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Archive for the ‘Colonial America’ Category

Sunday, August 15, 2010 – 4:00 to 8:30 pm

The Bergen County Historical Society will celebrate the ancient Algonquin festival of Winu Gischuch, marking the Corn Moon, from 4 to 8:30 PM on Sunday, August 15th. Come tour the Campbell-Christie House, Demarest House, Steuben House and Jersey Dutch Out-Kitchen!

The Dark Moon of August, Winu Gischuch, was associated with ripened corn- ready to roast. At the Dark Moon, native farmers pulled cornstalks that produced no ears and sucked out the sweet sap or syrup. Fresh ears of corn “in the milk” were roasted.

SEE YE! @ 4 pm: In partnership with the American Revolutionary War Roundtable, there will be a special

Baron von Steuben

Baron von Steuben

advance showing of “Lafayette: The Lost Hero,” at 4 PM in the Steuben House. “Lafayette: The Lost Hero,” is a new one-hour PBS biography of the great French officer who served the Revolutionary cause.

HEAR YE! @ 6 pm: Historian and author Kevin Wright will speak on “The Circuit of Seasons” from his book 1609: A Country That Was Never Lost, describing the cyclical movements of Native communities from one food source to the next.

At the tavern in the Campbell-Christie House they’ll serve pie and lemonade, and folks just as nice will demonstrate open hearth cooking in the Jersey Dutch Out-Kitchen.

The giftshop will be open.

Don’t miss this opportunity; it’s not often you can go inside these historic buildings, and see some of the outstanding artifact collections. Some of this weekend’s special displays have not been seen for decades.

Cost? Nominal: by donation: $7 adult, $5 children. BCHS members: free.

For more info about the event, visit Historic New Bridge Landing.

Click here for some excellent background on General von Steuben

About the Steuben House

The Steuben House, courtesy Bergen County Historical Society

The Steuben House, courtesy Bergen County Historical Society

Built in 1752 by merchant Jan Zabriskie, the Steuben House witnessed the crossing of General George Washington and the American garrison of Fort Lee across the Hackensack River during their infamous November 20, 1776 retreat. Because of this strategic position on the banks of the river at the New Bridge, the Steuben House survived throughout the American Revolution and was used by both Colonial and British soldiers.

The confiscated mansion once served as a military headquarters for General Washington and was later presented to Major General Baron von Steuben as thanks for his efforts during the War for Independence.


This Weekend’s Special Exhibits at the Steuben House
:

  • For the first time in 15 years, the New Bridge Charleville Musket will be on view. The musket was pulled out of the Hackensack River in 1903 by a nine year old boy while fishing from the bridge.
  • The Burdette Frying Pan said to be used by Rachael Burdette to serve George Washington Indian cakes in Nov 1776. General Greene used the Burdette’s home as his headquarters. It is on exhibit for the first time in a quarter of a century. The bottom of the pan was painted with a portrait of Washington.
  • Stone tools, projectile points and pottery made by the Original Inhabitants of Bergen County.
  • 18th century artifacts associated with the Revolutionary War in Bergen County and early artifacts associated with the Steuben House, including the original front door box lock.
  • Photographs taken at New Bridge in the 1950s, including the opening of the 1956 new New Bridge Road Bridge. Say that 5 times fast!
  • See the Elsie Heiss Button Exhibit and the 15 ft Hackensack Dugout Canoe (hint: it’s really old!)
  • A Hackensack pie plate, imprinted with a likeness of Lafayette, made at Henry Van Saun’s River Edge pottery in 1825 to celebrate the French hero’s return visit to Bergen County as part of his national tour.

See you there?


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Rosicrucian Digest claims that, “the Rosicrucian Order was the only society of its day which offered the services of its total membership to the shaky cause of liberty…Ephrata was the only American community to mobilize exactly 100% for the rehabilitation of the fallen.”

The Continental Congress pressed various religious communities to provide medical assistance during the Revolution. Unlike other groups, Ephrata did not ask for any reimbursement for their contributions and sacrifices, including the destruction of their homes and tabernacle; depletion of food stores, clothing, blankets, medical supplies, and trade inventories; the loss of priceless works of art and, in several cases, their lives. Steadfast pacifists, the brethren and sisters of Ephrata abhorred the war and refused to take up arms but, by acquiescing to the request from George Washington to tend to the wounded and dying of the Continental Army, they exposed themselves to the deadly typhus and smallpox infecting the troops.

battle of brandywine

Battle of Brandywine

Although the medical facilities at Ephrata became, per Army records, the “principal hospital for the sick and severely wounded at Brandywine,” the Pietist and Rosicrucian cloister’s participation in the Revolution neither begins nor ends with dressing the wounds suffered at the Battle of Brandywine.

Several among this commune of pacifist monks and sisters were not long out of hermetic caves in Cocalico or along the banks of the Wissahocken. To understand why Ephrata ultimately not simply accepted its fate, but embraced its role in the Revolutionary War, we have to look at why Ephrata was founded and, similarly, why its predecessor, Woman in the Wilderness, America’s first commune, crystallized around Johannes Kelpius.

Cynics might point out that Ephrata became a hospital because George Washington said it must and, indeed, he did. He offered Peter Miller, Ephrata’s spiritual leader, no true choice. The cloister was commandeered. Community members, riled, objected; some of them had been hermits but, when the topic turned to religion or government, they proved tenacious and argumentative. Intellectually, they were neither meek nor mild. They debated. Passively resisting the war machine, they insisted that the army take what it needed by force. They knew they would suffer severe material loss, and sacrifice the routines of their spiritual lives to tend to the immediate physical needs of others. They knew such service might kill them. In the end, the commune embraced its role. What looked from outside the commune like a seizure of property and the conscription of a hospital staff was transformed by the adepts of Ephrata into the work of the spirit, until it became, from within, an offering and a devotion to holy service.

As one soldier, grateful for the healing and soothing from the sisters of Roses

woman_wilderness_View_on_the_wissahickon_james_peale

View on the Wissahickon by James Peale

of Sharon said,

“Until I entered the walls of Ephrata, I had no idea of pure and practical Christianity. I knew it in theory before; I saw it in practice then.”

William Penn, Heretics, and the New World

In New Atlantis, Sir Francis Bacon writes of Bensalem, a place where “generosity and enlightenment, dignity and splendour, piety and public spirit” will reign. Bensalem inspired the founders of the Royal Society of London. At roughly the same time, the mid to late seventeenth century, Quakers in England were deported, imprisoned, or worse.

William Penn, a pacifist Quaker, was more or less paid off by King Charles II to round up all the heretics he could, haul them away from England and, for good measure, everywhere else in Europe, and drop them in America. Between what Quakers already owned and controlled of East and West Jersey, and the new grant to settle the debt of the Crown, Quakers controlled West Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Upon receipt of his charter, Penn wrote, “It is a clear and just thing, and my God who has given it me through many difficulties, will, I believe, bless and make it the seed of a nation,” a major tenet of which would be spiritual tolerance and the freedom to worship as one sees fit. Penn’s promotional literature, proselytizing tours through Europe, and Frame of Government emphasized religious freedom and open discourse, offering, at least in theory, the power to the populace to actively influence government.

Among Penn’s favorite regions in which to recruit were the Rhinelands and Lowlands of Germany. Penn extended invitations to all German Quakers, and he proved especially attractive to the Pietists. Francis Daniel Pastorius secured land from Penn, and the two collaborated on a plan for a “Germanopolis”– Germantown. Pastorius soon led a modest wave of Pietist immigration from Germany to Pennsylvania.

Aside from escaping persecution, the Pietists came because they thought that Europe and the Church were suffering the death rattles of unregenerate and irreversible spiritual decay. The Pietist groups were attracted by the promise of a true New World, one in which Christianity could be recalled from the profligate, restored, purified to the point that Christ, the Bridegroom, would return. Casting their eyes upon the old world, the Pietists marked the signs of the Apocalypse. Divine Judgment was imminent. The Pietists, like Noah, built an ark and sailed for a new land in which they could live rightly and be spared holy retribution. Distancing themselves from the old world, full of sin, they congregated in dens of peace and brotherhood to facilitate rediscovery of the truth long trampled by moral decline.

Cocooning in the Wilderness

Ten years after the founding of Germantown, a group of Pietists, who were also third-degree Rosicrucian adepts, took root in huts and caves on the ridge above the Wissahickon. Johannes Kelpius and his followers thought of themselves as the Chapter of Perfection. By “perfection,” Kelpius was referring to their task of “completing” a spiritual journey. In no way did the “monks of the ridge” regard themselves as “flawless.” Today, we refer to Kelpius’ group as Woman in the Wilderness. The study of the history of communes and intentional communities in America is incomplete without an understanding of Woman in the Wilderness.

woman_in_the_wilderness_Johannes_Kelpius

Johannes Kelpius

Johannes Kelpius left the Old World to find an unspoiled place in which, via study and prayer, he could prepare for the New Era. Mathematicians, theologians, astronomers, Kabbalists- Johannes Kelpius and forty fellow university scholars settled in the wilderness, on the spot, and during the year in which, they expected the Second Coming. By day, Kelpius and his brethren studied, worshiped, taught school, and plied trades: physician, architect, bookbinder, clockmaker. By night, they scanned the skies, eyes intent on the Millennium. The Bridegroom never arrived. However, the members of Woman in the Wilderness, learned men early in the Age of Enlightenment, were aware that they had come to a place of pure potential, a place where they could find the religious freedom and political rights essential to the world they wanted to inhabit and for which they were prepared to sacrifice.

In “The Messenger of the Magi,” published in the 1951 Rosicrucian Digest, Harold Preece writes,

Whatever the unrevealed purposes of the Masters, their intention had been clear choosing this young, new nation of the West as the place where majestic teachings would flower in august greatness. Here, eventually, free institutions would permit the free dissemination of noble, redeeming principles kept carefully guarded in older countries wracked by tyranny and torture. Here, truth would be left forever unchained to combat error through reason and logic. Here, seekers of the truth could be informed of the great Order, which waited graciously to serve them.

The hermits of the Wissahickon, the Pietists and Rosicrucians of Ephrata, all devout, skilled, intelligent, learned people, believed just as deeply as George Washington or any other of the founding fathers that America was a destination promised to the deserving. Like Washington, Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson, the “monks of the ridge” and the later cloister sensed that the power to determine history, the capacity to influence the evolution of humanity was in their grasp.

They approached from different angles, but the radical mystic Protestant theosophists of Ephrata and the evolving Enlightenment Age politicians of the emerging United States met at meaningful points.


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From the Diary of Samuel Sewall 27 July 1676:

Sagamore John comes in, brings Mattoonus and his sonne prisoner. Mattoonus shot to death the same day by John’s men.

Sagamore John surrendered in Boston roughly two weeks before John Alderman shot Metacom, the act which effectively ended King Philip’s War, save for a few skirmishes in Maine. Sagamore John’s surrender did not end the atrocities, however.

Sagamore John was a Nipmuc Sachem from Pakachoag in Worcester County. In 1674, he witnessed the deed transferring to Daniel Gookin eight square miles of good Pakachoag land for a mere 12 pounds in New England currency. The down payment for the land consisted of two coats and four yards of cloth. Gookin promised to pay the rest in three months.

Gookin and his friend Reverend John Eliot were instrumental in establishing Pakachoag as one of the towns of Praying Indians. Matoona,  a Christian convert, thanks to Gookin,  served as a Constable at Pakachoag under the authority of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Matoonas’ son, Nehemiah, ran afoul of Massachusetts’ law in 1671. Nehemiah was accused of murdering an Englishman, Zachary Smith. The traditional narrative, here reproduced from Samuel Gardner Drake’s The Old Indian Chronicle, runs like this:

“Zachary Smith, a young Man, in travelling through Dedham, stopped for a Night at the House of Caleb Church, a Millwright, then residing there. He left, the next Morning, and, when he had been gone about half an Hour, three Indians came along, and went the same Way which Smith had gone. As they passed Church’s House they behaved insolently, throwing Stones and using insulting Language. They were known to the English, having been employed as Laborers among them in Dorchester, and had said they belonged to King Philip. These Indians, on overtaking Smith, killed him for some little Effects which he had about him, and his Body was found “near the Sawmill” in Dedham soon after.”

Matoonas’ son Nehemiah was framed for the murder, and executed. He was beheading in boston commonhanged and beheaded. His skull sat on display atop a pole next to the gallows for over five years. Let the record show that the accounts against Nehemiah agreed on neither the sex of the victim nor the town in which the act was perpetrated, let alone the identity of the killer. Matoonas naturally harbored a grudge.

Sagamore John encouraged King Philip. Allied with Nipmuc warriors from Pakachoag and elsewhere, Sagamore John fought for Metacom during Wheeler’s Ambush and the Siege of Brookfield. Matoonas, a leader among the Nipmuc forces, was instrumental during the early raid on Mendon, the initial Massachusetts Bay settlement attacked in the War (the previously attacked settlements were in Plymouth Colony).

Anticipating defeat, Sagamore John ostensibly repented his decision to fight for Metacom. Boston’s Governor and Council offered pardons to those who surrendered. Sagamore John took advantage of the offer, pledged loyalty in exchange for protection, and left Boston unharmed.

On 27 July 1676, Sagamore John returned to Boston with 180 followers and, conspicuously, Matoonas and another of Matoonas’ sons as his captives, bound with ropes.

King Phillips War

King Phillips War

 

It took several minutes for Boston authorities to condemn Matoonas to death. Sagamore John “volunteered” to perform the execution. His men allegedly helped. Matoonas was led to Boston Common, tied to a tree, and shot. Boston, still not satisfied, made sure that Matoonas was beheaded. His skull was skewered atop a pole so it could see squarely into the eye sockets of his son’s skull but a few feet away.

Sagamore John and 19 others who had surrendered later fled town for the woods and back to Pakachoag. The remainder who surrendered did not fare well at the hands of Boston officials. Three were soon executed, accused of torching a house in Framingham; later, eight more were shot in Boston Common. Slave traders bound for the West Indies shackled thirty more. The rest were condemned to life on Deer Island where, without shelter, malnourished, most sickened and slowly died.


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Wistarburgh’s Caspar Wistar set the precedent for “red rose rent” that Baron von Stiegel followed over 30 years later.

Since 1892, Manheim Pennsylvania has enjoyed a quaint ceremony, the annual “Feast of the Roses,” on the first Sunday in June. Each year, a descendant of Henry William “Baron von” Stiegel is honored, and receives a single red rose. The red rose was stipulated in the original deed to the land granted to what is now the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Manheim.

One Red Rose

Red Rose Rent, a Feudal Custom imported to Germantown

The rose so stipulated was actually the rental fee set by the proprietor of the land. Feudal English practice of setting quit-rents was commonly adopted throughout the lower counties of Pennsylvania. In a nutshell, the payment of a quit-rent freed the tenant from all obligations save for fealty to the proprietor of the land, usually the Crown or his assigns such as, in Pennsylvania, William Penn and, thereafter, such parties to whom the rights to the acreage had transferred.

In Manheim, the rights belonged to Baron von Stiegel. The flamboyant Baron – who was not a true Baron, but spent like he was- amassed a fortune in colonial Pennsylvania by operating an iron furnace and, later, one of the most important early American glassworks, the American Flint Glass Manufactory.

Baron Von Stiegel, however, was beaten to the punch on all of the above accounts by Caspar Wistar.

Wyck-House-Germantown, Wistar Home

The Wyck House, Home to Generations of Wistar Family

Over a generation prior, Caspar Wistar, Baron von Stiegel’s fellow German emigrant, began the industrial modes of his entrepreneurship with the purchase of a furnace, and diversified into glassmaking. The Wistarburgh glass operations predated Stiegel’s American Flint Glass.

Caspar Wistar may be best remembered for the glass factory but, outside of William Penn, who was the largest private owner of acreage on the world, Caspar Wistar became the largest landowner in the region. Wistar was, in fact, America’s first real estate tycoon, buying large tracts from the Penns and others, carving them into smaller parcels, and selling them to German immigrants settling in the vicinity of Berks County.

Pronounced business acumen made Caspar Wistar a rather wealthy man, which certainly made it easier to be as charitable as he was.

In Germany, the Wistar family had been most recently tied to both a Lutheran Church in Neckargemund, and a Reformed

Sister of the Roses of Sharon

Sister of the Roses of Sharon at Ephrata

congregation. When John Wister, Caspar’s brother, arrived in Pennsylvania in 1727, he was, at least briefly, associated with the Moravians and Pietists in Germantown. John Wister, in fact, married one of the sisters of the Roses of Sharon at Ephrata Cloister, Anna Thoman, known at the commune as Sister Anastasia. Caspar Wistar, however, was more pragmatic than his brother John when it came to religion and marriage. As Rosalind Beiler notes,

“just as his father and grandfather used their confessional identities to secure their government positions and enhance their social standings, so Wistar realized the benefits of religious membership for establishing his reputation in Pennsylvania. As early as 1721, he indicated his Quaker sympathies…By 1726, Wistar had become a member of the Philadelphia Friends and thereby gained entrance into the dominant network of merchants and political leaders in the province.”[1]

Caspar also married a Quaker, Catherine Jansen.

Although he had “indicated his Quaker sympathies” in writing, having signed a declaration of allegiance to the King, rather than swearing an oath, which was, as Beiler points out, anathema to Quakers, Caspar Wistar’s status as a “card carrying” Quaker did not totally overcome his sympathies for the other Protestant sects with which he’d become familiar in Germany, and which dominated the Germantown area.

As proof, Caspar not only sold, but also granted acreage to those who were not Quakers, or who could otherwise not afford to purchase real estate.

A View of the Tuplehocken by Christopher Shearer

A View of the Tuplehocken by Christopher Shearer

One such grant was made to the Reformed congregation in Tulpehocken. The Tulpehocken church received 100 acres from Wistar in 1738, upon which they built a church, cemetery, and a schoolhouse. Wistar carved the church parcel out of his total Tulpehocken Valley holdings, sales of which were enormously profitable. The transaction specified a quit-rent the church was required to pay annually: one red rose.

Other Berks County families received similar deals from Wistar. In 1910, the New York Times quoted a Berks County historian who claimed that “at least 20,000” acres in the vicinity of Reading and Germantown were deeded on similar terms. Only two men were cited as responsible for the deeds: the British merchant John Page, and Caspar Wistar.

The Lutheran Church in Manheim, whose grounds were deeded by Baron von Stiegel, may receive more press coverage today

Postcard, Baron von Stiegel and Manheim

Postcard, Baron von Stiegel and Manheim

for its annual Feast of Roses, but Caspar Wistar’s donation to the Reformed Church set the American precedent for Stiegel to follow.

Red Rose Rents are paid annually to the descendent’s of the Wistars. The roses are considered priceless heirlooms. The most lavish of the rose rent ceremonies involving the Wistar family was in 1902, when 30 Philadelphia Wistars gathered to receive their due: 157 red roses, representing rent in arrears.

Shortly after the original grant, Caspar ceased to insist on even the token tribute of thanks for his generosity.

~~~~~

Sidebar 1: Caspar’s grant to Tuplehocken was notarized by Conrad Weiser, a Justice of the Peace who, even while busy negotiating on behalf of William Penn or closing agreements with the Native Americans, was a resident of Ephrata Cloister, toward which we’ll look next.

Sidebar 2: James Logan was the official overseer of the collection of quit rents in Pennsylvania, as well as the acting governor of the province from 1736-1738. Logan’s personal physician was Christopher Witt, a prominent member of the brethren of Ephrata. James Logan also was the prior holder of the grant to the land that was purchased by Stiegel and subsequently transferred to the Lutheran congregation at Manheim.

~~~~~

[1] Beiler, Rosalind J. Immigrant and entrepreneur: the Atlantic world of Caspar Wistar, 1650-1750.

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From the Diary of Samuel Sewall 7 July 1685

“Brother Moody visits us. General Court sits in the Afternoon. Time is spent in ordering a Drum to beat up for Volunteers about 30. Samson Waters, Capt., to go with Mr. Patteshal’s Brigenteen to fetch in two Privateers that this morn are said to be in the Bay, a Sloop and Shalop, in the Shalop, Graham.”

Massachusetts Bay Colony declared piracy a capital offense on 15 October 1673. Pirates had been killed before that, too, but the retribution had not been codified outside the pages of the Bible.

“This Court doeth order, & be it hereby ordered and enacted, that what person or persons soever shall piratically or ffeloniously seize any ship or vessel… or rise up in rebellion against the master, officers, merchants or owners…every such offender, together with their complices, shall be put to death.”

a pirate hanged

a pirate hanged

In 1684, Massachusetts Bay put even sharper teeth into its law. It became unlawful to for anyone to “enterteyne, harbour, counsel, trade, or hold any correspondence by letter or otherwise with any deemed to be privateers.”

By the mid 1680’s, piracy had become a terrifying and destructive commonplace along the coast from Maine to Virginia. To combat the growing frequency of pirate and privateer attacks near Massachusetts Bay, the ranking official of a harbor or town was empowered to muster armed forces against the suspect, jail him, and bring him to trial.

If convicted, the pirate would meet his Maker on either Bird Island or Nix’s Mate, both small islands in Boston Harbor. Once owned by John Gallop, Nix’s Mate became the premier place for not only hanging pirates, but also displaying their bodies, even if the knaves had been executed elsewhere. Boston officials let the dead bodies sway and slowly, gently decay in the salty harbor breeze. The bones of pirate William Fry flapped from the gibbet for many months.

Nix's Mate

Nix's mate

On the morning of 7 July 1685, Boston officials heard the story of Captain John Prentice, who had just arrived in Boston from New London, where his ship had a brush with a sloop commanded by Captain Veale, a known pirate. Captain Prentice told the Boston General Court that not only Veale’s sloop, but fellow pirate Captain Graham’s shallop was in the harbor. Captain Prentice had exchanged gunfire with Veale in New London, and told Boston officials that Veale may have purchased several carriage guns from John Wheeler in New London.

The Court wasted no time. It beat the drums to call volunteers to set sail under Captain Samson, on Richard Patteshall’s brigantine, in pursuit of Veale and Graham. Few men answered the call. The Court then ordered that, “For their Incouragement, that free plunder be offered to such as shall voluntarily list themselves.” This tactic helped, since one of Prentice’s men had previously testified that the pirates were stowing booty including silver plate and fine clothing.

Captain Samson was instructed to bring prisoners back to Boston for trial, alive, unless otherwise necessary.

Three days later, the ship returned to port, empty-handed but successful, as the pirate ships had fled Massachusetts Bay.


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“Father, help me,” cried Elizabeth Kelly. “Goodwife Ayres is upon me! She chokes me, she kneels on my belly, she will break my bowels, she pinches me! Goodwife Ayres torments me, she pricks me with pins, she will kill me! Get the broad axe and cut off her head,” the girl begged her father, who could do little more than stand by, and hear his daughter’s last gasp, “Goodwife Ayres chokes me.”
hartford witch trial, goodwife ayers, elizabeth kelly, connecticut history

Hartford Witch Trails

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

hartford with trial, autopsy of elizabeth kelly, first autopsy in america

America's First Autopsy

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.

hartford witch trial in connecticut, goodwife ayers, sale witch trials

Hell Broke Loose in Hartford

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.

Recommended Sources:

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.


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From the Diary of Samuel Sewall 28 June 1689

Between 1688 and 1690, Samuel Sewall visited England. Had there been a phone book in his day, he might have visited everyone in it—and probably purchased something from every merchant in the yellow pages, too. Upon return to Boston in November 1689, he was hauling trunk after trunk of books, clothes, liquors, foodstuffs, hardware and myriad other items, some for personal use, some for resale.

Edmund Andros, Dominion of New England, Samuel Sewall

Edmund Andros as a Prisoner in Boston

Sewall’s travels involved more than business and pleasure, however. He is never out of touch with politics. While in England, Sewall tried to help his friend Increase Mather secure Massachusetts a Charter to replace the original. The conflicts involving the Dominion of New England and its impact on the daily lives and intellectual climate of the colonists weighed heavily upon Sewall.

His diary entry for 28 June 1689 reflects a heady mix of business, pleasure and politics. Sewall is in Cambridge, visiting the College and Catherine Hall, waxing gently on about its gardens and sundials and the little mill tucked in a grove of trees over by a good strong stream. We know where he ate: Saffron Walden, the saffron growing and trading centre. A merchant to the core, Sewall practically calculates his return on investment, noting that saffron roots can fetch “Ten Shillings a Bushel- about an Acre might yield an hundred pounds and more.”

By the end of the 28 June entry, Sewall’s mind is on politics: on the Glorious Revolution, the ouster of Edmund Andros from Boston, on the repudiation of the Dominion of New England. Over coffee, Sewall and Samuel Mather learned of the final days of the Dominion of New England. The two were “surpris’d with joy.”

Surrender_of_Sir_Edmund_Andros, Dominion of New England

Boston Demanded that Edmund Andros Surrender

On 27 June, Nathanial Byfield was licensed to publish his pamphlet, “An Account of the Late Revolutions in New England,” describing the Andros regime. The pamphlet was printed and distributed as rapidly as possible in London.

Byfield’s “Account” became a benchmark of historical perspective regarding the Dominion of New England and Edmund Andros’ regime. Sewall and Mather read that:

“Care was taken to load Preferments upon such Men as were strangers to, and haters of the People. . . . ; nor could a small Volume contain the Illegalities done by these Horse-Leeches in the two or three Years that they have been sucking of us;

“and what Laws they made it was as impossible for us to know, as dangerous for us to break. … It was now plainly affirmed … by some in open Council . . . that the people in New England were all Slaves. . . . Persons who did but peaceably object against the raising of Taxes without an Assembly, have been for it fined. . . . Without a Jury . . . some . . . have been kept in Imprisonment. . . .

“Because these things could not make us miserable fast enough, there was a notable Discovery made of . . . flaw in all our Titles to our Lands . . . and besides what Wrong hath been done in our Civil Concerns . . . the Churches everywhere have seen our Sacred Concerns apace going after them.”

Perhaps Sewall and Mather nodded in agreement with Byfield’s closing: “We commit our Enterprise unto the Blessing of Him, who hears the cry of the oppressed, and advise all our Neighbours, to joyn with us in prayers and all just actions, for the Defence of the Land.”


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