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A black and white etching of men in traditional pilgrim garb sitting at a table, where women stand before them. It appears to be a courtroom setting where the women are being tried as witches.
Mistress Godman's trial. 1911. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a01206

More Than Three Centuries Later, Connecticut General Assembly Absolves Accused Witches

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The following is a guest post by Sarah Friedman, a legal reference librarian working with the Public Services Division at the Law Library of Congress. She has authored several posts, including ‘A monstrosity of art’: A Strange D.C. Landmark’s Connection to Congress, The Legal History of the Presidential Management Fellows Program, and Hansberry v. Lee: The Supreme Court Case that Influenced the Play “A Raisin in the Sun.”

Although the 1692 trials in Salem, Massachusetts are the most infamous witch trials in New England, witch trials began in Connecticut decades earlier. In the 17th century, while Connecticut was still a British colony, several colonists were accused of witchcraft and some were sentenced to death. In 1647, Alice Young became the first person in the American colonies to be executed for witchcraft when she was hanged in Hartford, Connecticut. Because court records were lost or destroyed, it is unknown exactly how many witch trials took place in Connecticut between the first trial in 1647 and the last trial in 1697. Still, we do know that during that period several people lost their lives or had their reputations damaged as a result of these accusations.

Centuries later in 2023, the Connecticut General Assembly decided to absolve the witch trial victims with House Joint Resolution No. 34 – Resolution Concerning Certain Witchcraft Convictions in Colonial Connecticut. The Connecticut General Assembly defines a resolution as “a statement by the General Assembly that is not a law. Used to approve nominations or labor contracts, place constitutional amendments on the ballot, or express the legislature’s collective opinion.” House Joint Resolution No. 34 does not create new law, but it still drew public attention and advocates, including descendants of individuals accused of witchcraft, who submitted testimony in support of the resolution.

Color photo of Connecticut's captiol building, with tress in the foreground. The white structure has a tall gold-domed roof.
The Connecticut State Capitol is located north of Capitol Avenue and south of Bushnell Park in Hartford, Connecticut. Carol Highsmith, photographer. October 2011. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.19957

In May 2023, the resolution passed the House 121 to 30 and the Senate 33 to 1. The resolution acknowledged that the practices and procedures of the colonial courts and the public panic caused by superstition resulted in a miscarriage of justice. It also noted that “the status of women was radically different than it is today, and misogyny played a large part in the trials and in denying defendants their rights and dignity.” Eleven people, including Alice Young, who were convicted and sentenced to execution for witchcraft and familiarities with the devil, and one person who was convicted and granted a reprieve, were named and absolved in the resolution. Twenty-one people who were indicted but not convicted were also mentioned by name. The resolution extends to those accused of witchcraft who were indicted, forced to flee, banished, or acquitted but left with tarnished reputations. Those individuals “will have their reputations restored and no longer have disgrace attached to their names, now, being in good standing in the state of Connecticut.”

In addition to posthumously absolving the accused, the resolution ends with an apology to the descendants of those indicted, convicted, and executed for witchcraft in recognition of “the harm done to the accused persons’ posterity to the present day.” Senator Saud Anwar, a co-sponsor of the resolution, testified, “[i]t is never too late to apologize for things that you have done wrong,” and now, over three hundred years later, that apology has finally been issued.

For more In Custodia Legis posts on witchcraft click here.

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Comments

  1. The Connecticut State Library has a research guide on witchcraft in Connecticut with links to resources.

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