My 8th Great-Grandmother – The Witch of Hartford, Connecticut

Since my book is based in genealogy, I couldn’t help but tie my English ancestors into the web of insanity and intolerance that occurred during the witch hunts of seventeenth century New England. This is the story of Rebecca Elson-Mudge-Greensmith, my eighth great-grandmother, who was hanged as a witch in 1662 on Gallows Hill in Hartford, Connecticut; and Edward Griswold, my ninth great-grandfather, who was on the jury that convicted and sentenced her to death. What follows are my own personal opinions, a little background information, and the disturbing story of how insanity took over the lives of villagers in one isolated community.

Witch Hanging

Witch Hanging

Background Information On My English Roots:
Many people are intrigued and fascinated with the Salem Witch Trials that occurred in America between February 1692 and May 1693 but most are not aware of the Connecticut Witch Trials that resulted in the hangings of ten innocent villagers between the years 1647 and 1663. I had no idea about any of this until I started doing genealogy thirteen years ago on the Griswold and Putman families. Jarvis Mudge Putnam (Putman) and Bessie May Griswold were my grandparents, the parents of my mother. With the family name of “Mudge” as Jarvis’s middle name, I knew that my grandfather was connected to this old English family. I was surprised to learn that the progenitor of my Mudge family in America was actually named Jarvis Mudge.

Jarvis Mudge was my eighth great-grandfather who was born in England about the year 1608. He came to America in 1638, landing in Boston, Massachusetts. Jarvis married Rebecca née Unknown at Wethersfield, Connecticut in 1649 and moved to Pequot (New London), Connecticut. Rebecca was married at least three times that we know of: first to Abraham Elsing (Elson, Elsen); second to Jarvis Mudge; and third to Nathaniel Greensmith. Rebecca was the widow of Abraham Elsing and the mother of his three daughters: Sarah, Hannah, and Mariah. Jarvis and Rebecca had two sons: Micah and Moses. Jarvis died in New London, Connecticut, in March of 1653. Rebecca then married Nathaniel Greensmith around 1654. They had no children together. No one is sure of Rebecca’s maiden name but the surname “Steele” has been floated about. She was born in England but the place and date of her birth is unknown. I have estimated that she was in her mid-fifties when she was executed but I certainly could be wrong, she may have been much older. According to Alfred Mudge in his book Memorials, Being A Genealogical, Biographical and Historical Account of the Name of Mudge in America from 1638 to 1868, Rebecca was the mother of Micah Mudge (3), son of Jarvis (my line).

It appears that women who were loud, outspoken, or strong willed, without prominent connections in the community were target victims. Abraham and Jarvis, by all accounts, appeared to have been good, upstanding men, while Nathaniel’s reputation is called into question. Perhaps he was abusive to Rebecca? Perhaps he drove her to insanity? Rebecca may have been suffering from depression, dementia or a number of illnesses. She had lost one child in infancy, maybe more, and she lived through the deaths of two husbands. For whatever reason, she was unjustly accused without counsel, and hanged for a crime that she did not commit.

My grandmother, Bessie, was a direct descendant of Edward Griswold. Edward, my ninth great-grandfather, was born in England about the year 1607. He came to America landing at Boston, Massachusetts, about the year 1639 and moved, just as Jarvis did, to Connecticut.  He was a prominent man in the community.

The interesting irony of the following story, recounted by John Metcalf Taylor in his book: The Witchcraft Delusion in Colonial Connecticut 1647 – 1697, is that 250 years after the death of Rebecca on April 10, 1912, these two families would forever be connected through the marriage of my grandparents, Jarvis and Bessie.

The line for my grandfather Jarvis is: Jarvis Mudge (married Rebecca unknown)> Micah Mudge> Ebenezer Mudge> Jarvis Mudge> Abigail Mudge (married Pieter Van Buren)> Catalina Van Buren (married James Putnam) > Jarvis Mudge Putman> Richard T. Putman> Jarvis Mudge Putman (Putnam).

The line for my grandmother Bessie is: Edward Griswold> Joseph Griswold> Francis Griswold> Francis Griswold> Francis Griswold> Jehiel Griswold> Aaron Griswold> Aaron H. Griswold> Sylvester Thomas Griswold> Bessie May Griswold (married Jarvis Mudge Putman (Putnam). (SOURCE: The Greswold Family 12 Generations in England by Robert L. and Esther G. French, Compiled by Coralee Griswold, 1999)

Jarvis & Bessie Putnam 4.10.1912

Jarvis & Bessie Putnam 4.10.1912

Nathaniel Greensmith
lived in Hartford, south of the little river, in 1661-62, on a lot of about twenty acres, with a house and barn.  He also had other holdings ‘neer Podunk,’ and ‘on ye highway leading to Farmington.’  He was thrifty by divergent and economical methods, since he is credited in the records of the time with stealing a bushel and a half of wheat, of stealing a hoe, and of lying to the court, and of battery.

In one way or another he accumulated quite a property for those days, since the inventory of it filed in the Hartford Probate Office, January 25, 1662, after his execution, carried an appraisal of L137. 14s. 1d. – including ‘2 bibles, a sword, a resthead, and a drachm cup’ – all indicating that Nathaniel judiciously mingled his theology and patriotism, his recreation and refreshment, with his everyday practical affairs and opportunities.

But he made one adventure that was most unprofitable.  In an evil hour he took to wife Rebecca, relict of Abraham Elson, and also relict of Jarvis Mudge, and of whom so good a man as the Rev. John Whiting, minister of the First Church in Hartford – afterward first pastor of the Second Church – said that she was ‘a lewd, ignorant and considerably aged woman.’

This triple combination of personal qualities soon elicited the criticism and animosity of the community, and Nathaniel and Rebecca fell under the most fatal of all suspicions of that day, that of being possessed by the evil one. Gossip and rumor about these unpopular neighbors culminated in a formal complaint, and December 30, 1662, at a court held in Hartford, both the Greensmiths were separately indicted in the same formal charge.

‘Nathaniel Greensmith thou art here indicted by the name of Nathaniel Greensmith for not having the fear of God before thine eyes, thou hast entertained familiarity with Satan, the grand enemy of God and mankind – and by his help hast acted things in a preternatural way beyond human abilities in a natural course for which according to the law of God and the established law of this commonwealth thou deservest to die.’

While Rebecca was in prison under suspicion, she was interviewed by two ministers, Revs. Haynes and Whiting, as to the charges of Ann Cole – a next door neighbor – which were written down by them, all of which, and more, she confessed to be true before the court. (Note. Increase Mather regarded this confession as convictive a proof of real witchcraft as most single cases he had known.)

She forthwith and freely confessed those things to be true, that she (and other persons named in the discourse) had familiarity with the devil. Being asked whether she had made an express covenant with him, she answered she had not, only as she promised to go with him when he called (which she had accordingly done several times). But that the devil told her that at Christmas they would have a merry meeting, and then the covenant should be drawn and subscribed. Thereupon the fore-mentioned Mr. Stone (being then in court) with much weight and earnestness laid forth the exceeding heinousness and hazard of that dreadful sin; and therewith solemnly took notice (upon the occasion given) of the devil’s loving Christmas.

‘A person at the same time present being desired the next day more particularly to enquire of her about her guilt, it was accordingly done, to whom she acknowledged that though when Mr. Haynes began to read she could have torn him in pieces, and was so much resolved as might be to deny her guilt (as she had done before) yet after he had read awhile, she was as if her flesh had been pulled from her bones, (such was her expression,) and so could not deny any longer. She also declared that the devil first appeared to her in the form of a deer or fawn, skipping about her, wherewith she was not much affrighted but by degrees he contrived talk with her; and that their meetings were frequently at such a place, (near her own house;) that some of the company came in one shape and some in another, and one in particular in the shape of a crow came flying to them. Amongst other things she owned that the devil had frequent use of her body.’

Had Rebecca been content with purging her own conscience, she alone would have met the fate she had invoked, and probably deserved; but out of ‘love to her husband’s soul’ she made an accusation against him, which of itself secured his conviction of the same offense, with the same dire penalty.

Rebecca Greensmith testifieth in Court Janry 8. 62.

1. ‘That my husband on Friday night last when I came to prison told me that now thou hast confest against thyself let me alone and say nothing of me and I wil be good unto thy children.

2. I doe now testifie that formerly when my husband hathe told me of his great travaile and labour I wondered as it how he did it this he did before I was married and when I was married I asked him how he did it and he answered me he had help yt I knew not of.

3. About three years agoe as I think it; my husband and I were in ye wood several miles from home and were looking for a sow yt we lost and I saw a creature a red creature following my husband and when I came to him I asked him what it was that was with him and he told me it was a fox.

4. Another time when he and I drove or hogs into ye woods beyond ye pound yt was to keep yong cattle severall miles of I went before ye hogs to call them and looking back I saw two creatures like dogs one a little blacker than ye other, they came after my husband pretty close to him and one did seem to me to touch him I asked him wt they were he told me he thought foxes I was stil afraid when I saw anything because I heard soe much of him before I married him.

5. I have seen logs that my husband hath brought home in his cart that I wondered at it that he could get them into ye cart being a man of little body and weake to my apprhension and ye logs were such that I thought two men such as he could not have done it.  I speak all this out of love to my husbands soule and it is much against my will that I am now necessitate to speake agaynst my husband, I desire that ye Lord would open his heart to owne and speak ye trueth.

I also testify that I being in ye wood at a meeting there was with me Goody Seager, Goodwife Sanford and Goodwife Ayres; and at another time there was a meeting under a tree in ye green by or house and there was there James Walkely, Peter Grants wife, Goodwife Aires, and Henry Palmers wife of Wethersfield, and Goody Seager, and there we danced, and had a bottle of sack: it was in ye night and something like a catt cald me out to ye meeting, and I was in Mr. Varlett’s orcherd with Mrs. Judith Varlett and shee tould me that shee was much troubled wth ye Marshall Jonath: Gilbert and cried, and shee sayd if it lay in her power shee would doe him a mischief, or what hurt shee could.’

The Greensmiths were convicted and sentenced to suffer death. In January, 1662, they were hung on ‘Gallows Hill,’ on the bluff a little north of where Trinity College now stands – ‘a logical location’ one most learned in the traditions and history of Hartford calls it – ‘as it afforded an excellent view of the execution to a large crowd on the meadows to the west, a hanging being then a popular spectacle and entertainment.”  (8:96-100)

“Connecticut can lose nothing in name or fame or honor, if, more than two centuries after the last witch was executed within her borders, the facts as to her share in the strange superstition be certified from the current records of the events.

How may this story best be told? Clearly, so far as may be, in the very words of the actors in those tragic scenes, in the words of the minister and magistrate, the justice and the juryman, the accuser and the accused, and the searcher. Into this court of inquiry come all these personalities to witness the sorrowful march of the victims to the scaffold or to exile, or to acquittal and deliverance with the after life of suspicion and social ostracism.

The spectres of terror did not sit alone at the firesides of the poor and lowly: they stalked in high places, and were known of men and women of the first rank in education and the social virtues, and of greatest influence in church and state. Of this fact there is complete demonstration in a glance at the dignitaries who presided at one of the earliest witchcraft trials–men of notable ancestry, of learning, of achievements, leaders in colonial affairs, whose memories are honored to this day.

These were the magistrates at a session entitled ‘A particular courte in Hartford upon the tryall of John Carrington and his wife 20th Feb., 1662.’  (See Rec. P. C., 2:17): Edw. Hopkins Esqr., Gournor John Haynes Esqr. Deputy, Mr. Wells, Mr. Woolcott, Mr. Webster, Mr. Cullick, Mr. Clarke.

This court had jurisdiction over misdemeanors, and was ‘aided by a jury,’ as a close student of colonial history, the late Sherman W. Adams, quaintly says in one of his historical papers.  These were the jurymen:

Mr. Phelps       John White      John More

Mr. Tailecoat   Will Leawis      Edw. Griswold

Mr. Hollister    Sam Smith       Steph Harte

Daniel Milton John Pratt        Theo Judd

Before this tribunal – representative of the others doing like service later – made up of the foremost citizens, and of men in the ordinary walks of life, endowed with hard common sense and presumably inspired with a spirit of justice and fair play, came John Carrington and his wife Joan of Wethersfield, against whom the jury brought in a verdict of guilty.

It must be clearly borne in mind that all these men, in this as in all the other witchcraft trials in Connecticut, illustrious or commonplace – as are many of their descendants whose names are written on the rolls of the patriotic societies in these days of ancestral discovery and exploitation – were absolute believers in the powers of Satan and his machinations through witchcraft and the evidence then adduced to prove them, and trained to such credulity by their education and experience, by their theological doctrines, and by the law of the land in Old England, but still clothed upon with that righteousness which as it proved in the end made them skeptical as to certain alleged evidences of guilt, and swift to respond to the calls of reason and of mercy when the appeals were made to their calm judgment and second thought as to the sins of their fellow men.

In no way can the truth be so clearly set forth, the real character of the evidence be so justly appreciated upon which the convictions were had, as from the depositions and the oral testimony of the witnesses themselves. They are lasting memorials to the credulity and superstition, and the religious insanity which clouded the senses of the wisest men for a time, and to the malevolence and satanic ingenuity of the people who, possessed of the devil accused their friends and neighbors of a crime punishable by death.”  (5:37-39)

“A Record of the Men and Women Who Came Under Suspicion or Accusation of Witchcraft in Connecticut, and What Befell Them.
Herein are written the names of all persons in anywise involved in the witchcraft delusion in Connecticut, with the consequences to them in indictments, trials, convictions, execution, or in banishment, exile, warnings, reprieves, or acquittals, so far as made known in any tradition, document, public or private record, to this time.”  (11:143)

“1662-63 was a notable year in the history of witchcraft in Connecticut. It marked the last execution for the crime within the commonwealth and thirty years before the outbreak at Salem.”  (11:150)

“ROLL OF NAMES (Names in Bold Print are those who were hanged).

  1. Alse Young 1647
  2. Mary Johnson 1648
  3. John Carrington 1650-51
  4. Joan Carrington 1650-51
  5. Goody Bassett 1651
  6. Goodwife Knapp 1653
  7. Lydia Gilbert 1654
  8. Elizabeth Godman 1655
  9. Nicholas Bayly 1655
  10. Goodwife Bayly 1655
  11. Goodwife Bayly 1655
  12. William Meaker 1657
  13. Elizabeth Garlick 1658
  14. Nicholas Jennings 1661
  15. Margaret Jennings 1661
  16. Nathaniel Greensmith 1662
  17. Rebecca Greensmith 1662
  18. Mary Sanford 1662
  19. Andrew Sanford 1662
  20. Goody Ayres 1662
  21. Katherine Palmer 1662
  22. Judith Varlett 1662
  23. James Walkley 1662
  24. Mary Barnes 1662-63
  25. Elizabeth Seager 1666
  26. Katherine Harrison 1669
  27. Nicholas Disborough 1683
  28. Mary Staplies 1692
  29. Mercy Disborough 1692
  30. Elizabeth Clawson 1692
  31. Mary Harvey 1692
  32. Hannah Harvey 1692
  33. Goody Miller 1692
  34. Hugh Crotia 1693
  35. Winifred Benham Senr. 1697
  36. Winifred Benham Junh. 1697
  37. Sarah Spencer 1724
  38. Unknown Norton 1768

What of those men and women to whom justice in their time was meted out, in this age of reason, of religious enlightenment, liberty, and catholicity, when witchcraft has lost its mystery and power, when intelligence reigns, and the Devil works his will in other devious ways and in a more attractive guise?

They were the victims of delusion, not of dishonor, of a perverted theology fed by moral aberrations, of a fanaticism which never stopped to reason, and halted at no sacrifice to do God’s service; and they were all done to death, or harried into exile, disgrace, or social ostracism, through a mistaken sense of religious duty: but they stand innocent of deep offense and only guilty in the eye of the law written in the Word of God, as interpreted and enforced by the forefathers who wrought their condemnation, and whose religion made witchcraft a heinous sin, and whose law made it a heinous crime.” (2)  (11:156-158)

(1) Salem Village Witchcraft Victims’ Memorial At Danvers 

(2) Reprinted from The Witchcraft Delusion in Colonial Connecticut 1647 – 1697, John Metcalf Taylor, The Grafton Press Publishers, New York, 1908. (Records Particular Court (2:182); Memorial History Hartford County 1:274); Connecticut Magazine (November 1899, pp. 557-561).

(3) Mudge, Alfred, Memorials: Being A Genealogical, Biographical and Historical Account Of The Name Of MUDGE In America, From 1638 to 1868, Boston, Printed By Alfred Mudge & Son, For The Family, 1868, Pages 27-33.

Connecticut Witch Trials and Posthumous Pardons.

Witches and Witchcraft, The First Person Executed in the Colonies.

On May 9, 1992, the Town of Danvers, Massachusetts, acknowledged and took responsibility for the mistakes of their ancestors by presenting a beautiful granite memorial to the people of the state and the country in honor of the twenty villagers unjustly executed at The Salem Witch Trials which took place between February 1692 and May 1693. “The Memorial serves as a reminder that each generation must confront intolerance and ‘witch hunts’ with integrity, clear vision and courage.” (1) Forty-five years earlier between 1647 and 1663, the settlement at Hartford, Connecticut, also held witch trials that resulted in the hangings of at least ten innocent villagers, one of whom was my eighth great-grandmother, Rebecca Greensmith née Unknown. The Connecticut Witch Trials are dreadful examples of our country’s dark past that shows us how a secluded community made up of a particular group of people, persecuted, labeled, and punished other members of society simply because they didn’t like or understand them. Rev. John Whiting, minister of the First Church in Hartford stated that Rebecca was “a lewd, ignorant and considerably aged woman.” In another place, in another time, would Rebecca, who was unjustly accused without counsel, have been labeled insane? Would she have been a candidate for an insane asylum in 1880 or a nursing home in 2012? Were she and her friends simply dancing and enjoying a bottle of sack? Was it the isolation and strict rules of conformity that drove this community to insanity? I don’t think I would be out of line in suggesting that all the players in this tragic story of indifference were suffering from religious excitement which was listed as a cause of insanity at the Willard State Hospital as late as 1900.

I have read that the state of Connecticut will not grant posthumous pardons or exonerate the people unjustly accused of witchcraft, nor will they officially acknowledge the mistakes of their ancestors. Will New York State lead by example and end the disgrace of anonymous, unmarked graves by releasing the names and burial locations of our ancestors in a unified, digital database available to the public on the internet? Will they allow descendents to obtain the medical records and photographs of their loved one? Will New York remain as blind and indifferent as the state of Connecticut? The Salem and Hartford executions are grim reminders of the fear, ignorance, and intolerance that permeated America’s past, not dissimilar from what happened at long-closed insane asylums. Innocent people were unjustly singled out in shame because they were feared and misunderstood for being different. In both cases, these people were ultimately removed from society and erased from history.