Stamford Witches (1692) Witch trials in Stamford, Connecticut, in which a servant girl accused six women of afflicting her with fits. Nevertheless, two of the accused came close to being put to death on slender “evidence,” in the zeal of officials to avoid a panic of the type that had occurred at Salem.
The ordeal of the Stamford Witches began in the spring of 1692, when Katherine Branch, a 17-year-old French servant of Daniel Wescot, was seized with severe fits. It is possible that she suffered from epilepsy, but such fits were blamed on witchcraft at that time.
In late April, Branch had been out gathering herbs when she experienced a “pinching and pricking at her breast,” according to case records. She went home and burst into tears. Upon Wescot’s questioning, she said she had seen a CAt who had promised her “fine things” if she would go with it. Several days later, she saw ten cats who threatened to kill her for telling about her experience in the fields.
Visions and fits continued for 13 days, until Branch denounced Goodwife Elizabeth Clauson as a witch who was causing Branch’s troubles. Clauson was a highly respected pillar of the community but had been involved in a long, ongoing dispute with mrs. Wescot over a quantity of spun flax.
Wescot summoned a midwife, who said Branch’s fits might be due to a natural cause. But when the girl did not respond to treatments, which included burning feathers under her nose and bleeding, the midwife became convinced she was bewitched.
Thus encouraged, Branch cried out against five other women: Mercy Disborough, Mary and Hannah Harvey, Mary Staples and Goody miller. Wescot’s wife suspected Branch of fabricating elaborate lies; nevertheless, a court of inquiry into the matter began hearings on may 27, 1692.
The accused women emphatically denied that they were witches. Goody miller fled to New York Colony in order to avoid being arrested. The two prime suspects, Clauson and Disborough, were searched more than once for Witch's Marks). Nothing was found on Clauson save a wart that was judged normal, but Disborough exuded several “unnatural” excrescences that were held in evidence against her. meanwhile, Branch continued having her fits.
The matter was deemed serious enough for a special trial, and the women were jailed while testimony was gathered. Two ministers questioned Branch, who cried out against Clauson, “You kill me, you kill me.”
The trial opened on September 14, and Clauson and Disborough were swiftly indicted by a grand jury which proclaimed, “by the law of God and the law of the Colony, thou deseruest [deserve] to dye.” The two women pleaded not guilty.
Staples and the two Harvey women were considered to be only under suspicion of witchcraft. The court invited people to step forward and testify against them, but only two persons did, and the three were acquitted.
Disborough insisted on being given the swimming test, which was not commonly administered in American witchcraft trials. She and Clauson were bound and thrown into water. Both floated “like a corck,” a sign of guilt (see swImmIng).
The prosecution presented numerous depositions it had collected, all against the two accused, which was not surprising in light of the prevailing belief that to testify on behalf of an accused witch meant being in league with the Devil as well. However, two longtime neighbors of Clauson’s did step forward and testify in her favour.
Perhaps encouraged by this bravery, others stepped forward in Clauson’s defense. Seventy-six Stamford residents signed a petition attesting to her good character and behavior.
The jury deliberated long and hard and was unable to reach a verdict. A committee of five prominent ministers was called in to examine the trial records and evidence. In their formal opinion, they stated that swimming was sinful and unlawful and could not be used as evidence; that Disborough’s excrescences should not be allowed as evidence unless so decreed by “some able physitians”; that they suspected Branch of lying; and that Branch’s fits might be related to the same condition that afflicted her mother.
The jury was reconvened in Fairfield on October 28 and heard additional testimony. By this time, 19 accused witches had been hanged in Salem, 100 were in jail and some 200 more had been accused of witchcraft, all of which must have had some effect on everyone concerned in the trial. They jury convicted Disborough and sentenced her to die but did find Clauson not guilty. Clauson was set free from jail and returned to Stamford, where she lived with her family until her death, at age 83, in 1714.
After the trial, friends of Disborough petitioned the court, claiming the second part of the trial was illegal because one of the original jurors had been missing. An investigating committee reprieved Disborough.
- Marcus, Ronald. “Elizabeth Clawson, Thou Deseruest to Dye.” Stamford, Conn.: Communication Corp., 1976.