Monday, November 25, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving, Y'all: Here's the Story of My Ancestor Who Was Hung as a Witch

Puritan: LOL, a bird. Must be witchcraft.
My 10th great-grandmother was hung as a witch in Connecticut. You've probably heard of the Salem Witch Trials, which took place in the early 1690s. Well, my homegirl beat them to it by getting herself hung in 1663.

As we're eating turkey and giving thanks for how awesome things are in our country and our lives, don't forget that the path to all-American awesomeness is strewn with bodies: Native Americans, mostly, but also some white people other white people didn't like very much.

We're not really sure what her maiden name was, but her first name was Rebecca. (My middle name, in case you were wondering.) She married a man named Abraham Elson, and had a daughter named Sarah who is my 9th great-grandmother. Abraham died, and Rebecca married a man named Jarvis Mudge. He died, too, and she married a third time to a man named Nathaniel Greensmith. Rebecca Greensmith is the name she died with.

She and Nathaniel lived in Hartford, Connecticut. They were not liked. Nathaniel had been in trouble with the law at least three times, once for stealing wheat, once for stealing a hoe, and once for battery. A local reverend, John Whiting, called Rebecca "a lewd, ignorant and considerably aged woman." Because everyone knows being an "aged woman" is some intolerable shit for Puritans.  

People had been on the lookout for witches for awhile--the very first suspected witch in the colonies was hung in Hartford in 1647. But now, in 1662, shit really hit the fan. It started, as it did in Salem, with the accusations of a girl. Before she died, John Kelley's 8-year-old daughter Elizabeth cried out in her delirium that her neighbor, Goodwife Ayres, was "tormenting her."

Witchcraft starter kit: cute kitty in a fake cauldon
Not long afterward, John Cole's daughter, Anne, freaked the fuck out. She started having "fits" and said Satan's minions were messing with her. She named Elizabeth Seager as a witch, and someone (it might have been Anne) said Rebecca was a witch, too. Nathaniel and Rebecca were already disliked within the community, so it's not hard to see how they fell under suspicion. Rebecca was arrested in late 1662.

Hard-ass Puritan ministers took control of the situation, interrogating the accused. Reverend Samuel Stone, Reverend Joseph Haynes, and Reverend Samuel Hooker played bad cop/worse cop/abysmal cop, and Rebecca admitted that under Haynes's questioning, she could have "torn him in pieces." Satanic strength notwithstanding, Haynes survived unscathed.

Under interrogation, Rebecca confessed to witchcraft. She said she and some other folks used to meet out in the fields at night to booze it up. One of the women present said she would do bad things to the town marshal if she could. That's all the evidence they needed back in the day. Empty field + night time + booze + (heaven forbid) dancing = a genuine goddamn coven. Increase Mather took Rebecca's confession as definitive proof that witches were real.

Anxious for all the dirty details, her interrogators asked her whether she made a covenant with the devil. She said no, but that she had promised to go with him when he called. He was supposed to be back on Christmas, and that's when the covenant would be signed. She said the devil first appeared to her as a deer, and other times as a crow. Lord knows you can't trust animals. Not even once.

On December 30, 1662, both Rebecca and Nathaniel were indicted on charges of witchcraft.

Witchcraft Inigo Montoya meme
On January 8, 1663, Rebecca said that although he hadn't confessed, she had doubts about Nathaniel's innocence. She said he was pretty old and weak, but that he somehow did lots of chores and outdoor work. Plus, it was pretty damn suspicious that he was friendly with some foxes and other woodland creatures.

The jury found them both guilty.

On January 25, 1662, Nathaniel and Rebecca were hung on "Gallows Hill," the present site of Trinity College.

"Witches" were also hung in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Virginia. Their names have all since been legally cleared, not helpful at all to the victims but somewhat helpful for the families and descendants. Not so in Connecticut. All of these folks are still officially on record as being guilty.

Even if the genealogical research that seems to link me to this woman proves to be faulty (as so much of it is), I'll always remember her story...and the dark side of what we celebrate every Thanksgiving.