The Year of the Witch

“The Witch,” published by George Walker & Co., 1892

The grim saga found its origin in a tragic, but hardly uncommon event–the death of a little girl, eight-year-old Elizabeth Kelly. The child had been suffering from a strange illness. The doctors were unable to diagnose her ailment, but her father, John Kelly, had no doubt what had killed his child. He was convinced that a neighbor, Judith Ayres, had put a spell on Elizabeth.The fame that has grown around the “Mary Celeste” mystery tends to obscure the fact that there have been other cases where a ship’s crew inexplicably disappeared. Similarly, the notoriety of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 makes it easy to overlook the numerous “witch crazes” that blighted American colonial history. Hartford, Connecticut does not have the sinister reputation of Salem, but in 1662 and 1663, that town went through an episode–enshrined in history as “The Year of the Witch”–that easily rivals its more well-known counterpart.

Goodwife Ayres had long been rumored to be a witch, and, it must be said, this reputation was largely of her own doing. If you go around telling your neighbors anecdotes about how you used to go out on dates with Satan, people will talk. On a more prosaic note, both Judith and her husband William were evidently quarrelsome, difficult people who were constantly rubbing everyone the wrong way. Plus, William had what modern-day police would call “form.” He had been arrested several times for theft and other misdemeanors.

Among those who had reason to dislike Judith Ayres was John Kelly. He claimed that one day, Judith happened to come across his daughter walking home from church. She followed Elizabeth into the Kelly kitchen, where she took some broth out of a pot boiling on the stove, and insisted the child eat it. No sooner had Elizabeth obeyed this odd command that she collapsed with agonizing stomach pains and became feverish. That night, Elizabeth awakened the household with screams of “Help me! Help me! Goody Ayres chokes me!” For the next five days, the girl suffered terribly. She moaned that Goody Ayres was choking her, pinching her, pricking her with pins, sitting on her stomach so that she feared her bowels would break. She begged her parents to have Ayres arrested. “Oh, father,” Elizabeth cried, “set on the great furnace and scald her! Get the broad axe and cut off her head. If you cannot give me a broad axe, get the narrow axe, and chop off her head!” Instead, for whatever reason, the Kellys hired Judith to nurse the child. Perhaps they hoped that being confronted with the girl’s torments would cause the “witch” to feel some pity and release Elizabeth from the “curse.”

Later that same day, after Judith had left, Elizabeth told her father that Ayres had said to her, “Betty, why do you speak so much against me? I will be even with you before I die, but if you will say no more of me, I will give you a fine lace for your dressing.”

If Judith thought this might placate the girl, she was very much mistaken. The very next day, Elizabeth died. Her last words were “Goody Ayres chokes me!”

After all this, it is not surprising that John Kelly insisted that Judith Ayres had murdered his child. An Inquest Committee was soon formed to investigate Elizabeth’s peculiar death. These men examined the little body. They noted that her arms were covered in bruises, which they took as confirmation that the “witch” had indeed attacked the child. Judith was brought in, as the committee wished to see if her presence had any effect on the corpse.

It did indeed. When Judith entered the room, “we saw upon the right cheek of the child’s face, a reddish tawny great spot, which covered a great part of the cheek, it being on the side next to Goodwife Ayres where she stood, this spot or blotch was not seen before the child was turned.” When a physician conducted an autopsy on Elizabeth, he ruled she had died of “preternatural causes.” All this was considered to be more than enough proof of Judith’s guilt, and she was promptly arrested for witchcraft. Just for good measure, her husband William was arraigned, as well.

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Judith and William were subjected to that indispensable part of any good witch trial: the “water test.” The couple were bound hand to foot and tossed into a pond. If they floated, that was proof positive they were witches. If they sank, well, at least Judith and William would have the satisfaction of knowing that they would die vindicated.

To no one’s real surprise, the pair floated like a pair of corks. A ghastly death at the gallows awaited them.

Luckily for the Ayerses, there were a few people in town who had not come down with the prevailing hysteria. These supporters managed to arrange a jailbreak, and the couple fled to Rhode Island, leaving behind their two sons, ages five and eight. One wonders what sort of lives those boys went on to have.

Unfortunately, the departure of Judith and William did not signal the end of the Hartford witch panic. In truth, it was just getting started. Next to be victimized was another couple, Nathaniel and Rebecca Greensmith. Like the Ayerses, the Greensmiths were unpopular local figures. Rebecca was described as “lewd, ignorant, and considerably aged in years,” Nathaniel was a liar and a thief, and they both enjoyed squabbling with their neighbors.

Elizabeth Kelly’s “preternatural” death had inspired several other Hartford girls to declare that they, too, were being bewitched. The girls would gather at the meeting house, where fascinated townsfolk would watch them throw fits, make strange cries, and display all the usual signs of demonic torment. It was like a Girl Scout gathering from Hell. One of these girls, Ann Cole, declared that there was a whole coven of witches in Hartford, and one of the worst of the lot was Rebecca Greensmith. She claimed the witches were out to ruin her reputation, so that no man would ever want to marry her. (Why her love life would be of any interest to the coven was never explained.) A man named Robert Stern then added his two cents, stating that he had seen Rebecca and her fellow witches dancing around two large, sinister dark figures while cooking something evil-looking in a kettle. Rebecca was immediately tossed into jail to await her fate.

Ann Cole was the clear star of this Satanic show. Leading clergymen from all over the region came by to interview her–or, rather, to interview the group of devils that spoke “through” her. The chatty demons delighted in forcing Ann to speak unintelligibly, or with a heavy Dutch accent. Naturally, the demons also confirmed that Goodwife Greensmith was a witch.

When Rebecca was confronted with this testimony from the Dark Side, she readily, even eagerly, confessed to being in league with Satan. She was quoted as boasting that “the devil first appeared to her in the form of a deer or fawn, skipping about her, wherewith she was not much affrighted, and that by degrees he became very familiar, and at last would talk with her, moreover she said that the devil frequently had carnal knowledge of her body and that the witches had meetings at a place not far from her house and that some appeared in one shape, and others in another, and one came flying amongst them in the shape of a crow.”

Not content with tales of demonic sex and crow witches, Rebecca readily ratted out a number of local names as being part of her coven. Chief amongst the people she accused was her husband, Nathaniel. Rebecca noted that Nathaniel, despite being a small man, had great physical strength–too great to be anything other than supernatural. “When my husband hath told me of his great travail and labor, I wondered at 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 that I knew not of.”

Not convinced yet? Hold on, there’s more. Rebecca went on to say, “About three years ago, as I think it, my husband and I were in the woods several miles from home, and were looking for a sow that 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…Another time when he and I drove our hogs into the woods beyond the pond that was to keep young cattle, several miles off, I went before the hogs to call them, and looking back I saw two creatures like dogs, one a little blacker than the other; they came after my husband pretty close to him, and one did seem to me to touch him.” When Rebecca asked Nathaniel what the creatures were, he again deadpanned, “foxes.” She added the suggestive words, “I was still afraid when I saw anything, because I heard so much of him before I married him.” She explained her readiness to condemn Nathaniel: “I speak all of this out of love to my husband’s soul, and it is much against my will that I am now necessitated to speak against my husband, I desire that the Lord would open his heart to own and speak the truth.”

I’m sure that was a great consolation to him.

Rebecca gave a full description of a typical night out with the girls witches: “I also testify, that I being in the woods 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 the green by our house, and there was James Walkley, Peter Grant’s wife, Goodwife Ayers, and Henry Palmer’s wife, of Wethersfield, and Goody Seager; and there we danced and had a bottle of sack…It was in the night and something like a cat called me out to the meeting, and I was in Mr. Varlet’s orchard with Mrs. Judith Varlet, and she told me that she was much troubled with the marshal, Jonathan Gilbert, and cried; and she said if it lay in her power she would do him a mischief, or what hurt she could.”

Rebecca and Nathaniel spent the last month of their lives lodged in the jailer’s home while they waited execution. There is no record of how the couple spent their last few weeks together, but I can imagine Mr. Greensmith had much to say to his wife. The couple, along with another condemned witch, Mary Barnes, were hanged on January 25, 1663. On an unknown date somewhere around this time, another “witch,” Mary Sanford, also met the hangman. Increase Mather wrote triumphantly that “After the suspected witches were executed…Ann Cole was restored to health, and has continued well for many years.”

Ann’s subsequent history furnishes an interesting sequel to this story. After the Greensmiths were hanged, their farm was seized by the court. The home was sold to an Andrew Benton, who moved in with his wife and children. Shortly afterward, Mrs. Benton died. The young widower soon remarried…to none other than Ann Cole. She spent many years raising a large family of children and stepchildren under the roof built by the couple she had sent to the gallows.

I’d like to think it gave her an unpleasant dream or two, but I somehow doubt it.

[Note: In October 1993, the “Journal of the American Medical Society” published an article about the Hartford witch trials, focusing on the seminal event of the case, the death of Elizabeth Kelly. The autopsy of Kelly was described as “a bunch of screwups.” All the “preternatural” features of Kelly’s corpse were easily explained by the normal process of decomposition. Her death, it is now believed, was caused by a combination of pneumonia and sepsis. The latter ailment likely caused delirium, leading the girl to feverishly accuse Judith Ayres of tormenting her.]