Though the Salem Witch Trials are more famous, many New England colonies had their own shameful witch trials. Connecticut had the first in 1647. In all, Connecticut had 43 witch trials with 16 executions (being killed for committing a crime). Here, we'll focus on those in Wethersfield since this is the setting for the book The Witch of Blackbird Pond.
In the book, the "witch," Hannah, is a Quaker, and while it is true that being a Quaker meant you were often persecuted like Hannah is, by being branded and chased out of town, they usually weren't labeled witches just for being a Quaker.
In the 1600s, it was believed that a witch had made a deal with the devil which gave them supernatural powers like being able to make people sick or bring storms. This was a time when science was lacking. There were no hospitals, no police force, and no army. People didn't know germs existed or how storms developed. What people don't understand, they often fear and there was much to fear in Colonial America. As Chris Pagliuco states in his article Wethersfield's Witch Trials:
They could lose their sheep and other farm animals to wolf and bear attacks. The Connecticut River could flood at any time, wiping out crops. Epidemics visited the region in 1647 and 1648, killing dozens of townspeople in an already small and unstable population. The local Native Americans were equally dangerous. The Pequot War began with a "massacre" in Wethersfield in 1637; nine wethersfield residents were killed, two captured, and the entire population horrified. (Some wethersfield residents got their revenge weeks later with the slaughter of hundreds at the Pequot Massacre in Mystic.)
Two women are mentioned in The Witch of Blackbird Pond who were real people living in Wethersfield during the 1600s. Mary Johnson was a house servant who had been convicted (found guilty) of stealing in Hartford, Connecticut and then again in Wethersfield. People were already suspicious of those who were convicted of a crime, like stealing. People believed the devil walked around among them causing weak people to do bad things. If you stole something, you probably signed a deal with the devil (making you a witch).
Mary Johnson is notable because she is the first person in North America to confess to witchcraft. While she was being whipped for stealing, she not only confessed to witchcraft, but even claimed to have killed. She was never put on trial for murder, however, so it seems the authorities didn't believe that confession. They did believe her confession of witchcraft, however, and she was executed in 1650.
Often, people who were accused of witchcraft were those who were different, or those who challenged the typical way things were done. When she was younger, Katherine Harrison was a servant in Hartford. It was believed that the classes shouldn't mix, so the rich (one "class" of society) should never marry someone from the "lower classes," like servants. But, Harrison married a successful Wethersfield farmer who had lots of land, making her wealthy.
When Harrison's husband died, people began accusing her of witchcraft within months, even though she had never been accused before. People didn't like the idea of her being able to move from the servant "class" to the rich "class," so perhaps witchcraft enabled her to do it. The townspeople looked at anything that went wrong or was suspicious as her fault. Connecticut state historian Walter Woodward explains, "If a child died unexpectedly, if there [was] a drought or if cheese rotted unusually fast, they believed it to be the work of the devil. The real test of being a witch was making a pact with the devil. They all believed in magic of some sort, but to cooperate with the devil was unacceptable. …You were considered extremely dangerous." One neighbor woman even accused Harrison of witchcraft because she spun "so great a quantity of fine linen yarn… [that she]…did never know nor hear of any other woman that could spin so much." Even though this sounds more like jealousy than witchcraft, Harrison was found guilty of witchcraft in 1669.
In other capital cases (ones in which someone could be executed), there had to be two witnesses, but in witch trials, those two witnesses could have "seen" two different instances of witchcraft. So, for example, one person could claim Katherine Harrison was a witch because their child got sick after she visited them and someone else could claim she was a witch because their goat died after she walked past it and mumbled.
Reverend Bulkeley had trained in medicine by John Winthrop Jr. and was also skeptical that so much witchcraft was going on in Connecticut towns. He used the questions Winthrop provided for them, which asked about the evidence in the case. Because there were not two witnesses to any one claim about Harrison's witchcraft, her conviction was overturned (she was found to be not guilty). This changed the standard for judging whether someone was a witch and from this time forward no other person was executed for being a witch in Connecticut.
Though Katherine Harrison was found to be not guilty, she couldn't live in peace in Wethersfield any longer and moved to New York.
I often struggle to find websites with thorough explanations in simple language to help kids understand historical events or scientific concepts, so I decided to create some of my own!