Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692 by Richard Godbeer


Rating: (Recommended)




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Most of us know what happened during the Salem witch trials in 1692, but few may be aware of a witch trial in Stamford, Connecticut in the same year. Richard Godbeer’s book, Escaping Salem, tells the story of a witch hunt in Connecticut and a trial in which two members of the community were demonized and branded as witches. The weak evidence in the trial created a challenge for the judges, and the accused women faced death if convicted. Godbeer used the records of the trial to create a narrative that introduces readers to what happened not far from Salem, but with a different outcome. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter Three, “By the Law of God and the Law of the Colony Thou Deservest to Die,” pp. 51-55:



As Magistrate Jonathan Selleck pondered the chilling scenes that he had witnessed over the past few weeks, he became increasingly worried about the dangers facing Stamford. Mister Selleck had spent his entire adult life in the town and was re­garded as one of its foremost residents. Though born in Boston, he and his younger brother John had moved to Connecticut in 1660. Jonathan was twenty at the time, John seventeen. The two brothers became partners in trade, following in the footsteps of their father, a merchant who had traveled down to Barbados reg­ularly until his death in 1654. Jonathan was the more sedentary of the two; it was John who ferried their cargo back and forth, spending weeks and sometimes months away at sea. The town, realizing that it stood to benefit from the Selleck brothers’ com­mercial ventures, had granted them land for a warehouse.

Within a decade of their arrival the two brothers married two sisters, Abigail and Sarah Law, daughters of a wealthy townsman. Each received a house as dowry. Jonathan soon became an offi­cer in Stamford’s militia and was given more land by the town as thanks for his leadership in the war against the Indians in 1676. He served regularly as an elected representative at the colonial assembly and for several years as a member of the governor’s council. The brothers purchased real estate in the area and in­herited yet more land on the death of their father-in-law in 1686, becoming major property owners in and around Stamford.

The brothers’ mercantile business had prospered until 1689, when John and his ship were captured by the French, who had just declared war on England and its colonies—he was never heard from again. Jonathan was still reeling from this personal and financial blow, but he would not allow the family’s maritime business, built up over many years, to be undermined by this French outrage and so he had recently joined with one of his sons and three other men to buy a replacement vessel.

Jonathan Selleck had become a key player in local affairs and had close ties to the countywide network of leading families. It was becoming increasingly clear, much to Jonathan’s delight, that his two sons would marry the daughters of Nathan Gold, a good friend and prominent citizen in Fairfield. Nathan Gold had sat with Jonathan Selleck on the preliminary court of inquiry in­vestigating Katherine Branch’s accusations; both men felt a keen sense of responsibility to defend Stamford against the threat posed by witches.

Yet how best to protect the town? Mister Selleck was well aware that allegations of witchcraft could multiply rapidly and plunge entire communities into crisis. In the early 1660s, soon after he and his brother moved to Connecticut, a witch scare in Hartford had resulted in formal indictments against eleven peo­ple. That investigation also began with mysterious fits that were blamed on local women. The Hartford witch hunt had become part of local lore. It now seemed darkly familiar in light of Kate’s torments and recent reports from Massachusetts, where a wave of afflictions and accusations threatened to engulf an entire county. Those reports were not encouraging as Jonathan Selleck and his fellow magistrates launched their own investigation. Mis­ter Selleck knew that long-festering suspicions could resurface on such occasions. Mary Staples was a case in point: many years had passed since she sought restitution for being slandered as a witch, yet now the rumors were back to haunt her in old age. Katherine Branch claimed that the specter of Hannah Harvey had named Hannah’s grandmother, Mary Staples, as a witch.

Jonathan Selleck also knew that trying to prove an invisible crime in court was not easy and could lead to serious problems, both inside and outside the courtroom. Religious doctrine and the legal code invited accusations of witchcraft, yet court offi­cials were often much less impressed by the evidence presented in such cases than were the accusers and their supporters. Min­isters, magistrates, and ordinary townsfolk agreed that witches posed a real and serious threat, but agreeing on how to prove witchcraft in a court of law was quite another matter.

A number of controversial acquittals in Connecticut had caused friction between officials determined to uphold legal stan­dards of proof and local residents convinced of a defendant’s guilt. Of the eleven women and men indicted during the 1662—63 Hartford witch hunt, only four were convicted, to the dismay of those who believed them all to deserve death. A few years later, in 1665, another Hartford woman, Elizabeth Seager, was con­victed of witchcraft by the jurymen charged with her case. But the governor refused to carry out the sentence, declaring the ev­idence inadequate. Goody Seager was subsequently freed on the grounds that the jury’s decision to convict was legally indefensi­ble. The jurymen were furious and those who believed that Eliz­abeth Seager was a witch, of whom there were many, made it clear that they felt betrayed. In 1668, Katherine Harrison of Wethersfield also escaped conviction after a prolonged and bit­ter trial. When the magistrates charged with that case overturned the jury’s verdict and released the accused woman, they insisted that she leave Wethersfield permanently, both for her own safety and for her neighbors’ peace of mind.

These acquittals doubtless pleased the accused and their sup­porters, but others were horrified. Elizabeth Seager’s and Kather­ine Harrison’s survival dealt a heavy blow to public trust in the legal system and its willingness to protect settlers from witches. Between 1669 and 1692, there had been no witch trials in Con­necticut. Ordinary folk had by and large kept their suspicions of neighbors to themselves and magistrates had done nothing to discourage that. But now Daniel Wescot had unleashed a wave of public accusations as people came forward to testify against Elizabeth Clawson and Mercy Disborough—though not against the other women whom Kate had named. Mister Selleck may well have felt that he and his fellow magistrates were themselves on trial as local residents watched closely to see how they would handle the situation.

The magistrates’ task was complicated by doubts and disagree­ment among residents of Stamford on the subject of Katherine Branch. Jonathan Selleck knew that some locals suspected Kate of dissembling. As neighbors visited the Wescot home to observe Kate’s torments, opinions as to her credibility became ever more divided. Joseph Garnsey and Nathaniel Wyatt both swore that Kate told them she was possessed by the Devil, yet Lydia Penoir told the magistrates that Kate later denied having said any such thing. Goody Penoir, who was Abigail Wescots’ niece, heard her aunt declare that Kate was “such a lying girl that no one could believe a word she said.” Mistress Wescot had also remarked— with an edge of bitterness in her voice, no doubt—that her hus­band would believe their maid over the pastor, or the town magistrates, or herself. “Neither Mercy, nor Goody Miller, nor Hannah, nor any of these women whom she impeaches, are any more witches than I am,” proclaimed Mistress Wescot.

Daniel Wescot had apparently boasted that he could control Kate’s convulsions. Some townsfolk wondered if he was also in­fluencing whom she accused. Others suspected that Kate’s nam­ing of witches might have been influenced by her mistress. Ac­cording to Joseph Bishop, Mistress Wescot told him in front of Kate that she thought Mercy Disborough was one of the women afflicting her. It was almost immediately after she made that re­mark that Kate named Goody Disborough. Mistress Wescot, confronted with the allegation that she was prompting her ser­vant, replied that Kate was “in her fit” at the time and so could not hear her—she could tell from the way in which Kate’s eyes glazed over. Not everyone found that explanation convincing.


Any reader with an interest in 17th century American history will find Escaping Salem fascinating to add to one’s understanding of that era. General readers may not care enough to appreciate the story, and may feel plodded down by the details of the trial.


Steve Hopkins, September 25, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the October 2005 issue of Executive Times


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