The name evokes certain images. For those who visit the picturesque New England town each October, it invites visions of quaint streets lined with trees fully-soaked with yellow, orange, and brown leaves. Pumpkins seemingly rise straight from the concrete walkways, and almost every shop has the image of a witch decorating some portion of its front window.
But for most people, it’s not the idyllic New England they see on the surface that comes to mind, but instead it’s the dark truth that lies underneath such perfect autumnal scenes — the reason most everyone has heard of America’s most famous “witch city,” even if they’ve never traveled her streets on a breezy fall afternoon.
Nearly 300 years ago, something happened there … something we continue to discuss, research, and debate. Nineteen people were hanged, another was crushed to death, and nearly 200 were imprisoned over a period of several months in 1692. All were believed to be in league with Satan himself. All had been accused of witchcraft.
The Salem Witch Trials are so well known, they have become what every modern occurrence of unsubstantiated hysteria or mob action against a small minority of people are judged by. But what many may not know is that Salem was far from the first place in New England to suffer from what were perceived at the time to be “witch outbreaks.”
In fact, Connecticut had been home to even more instances of witchcraft in the mid-17th century, something most native Nutmeggers are completely unaware of.
Over the month of October, the Cheshire Public Library has been hoping to change that.
Earlier this month, the library sponsored a virtual discussion hosted by Richard Ross, author of “Before Salem: Witch Hunting in the Connecticut Valley, 1647-1663.” On Thursday, those interested will once again have their chance to discuss the subject when the Connecticut Historical Society hosts another virtual event on Connecticut witches, and the similarities and differences between those incidents and what happened years later in Salem.
Both programs have been part of the Cheshire Public Library’s Halloween-themed month of activities, much of the rest geared towards children.
“Halloween is a fun time of year and patrons enjoy programming on this subject,” explained Kathleen Larkin, reference librarian. “Our takeaway is, we hope patrons learn something new and feel connected to other members of the community.”
The program promises to discuss much of what Ross, a professor emeritus and former college librarian at Trinity College, emphasizes in his book.
Ross explained to The Herald that his initial interest in Connecticut witch trials stemmed from his overall fascination with the history of witchcraft in Europe and other parts of the world.
“I was interested, I would say, since a very young age,” explained Ross. “I eventually taught a course on Salem, and through that I ended up researching what had happened in Connecticut.”
While Connecticut-specific trials have been discussed over the years in reference to the Salem outbreak, very little in-depth analysis had been done. Most residents remain unaware that, over a period of nearly three decades, Connecticut tried, convicted and executed 11 individuals for being a witch.
“People are always shocked. They had no idea,” said Ross.
Part of that may have to do with the fact that, unlike in Salem where the accusations began in the winter of 1692 and accelerated at an unprecedented rate, the trials that occurred in Connecticut happened over a period of decades and each case ordinarily involved only a handful of accusations at the time.
Ross also points to the influence of John Winthrop the Younger, Governor of Connecticut from 1657 until his death in 1676.
Winthrop, son of John Winthrop, the Founding Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was a popular leader who successfully helped to join together the colonies of Connecticut and New Haven in 1662 and welcomed Quakers to the colony when the religious sect was ousted from Massachusetts.
Ross believes Winthrop, whom he described as being more progressive during his time than many of his counterparts, acted as a calming influence during witch trials, not allowing them to spread and ensuring that at least some doubt was cast on accusations.
The only time that didn’t happen was in Hartford in 1662.
“That in a lot of ways was a precursor to what happened in Salem,” said Ross. “It also coincided with Winthrop not being around. He was in England at the time, (securing) the Connecticut Charter.”
The hysteria in Hartford is eerily similar to what happened 30 years later in Salem, where the accusations of one local girl, Anne Cole, against two local women led to even more accusations and claims that witches were meeting in clandestine fashion to torment more of God’s people.
Four people were eventually hanged after being convicted of witchcraft, and it may have been more if not for the return of Winthrop, who immediately involved himself in the trials and had a reputation for helping to ensure accused witches were not executed.
Thursday’s program promises to touch on many of the same issues, with a focus on the individual stories of the accused and why Connecticut was able to diffuse several instances of possible witchcraft panic in a way that Salem was not. As Ross explains, while witch trials continued in Connecticut throughout the 17th century — one was held the same year the Salem trials began — the last execution occurred in Hartford during their crisis of 1662.
As to why, in the 21st century, there remains such a fascination with Salem and witch trials in general, Ross believes that each generation can find similarities between what happened in the 17th century and what may be occurring today.
“It’s something we can recognize in our own time,” said Ross, of what drove people to accuse others of witchcraft, “so, while it was a very different time, it’s something that still feels very familiar to us.
To sign up for Thursday’s presentation, or for more information about the library’s upcoming Halloween programs, visit www.cheshirelibrary.com.