I try to imagine what life looked like through the eyes of my Puritan ancestors in New England. I’m not happy with twenty- first century fears of nuclear war and climate disasters, but not for a minute would I trade places with one of my Puritan forefathers. Although they were highly educated, they lived their lives in fear of going to Hell. There were murderous Indians, witches, and wolves that threatened them, but fear of going to hell was foremost in their minds. They held an Old Testament concept of God, without the New Testament’s message of love and redemption. They believed they were “the elect”, meaning they were predestined before they were born to go to heaven. All they had to do was live a perfect life so that God would not change his mind and send them to hell. This feeling of being the “chosen people” comes up three centuries later in the Latter Day Saint beliefs of my more recent grandfathers. Unfortunately, this belief in one’s own “God given righteousness” has been a recurrent theme that has lead to much intolerance and bigotry.
Education was central to the Puritan culture, with the main intention being the ability to read and understand the Bible. My Sherman forefathers were fervent in their pursuit of learning. We can see it back in England, reflected in the Sherman wills, where they established schools and funding for needy students. You might remember a previous blog on “Roaring John Rogers,” the Puritan preacher back in Dedham, England, who would mimic the screams from hell of those who failed to follow basic bible teachings. The Sherman family not only supported “Roaring John Rogers” financially, but revered his teachings. They loved and cherished their Bible, and its Old Testament fundamental message.
These deep-rooted fundamental beliefs are how my Sherman family viewed witchcraft. Views that originated in England were brought with them to the New England colonies. The Bible has a lot to say about witchcraft. The penalty for practicing witchcraft under the Mosaic Law was death. The book of Exodus 22:18 states, “you shall not permit a sorceress to live.” Leviticus 20:27 says “A man or a woman who is a medium or necromancer shall surely be put to death. They shall be stoned with stones; their blood shall be upon them.” The Bible is full of scripture on how Satan could inhabit a person, and this could only be extinguished by death. Unfortunately, it became a misguided tool to accuse a neighbor who might simply be odd, old, or an adversary you wanted to settle a score with.
The Salem, Massachusetts witch trials have been made famous through books and movies, but Connecticut had the first witch trials, and many followed, hitting a crescendo of trials coinciding in time with those in Salem. Most of the Connecticut trials occurred between 1647 and 1692. Samuel Sherman, my 10th great grandfather, was one of the early founders of Wethersfield, Connecticut where the very first witch trial occurred. In all, Connecticut heard 43 witchcraft cases, with 16 of these ending in execution. Of these trials, nine documented accusations occurred in Wethersfield, resulting in three executions.
In 1648, Mary Johnson, a resident of Wethersfield, confessed under pressure without a trial, and was the first person executed in Connecticut in 1648. Although it’s likely that all the early witch trial proceedings in Wethersfield were documented, many of those documents no longer exist for one reason or another. I find it amazing that with all that was going on with Indians and religious strife within early Wethersfield that we actually have quite a few court records. As far as I can determine, Samuel Sherman and his family were residing in Wethersfield between 1637 and 1640, prior to the execution of Mary Johnson. If there were trials before that, where they were involved we may never know. There is a fictional children’s book titled “The Witch of Blackbird Pond” that has won several awards in literature. Its setting is in the Wethersfield area.
Decades after these first witch trials, Samuel Sherman was on the Grand Jury of the last witch to be convicted in Connecticut in 1692. It is likely that, because of his age and standing in the community, he was selected as the spokesman for this grand jury. Samuel and the other eleven jury members voted to indict Mercy Disborough and submit her to a jury trial. She had been accused of possessing a teenage girl. Mercy pleaded not guilty. There is no record of any attorney acting in her defense. Shortly after her arrival at the county jail in Fairfield, Mercy requested “to be tryed by being cast into ye watter.” Her plea was granted the next day. The water test consisted of tying Mercy’s right hand to her left foot and her left hand her right foot. After securing Mercy with ropes she was thrown into a pond. If she floated this was looked upon as an indication of guilt. The theory was that water, as a pure element and an important part of Christian baptism, would refuse to accept a witch, thereby causing one to remain buoyant. If she sank this was considered a sign of innocence.
In sworn testimony presented to the Court it was stated that Mercy, after she was put into the water, swam upon it. It’s hard to imagine this kind of proof being used in colonial America by educated citizens. She was then sentenced to death by hanging. It’s a good turn of luck for Mercy that she did not sink in the pond since the Connecticut General Assembly granted her a reprieve. Today, the pond has been filled, but at the turn of the 19th Century it was used by the students of Fairfield Academy for ice skating in the winter and boating in the summer. There was a persistent rumor in Fairfield that the pond was haunted and that the official records of the trial, conviction, and reprieve of Mercy Disborough were inaccurate. The local scuttlebutt is that Mercy actually drowned while undergoing the “witch test.” Was her reprieve posthumous?
Wolves, as well as witches, were a ghost-like presence in colonial Connecticut. There were stories of wolves closing in on lone travelers. In reality, wolves steered clear of the Puritans and the Puritans steered clear of the wolves. I don’t think there is even one substantiated account of wolves killing a person in Connecticut. One Puritan in 1637 described wolves as “fearfull curres” who would run from a person just as would a “fearfull dogge.” Their baleful howling may have been frightening, but the only real problem with wolves was when they killed poultry and livestock. There may have been a biblical element to the Puritan hatred of wolves which led to the view that they were “skulking criminals” characterized by greed and theft. Killing a wolf was also a sign of domination over nature. Scripture entitled man to have dominion over all the earth, and “every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” It was not uncommon to see the head of a wolf nailed to the door of the Puritan meeting-house.
It’s not surprising that my Sherman ancestors, Puritans to their core, were involved with the killing of wolves in colonial Connecticut. The circle hunt became popular in Stratford, Connecticut, where community members would surround large sections of forest and, at the designated time, gradually walk towards the center while making great noises and killing all the wild animals enclosed in the circle. It was a popular event, and after the hunt there would be feasting and bounty payments paid to those who had killed a wolf or a bobcat.
In Stratford, on April 17, 1693 a monster wolf hunt was organized since the wolf population had increased significantly. The bounty for a wolf was 12 shillings. These hunts extended several days, and every participant was given 3 shillings a day out of the town treasury. Two of Samuel Sherman’s eight sons, Samuel Sherman Jr. and Nathaniel Sherman, were voted on by the town’s people to help oversee the hunt. All persons participating were “to be ready by seven of the clock in the morning, and meet upon the hill at the meeting- house, by the beating of the drum.” How much this circle hunt cost the town, or how many wolves were killed is not known. A later hunt in 1696 cost the town fourteen pounds, nineteen shillings, and six pence, which would have put a significant dent in the town treasury.
What would become a 300 year animal extermination campaign in Connecticut, along with deforestation, led to the disappearance of wolves, bears, moose, and turkeys by the year 1880. Improved forestry policies have remedied some of these problems in modern-day Connecticut, and a wolf-like canine has returned. Known as the Eastern Coyote, it has a wolf-like appearance, but is smaller than the colonial wolf. A DNA study shows them to be 62% western coyote, 14% western wolf, 13% eastern wolf, and 11% domestic dog.
Meanwhile, here in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, I often see coyotes or hear their singing. On multiple occasions I have seen broad shouldered domestic dog-coyote hybrids that resemble wolves. There are no murderous Indians or witches that I know of, so life is good. I am spending more time watching the birds on the feeder and less time watching the news.