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Panic in Connecticut: Accused Witches Have Their Say

Actor Virginia Wolf

Between 1642 and 1693, at least 40 people in the colony of Connecticut were tried as witches. The historical record indicates that at least 10 of them were hanged. In 1647 the state hung a Windsor woman named Alse Young, who was the first accused witch executed in New England. Most of those who were tried as witches, like Alse, were women. But who were they? How did these people come to be accused of practicing witchcraft? What were their lives like? Did they actually practice witchcraft, or were they simply the victims of other, unrelated factors, as were so many other accused witches, for which the accusation of witchcraft proved an easy way to exact revenge? How and why did the accusing of witches finally end? Or has it?

Witchcraft was punishable by death in the Connecticut Colony, but its 1642 witch hysteria occurred a full half a century before the notorious 1692 witch hunts in Salem, Massachusetts. Salem is more infamous for its witches, but all throughout Connecticut magistrates and Puritan ministers prosecuted alleged witches. Connecticut’s witch hunt was the fiercest in New England.

Many records are lost or non-existent, so piecing together details is a difficult task, but there is a way that we can learn more about the subject and begin to understand what life was like back then, and why witchcraft was such an obsessed upon subject of time.

To help bring the voices of the victims of those New England witch hunts to life, actress Virginia Wolf of Herstory Theater wrote “Panic in Connecticut: Accused Witches Have Their Say”, a one-woman show that sheds light on the Puritan society that condemned alleged witches to death in the decades before the hysteria in Salem. Ms. Wolf, dressed in period costume, takes audiences back to the 17th century and brings to life five women accused of witchcraft in Connecticut — Mary Staples, Lydia Gilbert, Judith Varlet, Mary Barnes and Mercy Disborough — who share their painful and horrifying stories.

“As a woman, I always wondered what it must have been like for these women,” Ms. Wolf explained, noting that men were also accused. “I tie their stories together so people [in the audience] can understand how the panic spread.”

Mary Staples of Fairfield was accused twice of witchcraft — first in 1654 and again in 1692. She was acquitted both times. Ms. Wolf depicts Mary as a woman in her 70s, and recalls the harsh reality of Puritan New England and the dominance of religion in everyday life. She explains society’s distrust of strangers and anything out of the ordinary, of Puritan settlers’ need to explain God’s will and how it was at work – especially when the inexplicable occurred.

“You can’t judge that time period by today’s standards,” Ms. Wolf said, noting that science was not even a glimmer on the horizon. “The only reason for something bad happening was witchcraft. They truly believed the devil was at work when milk curdled or cheese molded. When Hartford experienced bad blights or plagues, when people grew increasingly frightened and scared, it led to accusations. Sometimes it was out of greediness or envy, but usually it was caused by fear. They felt they needed to cleanse the world of evil for better or worse. That is how many people’s fates unfolded.”

Working forward chronologically, Ms. Wolf moves on to Lydia Gilbert of Windsor, who was accused of witchcraft, and was convicted and hanged in 1654. She, Ms. Wolf said, was unfortunately at the wrong place at the wrong time. Her mere presence during a series of misfortunes sealed her fate.

“The [Connecticut] trial proceedings aren’t well documented,” Wolf says. “I grew up in Salem Mass. I was in ‘The Crucible’ and we all know the history of those trials and the people affected by them, but the records for the Connecticut trials are scattered. It was difficult to research, but I hope people will walk away with a better understanding of the trials and what these women went through.”

Then there is Judith Varlet of Farmington, who was accused and acquitted between 1662 and ’63, and whose only real crime was that she was of Dutch descent, a woman of great intellect who spoke her mind, and who had amassed personal wealth. She was also the sister-in-law of New Netherlands’ governor, Peter Stuyvesant. Judith was eventually allowed to leave the colony for New Amsterdam, but only after a forceful protest by Stuyvesant against what he considered the Connecticut court’s fictitious accusations of witchery.

“It was certainly an interesting period in American history,” Ms. Wolf said. “Cheese can go moldy, milk will curdle, cattle get sick, but to these people, it was the work of the devil. They didn’t understand science as we do today. Some people never knew this happened in Connecticut and, sometimes, I’m lucky enough to have a descendant in the audience. People still find the panics in [New England] fascinating.”

Also represented is Mary Barnes of Farmington, accused in 1662, who was tried and hung in 1663. She was the last person to die in the Hartford witch hunt. Mary, Ms. Wolf said, lacked self-confidence, seemed quite helpless, and did not defend herself against her accusers. Rather, she acquiesced – after all, if so many people believed she were a witch, it must have been true.

“This is a busy time of year for me,” Ms. Wolf said, noting that the show focuses not only on a frightening time in Colonial history, but on the people it affected. “… What I’ve discovered is that most people don’t know this happened in Connecticut.”

The courtrooms were then quieted for over a quarter century with the return of Connecticut’s governor, John Winthrop Jr., who had been in England securing the royal charter from Charles II. During his absence, the witch hunt hysteria had reached its peak. Winthrop, according to state historian Walter Woodward, “forcefully intervened to end Connecticut’s rush to judgment on witch suspects, saving them from a sure trip to the gallows.” In fact, he said Winthrop drew on his own fascination with alchemy and magic to save, rather than condemn, the accused.

Connecticut, the fiercest witch hunter of all the colonies, then seemed to be the most tolerant until 1693, when the sharp-tongued Mercy Disbrough of Fairfield was accused and found guilty of witchcraft. But she never saw the gallows. Rather, she was acquitted. According to state documents, however, she was subjected to the water test – suspected witches were sometimes dropped into a body of water to determine if they possessed evil spirits. Theory dictated that if the person sank, he or she was innocent; if they floated, he or she was guilty because the pure water cast out the evil spirit.

“I hope I can offer a true picture of what it must have been like for these people,” says Ms. Wolf.

“Panic in Connecticut” can be appreciated on several levels. It is a superb theatrical performance by Virginia Wolf. And it is a cautionary tale – still valid today – about the importance of tolerance and the danger of gossip.

For more information or to schedule, contact;

Virginia Wolf

2012 Schedule

Friday, October 19
7:30 PM
Killingworth Fire Station
Killingworth, CT
for the Killingworth Historical Society

Wednesday, October 24
1:00 PM
“Panic in Connecticut”
The Arbors at Hopbrook
403 W. Center Street
Manchester, CT
Not open to the public

Thursday, October 25
7:00 PM
“Panic in Connecticut”
South Windsor Historical Society
Wood Memorial Library
73 Main Street
South Windsor, CT

Friday, October 26
6:00 PM
“In a Preternatural Way; The Witchcraft Trial of Mary Barnes”
Old State House, Hartford

Sunday, October 28
Rowayton Historical Society

Monday, October 29
3:00 PM
“Panic in Connecticut”
Stone Ridge Retirement Community
186 Jerry Brown Road
Mystic, CT

Monday, October 29
7:15 PM
“Panic in Connecticut”
Ashlar Village
Cheshire Road
Wallingford, CT

Tuesday, October 30
2:00 PM
“Panic in Connecticut”
The Lodge at Cold Spring
50 Cold Spring Road, Rocky Hill, CT
Open to the public

Wednesday, October 31
2:30 PM
Kennelly School, Hartford
(not open to the public)
Friday, November 16 3pm
“Panic in Connecticut”
Pomperaug Woods
80 Heritage Road
Southbury, CT

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Grace Mather
Grace Mather
5 years ago

One of my ancestors, Cotton Mather, was a Puritan minister who wrote about the Salem witchcraft trials. I am always interested in reading about that period of time.

Hollie Rose
Hollie Rose
10 years ago

For more on this topic – an educational and fun evening – Please Join us for:

The Farmington Witch Project;

An Evening of Enlightenment

Friday, January 25, 2013

Looking back to honor those persecuted during the Connecticut Witchcraft Panics, and looking forward with the hope of tolerance for all.

Between 1647 and 1663, Connecticut tried 34 people for witchcraft, and hanged 11. The last people executed were Mary Barnes of Farmington and Rebecca and Nathaniel Greensmith of Hartford, on January 25, 1663. It was a dark time, and an important time in Connecticut’s history.

Join the Stanley-Whitman House and Herstory Theater in a magical evening of music, theater, food and wine, and some very fun surprises as we celebrate the lives of all those souls, observe the 350th anniversary of the end of the executions, and affirm the hope of tolerance for all.

The evening will include; bewitching music by Michael McDermott; a performance of “Panic in Connecticut; Accused Witches Have Their Say” by Virginia Wolf; a book reading and signing of “The Trial of Goody Gilbert” by author Suzanne Ress; themed music by DJ Garth; food, wine, and beer befitting the occasion, and a number of other surprises!

Friday, January 25, 2013

7pm – midnight (doors open 6:45)

Amistad Hall at First Church 1652
75 Main Street, Farmington, CT

$35 in advance, $40 at the door

Tickets available online at,

Or in person at Stanley-Whitman House, 37 High Street, Farmington

For more information, call 860-677-9222

snow date: February 1, 2013

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