Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Witch Trials in Colonial Connecticut

I admit I am fascinated with our ancestral involvement in the colonial witch trials, but I am reminded that these were real people caught up in this hysteria; mothers, fathers, friends and neighbors who genuinely feared the devil's presence in their lives. Two of my ancestors were tried for witchcraft and one was executed.  While others were witnesses and judges.

As  portrayed in popular stories of the Salem witch trials, the accused might be spared if they confessed, repented and pointed the finger at others which did nothing but feed the frenzy. Almost four hundred years later, we know these people were innocent and to falsely accuse another to save oneself is wrong, yet, in the 17th century, witchcraft was accepted as a very real threat. We can only imagine what the accused went through.  But in that situation I can understand how an accused witch could convince herself that a strange neighbor was bewitched, amidst her own self doubts as to whether her seemingly innocent actions were, in fact, witchcraft.  

There was no forensic science, to speak of, thus the courts relied almost entirely on witness' accounts.  They did have a few witch 'tells' including putting a person in the water, possibly with their hands and feet bound, as witches would float. It's believed that some women briefly floated due to their dresses.  Most people sank proving their innocence but risking their lives. Some drowned when the rope tied to their waist, intended to pull them to safety, broke. Another tell involved searching the body of the accused for witch marks or teats that were believed to have been made by the devil and, thus, were insensitive to pain.  The courts did not necessarily accept these as evidence, but they were done nonetheless. People were often convicted based on voluntary confessions, or the testimony by two witnesses.

It's estimated that 80 people were accused of witchcraft and 15 executed in New England during the initial wave of hysteria in the mid 1600's.  One of those accused was Elizabeth Cogan Holly Kendall (1599-1651),my 9th great grandmother, who was put to death in about 1651.  The famous Salem witch trials didn't occur for another 40 years, in about 1692, during which 19 more people were executed with many more accused.


Elizabeth Cogan, was born in Somerset England about 1599.  She married Samuel Holly (1593-1643) in England in 1618 and came to America in about 1635 with her husband and children including her oldest son John Galen Holly (1618-1681) (my 8th gr grandfather).   Samuel Holly died in 1643 leaving his wife Elizabeth and children, the youngest of which was probably about 10 years old.  In 1644, Elizabeth married John Kendall (1608-1661)

A few years later in approximately 1651, 'Goody' or Mrs. Kendall was charged with bewitching the child of Goodman Genings to death.   Goody Kendall was said to "make much of the child when she was well." The child then "quickly changed color" and dyed a few hours later.  Goody Kendall was accused by the Genings' nurse of witchcraft.  Her trial and execution, which was one of the earliest in colonial america, were said to be unusually swift.  According to one source, she was put to death by hanging, but other sources indicate the method of her execution  is unproven.  

Not long after the execution, upon questioning, the parents of the child indicated that the nurse had taken her out into the cold the night before which they believed was the cause of the child's death.  In order to protect herself, the nurse had accused Mrs. Kendall.  In all likelihood neither woman was to blame for the death.  The nurse was imprisoned for bearing false witness against Goody Kendall, but she was never tried and died in  prison.  I can't help wondering how this trial may have impacted history had it occurred and shed light on the ease with which a person could be falsely accused.    

            John Galen Holly (1618-1681) - Our Ancestor
  • The exact year the Holly family arrived in New England is uncertain, but probably between 1630-1635.  In either case, town records show they resided in Cambridge MA by 1639.  
  • After his father's death, John Holly moved to Stamford CT in 1645, where he became a prominent town official serving as selectman, representative and judge.  
  • A conflicting opinion claims John Holly was not Samuel's son.  However,  there is quite convincing evidence to refute this including property records of land owned by Samuel Holly on the southside of Charles river in Cambridge, MA that was willed to Samuel's son in Dec. 1643, and then sold by John Holly to Edward Jackson in Oct. 1645.   The sale also included land currently in use by Elizabeth Kendall, late wife of Samuel Holly.
  • Notably, John Holly named his eldest son Samuel and eldest daughter Elizabeth, after his parents, in accordance with English naming traditions of the time.
  • Two of John Galen Holly's children are our direct ancestors  - John Holly (1649- 1716) is a 7th gr grandfather and Bethia (Holly) Weed (1655-1713) is an 8th gr grandmother. 


Elizabeth Clason/Clawson (1641-1714)  (my 9th gr grandmother) was accused of witchcraft and tried in Fairfield, CT in 1692.  Elizabeth's maiden name was Periment or Pennoyer.  She was believed to have been born in England, most likely coming to America with her parents in approximately 1643.  I have not positively identified her parents, but she married Stephen Clason (McClay/Clawson) on November 11, 1654 in Stamford.  They had four children, including their youngest daughter, Elizabeth (Clason) Dann (1666-1748) who is my 8th gr grandmother. 

Unlike Elizabeth Kendall's case for which there is only one written account, her story is recorded in detail in a number of documents that still exist today.   Further the people of Stamford are said to have been very suspicious of the accusations against Elizabeth Clason.

Katherine Branch was a servant who lived with the Wescot family in Stamford Ct.  In April of 1692 she began to suffer seizures and fits causing her to fall to the ground, convulse and call out.   A local midwife concluded she was bewitched. 

On May 27, 1692, hearings were held by a Court of Inquiry, led by Nathan Gold and Jonathan Selleck , both of whom are my 9th gr grandfathers, as well as John Burr and John Bell. Katherine Branch told stories of a cat speaking to her and turning into a woman and then back to a cat. Katherine accused several women of being witches with her, including Goody (Elizabeth Periment) Clason and  Mercy Disborough of Fairfield. 
Elizabeth Clason denied the accusations, but admitted there had been a disagreement between herself and Abigail Wescot for some years which could have been the motive for the Wescot's servant to accuse Clason

 According to records Mrs. Clason was subjected to the water test in a Fairfield pond and floated, an indication of her guilt as a witch. The preliminary investigation of a special Court stated that she had 'familiarity with Satan'...'and deserved to dye.'   The court appointed Sarah Burr, Abigail Burr, Abigail Howard, Sarah Wakeman, and Hannah Wilson to examine the bodies of Mrs. Clason and Mrs. Disborough in search of marks of the devil.  They reported finding nothing unusual on Mrs. Clason.

In an unusual move, Stephen Clason asked his neighbors to sign a petition asserting his wife's good character.  In spite of the 'evidence', 76 Stamford residents signed the petition, the original of which still exists today at the Stamford Historical Society.   

Elizabeth Clason's defenders

After the hearings, Mrs.  Clason remained in jail pending the outcome, but the jurors were unable to reach a verdict.  In June the court created a special commission to try the case the following September.  The Fairfield trial began on September 14, but the jury was once again unable to reach a verdict.  Finally on October 28, 1692 court convened again.  This time the jury acquitted Clason and convicted Disborough who was sentenced to death.  The Hartford Court subsequently overturned that verdict and acquitted Disborough as well.  The women had spent months in jail awaiting the outcome but were at last freed. 

Elizabeth (Clason) Dann (1666-1748) - Our Ancestor

  • Elizabeth Clason married Francis Dann Sr. in Stamford in November of 1685 - my 8th gr grandparents.  
  • We are direct descendents of two of her children. 
    • Their daughter, Elizabeth Dann (1686-1731) married John Jones (1676-1721)  
    • Their son, John Dann (1701-1731) married Deborah Green (1701-



In another case, in Fairfield CT. our ancestor Susannah (Norman) Lockwood (1616-1660), wife of Robert Lockwood, testified against Goodwife Knapp who was convicted of witchcraft and executed by hanging in 1653.  Goody Knapp was tried by Magistrates John Davenport and Roger Ludlow.  

 Goody Knapp was reported to have been tormented emotionally and physically while in jail. A group of women, including Susannah Lockwood, were appointed to examine her body and were quite thorough and rough.  Goody Knapp is reported to have told the group "take heed the devil have not you."

Goody Knapp refused to accuse others and is credited with the following statement, "I must not render evil for evil ... I have sins enough already, and I will not add this [naming another witch] to my condemnation."


Lucius Robinson Paige, History of Cambridge, Massachusetts, H. O. Houghton, 1877 - Cambridge (Mass.),

David D. Hall,Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth Century New England, A Documentary History 1638-1693, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1999

Godbeer, Richard, Escaping Salem The Other Witch Hunt of 1692.  Oxford University Press, Inc., 2005.

Tomlinson, Richard G., Witchcraft Trials of Connecticut:  The First Comprehensive, Documented History of Witchcraft Trials in Colornial Connecticut. Hartford, Conn. Connecticut Research, In., 1978

Stamford Historical Society