Witchcraft in Colonial America — Witches and Trials in the 13 Original Colonies


Witchcraft in Colonial America is typically connected to the Salem Witch Trials (1692–1693) and the Puritan Colonies in New England. Both Protestants and Catholics during the Colonial Era feared the unknown, and often explained things they could not understand at the “work of the Devil.” As a result, witchcraft trials were found in nearly all of the 13 Original Colonies.

Cotton Mather, Portrait, Pelham, 1727

Cotton Mather was a renowned authority on witches and witchcraft in Colonial America. Image Source: Digital Public Library of America.

Witchcraft in Colonial America — Interesting Facts About Witches in the 13 Original Colonies

Witchcraft was Blamed for Bad Luck

Witchcraft was often used to explain bad luck or misfortune, including poor crops and the outbreak of sickness and disease. 

Many Colonists Believed Indians Were in League with the Devil

Many colonists, both Protestants and Catholics, believed Native American Indians, Africans, and others were involved in worshipping the Devil. This is how many church leaders explained what they viewed as strange behavior and customs.

Alexander Whitaker, an Anglican priest living in Jamestown, wrote the Indians were “very familiar with the Devill…their priests….are no other but such as our English Witches are.”

Puritans Believed Witches Should be Put to Death

Puritans were especially wary of witches. In their strict adherence to Bible scripture, they pointed to Exodus 22:18 as justification for the execution of witches. The verse says, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

This illustration by Howard Pyle depicts the arrest of a suspected witch. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Knowledge of Folk Medicine Could Cause Trouble

Many villages in the 13 Original Colonies of Colonial America had a person, usually a woman, who had experience with folk knowledge and the medicinal use of herbs to treat ailments and sickness. These women were usually targets for accusations of witchcraft.

There Were Three Methods of Gathering Evidence Against Witches

Evidence against accused witches was usually gathered in three ways:

  1. A verbal confession from the accused.
  2. Testimony from eyewitnesses, which typically included gossip and “spectral evidence”  — visions of ghosts, demons, and the Devil that could not be proven.
  3. Searching the accused for marks on the body that seemed unnatural, which were called “Devil’s Marks” or “Witch’s Marks.”

Matthew Hopkins was a Famous Witch Hunter

In 1647, Matthew Hopkins, a “witchfinder” in England, published a book detailing his methods for hunting down and exposing witches. The book was called The Discovery of Witches.

Most of the Witch Trials in Colonial America Took Place in New England

It is believed there were 57 witchcraft trials in the New England Colonies from 1647 to 1691. There were also a small number of trials in other colonies, including New York and Virginia.

Alse Young was the First Person Executed for Witchcraft

Alse Young of Windsor, Connecticut is believed to be the first person in Colonial America to have been accused, convicted, and executed for witchcraft. She was hanged on May 26, 1647, at Meeting House Square in Hartford, Connecticut.

Margaret Johnson was the First Person Executed in Massachusetts Bay

Margaret Jones was the first person to be executed (June 15, 1648) for witchcraft in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. John Winthrop was a witness to her trial and execution and wrote about it in his journal.

Mary Johnson Confessed to Dealing with the Devil

In 1648, Mary Johnson of the Province of Connecticut became the first person in Colonial America to confess to entering into a compact with the devil. Johnson was executed as a result of her conviction.

Cotton Mather’s Book Might Have Helped Cause the Salem Witch Trials

In 1688, the renowned Puritan minister Cotton Mather published his account of the affliction of the Goodwin children and the witchcraft trial of Ann Glover. The pamphlet, Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions, warned Puritans living in New England about the possibility of witchcraft spreading through the region. The pamphlet was popular in New England and may have inspired the actions of the young girls in Salem Village that initiated the Salem Witch Trials. 

20 people and 2 dogs were executed during the Salem Witch Trials, which took place from 1692 to 1693 in Salem Village and Salem Town and created hysteria all through Massachusetts Bay Colony and New England.

The Salem Witch Trials incident was the largest outbreak of hysteria regarding witchcraft in Colonial America.

Benjamin Franklin Probably Made Fun of Witchcraft Trials

Benjamin Franklin’s newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, printed a story about a witchcraft trial and proceedings on November 30, 1730. The article, allegedly written by Franklin himself, is about a man and woman living in New Jersey who are accused of witchcraft. “A Witch Trial At Mount Holly” is widely considered to be nothing more than Franklin satirizing witchcraft hysteria.

Benjamin Franklin, Portrait, Duplessis
Benjamin Franklin. Image Source: National Portrait Gallery.

History of Witchcraft in Colonial America and the 13 Original Colonies

When Europeans first settled in America, the belief in witchcraft was universal among the nations they came from. It was passed down from the Dark Ages, and thousands of people had been condemned as witches, tortured, and burned at the stake. 

The belief in witches and their power was very real, as was the idea that anyone who signed the “Devil’s Book” was a witch.

When colonists arrived in the New World, they were faced with a vast, unbroken wilderness, that was inhabited by Native American Indians who had their own religious customs and beliefs. On the surface, they were wildly different from the customs and beliefs of the Europeans, and the Protestants and Catholics were quick to label the Indians as heretics in league with the Devil.

Salem Witch Trials, the Salem Martyr, Noble
This 1869 painting by Thomas Satterwhite Noble depicts a woman being arrested during the Salem Witch Trials. Image Source: Wikipedia.

However, the Europeans were basically as superstitious as they believed the Indians were. They feared the mysterious forests, which they thought were full of evil spirits, and they thought the Indians were able to summon them through their religious chants and rituals. 

Colonists feared the Indians were in league with the Devil, and were encouraged to wage war on them because they were Christians. This idea was strongest among the Puritans of New England, who held fast to a strict observance of their customs and beliefs, as they believed it was part of their compact with God.

Despite their fears and convictions, most settlers in Colonial America were not people who were inclined to accuse others of witchcraft. The documented accusations, trials, convictions, and executions related to witchcraft were often sensational in nature, which has made them popular to revisit. 

Over time, we have come to believe that many of the accusations were made due to arguments over money, land, and possessions, or simply out of jealousy. While we can apply modern standards of rationale and explanation to the incidents, it does not account for eyewitness accounts in which people say they saw things they could not explain — and that is one reason why the incidents of witchcraft in Colonial America still fascinate people to this day.

Examination of a Witch, Salem Witch Trials, Matteson
This painting by T. H. Matteson depicts the trial of a woman accused of witchcraft. It was inspired by the Salem Witch Trials. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Witchcraft in New Hampshire Colony

Eunice Cole — The Supposed Witch of Hampton, New Hampshire

Eunice Cole — or “Goody Cole” — emigrated from England with her husband William Cole. They eventually settled in Hampton, New Hampshire. While living in Hampton from 1656 to 1680, Goody Cole was accused of witchcraft three times. 

In 1656, she was charged with afflicting people she knew and was found guilty by the court in Boston. However, instead of being put to death, in accordance with the law, the court ordered her to be whipped and imprisoned. 

She was released from prison and her husband died soon after. Although she was supposed to leave New Hampshire, she refused and continued to cause trouble. She was accused of witchcraft again in 1673 and found innocent of the charges. 

In 1680, her neighbors accused her of being a witch for a third time. Again, she was found innocent. However, in October 1680, she was found dead in her home. Legend has it that the inhabitants of Hampton dug a grave and threw her body in it. Then they drove a stake into her body and hung a horseshoe on it — for good luck — and to protect themselves from her taking revenge.

Salem Witch Trials, Howard Pyle
This illustration by Howard Pyle depicts the Salem Witchcraft Trials. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Accused Witches in New Hampshire

  • Jane Walford of Portsmouth was accused of being a witch three times, in 1648, 1656, and 1669.
  • Eunice Cole of Hampton was accused three times, in 1656, 1673, and 1680.
  • Rachel Fuller of Hampton was accused in 1680.
  • Isabelle Towle of Hampton was accused in 1680.

Early Incidents of Witchcraft in Massachusetts Bay Colony

The following incidents regarding witchcraft in Massachusetts Bay Colony are adapted from Pioneers in the Settlement of America which was written by William A. Crafts and published in 1876.

Margaret Jones — the First Person Punished in Massachusetts

The first case of punishment for witchcraft in Massachusetts that is recorded took place in 1648. Margaret Jones, of Charlestown, who, like many another old woman, administered “herbs and simples” to the ailing, and, as is usual with that class of persons, mingled a good many superstitious notions with her prescriptions, came to be much feared by some of her neighbors. 

It is believed she acquired some of her knowledge of roots and herbs from the Indians, which led some to believe she had also learned “some of their sorcery.” People living in Charlestown thought she was “a railer and liar if not a witch.”

Jones did not refute the rumors of witchcraft, in fact, she is said to have encouraged them. Of course, this frightened her neighbors and she was eventually accused of being a witch and making use of what was called “the malignant touch.” Evidence against Jones was collected using techniques used by Matthew Hopkins, a well-known Witch Hunter in England who documented his methods in a book, The Discovery of Witches.

She was tried, found guilty, and condemned to death by Governor John Winthrop and the General Court, including Thomas Dudley, John Endecott, and John Winthrop the Younger.

Jones was executed in Boston on June 15, 1648, during a thunderstorm that some considered to be a sign the “spirit of darkness” was “securing her soul.”

Discovery of Witches, Hopkins, 1647
The cover and title page from The Discovery of Witches by Matthew Hopkins. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Mary Parsons and Hugh Parsons of Springfield

In 1651, Mary Parsons, of Springfield, had an infant that died at five months of age. Parsons had already lost two other children, and the loss of the third drove her into deep despair and she apparently suffered a mental breakdown. Parson behaved “so insanely that she was thought to be a witch.”

She was accused and indicted for murdering her child, and also for “having familiarity with the devil as a witch.” At the trial, the evidence was not sufficient to convict her on the latter indictment, and she was acquitted; however, she confessed to the murder and was sentenced to death. Unfortunately, she died in prison while awaiting execution.

The following year, her husband, Hugh Parsons, was also charged with “making a covenant with the devil, and by his wicked practices inflicting injury on some of his neighbors.“

What the real trouble was with the Parsons family is unclear, but it appears they had, in some way, estranged themselves from the people of Springfield, who accused them of witchcraft. 

Parsons was indicted and tried, and the jury found him guilty. However, the local magistrates did not agree with the verdict. The case was taken to the General Court, which cleared him of the charges. When the proceedings were over, Parsons left Springfield and was never heard from again.

Ann Hibbins of Boston — Memorialized by Nathaniel Hawthorne

A more notable case occurred in Boston in 1656. Ann Hibbins was the widow of William Hibbins, a prominent citizen, and the sister of Deputy Governor Richard Bellingham

Hibbins was known for her temper and “sharp tongue.” After her husband’s death, she managed to frequently quarrel with her neighbors. This led to a significant amount of gossip and rumors being spread about her in Boston. At first, she was censured by the church, but all that did was make the Puritans a target for her anger. 

She was smart and observant, and once, she saw two women across the street, who happened to be talking about her. When she correctly guessed that they were discussing, it was taken as though she had “supernatural powers of reading the thoughts of others, or hearing their whispers when far removed from her, and she could possess such powers only by dealing with Satan.” Of course, she was accused of witchcraft and was tried by the General Court. 

The strongest evidence against her was that she had correctly guessed what the two women were saying about her. However, additional testimony about her language and actions cast doubt on her innocence. She was convicted, and sentenced to be executed. 

There were those who defended her against the charge of witchcraft, but their efforts on her behalf only succeeded in bringing themselves into trouble. Joshua Scottow, a citizen of respectability, and a selectman, who testified in her favor, and criticized her accusers, was punished for taking her side and was obliged to write an apology. 

Efforts were made to save her from the gallows, but they were unsuccessful, and she was executed. In the last hours of her life, she showed less of the characteristics of a witch than some of those who had persecuted her. 

Afterward, there was a change in public opinion, and her accusers found themselves regarded with resentment, and shunned for “bearing false witness against her.”

Hibbins was included as a character — Mistress Hibbins — in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter. Some believe Hibbins serves as a representation of evil, working to convince Hester Prynne, the central character, to join with the Devil.

Witchcraft in Colonial America, Floating a Witch, Illustration
This illustration depicts dunking a witch to see if she floats. Image Source: Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Vol. 2, Charles Mackay, 1869, Archive.org.

Caleb Powell and the Morse Family in Newbury

In 1679, the phenomena known in later times as “spiritual manifestations,” occurred at the home of William Morse, in Ipswich, where there were “mysterious rappings and violent movements of furniture and utensils. “

The disturbances not only bothered his own family but caused trouble with their neighbors, who were “greatly alarmed at what they conceived were the doings of Satan.”

Caleb Powell, a friend of Morse who was a sailor, visited the house and said he was sure the source of the trouble was Morse’s grandson, who was living with the family. Powell took the boy with him for a day, and there were no disturbances while he was gone.

Unfortunately for Powell, he had a reputation for telling stories about “having little fear of the devil,” openly talking about the “Prince of Darkness, and his power to exorcise evil spirits.” When he returned the boy to his grandfather, the neighbors accused Powell of witchcraft. Powell was taken before the local magistrates who did not find there was enough evidence to convict him. However, they fined him for court costs.

After Powell was acquitted, the neighbors of the Norse family still believed someone was practicing witchcraft. Elizabeth Morse, William’s wife, and the boy’s grandmother, was accused, in part because it was believed that “old women were supposed to be the most ready to become the tools of Satan.

Her case went before the Court of Assistants in Boston. She was convicted, and sentenced to be hanged, insisting she was innocent. On June 1, 1680, Governor Simon Bradstreet postponed the execution, however, she was eventually released from jail.

The fate of Morse’s grandson, who likely was the cause of the “disturbances,” is unknown.

The State of Witchcraft in the Colonies Before Salem

In the decade following the incident with the Morse family, witchcraft hysteria seems to have subsided. Although there were a few people who “had the ambition to pretend to have supernatural powers” there were not many, and “jealous gossips found few of their neighbors” conducted themselves in a way that suggested they were involved in witchcraft.

Prelude to Salem — the Goodwin Children, Ann Glover, and Cotton Mather

The delusion that was carried to such excess at Salem was preceded by — and perhaps had its origin — in strange proceedings of the Goodwin family in Boston in 1688. 

The children of John Goodwin started to behave in unexplainable ways — “going through various contortions of their bodies, uttering strange cries, apparently suffering severe tortures, and otherwise showing symptoms of some malady…” At times they “barked like dogs, mewed like cats” and were reported to have “flown like geese” with their toes barely touching the ground.”

Apparently, one of the children was “exceedingly expert in the various performances, especially in riding an imaginary horse about the house.” Eyewitnesses are said to have been “astonished” and “believed she was really mounted on an invisible animal. “

Reverend Cotton Mather

Reverend Cotton Mather was brought in and he witnessed the behavior of the children. Believing it was his responsibility, as a minister, to “fight the devil in this attack upon some of his flock,” took one of the children, a girl, to live with him so he could “exorcise the evil spirit that troubled her.”

Even while living with Mather her erratic behavior continued and she played various pranks on him. She would read from the Prayer Book but refused to read from the Bible, which was supposed to be “proof positive” that she was under the Devil’s control. 

It is said that she seemed to understand him when he spoke in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, but not when he spoke the language of the Indians she did not. This was taken as though the Devil did not know the language of the Indians.

In some instances, she played along with the idea she could not touch certain religious objects because they would harm her. She also insisted Mather was too powerful of a minister and the Devil could not enter his study. However, she bothered him while he worked on his sermons by throwing books at him.

Cotton Mather House, Boston, 1677, DCM
This photograph shows the Mather House, where he lived in 1677. The photograph was taken sometime between 1895 and 1905. Image Source: Digital Commonwealth.

Further Incidents in the Goodwin Home

While the girl was with Mather, the other children continued to act out at home, but not quite to the extreme they had before. This may have been because the girl who instigated their behavior was with Mather.

Ministers from Boston and Charlestown traveled to the Goodwin House and held a fast. Soon after, the afflictions suffered by the youngest child came to an end.

Accusations Against Ann Glover

The behavior of the children still needed to be attributed to someone. According to the prevailing beliefs at the time, the children were not responsible for their own affliction. They were suffering at the hands of:

“…a human agent of the evil spirits, and suspicion was fixed upon a weak and infirm old woman, who was a Roman Catholic, as the witch by whom they were tormented.”

That woman was Ann Glover: 

“She was a poor outcast, weak in mind, and a Papist; altogether, she was just the person to be accused as a witch, and it was assumed that she was the agent of the devil in afflicting the children

Glover had incurred the displeasure of Mrs. Goodwin. Gover responded to Goodwin with “violent and threatening language.”

Glover was arrested and tried for witchcraft, and her answers to questions that she did not understand were taken to be admissions that she was “in league with Satan.”

She was found guilty, condemned, and executed and the suffering of the Goodwin children eventually ended.

Cotton Mather’s Pamphlet — Memorable Providences

Mather documented his experience in a pamphlet called:

Memorable providences, relating to witchcrafts and possessions. A faithful account of many wonderful and surprising things, that have befallen several bewitched and possessed persons in New-England

The pamphlet was popular in New England and was “read with wonder and awe in most of the families of Massachusetts.”

It is widely believed that the girls in Salem, some of whom likely read the pamphlet, were inspired by the antics of the Goodwin children.

The Salem Witchcraft Trials and Hysteria

It was not long until a group of young girls living in Salem Village — just outside of Salem Town — started to behave in a strange fashion. They were of various ages, from 11 to twenty 20. One of them was the daughter of Reverend Samuel Parris, the village minister. Others were daughters of prominent residents or servants in their families. 

Salem Witch Trials, George Jacobs Sr, Matteson
This painting depicts the witchcraft trial of victim George Jacobs, Sr. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The Influence of Tituba

The girls were apparently in the habit of meeting at the Parris House to “practice fortune-telling and necromancy, or tricks which had the appearance of the supernatural.” 

With them was an Indian woman, named Tituba, who had been “brought as a slave from New Spain in the family of Mr. Parris.” It is believed Tituba oversaw what the girls were doing, which led to the events that unfolded.

At first, they simply played tricks they used to impress their friends. However, the situation escalated and some of the girls appeared to be “seized with spasms and fits, drop insensible on the floor, and writhe in fearful tortures. With some these sufferings were, perhaps, the effects of imagination; but with others, they were undoubtedly mere pretenses.”

Doctors and Minsters Agree the Girls are Bewitched

Just like with the Goodwin children, the village physician was brought to examine some of the girls. The conclusion was the girls were bewitched. After they were examined by local ministers, the diagnosis was confirmed. 

Rumors spread because the girls were not confined to their homes. People were allowed to see them and witnessed the afflictions. Further, the girls were allowed to attend church services where they were afflicted for everyone in the congregation to see the girls, who were known as the “Afflicted Children.”

Accusations Against Sarah Good, Sarah Osborn, and Tituba

It came time to find out who was responsible for the suffering of the children. The girls were questioned and identified three people — Sarah Good, Sarah Osborn, and Tituba. These happened to be women the community had no trouble believing to be witches.

The excitement in the community intensified, led by Reverend Parris, and led to a call for the prosecution of the accused.

Accused Witches Arrested and Examined

Two of the magistrates living in the area, John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin, issued warrants to arrest the supposed witches so they could be questioned. The magistrates, like many people living in the area, believed the girls were bewitched and were prejudiced against the accused.

During the examinations, the “children went through their contortions, and cried out that the accused were torturing them; and the magistrates, assuming that it was all true, sought by leading questions to obtain some admission from the unfortunate women that should condemn them.”

Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne insisted they were innocent. However, Tituba “confessed that she had dealings with the devil, and by her confession and artful answers confirmed the belief in the guilt of the others.”

All three women were sent to trial.

Witchcraft Hysteria in Salem

The “reign of terror” in Salem intensified and grew, as the children accused more people of witchcraft. The magistrates responded by arresting the accused and holding them in prisons, which were overcrowded.

The accused included people who were believed to be in good standing in the community, and they were examined in the same prejudiced manner as the others. As the trials dragged on, the children became more convincing in their “manifestations of torture, and more artful in their methods of accusation.“

People started to come from all over Massachusetts Bay Colony to see the trials. Soon after, accusations spread outside of Salem and even into neighboring colonies. 

A special court was set up for the examination of the increasing number of the accused, and the ministers united in urging on the prosecutions, so “the schemes of Satan might be defeated.”

The situation grew out of control, to the point that anyone who questioned the girls ran the risk of being accused by them.

Salem Witch Trials, Proctor's Ledge and Gallow's Hill
Photo by Jangseung92. The city of Danvers, Massachusetts dedicated Proctor’s Ledge Memorial to the victims executed during the Salem Witch Trials. Even though the exact site of the witch hangings was not known for many years, a group of researchers determined that the actual site of the Salem Witch Trial executions was located right on the hill behind Proctor’s Ledge. And thus, the city of Danvers built the Proctor’s Ledge Memorial to honor the victims. Cropped and resized from original. License.

Charles W. Upham’s Opinion of the Girls

In 1867, Charles Wentworth Upham wrote a history of the Salem Witchcraft Trials. It is called Salem Witchcraft: With an Account of Salem Village and A History of Opinions on Witchcraft and Kindred Subjects.

Upham wrote:

“These girls by long practice in ‘the circle,’ and day by day, before astonished and wondering neighbors gathered to witness their distresses, and especially on the more public occasions of the examinations, had acquired consummate boldness and tact. 

In the simulation of passions, sufferings, and physical affections; in sleight of hand, and in the management of voice, feature, and attitude, — no necromancers have surpassed them. 

There has seldom been better acting in a theatre than they displayed in the presence of the astonished and horror-stricken rulers, magistrates, ministers, judges, jurors, spectators, and prisoners. 

No one seems to have dreamed that their actings and sufferings could have been the result of cunning or imposture…The prisoners, although conscious of their own innocence, were utterly confounded by the acting of the girls. 

The austere principles of that generation forbade, with the utmost severity, all theatrical shows and performances. 

But at Salem Village and the old town, in the respective meeting houses, and at Deacon Nathaniel Ingersoll’s, some of the best playing ever got up in this country was practiced; and patronized, for weeks and months, at the very center and heart of Puritanism, by ‘the most straitest sect’ of that solemn order of men. 

Pastors, deacons, church members, doctors of divinity, college professors, officers of state, crowded, day after day, to behold feats that have never been surpassed on the boards of any theatre; which rivaled the most memorable achievements of pantomimists, thaumaturgists, and stage-players; and made considerable approaches towards the best performances of ancient sorcerers and magicians, or modern jugglers and mesmerizers.”

Reasons for the Accusations

Although the Salem Witch Trials took place more than 330 years ago, children were still children. They played, pretended, and held grudges — which may very well have motivated some of their actions, regardless of their ages.

It can be argued the true “evil spirits” afflicting Salem were, in fact, the girls. Although they may have been pretending when they made their accusations, their actions had very real consequences, which led to the deaths of 20 people and the imprisonment of many more.

For quite some time, the adults — ministers, townspeople, judges, magistrates, and others — allowed themselves to be caught up in the hysteria, even though many of them believed they were working to ensure “that Satan’s kingdom might be suppressed, weakened, brought down, and at last totally destroyed.”

Difficulties for the Accused

During the trials, a significant amount of the testimony was based on spectral evidence, and the burden of proof was on the accused to explain themselves. More often than not, they were unable to defend themselves against the wild accusations.

Further, there were occasions where the court refused the verdict of the jury and ordered the members to change their vote.

Public Executions on Witches’ Hill

Many people were convicted and condemned to death. Over the course of the trials, 20 people were led to Witches’ Hill in Salem — while spectators jeered at them — where they were hanged.

When more prominent people, including public officials, were accused of witchcraft by the girls, some people started to question when the hysteria would come to an end.

The Death of Giles Corey

One horrific punishment appalled all but the “craziest and most violent of the prosecutors.”

Giles Corey, whose wife Marthga had been one of the earliest accused, and whose testimony had unintentionally sustained the charge, was also charged with witchcraft. Corey knew that if he was convicted, his property would be seized.

Corey was arraigned several times and refused to enter a plea before the court. The judges were “at a loss how to proceed, but at last resorted to an old law of England, and condemned the stern old man to be pressed to death by heavy weights.” 

The terrible sentence was carried and Corey was laid down with heavy stones placed on him. He continued to refuse to enter a plea. More stones were added, to which Corey said, “Pile on more weights,” He eventually died, ending his torture.

Ministers Begin to Question the Proceedings

Cotton Mather and other ministers, who had been in favor of the trials, started to doubt the wisdom of their proceedings. Some of the judges who had been quick to condemn the victims lost their enthusiasm. 

Public opinion turned against the accusers, and their motives were questioned. Eventually, the jails were opened, and the survivors of the accused were permitted to return to their homes. It is estimated that 150 people were released, along with a number of children who had been held in private homes.

The proceedings came to an end in 1693, helping to bring an end to the persecution of alleged witches in Massachusetts.

Salem Witch Trials, George Burroughs on the Gallows
George Burroughs on the gallows during the Salem Witch Trials. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Witchcraft in Colonial Rhode Island

By all accounts, there were no witchcraft trials in Rhode Island Colony. Although a handful of people were accused, the accusations were made by people living in other colonies.

Witchcraft in Colonial Connecticut

Prosecutions for witchcraft were not confined to Massachusetts; several cases occurred in Connecticut, where the accused were tried and condemned in much the same manner. Overall, it is believed Connecticut had more than 40 witchcraft trials that led to 16 executions.

For part of the Colonial Era, Connecticut was actually two colonies, Connecticut and New Haven. Connecticut passed a law against witchcraft in 1642 and New Haven did the same in 1655.

Mary Johnson

In 1648, Mary Johnson of Wethersfield was executed after being convicted of entering into a compact with the Devil. Johnson was the first person in Colonial America who confessed to the charge.

Joan and John Carrington

Three years later, in 1651, various couples in Wethersfield were accused of witchcraft. Joan and John Carrington of Wethersfield were convicted and executed. Some of the other couples were cleared of the charges and others fled from the colony.

Ann Cole and Rebecca Greensmith

In 1662, a woman living in Hartford named Ann Cole was accused of being a witch, due to extreme fits of violence, both verbal and physical. Cole was also known to disrupt church meetings. After she was accused, Cole accused others in the town of witchcraft, including her neighbor, Rebecca Greensmith.

Greensmith, her husband, Nathaniel, and Mary Barnes were all convicted of witchcraft. They were hanged together in Hartford on January 25, 1663. Others were tried and cleared of charges while others left Connecticut.

Cole was eventually cleared of charges and had no more outbursts.

John Winthrop the Younger and Witchcraft Trials in Connecticut

After Connecticut received its charter from King Charles II in 1662, John Winthrop the Younger was appointed Governor. Winthrop used his power as Governor to overturn Elizabeth Seager’s conviction for witchcraft in 1666.

In 1669, Winthrop intervened in the trial of Katherine Harrison and made significant changes to how witchcraft trials operated. First, he placed the burden of proof on the accuser, instead of the accused. Second, he required there to be more than one witness in a trial. Winthrop also argued against the use of spectral evidence.

Harrison was banished from Connecticut and moved to Westchester in the Province of New York.

John Winthrop the Younger, Portrait
John Winthrop the Younger. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The End of Witchcraft Trials in Connecticut

In 1697, charges of witchcraft were made against Winnifred Benham and her daughter, who lived in Wallingford. The charges were dismissed, but Benham left Wallingford and moved to Staten Island.

The last known accusations of witchcraft were made against Sarah Spencer in 1724 and a woman with the last name of Norton in 1768.

People Executed for Witchcraft in Connecticut

The people executed for witchcraft were:

  • 1647 — Alse Young
  • 1648 — Mary Johnson
  • 1651 — John and Joan Carrington
  • 1651 — Goodwife Bassett
  • 1653 — Goodwife Knapp
  • 1654 — Lydia Gilbert
  • 1662 — Rebecca and Nathaniel Greensmith
  • 1662 — Mary Sanford
  • 1662 — Mary Barnes

Witchcraft in Colonial New York

There are roughly 30 documented incidents of witchcraft trials that took place in the Province of New York. Unfortunately, many historical documents related to the governance of the colony were lost in a fire that took place in the New York State Capitol in March 1911. Some of the most prominent cases are listed here.

Elizabeth Garlick of East Hampton

In 1657–1658, Elizabeth Garlick of East Hampton was accused and tried for witchcraft following the mysterious death of 16-year-old Elizabeth Gardiner, the daughter of Lion Gardiner. Her father was a military veteran who fought in the Pequot War and established the first English settlement in New York, which was located on Long Island. John Winthrop the Younger was one of the judges who heard the case. Garlick was acquitted of the charges.

Lion Gardiner Fighting Pequot at Fort Saybrook, Illustration
This illustration depicts Lion Gardiner fighting during the Pequot War. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Ralph and Mary Hall of Setauket

Following the death of their neighbors, George Wood and his child, in 1665, the Halls were accused of witchcraft. The two were cleared of the charges and released in 1668.

Katherine Harrison — the Accused Witch from Connecticut

Harrison moved to Westchester, New York in 1670, after she was banished from Connecticut. Soon after, her new neighbors complained about her and accused her of being a witch. However, the court disagreed and she was allowed to remain. Unfortunately, her neighbors resorted to vandalizing her home and she eventually left the town.

Witchcraft in Colonial New Jersey

Records indicate there were no recorded witchcraft trials in the Province of New Jersey. However, in 1727, there was a court case that mentioned witchcraft. After Abigail Sharp sued Abraham Shotwell, he accused her of witchcraft and killing his horse. Unfortunately, the outcome of the case is unknown.

A second instance of possible witchcraft was reported in 1730 — by Benjamin Franklin in The Pennsylvania Gazette. The “Witch Trial at Mount Holly” describes events that supposedly took place on October 12, 1730, in Mount Holly, New Jersey. However, there are no court documents that support the story and it is widely considered to be nothing more than a hoax perpetrated by Franklin.

Witchcraft in Colonial Pennsylvania

It appears there was only one witchcraft trial in the Pennsylvania Colony — and William Penn apparently oversaw the proceedings. In 1683, two Swedish women, Margaret Mattson and Yeshro Hendrickson, were accused of witchcraft and using their magic to keep cows from giving milk and killing some livestock.

William Penn, Founder of Pennsylvania, Illustration, NYPL
William Penn. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Mattson, known as the “Witch of Ridley Creek,” was brought before the court and Penn allowed her to have an interpreter, James Claypoole, during the trial. There were also Swedes on the jury and Penn allowed her to testify in her own defense.

During the proceedings, Penn asked Mattson if she was a witch, and she replied she was not. Ultimately, the court ruled she was guilty of nothing more than having the reputation of being a witch. She was acquitted of charges against her for using witchcraft.

Mattson was released and placed on probation for six months. Her husband, Nils, paid a bond of 50 pounds. If she went six months without further accusations, the bond money would be returned.

Various accounts indicate Yeshro Hendrickson was also released on a bond of 50 pounds.

Witchcraft in Colonial Delaware

There are no documented cases of witchcraft trials in Delaware. However, the cases of Margaret Mattson and Yeshro Hendrickson were held in a court system that was shared by Pennsylvania and Delaware at the time. Because of that, some sources indicate those cases as having taken place in Delaware.

Witchcraft in Colonial Maryland

Witchcraft trials are known to have taken place in the Province of Maryland between 1654 and 1712.

The Death of Mary Lee

The earliest surviving records of witchcraft in the colonial history of Maryland can be traced back to June 23, 1654. On that day, three men gave depositions to Wiliam Stone about the journey of a ship, the Charity of London, from Europe to St. Mary’s City, Maryland. Those men were the ship’s captain, John Bosworth, and two passengers, Henry Corbyn and Francis Darby.

According to their testimony, rumors circulated among the sailors, alleging that one of the passengers, Mary Lee, was a witch. Initially, Captain Bosworth refused to put her on trial but eventually yielded to the pressure. Lee was examined for the Witch’s Mark and confessed to being a witch.

When Bosworth was in his cabin, the sailors hanged her.

More Witchcraft Trials in Maryland

  • The wife of Richard Manship was accused of being a witch in 1654 by Peter Godson and his wife. Manship sued for slander and won the case. The Godsons were ordered to apologize and pay damages.
  • Elizabeth Bennett was accused of witchcraft in 1665. Her trial was overseen by Philip Calvert. The court cleared her of the charges in October.
  • In 1674, John Cowman was convicted of witchcraft but was eventually cleared of the charges.
  • Rebecca Fowler was executed in 1685. She was accused of using witchcraft to harm Francis Sandsbury. Fowler was the only person executed in Maryland for witchcraft.
  • Hannah Edwards was accused of witchcraft in 1685 but was found not guilty.
  • Virtue Violi was accused of using witchcraft in 1712 to afflict Elinor Moore. Violi was found not guilty.

The Legend of Moll Dyer

The Legend of Moll Dyer is an oral folktale that has been passed down over the years in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. According to the story, Dyer was an elderly woman living on the outskirts of Leonardtown, Maryland in the 17th Century.

Following a harsh winter, the town suffered from a shortage of food and disease, and Dyer was accused of being a witch. The townspeople formed a mob and set fire to her home. Dyer escaped into the woods and ran as far as she could until she fell from exhaustion. 

She rested on a stone where the townspeople found her two days later, frozen to death, with her left hand reaching toward the sky. It was believed that, in her dying moments, she placed a curse on the town.

Witchcraft in Colonial Virginia

It is estimated that as many as 24 witchcraft trials took place in Virginia between 1626 and 1730.

Grace Sherwood, the Witch of Pungo

Grace Sherwood was a farmer and midwife with knowledge of folk medicine. 

In 1697, she was accused of witchcraft by Richard Capps. He believed she was responsible for the death of one of his cows. The court ruled in favor of Sherwood. The Sherwoods responded by suing Capps for defamation and they reached a settlement out of court.

A year later, John Gisburne accused Sherwood of bewitching his pigs and his cotton crop. That same year, Elizabeth Barnes accused her of witchcraft. In both instances, the accusations were not taken to court. However, the Sherwoods sued for defamation, but the court ruled against them and had them pay the court costs.

In 1705, Sherwood was involved in a dispute with Elizabeth Hill. Sherwood sued the Hills and won damages of 20 shillings. A year later, on January 3, 1706, Hill accused Sherwood of being a witch after she suffered a miscarriage.

Courts were unwilling to declare Sherwood was a witch, but county judges acknowledged there was reason to suspect she was guilty. The Sheriff of Princess Anne County arrested Sherwood and judges ordered her to “trial by water,” which was also called “ducking.”

The concept of ducking was simple. If the accused witch floated, she was a witch. If she did not float, she was not a witch. Of course, if the accused person did not float, they risked drowning.

On July 10, 1706, Sherwood was taken to Lynnhaven River. She was stripped, covered in a sack, and rowed to the middle of the river on a boat, accompanied by the Sheriff and one of the Magistrates.

Witchcraft Colonial America, Grace Sherwood, Marker, HMDB
This historical marker commemorates the dunking of Grace Sherwood. Image Source: Historical Marker Database.

Legend has it that the skies were clear and sunny when the boat rowed out into the river, and just before they tossed Sherwood into the river, she said, “Before this day be through you will all get a worse ducking than I.”

Sherwood was thrown into the river and quickly rose to the top, indicating she was a witch. She was pulled from the water and the Sheriff tied a heavy Bible around her neck and threw her back in. The second time, she sank to the bottom. However, she untied herself and swam back to the surface.

The fact she escaped convinced many onlookers of her guilt, which was further cemented by the fact the skies clouded and rain started to fall. Sherwood was thrown back in jail.

What happened to the “Witch of Pungo” after the dunking is unclear. She did spend some time in jail but was released. She appears in a handful of court records until her death in 1740.

As the story goes, when she died, her sons placed her body near the fireplace. A strong wind came down the chimney and her body disappeared. Her sons found a single cloven footprint in the embers of the fireplace, which indicated the Devil had taken the body.

Notable Witchcraft Events in Virginia

  • Joan Wright was accused of witchcraft in September 1626. It is the earliest known accusation on record in Colonial America. Wright was a “healer” who was accused of causing the death of a newborn child and placing a curse on crops and livestock. Wright was acquitted of the charges.
  • During her journey from England to Virginia, Katherine Grady was accused of being a witch. The captain of the ship, named Bennet, tried her on the charges. She was convicted and hanged. Bennet testified to a court in Jamestown regarding the incident, but the court records have been lost.
  • In 1656, Reverend David Lindsay of Northumberland County accused William Harding of witchcraft. Harding was found guilty, sentenced to 13 lashes, and banished from the county.
  • In 1730, a woman named Mary was convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to 39 lashes. Her case is believed to have been the last witchcraft case in Virginia.

Witchcraft in Colonial North Carolina

On December 3, 1679, a North Carolina law was passed directing local juries to investigate “felonies, witchcraft, enchantments, sorceries, and magick arts, among other crimes.” Despite the law, only a handful of court cases are documented:

  • In 1680, a woman in Perquimans Precinct was charged with witchcraft and jailed.
  • Deborah Bouthier accused Susannah Evans of witchcraft in 1703 and afflicting her with stomach pain. Evans died a month later and Thomas Bouthier filed a lawsuit against Evans on charges of witchcraft. The jury included someone who was familiar with the Salem Witch Trials and ruled Evans was not a witch. In fact, the jury ridiculed Bouthier by saying, “We of the jury find no bill and the person [Bouthier] Ignoramus. It is ordered that the said Susannah Evans be acquitted.”
  • Mary Rookes was accused of witchcraft by Walter Tanner in 1706. The court ruled in favor of Rookes and fined Tanner five shillings.
  • Rookes was also accused by Thomas Collins. As before, the court ruled in favor of Rookes and fined Collins.
Witchcraft Colonial America, Witch Questioned, Pyle
This illustration by Howard Pyle depicts a woman being questioned by judges. Image Source: Dulcibel: A Tale of Old Salem by Henry Peterson, 1907, Archive.org.

Witchcraft in Colonial South Carolina

It appears there were no documented witchcraft trials in South Carolina during the Colonial Era.

The first significant case took place in Fairfield County in 1792. After some cattle became sick and died, people living in Winnsboro started behaving in a strange manner. Soon after, rumors of witchcraft made their way through the county.

A total of four women were accused of witchcraft, primarily Mary Ingleman, who was of German heritage and had a reputation for knowledge of folklore medicine. The accusations against Ingleman included turning a young man into a horse and riding him to a meeting of witches and the Devil.

A group of local farmers gathered the women and held a trial at a local farm. The women were found guilty. The women were brutally tortured but survived the experience. According to some accounts, Mary Ingleman survived a hanging.

Witchcraft in Colonial Georgia

It appears there are no documented witchcraft trials in the Province of Georgia.

Witchcraft Colonial America, Witch Leaving Prison, Pyle
This illustration by Howard Pyle depicts a convicted witch leaving jail for the last time. Image Source: Dulcibel: A Tale of Old Salem by Henry Peterson, 1907, Archive.org.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Witchcraft in Colonial America — Witches and Trials in the 13 Original Colonies
  • Date 1607–1783
  • Author
  • Keywords Witchcraft in Colonial America, New Hampshire Witchcraft Trials, Massachusetts Witchcraft Trials, Rhode Island Witchcraft Trials, Connecticut Witchcraft Trials, New York Witchcraft Trials, New Jersey Witchcraft Trials, Pennsylvania Witchcraft Trials, Delaware Witchcraft Trials, Maryland Witchcraft Trials, Virginia Witchcraft Trials, North Carolina Witchcraft Trials, South Carolina Witchcraft Trials, Georgia Witchcraft Trials, Connecticut Witchcraft Hysteria
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 14, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 10, 2024