Halloween is creeping up on us! I thought it appropriate to blog about my ancestors connected to the witch trials. I don’t know about you, but when I hear the term witch craft or witch trials I picture scenes from my favorite Halloween movie Hocus Pocus.
Witches from Hocus Pocus (1993)
In reality those accused of being witches or of dabbling in witchcraft were nothing like Hocus Pocus. Reaching back to what I learned in high school, being accused of witch craft had more to do with town politics, character assassination, and fear of the unknown or anyone who dared to be different.
As I began researching my father’s massive Colonial-American genealogy I thought, would I suddenly find my ancestors embroiled in the witch trials? The answer? Yep! But not in the way I originally thought. The first ancestor I discovered was a 10th great grandfather: Thomas Burnham, born 1619 in England. He was an early Puritan settler in Connecticut (Podunk and Hartford).
Thomas was a lawyer and saved the life of Abigail Betts, a school teacher accused of witchcraft and blasphemy. Thomas argued that in England blasphemy was not a capital crime, and thus that in colonial-Connecticut should not be either. Despite his successful defense and saving of Abigail, he was stripped of his rights to further practice law. On a personal note I have to say I truly admire Thomas stepping up and defending this woman’s right to speech, even if it did offend a few (okay, probably more like the entire Puritan community). It is not easy to go against the status quo.
Who did I find next? Another 10th great grandfather, Reverend James Fitch.
Headstone for Rev. James Fitch
Back in Hartford, Connecticut (final home of Thomas Burnham!) witch trials were taking place when Alice Young was found guilty of witch craft and executed in 1647. Similar trials took place all over Connecticut, ending in about 43 trials. However, Norwich, Connecticut had not experienced the hysteria….until 1684. A young woman began experiencing uncontrolled fits, flailing on the ground and screaming in pain. Concerned friends and family turned to their Reverend for answers: who was responsible for the demonic possession of this girl?
Reverend Fitch’s response is best summarized by the Norwich historical society:
“Reverend Fitch refused their demands, calmly informing them that any procedure that attempts to uncover the responsible witch was, in itself, a form of witchcraft. He then went on to say, “I will pray with her and say psalms with the rest of you”, for that is the best way to proceed in this matter. In so doing, Fitch took control of the situation, quickly snuffing out the flames of fear which had so often resulted in community hysteria and executions. Reverend Fitch reports of freeing the young girl of her symptoms, not by blaming human witches for causing them, nor placing the blame on demonic possession, but instead, by convincing her that God was willing to forgive her sins, and of Christ’s mercy for her. “
Wow, how inspiring was he?! I am thankful for Rev. Fitch’s cool thinking and compassionate approach. I truly feel honored to have these men as my ancestors and they remind me to always defend those unjustly accused or bullied.
Do you have ancestors accused of witchcraft, who defended those accused, or an ancestor who accused someone of witch craft? If so, please do share in the comments! Happy Halloween and All Saint’s Day readers.