US state may exonerate witches centuries after executions

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Legislators in the US state of Connecticut are considering exonerating 11 alleged witches who were executed and dozens more who were accused of having ties to Satan more than 375 years ago.

In 1647, Alse Young became the first person on record to be executed in the American colonies for witchcraft – decades before the infamous Salem witch trials in Massachusetts.

While there have been exoneration efforts in the past, legislators are optimistic it will happen this year as amateur historians, researchers and descendants of the accused witches and their accusers are urging Connecticut officials to officially acknowledge this dark period of the state’s colonial history.

The Windsor town clerk registered the first such execution in Connecticut on May 26 1647, in a diary entry that read: “Alse Young was hanged.”

A brick commemorating Alse Young
A brick commemorating Alice ‘Alse’ Young is placed in a town Heritage Bricks installation in Windsor, Connecticut (AP

Connecticut state representative Jane Garibay, who proposed an exoneration resolution after receiving letters from eighth and ninth-generation relatives of accused witches, said: “They’re talking about how this has followed their families from generation to generation, and that they would love for someone just to say: ‘Hey, this was wrong.’

“And to me, that’s an easy thing to do if it gives people peace.”

Other states and countries have attempted to atone for a history of persecuting people as witches. Last year, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon issued a formal apology to the estimated 4,000 Scots, mostly women, who were accused of witchcraft up until 1736.

Of these 4,000, about 2,500 were killed. Last year, SNP MSP Natalie Don called for posthumous pardons for them.

Beth Caruso
Beth Caruso co-founded the CT Witch Trial Exoneration Project (AP)

Johnson is believed to be the last accused Salem witch to have her conviction set aside by legislators.

In 2006, former Virginia governor Tim Kaine gave an informal pardon to Grace Sherwood, a widowed midwife who was blamed by neighbours for ruining crops, killing livestock and creating storms and subsequently accused of being a witch.

With her hands bound, Sherwood was thrown into a river to see if she floated, which was purported to indicate guilt. She managed to set herself free and spent seven years in prison.

Connecticut’s witch trials were held in the mid-to-late 1600s. In each of the New England colonies, witchcraft was considered a capital offence. According to the earliest laws in the colony of Connecticut, “any man or women (to) bee a Witch, that is, hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit, they shall bee put to death”.

Many historians believe fear and anxiety among the religiously strict English settlers led to the witch trials, noting how life was very difficult, given epidemics, floods, cold winters and starvation.

Historical archive
Connecticut Historical Society Collections Associate Julia Morrow displays an original complaint letter dated back to 1669 against Katherine Harrison, who was tried multiple times for witchcraft (AP)

Many of the people executed as witches were poor, single mothers.

Such was the case of Mary Johnson, a servant in Wethersfield, Connecticut, who was accused of “familiarity with the Devil”.

For years, she was tortured by a local minister who whipped her until she finally confessed to being a witch and admitted to “uncleanness with men”, according to Bridgeport author Andy Piascik, who wrote an article for Connecticut Humanities, an independent, non-profit affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Johnson is believed to have been hanged after giving birth to the child of a man she was not married to.

“It’s important to right the wrongs of the past so we learn from them and move on and not repeat those mistakes,” said Joshua Hutchinson, of Prescott Valley, Arizona, who traced his ancestry to accused witches in Salem and is the host of Thou Shalt Not Suffer: The Witch Trial Podcast.

Witch complaint document
Offences against one alleged witch include that a hat she had wanted to purchase gave its owner a headache (AP)

Author Beth Caruso co-founded the CT Witch Trial Exoneration Project in 2005 to clear the names of the accused.

The group is encouraging people who discovered through genealogy research that they are descendants of victims to contact Connecticut state legislators and urge them to support exoneration legislation.

Connecticut state senator Saud Anwar, who also proposed an exoneration bill, said he expects some people might laugh or scoff at the idea of the legislature taking time to clear the records of accused witches.

But he said the descendants are feeling some “serious stuff”, including a constituent who requested the resolution.

Mr Anwar said: “His wish was that if there was a way to give some kind of a closure to the families. That would be one way for him to be able to say that he has done his share, even though his ancestors may have not done the right thing.”

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