Beth M Caruso
Our views of the New England witch trials are skewed by the intensity and magnitude of the Salem Witch trials of 1692. (Not to mention that the Salem trials are the only ones that get any recognition in history textbooks.) But Salem was really the last big eruption, a grand gruesome finale of many witchcraft accusations.
“Who is Alice (Alse) Young?” you may ask. You, like most people, are probably unaware that she is the first witch-hanging victim in the American colonies. Alice Young’s hanging occurred forty-five years before the Salem trials. Many other witchcraft accusations and trials soon followed in both Connecticut and Massachusetts. The largest one, called the Hartford Witch Panic, occurred in the early 1660s, still well before Salem. Alice’s hanging laid a pattern of acceptance and
continuation of a horrific European tradition of scapegoating in the form of witchcraft accusations.
At first glance, the hanging of a single woman in Windsor, Connecticut’s earliest town, may not seem important in understanding other bigger witch trials. However, it is critically significant. Through years of research, I’ve found that Alice’s case may have had a considerable influence on other trials through connections to her carried on later. The first connection that blew me away was that of a male neighbor and possible family member. I have reason to believe that
this man was deeply impacted by the tumultuous events of 1647, the events that probably led to Alice’s hanging. He later moved back to England and studied for the ministry eventually returning to New England. He retired in Boston and was a member of Cotton Mather’s church before and during the Salem witchcraft trials. Is it possible that he had an influence on Mather in his persuasive role in the Salem trials? Quite possibly. As a retired minister who was called to the Mather home to be at the bedside of a young woman hexed by a witch, one would assume that to be a possibility.
Another very interesting association is another possible family member who was the long-time assistant to the Winthrops, leaders in both Massachusetts and Connecticut colonies. Governor John Winthrop Jr. was an alchemist, well-respected physician, and governor of Connecticut Colony. He effectively stopped further executions in that early settlement after the Hartford Witch Panic. Alice Young existed in the middle of important political battles between differing families in the town of Windsor. She also found herself in the center of conflicts between opposing allegiances in the colonies and trauma caused by both disease and Indian wars in the midst of a largely unchartered wilderness. With escalating fears, uncertainty, and divisions, a perfect climate was in place to usher in the horrific beginning of the New England witch trials as well as influence future trials.
In One of Windsor: The Untold Story of America’s First Witch Hanging, I sought to bring these significant factors together and capture the essence of the period both in the settings and through the characters.