 1692 but what most people don’t know too much about is the long history of witch hunting in Connecticut and the very interesting twists and turns that happened there,” Walter Woodward, the state historian, said at “New England’s Other Witch Hunt,” a recent lecture at the Darien Library.

Depiction of 17th century witch trial.

Depiction of 17th century witch trial.

Getty Images

“Women might be called witches for two reasons that had nothing to do with them actually practicing sorcery,” Lawrence said.

The first type of woman, according to Lawrence, was one who was considered outspoken or abrasive, who “held her head too high,” but lacked status in the community and had no one to vouch for her. This type of woman probably also had no male heir or was childless altogether and lived on the outskirts of the community. The second type of woman who was typically accused of witchcraft was a woman who perhaps had some status but was caught in the middle of a conflict between two warring families.

Two women who were dunked in what was called Fairfield’s “ducking pond” were caught in just such a family conflict. Mercy Desborough and Elizabeth Clawson were both accused by a servant in the house of Daniel Westcott, according to Lawrence. Clawson was declared innocent, while Desborough was declared guilty and later pardoned of all crimes.

“Witches marks” were another supposed indicator of witchcraft. According to Lawrence, a witch mark could be anything from a birthmark to a mole to a skin flap. The marks were supposedly “the devil’s mark” and could be used to nurse witches’ "familiars" (their animal companions). 

There are a few records left of Connecticut’s witchcraft trials that tell the stories of the women who were accused, coerced and often executed. Read on for three stories of them.

Alice “Alse” Young, Windsor

Alice Young was the first person to be convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to death in the state of Connecticut and in all 13 colonies, according to Connecticut’s Judicial Branch.

Though she was from Windsor, her execution took place May 26, 1647, at Meeting House Square in Hartford, which is now the site of the Old State House.

In 2017, the Windsor Town Council officially exonerated Young along with Lydia Gilbert, another Windsor resident executed for witchcraft. The same year the town held a memorial service for the victims of the Connecticut Witch Trials, according to the Judicial Branch website.

Goodie Basset, Stratford

Sally Arlette Garcia who plays Goody Bassett in "Stratford Characters," checks out her namesake ice cream parlor. The Square One Theatre Company production about the history of Stratford runs Dec. 18 to 21.
Sally Arlette Garcia who plays Goody Bassett in "Stratford Characters," checks out her namesake ice cream parlor. The Square One Theatre Company production about the history of Stratford runs Dec. 18 to 21.Contributed Photo

In 1651, Goodie Basset was hanged in Stratford after confessing to witchcraft, according to the Bridgeport Library. Whether that confession was under duress or not, the world may never know. Goodie was probably also not her real first name, according to Lawrence. Many women used the nickname and it was supposed to indicate someone was a good wife, and it is spelled either "Goodie" or "Goody."

“She was one of the ones who was seen as abrasive,” Lawrence said. “She only had a couple of offspring and she didn't have a whole lot of support because her husband was working a lot and was oftentimes absent.”

Startford ice cream shop, Goody Basset's Ice Cream, is named for the local legend.

Goodie Knapp, Fairfield

Family conflict is at the heart of Goodie Knapp’s story, according to Lawrence. 

“Goodie Knapp was found guilty based upon this sort of vague description that there was a woman who held her head ‘upright,’” Lawrence said. “She was more proud than she should be, and Goodie Knapp seemed to fit that characteristic.”

While Knapp was in jail awaiting trial, several friends of prominent townsman Roger Ludlowe approached Knapp and urged her to name Mary Staples, the wife of Ludlowe’s enemy, Thomas Staples, as a witch, according to Lawrence. 

Lawrence said Knapp refused to name Staples as a witch, saying “I can’t add that to my list of sins.”

Knapp was hanged in 1653 in what historians believe is now the Black Rock neighborhood of Bridgeport. After Knapp was lowered to the ground, women gathered around to examine her and found no “witches marks,” according to the Bridgeport Library