Thursday, October 25, 2012

Witchcraft Lecture at the Main Library

Last night Dr. Richard S. Ross, College Librarian at Trinity College, presented a lecture in which he shared his research on witchcraft in colonial America.

He explained that much of what happened in the colonies in the seventeenth century stemmed from longstanding religious and folk beliefs in England.  The first book on witchcraft that became one of the most influential on the European continent, partly because it was easily reproduced due to the invention of  moveable type, dates back to 1486: The Malleus Maleficarum.

The first significant Witchcraft Act in England was adopted in 1563 making witchcraft a felony and the death penalty could be imposed. Later during the English civil war in the 1640’s there occurred the biggest witch hunt ever to take place in the country. Matthew Hopkins, dubbed "Witch Finder General," led the charge against those practicing witchcraft and approximately 100 witches were executed under his hunt. The methods implemented during this time found their way to the American colonies in the late 1640’s.

The first witch panic to take place in the new colonies happened in Hartford in 1662-1663, where three people were tried, convicted and hanged as witches: Rebecca Greensmith, her husband Nathaniel Greensmith, and Mary Barnes of Farmington.  Only Rebecca Greensmith confessed to being a witch; there was no evidence against her husband or Mary Barnes, other than the hearsay historically dubbed as sufficient evidence from the Matthew Hopkins's hunts in England a century before.

It was a time of great dissension in the lone church in Hartford; the dissension was considered the devil's work. The trials served to root out the cause of the latter and the hangings served as crowd entertainment and a moral lesson to warn the community against witchcraft. Additional investigations would take place again in Hartford as well as in other parts of the new colonies, with the largest and most well-known fury taking place in Salem nearly thirty years after Hartford's first witch panic.


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