Witch of Windsor
Accusations of witchcraft are historically vindictive or politically motivated and completely without merit.
There are no witches of the broom-riding, successfully spell-casting variety seen on Halloween and in movies. There are only people who claim to be witches. These are simply adherents of a belief system based in antiquity’s pagan rituals and Nature cults. There is nothing wrong with this.Credit: Harrison Weir, 1877; public domain
For the medieval mind, however, witchcraft involved heresy: pagan observations and veneration of multiple, earthy gods, among the more prominent of which was the female Earth goddess, Gaea (sometimes spelled “Gaia”).
Witchcraft’s real crime wasn’t the alleged “deals with the Devil”. That came later in the Middle Ages. No, the “crime” of witchcraft was its pagan (non-Christian) beliefs.
Worst of all was its worship of an all-powerful earth mother as one of its most revered icons. Judeo-Christian theology, steeped in staunch patriarchy where women had no voice or authority and were precluded from loftier religious pursuits, could not tolerate competition from any religion centered on a female supernatural being. It was unacceptable.
The general impression of witches for the uneducated is that they are all evil and somehow bound up in blood contracts with Satan. This is a construct of the medieval period. It was used to great effect throughout the Middle Ages and later to execute perceived heretics.
Witches were thought of as heretics because they weren’t Christians. Their so-called worship of the Devil was a paradox, though: if witches weren’t Christian, how could they then pay tribute to a figure such as Satan who is part of the Judeo-Christian religion? Logic dictates they could not. For a witch to worship Satan, he or she had to be Christian, but was not worshiping the “correct” figures (presumably Jesus and his father Yahweh, the Judeo-Christian god).
Regardless of the twisted theology used to justify executing anyone for heresy as a witch, the horrible truth is many people were put to death based on nothing more than a rumor or a murmured word of witchery ascribed to them.
One of the saddest and cruelest miscarriages of ecclesiastical justice centered on the “trial” of French patriot, Jeanne d’Arc.Credit: public domain
Ironically, the Church’s ad hoc rules about what defined a witch worked against them in Jeanne’s case—her accusers could not levy a witchcraft charge against her (though they tried). This was because Jeanne’s hymen (examined on at least three separate occasions over many months) was confirmed as intact. This “virgin” status protected her from charges of witchcraft: witches couldn’t be virgins.
Jeanne was convicted as a heretic instead; the thin charge of wearing men’s clothing in defiance of a biblical reference prohibiting it was what the ecclesiastical court used to justify burning her at the stake in 1431 when she was 19 years old.
The real reason Jeanne was executed, though, was vengeance—her English accusers had been defeated and humiliated in battle by this illiterate peasant girl on multiple occasions. The Catholic Church later retried her case posthumously and reversed her conviction. She was canonized as a saint in the early 20th Century.
“She’s a Witch!”
Witch hunts in Europe ran in cycles and were usually predicated upon harsh living conditions, the political-religious climate, or a need to blame someone for perceived social problems. Sudden crop failures were blamed on witches practicing black magic. Infant mortality was similarly blamed on witchcraft many times.Credit: public domain
Thousands of innocents were put to death as witches over the centuries, accused on the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence or hearsay. Far and away, the majority were women.
Unfortunately, the petty bickering of neighbors could escalate and lead to a charge of witchcraft; because of the “spectral” nature of the offense, the courts tended to error on the side of incautious draconian justice rather than let a perceived witch live without redemption.
In the irony of the laws about witchcraft if a suspect confessed and repented most often (but not always) he or she was spared execution (usually with a prison sentence, or a heavy fine, or forfeiture of all personal property).
Contrary to popular opinion, hanging was the preferred means of execution (although many “witches” were burned at stakes—in Europe—it was much less frequent than hanging). Other murder methods were used as well.
Eighty-year-old Giles Corey, one of the accused Salem Witches in 1692, flatly refused to enter a plea in court (he was obviously innocent, but he stubbornly kept silent, pleading neither “guilty” nor “not guilty”). He was pressed to death as his tormenters tried to force him to enter a plea—without a plea, the court could not go ahead with a trial.
This very old man was placed in a shallow depression on the ground, a plank covered his chest, and stones were added, one by one, each restricting his breathing. Despite this torture he still refused to enter a plea and died under the tremendous weight of the stones, suffocating with a crushed ribcage.
In America, the Salem witch hysteria of 1692 was motivated by neighborly squabbling. There were two conjoined Salems: Salem Town (nearer the ocean front) and Salem Village (its poorer cousin).
Land squabbles and other social issues led to one female land holder in Salem Village being accused of witchcraft by a Salem Town citizen. This escalated into a full-on witch hunt, with allegations from children against elders, and citizen against citizen. Ultimately, 19 people were executed, and over a 150 imprisoned. This blight spread briefly to nearby Andover, Massachusetts, where three women, a man, and a dog were hanged for witchcraft (the dog had been bewitched to bite people, and stood trial the same as his two-legged co-defendants).Credit: public domain
The social motivation and patriarchy involved in this debacle related to property—women were not supposed to inherit a husband’s holdings if a male heir was available. Some widows who had no children got their husband’s estate by default. Ownership of real property by women invested them with an economic power they technically should not have in the patriarchy of Puritanism (one of the accused Salem witches was an independent and relatively successful female pub owner—she had no man in her life running her business, and the locals treated her with suspicion).
For America’s first person hanged for witchcraft, however, a superstitious belief in black magic or a spiteful neighbor, not property rights, likely led to her death.
Connecticut in 1642 was sparsely settled, but its law books welcomed a new citation on December 1 of that year listing witchcraft as a capital offense:
“Yf any man or woman be a witch (that is) hath or consulteth with a familliar spirit, they shall be put to death . . . ”
The town of Windsor, Connecticut, is but a few miles north of Hartford. Unlike the Salem Witch Trials (a true black eye on the face of history), the witchcraft proceedings for Alse Younge are not so well documented.
Other biographical details are sketchy at best. No likeness or description of her exists.
Her year of birth is about the year 1600; thus, she was assuredly an American Colonist and not a native. She was born in either the county of Kent or the county of Nottinghamshire, both in England. [These two counties lie about 170 miles—272 km—apart, a great disparity between these locales. Confusion about place of birth is understandable given commonality of naming, variant spellings, and improper record keeping, usually by parish churches.] Her maiden name was likely Stokes. Her age at coming to the Colonies is unclear, though it is likely she may have first landed in New Amsterdam and then found her way to Windsor later.
Confirmed via familial ties and other public records Alse Stokes, sometime in the late 1630s, married a man named John Younge (variant of “Young”) in Windsor, Connecticut (on the Connecticut River in the center of the state about 8 miles—13 km—NNE of state capital, Hartford).
Considering her age at the time of her marriage to John Younge—in her 30s—it is almost certain she perhaps had been married before; young women did not remain single for long in that era. It is possible her reason for leaving England was upon the death of her first husband. Or, her entire family migrated to the New World.
During her marriage to Younge, Alse gave birth to one child, Alice (the Anglicized version of “Alse”, although the Germanic “Elsa” perhaps may have been closer), in 1640.
Real estate transactions record John Younge, with a family to support, sensibly purchased a parcel of land in Windsor in 1641; it is believed he was a carpenter by trade.
What allegations led to Alse Younge’s conviction for witchcraft are not known; the record no longer exists (if it ever was duly recorded). And at that time all it took was a formal complaint of witchcraft by one person to bring charges.
One of the few annotations about her “crime” is a journal entry by Massachusetts’ governor, John Winthrop, for the execution day, “One . . . of Windsor arraigned and executed at Hartford for a witch.”
The “One of Windsor” was named by a town clerk, Matthew Clark, in his diary entry for the hanging day of May 26, 1647: “Alse Younge was hanged”.
The hanging itself occurred in Hartford near what is now the Old State House.
It is possible Alse, coming as she did from England, maybe with different religious beliefs than the locals, was thought of as an outsider.
An epidemic (probably small pox or typhoid) ripped through the area earlier in the year. Since these were (by their estimation) “good”, pious people, Providence would not have visited such a scourge upon them. Therefore, the epidemic must have been the work of a witch.
It is unknown what Alse’s personality was like or her standing in the community. Apparently, however, she was either eccentric or disliked—a witchcraft charge could be brought for almost any reason, but usually the suspect was considered by the community as somehow different from the general populace.
In the wake of her execution, her widower, John Younge, sold his parcel in 1649. No more on the public record is known of him except for his later death in 1661 in Stratford, Connecticut (on the north shore of Long Island Sound). He named no heirs to take up his worldly goods left upon his demise, among which is recorded “carpentry tools”.
Why a Witch?
Alse Younge’s hanging as a witch did not immediately open up a whole wave of witch hysteria. The next person charged and hanged in that area was a year later.
That woman had confessed but was still put to death. According to prominent Puritan minister Cotton Mather, she had “Familiarity with the Devils” and had “confessed that she was guilty of the Murder of a Child, and that she had been guilty of Uncleanness with Men and Devils.” [The “murder of a child” charge most likely meant she had aborted a fetus. The other charge was almost certainly one involving perceived promiscuity.]
Nine more “witches”were executed at varying intervals up to about 1663 (seven women and two husbands of accused witches). This was not a purge or a witch hunt in the same sense as the Salem situation decades later. Thus, it is likely the people accused were outsiders, of religious opinions at variance with the local Protestant hierarchy, or were merely thought odd.
The lull in witch trials lasted until the later 1600s.
Then, in 1661 an eight-year-old girl turned up dead, resulting in the arrest of 17 people as witches.
Alse’s daughter, Alice (who was either nine or ten years old when her mother was murdered by Connecticut), had since married a British-born man named Simon Beamon (b: 1630, Shropshire, England; d: 1676, Springfield, Massachusetts). Interestingly enough, the next year after her husband’s death, Alice Beamon—daughter of an accused witch—was herself later accused of witchcraft in Springfield, Massachusetts. She was not convicted, though, and she lived in Springfield, Massachusetts, until her death in 1708.Credit: public domain
Unlike Massachusetts (thanks to the Salem debacle from May to October 1692 and slightly beyond), Connecticut’s history of murdering its citizens as witches is not well-known. Though it pre-dated Salem’s more notorious witch hysteria by almost fifty years, it is an obscure blip in American history. Connecticut law last recorded witchcraft as a capital offense in 1715. By 1750 it had been demoted from a death-penalty felony (though, bizarrely and irrationally, still a crime, albeit a lesser one).
Alse Younge, the little known “Witch of Windsor”, had the dubious distinction of being America’s first victim of superstition and ignorance.
She would definitely not be the last.
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