Grade 8 – Accused: 17th-Century Witch Trials

by Christine Jewell
Fairfield Museum and History Center, Fairfield


TEACHER'S SNAPSHOT
Topic
Belief, Crime & Punishment
Theme
The Struggle for Freedom, Equality, and Social Justice
Gender Roles in Economic, Political, and Social Life
Town
Fairfield, Statewide
Related Search Terms
Witch Trials, 17th Century, Witchcraft, Salem, Witch Hunts, Puritans
Social Studies Frameworks
Grade 8 – United States History
D1: POTENTIAL COMPELLING QUESTION

What factors led to the 17th-century witchcraft trials in Connecticut?

D1: POTENTIAL SUPPORTING QUESTIONS
  • Were religious or social differences tolerated in the 1600s?
  • Did everyone have equal protection under the law at the time?
  • Why were women particularly targeted as witches?
  • Could something like this happen today?
D2: TOOL KIT

Things you will need to teach this lesson.

Detail from Saducismus Triumphatus or, Full and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions by Joseph Glanvil. Library of Congress.
This image comes from a very popular book published in London in 1689. It claimed to record “true” supernatural events and probably influenced many colonial thinkers, including Cotton Mather, the author of the 1693 book, The Wonders of the Invisible World: Being an Account of the Tryals of Several Witches Lately Executed in New-England: and of Several Remarkable Curiosities Therein Occurring. In this detail, women gather with the devil in a wooded area.
Illustration from The Kingdom of Darkness by Nathaniel Crouch. London, 1728. World Imprints Collection, Connecticut Historical Society.

 

Although it was published more than 30 years after the last of the Connecticut witch trials, this image illustrates the enduring belief, shared by most New Englanders in the 1600s, that the devil could influence witches to use magic against others.
Elizabeth_Clawson_Mercy_Disbrough
Charges of Catherine Branch against Elizabeth Clawson (Elizabeth Clauson), Mercy Disbrough (Mercy Disbrow) and Goody Miller, 1692. Samuel Wyllys papers, Connecticut State Library.
Transcription from the Connecticut State Library: cathoran branch aged seventeene years or theare abouts/ testifieth and saith that som time this last somer shee saw {good}/ {wif} and felt good wife closon and marcy disbrow afflict/ hur not together but apart by scraching pinching and wringing/ hur body and further saith that good wife {cason} \clason/ was the first/ that did afflict hur and affter wards marcy disbrow and/ after that somtimes one of them and som times \the other/ {crossed out} of them/ and {crossed out} in her affliction: though it was night yet it appearing/ as light as noone day sworn in court septr 19: 1692 attest J Allyn secyr/
Elizabeth_Seagar
Case of Goodwife Seager (Elizabeth Seagar), Testimony Of Robert Sterne, around 1662-1665. Samuel Wyllys papers, Connecticut State Library.
Transcription from the Connecticut State Library: Robt Sterne Testifies as/ followet[h]./ I saw This woman Goodwife Seage/ in the woods w[i]th three more wome[n]/ and wit[h] them {these} I saw two/ black creatures like two Indians/ but taller I saw likewise a Kettle/ there over a fire, I saw the wome[n]/ dance round these black Creatures/ and whiles I looked upon them one/ of the women G Greensmith sai[th]/ lookr who is yonder and then they/ ran away up the hill. I stood still/ and the black things came towards/ mee and then turned to come/ away: He further sait[h] I know the/ F[a]lons by their Habits or clothes/ haveing observed such clothes on/ them not long before:/
Katherine_Harrison_Smith_testimony
Case of Katherin Harrison (Katherine Harrison), Testimony of Rebecka Smith (Rebecca Smith), 1668. Samuel Wyllys papers, Connecticut State Library.
Transcription from the Connecticut State Library (excerpted): Rebeckka Smith aged about 75 theares testefieth as followes/ that … Goodwife Gilbert the wife of \Jonathan Gilbert/ … had/ a black Capp which shee had lent to Katherin Harrison, and Katherin/ Harrison desired {desired} to have the saide capp, but Gooddy Gilbert/ refused to sell it to Katherin, after Goodwife Gilbert wore the saide/ capp and when shee had the capp on her head her shoulders and head was/ much afflicted, after the capp beinge pulled of, Gooddy Gilbert saide/ she was well, again \a certain time/ after Gooddy Gilbert wore, or put on the saide/ Capp: then shee was afflicted as before; the saide capp beinge/ againe pulled of Gooddy Gilbert againe saide shee was well, thus/ beinge afflicted severall times, it was suspected to be by witchcraft/ after the saide Rebecca Smith, herd say the capp was burned./
Katherine_Harrison_testimony
Case of Katherin Harrison (Katherine Harrison), testimony of John Welles. Samuel Wyllys papers, Connecticut State Library.
Transcription from the Connecticut State Library: when my father lived in the house where Joseph/ wright liveth some evenings our cows were late/ before they came hom and my mother sent me/ to see if I could mete them I went once or twice/ but the second time I was sent I went about half/ way crosse the street and could goe no further/ my legs were bound to my thinking with a nap/ kin but could se nothing I looked foward {for}/ {ward} the cattle that were in the street by good/ man nots shop and I saw good wif harrison rise/ up from a cow that was non of her owne with/ a pail in her hand and made hast home and/ when she was over her own stile I was loosed/ June 29:1668/ This was about 7 or 8 years ago John welles/ / This was owned and acknowledged/ by John wells before me Samll welles/
page Because the language in the court documents can be difficult for students to read (little punctuation, inconsistent or archaic spelling, etc.), a PDF with slightly adapted transcriptions is provided HERE.
D3: INQUIRY ACTIVITY

For background information about the witchcraft trials in Connecticut, download the Fairfield Museum’s “Accused: Fairfield’s Witchcraft Trials” Educator Guide (www.fairfieldhistory.org/education/teacher-resources/) prior to teaching the lesson.

Begin the activity by having students examine one or both of the historic images as a class, in small groups, or individually.

  • Describe what is going on in the image(s). What is the setting? Who are the figures? What are the activities?

Break students into smaller groups, each with one of the court documents (including the transcription).

  • What details can be gleaned from each document?
  • Who is being accused? What can you learn about this person from the text?
  • Who is doing the accusing? What can you learn about this person from the text?
  • What are these people being accused of?
  • What can you infer from the testimony about why this person has been accused?
  • What beliefs or values held by the accused or the accuser are suggested by the testimonies?

Have each group share their discoveries and note similarities and differences.

D4: COMMUNICATING CONCLUSIONS

Have students supplement their conclusions from the inquiry activity with information from additional resources (see below for some suggestions) to help them develop answers to the compelling and supporting questions posed at the beginning. Conclude with a discussion or writing activity based on the questions: Could something like this happen today? Does it?

For a further connection, investigate with students accusations of witchcraft in contemporary Africa and Asia.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES
Places to GO
Things to DO
Websites to VISIT
Articles to READ