Familiar as this melodrama might sound to students of the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, neither the afflicted girl, Elizabeth Kelly, nor the alleged witch, Goodwife Ayers, lived in Massachusetts, and Salem judges such as Samuel Sewall would not hear the infamous Witch Trials for another 31 years.
Contrary to common assumption, New England’s first “witch” execution wasn’t in Salem. Alice Young resided in Hartford, Connecticut. She was hanged in 1647. Over the next 50 years, ten more suspected witches would meet their end in Connecticut. During 1662, nine were tried as witches. Four were convicted. Since its very first Legal Code, Connecticut listed witchcraft as a capital offense. Betraying a deep and true fear of witches, items two and five below, from the original Connecticut Blue Laws, relate to witchcraft, and stipulate the death penalty:
2. If any man or woman bee a Witch that is hath or consulteth with a familiar spirritt they shall bee put to death Exodus 22 18 Levit 20 27 Deut 18 10 11
5. If any person shall slay another through guile either by poisonings or other such Devellish practice hee shall bee put to death Exo 21 14
Circumstances surrounding Elizabeth Kelly’s accusation of Goodwife Ayers render her case quite different from any other in the colonies. Eight-year-old Elizabeth, the victim of the alleged witchery, was not only delusional, she was clearly physically ill—she died within days of the onset of her pain.
In 1893, a writer for JAMA suggested that Elizabeth Kelly suffered from “some form of bronchial pneumonia attended with delirium.” Elizabeth’s parents, however, as well as other people of Hartford, wanted to know exactly what killed the girl. Everyone in town was aware that Elizabeth, in pain for days, screamed about how Goodwife Ayers was hurting her. Walter Woodward claims that Hartford also knew that Goodwife Ayres enjoyed “spreading stories of encounters with the devil.”
Hartford was ready to believe that Goodwife Ayers was indeed a witch, but interested people were prudent enough to call for an expert opinion- not from, as typically, clergy or a Judge, but from a respected, if unskilled, local
physician, Bray Rossiter. Mr. Rossiter lived in Guilford, Connecticut, and 20-mile travel from Hartford. It took Bray Rossiter several days to arrive at the gravesite, at which he performed the first recorded autopsy in Connecticut; JAMA claims that Rossiter performed the first postmortem in America.
Bray Rossiter tackled the necropsy with the assistance of the schoolmaster, William Pitkin. At least six others witnessed the procedure.
“All these six particulars underwritten I judge preternatural,” writes Rossiter. “Upon the opening of John Kelly’s child at the grave I observed:
1. The whole body, the muscular parts, nerves and joints were all pliable without stiffness or contraction, the gullet only excepted. Experience of dead bodies renders such symptoms unusual.
2. From the costall ribs to the bottom of the belly in the whole latitude of the womb, both the scarf skin and the whole skin with the enveloping or covering flesh had a deep blue tincture, when the inward part thereof was fresh, and the bowels under it in true order, without any discoverable pecaney to cause such an effort or symptom.
3. No quantity or appearance of blood was in either venter or cavity as belly or breast, but in the throat only at the very swallow where was a large quantity as that part could well contain, both fresh and fluid no way congealed or clodded as it comes from a vein opened, that I stroked it out with my finger as water.
4. There was the appearance of pure fresh blood in the backside of the arm, affecting the skin as blood itself, without bruising or congealing.
5. The bladder of gall was all broken and curded, without any tincture in the adjacent parts.
6. The gullet or swallow was contracted like a hard fish bone that hardly a large pease could be forced through.
The doctor clearly hadn’t studied many cadavers. The symptoms he describes are common to corpses several days old. He may have been examining a body but, along with the rest of Hartford, Rossiter was hunting for a witch. Unlike inquisitors past and future, Rossiter studied the victim for the effects of the witch, rather than the witch herself, even though Goodwife Ayers was present for at least part of the inquest.
Bray Rossiter’s medical report did not commit him- in writing- to the conclusion that Goodwife Ayers was a witch. Confronted by symptoms and characteristics unfamiliar to his limited medical knowledge, Rossiter swore that Elizabeth Kelly suffered unnatural harm. Hartford knew exactly what his report said between its lines: his autopsy proved Goodwife Ayers was a witch. A man of science corroborated, and tapped, one of the deepest Puritan fears. All Hell was breaking loose in Hartford.
Rossiter’s autopsy unleashed panic in Hartford. Over the next eight months, Hartford tried eight witches. The Hartford Witch Trials predate the Salem Witch Trials by three decades.
Goodwife Ayers and her husband abandoned their young son, skipped town, and avoided a sure death sentence from acting Hartford authorities.
Hall, David D. Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth Century New England
“The First Postmortem Recorded In The Country.” JAMA 21:661-662. October 28, 1893.
St. George, Robert Blair. Conversing By Signs: Poetics of Implication in Colonial New England Culture.
Woodward, Walter. “New England’s Other Witch Hunt: the Hartford Witch-Hunt of the 1660′s and Changing Patterns in Witchcraft Prosecution.” Magazine of History 17:4; July 2003.