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Archive for the ‘Puritans’ Category

“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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King Phillip’s War temporarily revitalized commitment to the New England Confederation and, early on, put the pact to its greatest test. For roughly the first six months of King Phillip’s War, the Confederation provided organization to the war efforts but, as skirmishes grew smaller, more isolated, the impact of the Confederation diminished.

John Winthrop Signing the New England Confederation

Signing the New England Confederation

During the phase of the war in which tiny bands of soldiers engaged in impromptu, isolated battles, the colonies required less cooperation at the supervisory level. The benefits of the alliance faded though disuse. The New England Confederation collapsed ultimately in 1684, when British courts vacated Massachusetts’ corporate charter.

John Quincy Adams spoke about the New England Confederation on several occasions. He clearly revered the agreement. It did not escape Adam’s notice that the colonies not only came to their Confederation without the King’s approval, they did not even seek it. The King had failed them. The colonists were beginning to think that what they did was no longer any of the King’s business.

The New England Confederation grew organically from

Edward Winslow signed the New England Confederation

Edward Winslow signed the New England Confederation

American soil, seeded and shaped by forces and needs with which England was out of touch, and for which she could provide scant help. Noting that, John Quincy Adams tacked the New England Confederation on the family tree of colonial agreements extending from the Mayflower Compact to the US Constitution.

Go here for my article addressing John Quincy Adam’s take on the New England Confederation.


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From the Diary of Samuel Sewall 24 June 1700

June 24th was quite a day for Judge Samuel Sewall. Too many only recall his name in connection with the Salem Witch Trials. Sewall’s diary is packed full of essential and interesting colonial history.

Samuel Sewall, abolition, The Selling of Joseph, salem witch judge

Samuel Sewall, author, The Selling of Joseph

Within entries relating to 24 June, his diary addresses not only the ship Charles, John Quelch, and the Trial of the Pirates, but also his publication of the seminal American abolitionist tract, The Selling of Joseph, on 24 June 1700.

Sewall’s diary indicates that, following a funeral, his thoughts turned to the issue of slavery. “Having been long and much dissatisfied,” he writes,

“With the Trade of fetching Negros from Guinea; at last I had a strong Inclination to Write something about it; but it wore off. At last-reading [Paul Bayne’s commentary on the Ephesians] about servants, who mentions Blackamoors; I began to be uneasy that I had so long neglected doing any thing. When I was thus thinking, in came Brother Belknap to shew me a Petition he intended to present to the General Court for the freeing of a Negro and his wife, who were unjustly held in Bondage.

“And there is a Motion by a Boston Committee to get a Law that all Importers of Negros shall pay 40s per head, to discourage the bringing of them. And Mr. C. Mather resolves to publish a sheet to exhort Masters to labour their Conversion. Which makes me hope that I was call’d of God to Write this Apology for them; Let his Blessing accompany the same.”

The Selling of Joseph clearly reveals Sewall’s mounting abhorrence of the slave trade. Citing passages from the Bible, he states his case; in the subsequent section of the tract, judge Sewall raises, and answers, hypothetical objections to his verdict condemning the practice of slavery.

Answering the objections, he inadvertently attests the prejudices of his era. Sewall was enlightened relative to his time, bold enough to condemn slavery, but the answers to his objections betray him as, regrettably, still a racist. One could argue that, just perhaps, Sewall, after first offering Biblical proof of the evils of slavery, proceeded to offer more practical, secular proofs of those evils, adopting something of the contemptible thought processes of the day solely for the sake of exposing their weakness and refuting them. Unfortunately, the supposition rings hollow, as soon as Sewall notes, “they can never embody with us, and grow up into orderly Families, to the Peopling of the Land.”

Although he condemned slave holders and traders, he would rather not have Blacks in Boston. Although an abolitionist, he remained a segregationist.

Nevertheless, The Selling of Joseph represents an essential element in the study of the abolitionist movements on US soil.

Sewall’s tract was, in part, inspired by a slave, Adam, who was held by John Saffin, one of Sewall’s legal colleagues in Boston and, like Sewall, a respected merchant. Unlike Sewall, Saffin trafficked in slaves; particularly galling to Sewall, Saffin reneged on a deal to manumit Adam. Sewall and Saffin argued over the issue. Sewall criticized Saffin in private, but Saffin went public and issued his defense of slavery in his A Brief Candid Answer to a Late Printed Sheet Entitled, The Selling of Joseph in 1701. The “Sewall-Saffin Dialog” represents the roots of the antebellum slavery debates in America.

The Selling of Joseph gets right to its point. Here is an excerpt, reformatted for enhanced web readability, but with few further textual alterations.

Samuel Sewall, abolition, The Selling of Joseph, salem witch judge Illustration by Dore

Samuel Sewall, author, The Selling of Joseph. Illustration by Dore

FORASMUCH as Liberty is in real value next unto Life: None ought to part with it themselves, or deprive others of it, but upon most mature Consideration.

The Numerousness of Slaves at this day in the Province, and the Uneasiness of them under their Slavery, hath put many upon thinking whether the Foundation of it be firmly and well laid; so as to sustain the Vast Weight that is built upon it.
It is most certain that all Men, as they are the Sons of Adam, are Coheirs; and have equal Right unto Liberty, and all other outward Comforts of Life.

GOD hath given the Earth [with all its Commodities] unto the Sons of Adam, Psal 115. 16. And hath made of One Blood, all Nations of Men, for to dwell on all the face of the Earth; and hath determined the Times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation: That they should seek the Lord. Forasmuch then as we are the Offspring of GOD &c. Act 17.26, 27, 29.

Now although the Title given by the last ADAM, doth infinitely better Mens Estates, respecting GOD and themselves; and grants them a most beneficial and inviolable Lease under the Broad Seal of Heaven, who were before only Tenants at Will: Yet through the Indulgence of GOD to our First Parents after the Fall, the outward Estate of all and every of the Children, remains the same, as to one another. So that Originally, and Naturally, there is no such thing as Slavery.

Joseph was rightfully no more a Slave to his Brethren, then they were to him: and they had no more Authority to Sell him, than they had to Slay him. And if they had nothing to do to Sell him; the Ishmaelites bargaining with them, and paying down Twenty pieces of Silver, could not make a Title. Neither could Potiphar have any better Interest in him than the Ishmaelites had. Gen. 37. 20, 27, 28.

For he that shall in this case plead Alteration of Property, seems to have forfeited a great part of his own claim to Humanity.

There is no proportion between Twenty Pieces of Silver, and LIBERTY. The Commodity it self is the Claimer. If Arabian Gold be imported in any quantities, most are afraid to meddle with it, though they might have it at easy rates; lest if it should have been wrongfully taken from the Owners, it should kindle a fire to the Consumption of their whole Estate.

’Tis pity there should be more Caution used in buying a Horse, or a little lifeless dust; than there is in purchasing Men and Women : Whenas they are the Offspring of GOD, and their Liberty is,

Auro pretiosior Omni.

And seeing GOD hath said, He that Stealeth a Man and Selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to Death. Exod. 12.16.

This Law being of Everlasting Equity, wherein Man Stealing is ranked amongst the most atrocious of Capital Crimes : What louder Cry can there be made of the Celebrated Warning,

Caveat Emptor !


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