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Library of Congress

On This Day: Alse Young Hanged for Witchcraft in Connecticut

May 26, 2011 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On May 26, 1647, Alse Young became the first person executed for witchcraft in America, setting off a wave of witch hysteria.

The Execution of Alse Young

Although the state never experienced the same level of hysteria as Salem, Mass., where the witch trials became famous in the late 1600s, witchcraft accusations were rampant in Connecticut in the 1640s. Witchcraft was punishable by death, an sentence backed by several passages in the Bible.

Connecticut resident Alse (or Alice) Young was the first person executed for witchcraft in the country. Today little else is known of Young, including what she looked like, or even specifics regarding the “witchlike” behavior that led the young woman to her grim fate.

There are two sources for Young’s hanging. Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop wrote in his journey that “One of Windsor was hanged,” while Windsor town clerk Matthew Grant wrote, “Alse Young was hanged” in a diary entry dated May 26, 1647.

Witch Hysteria in Connecticut and Massachusetts

A year after Young’s execution, Mary Johnson of Wethersfield, Conn., became the second person in America killed for witchcraft. According to prominent Puritan minister Cotton Mather, she had “Familiarity with the Devils” and had “confessed that she was guilty of the Murder of a Child, and that she had been guilty of Uncleanness with Men and Devils.”

At least nine other people—seven women and two husbands of accused witches—were executed in Connecticut for witchcraft between 1648 and 1663, according to numbers provided by John Putnam Demos’ “Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England.” During the same time period, at least five women were killed in Massachusetts, beginning with the execution of Margaret Jones of Charlestown in 1648.

The prosecution of witches nearly disappeared in New England after 1663 until it was revived in 1692 by the town of Salem, Mass. Between June and September of 1692, 19 accused witches were hanged, four died in prison and one was pressed to death.

Historical Context: Witch Hunts

Suspicion of witches dated back centuries; the University of Missouri-Kansas City provides the history of witch hunts in Europe, looking at the viewpoints of major theologians and rulers as well as stories of witches in European literature.

Background: Puritanism

As unbelievable as the witch craze seems to modern minds, the events were a product of a Puritan culture where “the devil” was a real presence, said Connecticut historian Walter Woodward. “[W]hen they think they’re under attack by the devil, their response is based on perceived threat,” he explained to the Hartford Courant. “This wasn’t just mean-spiritedness. This was the product of intense fear.”

Washington State University professor Donna Campbell explains the beliefs of 17th century Puritans. “Several beliefs differentiated Puritans from other Christians. The first was their belief in predestination. Puritans believed that belief in Jesus and participation in the sacraments could not alone effect one’s salvation; one cannot choose salvation, for that is the privilege of God alone,” she writes.

Video: The Witchcraft Story


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