Hanged as a witch

The story of Rebecca Greensmith

Hartford, Connecticut January 25, 1662/3.

Mother, Wife, and Victim and 9th Great Grandmother of Vern Paul

Descent from Rebecca Greensmith to Vern Paul













The witchcraft delusion in colonial Connecticut

1647 1697, by John M. Taylor [Facsimile Reprint, Heritage Books, 1989] pp. 96 100, 151, 156
Records Particular Court

Hartford, Connecticut (2:182)

Memorial History of Hartford County


Connecticut Magazine

(November 1899, pp. 557 561)

Nathaniel Greensmith lived in Hartford, south of the little river, in 1661 62, on a lot of about twenty acres, with a house and barn. He also had other holdings "neer Podunk," and "on ye highway leading to Farmington." He was thrifty by divergent and economical methods, since he is credited in the records of the time with stealing a bushel and a half of wheat, of stealing a hoe, and of lying to the court, and of battery. In one way or another he accumulated quite a property for those days, since the inventory of it filed in the Hartford Probate Office, January 25, 1662, after his execution, carried an appraisal of 137. 14s. 1d. including "2 bibles," "a sword," "a resthead," and a "drachm. cup" all indicating that Nathaniel judicously mingled his theology and patriotism, his recreation and refreshment, with his everyday practical affairs and opportunities. But he made one adventure that was most unprofitable. In an evil hour he took to wife Rebecca, relict of Abraham Elson, and also relict of Jarvis Mudge, and of whom so good a man as the Rev. John Whiting, minister of the First Church in Hartford afterward first pastor of the Second Church said that she was 'a lewd, ignorant and considerably aged woman." This triple combination of personal qualities soon elicited the criticism and animosity of the community, and Nathaniel and Rebecca fell under the most fatal of all suspicions of that day, that of being possessed by the evil one. Gossip and rumor about these unpopular neighbors culminated in a formal complaint, and December 30, 1662, at a court held in Hartford, both the Greensmiths were separately indicted in the same formal charge. "Nathaniel Greensmith thou art here indicted by the name of Nathaniel Greensmith for not having the fear of God before thine eyes, thous hast entertained familiarity with Satan, the grand enemy of God and mankind and by his help hast acted things in a preternatural way beyond human abilities in a natural course for which according to the law of God and the established law of this commonwealth thou deservest to die." While Rebecca was in prison under suspicion, she was interviewed by two ministers, Revs. Haynes and Whiting, as to the charges of Ann Cole a next door neighbor which were written down by them, all of which, and more, she confessed to be true before the court. (Note. Increase Mather regarded this confession as convictive a proof of real witchcraft as most single cases he had known.)

The Ministers' account

"She forthwith and freely confessed those things to be true, that she (and other persons named in the discourse) had familiarity with the devil. Being asked whether she had made an express covenant with him, she answered she had not, only as she promised to go with him when he called (which she had accordingly done several times). But that the devil told her that a Christmas they would have a merry meeting, and then the covenant should be drawn and subscribed. Thereupon the fore mentioned Mr. Stone (being then in court) with much weight and earnestness laid forth the exceeding heinousness and hazard of that dreadful sin; and therewith solemnly took notice (upon the occasion given) of the devil's loving Christmas. "A person at the same time present being desired the next day more particularly to enquire of her about her guilt, it was accordingly done, to whom she acknowledged that though when Mr. Haynes began to read she could have torn him to pieces, and was so much resolved as might be to deny her guilt (as she had done before) yet after he had read awhile, she was as if her flesh had been pulled from her bones, (such was her expression,) and so could not deny any longer. She also declared that the devil first appeared to her, wherewith she was not much affrighted but by degrees he contrived talk with her; and that their meetings were frequently at such a place, (near her own house;) that some of the company came in one shape and some in another, and one in particular in the shape of a crow came flying to them. Amongst other things she owned that the devil had frequent use of her body." Had Rebecca been content with purging her own conscience, she alone would have met the fate she had invoked, and probably deserved [NOTE: from this compiler, I am disappointed that John M. Taylor, an educated man of the 19th century, could make such a statement! The viewpoint of two centuries earlier was clearly understandable given the beliefs of the time. But Taylor completely misses what was happening to the innocent victims, arrested on false accusations, imprisoned and too frequently executed on confessions wrung out by fear and even torture. That Rebecca was a troublesome neighbor is likely true; that Nathaniel was perhaps just as troublesome is also likely true. That they possessed property that fell into the hands and ultimate possession of their accusers lends significant suspicion as to the real motive behind both Nathaniel's and Rebecca's conviction and execution. V.P.]; but out of "love toher husband's soul" she made an accusation against him, which of itself secured his conviction of the same offense, with the same dire penalty.

The accusation

"Rebecca Greensmith testifieth in Court Janry 8. 62. "1. That my husband on Friday night last when I came to prison told me that now thou hast confest against thyself let me alone and say nothing of me and I wilbe good unto thy children. "I doe now testifie that formerly when my husband hathe told me of his great travaile and labour I wondered as 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 yt I knew not of. "3. About three years agoe as I think it; my husband and I were in ye wood several miles from home and were looking for a sow yt 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. "4. Another time when he and I drove our hogs into ye woods beyond ye pound yt was to keep cattle severall miles of I went before ye hogs to call them and looking back I saw two creatures like dogs one a little blacker than ye other, they came after my husband pretty close to him and one did seem tome to touch him I asked him wt they were he told me he thought foxes I was stil afraid when I saw anything because I heard soe much of him before I married him. "5. I have seen logs that my husband hath brought home in his cart that I wondered at it that he could get them into ye cart being a man of little body and weake to my apprehension and ye logs were such that I thought two men such as he could not have done it. "I speak all this out of love to my husbands soule and it is much against my will that I am now necessitate to speake agaynst my husband, I desire that ye Lord would open his heart to owne and speak ye trueth. "I also testify that I being in ye wood at a meeting there was with me Goody Seager Goodwife Sanford & Goodwife Ayres; and at another time there was a meeting under a tree in ye green by or house & there was there James Walkely, Peter Grants wife Goodwife Aires & Henry Palmers wife of Wethersfield, & Goody Seager, & there we danced, & had a bottle of sack; it was in ye night & something like a catt cald me out to ye meeting & I was in Mr. Varlets orcherd with Mrs. Judith Varlett & shee tould me that shee was much troubled with ye Marshall Jonath: Gilbert & cried, & she sayd if it lay in her power she would doe hin a mischief, or what hurt shee could."

The Greensmiths were convicted and sentenced to suffer death. In January, 1662, they were hung on "Gallows Hill," on the bluff a little north of where Trinity College now stands "a logical location" one most learned in the traditions and history of Hartford calls it as it afforded an excellent view of the execution to a large crowd on the meadows to the west, a hanging being then a popular spectacle and entertainment.

See also Jane Dudley's Ahnentafel which reads:

  1. Rebecca [Elson] died in Jan 1663 in Hartford, CT. She died in Jan 1663 in Hartford CT. She has reference number J 13887. FROM FISHER 10th ggm of Gordon Fisher She married first Abraham ELSON, then Jarvis (1) MUDGE, then Nathaniel GREENSMITH.

Conceivably Jarvis (2) MUDGE of this database is direct descendant of Jarvis (1) MUDGE, 2 or 3 genera tions apart. Rebecca and Nathaniel were executed for witchcraft.

Rebecca the Witch Excerpt from William DeLoss Love, The Colonial History of Hart ford, Hartford CT (Connecticut Printers) 1935 (U S Bicentennial Edition, 1974, Centinel Hill Press), p 282 286 The most serious indictment that has ever been brought against our early criminal courts is for their action in the witchcraft delusion, the explanation of which has been often made and is here left to others.

It was an episode in New England history that should be judged in view of similar beliefs then current in the old world. In Connecticut, all the cases where the condemned were executed occurred between 1647 and 1662. They were, therefore, tried in the Particular Court. Of the seventeen in the river towns who were charged with witchcraft during this period, nine were residents of Hartford. Three of these were executed. As the prison where all criminals of Hartford, Windsor, Wethersfield and Farmington were confined was located in Hartford, it is probable that the entire number from these towns, which were hung in this delusion, suffered in Hartford.

Alse Young of Windsor was the first unhappy victim, but the court records give us no information concerning her trial. On cover of Mathew Grant's Diary, Dr. J. Hammond Trumbull discovered the record "May 26, 47 Alse Young was hanged." This supplies the blank in Winthrop's History: "One of Windsor arraigned and executed at Hartford for a witch." So far as known, this was the first execution for witch craft in New England.

The next victim was Mary Johnson of Wethersfield [Rev. Henry SMITH, our DIRECT ANCESTOR, presided at the trial]. In 1646, she had been sentenced to be whipped for theft, probably at Hartford, which was to be repeated a month later at Wethersfield. On her own confession, she was indicted by a jury December 7, 1648, as guilty of "familiarity with the Deuill." Mather says [in Magnalia Christi Americana, 1698, VI.71 78], "Her confession was attended with such convictive circum stances that it could not be slighted." She confessed, he says, that she had murdered a child, and committed other faults of licentiousness.

For some months before her execution, she was imprisoned at Hartford, under the care of William Ruscoe. A son was born to her while there. Nathaniel Ruscoe, the jailor's son, agreed with her before her death to bring up and educate the child, which agreement was afterward sanctioned by the court. The jailor was paid 6 10s, for twenty four weeks' charges to June 6, 1650, from which fact it is inferred that she was executed on that date. Rev. Samuel Stone ministered to her while in prison, and it is said that she became a penitent woman. She was evidently a poor, misguided creature, who accounted for her fault according to the superstition of the age.

After the execution of John and Joan Carrington of Wethersfield in 1651, and Lydia Gilbert of Windsor in 1654, a witchcraft tragedy was enacted among Hartford residents. It is one story [sic] and has been written and published by Dr. Charles J. Hoadley ["A Case of Witchcraft in Hartford" in Connecticut Magazine, Nov., 1899, pp. 557 561.] Nine persons were involved, largely through the statements of Rebecca Greensmith [DIRECT ANCESTOR , when wife of Abraham ELSEN ]. She had been the wife of Abraham Elsen of Wethersfield [DIRECT ANCESTOR], who died in 1648. Then she married Jarvis Mudge [Jarvis (1) MUDGE of our database], and was a widow when she married the unfortunate Nathaniel Greensmith. Those who were implicated constituted a group of local acquain tances, some of whom had a repute for misdemeanors or immorality. Their names were Nathaniel and Rebecca Greensmith; Elizabeth, the wife of Richard Seager; Andrew Sanford and Mary his wife; William Ayres and his wife; Judith Varlett and James Walkley.

Of Rebecca Greensmith, Rev. John Whiting wrote to Inrease Mather that she was a "lewd, ignorant and considerably aged woman." Her husband had twice been convicted of theft. The court had once censured him for lying. Elizabeth Seager left a record of shameless crime, being guilty of blasphemy and adultery. These were the leaders. The others kept such company. One night they had a merrymaking, under a tree on the green near Rebecca Greensmith's house. James Walkley, Goodwife Ayres and Goody Seager were present. They all danced and had a bottle of sack. Other nocturnal gatherings were held. Suspicions were awakened in the neighborhood. Nathaniel Greensmith had a small home lot, house and barn, recently purchased. It was located just south of our present Barnard Park, on which green the dance of the witches was doubtless held. Complaint had been made to the town that he had set his barn on common land. James Walkley had a house lot on the north side of the road from George Steele's to the South Meadow. Sanford and Ayres apparently lived on North Main Street.

The crisis came in the spring of 1662, with the accusations of a young daughter of John Kelley, uttered in the delirium of sickness. The child died. Immediately, the neighborhood was busy with reports that she had been bewitched unto death. The magistrates examined several of those accused. Nathaniel Greensmith then sued William Ayres for slan dering his wife. She and her husband were soon arrested. The defendant Ayres, his wife, and James Walkley, took refuge in flight. Ann, the daughter of John Cole, had strange fits about that time. Her examination by the ministers, Samuel Hooker of Farmington, Samuel Stone, Joseph Haynes and John Whiting of Hartford, only increased the mystery and augmented the excitement.

On June 6th, Andrew Sanford was indicted for witchcraft. The jury disagreed. A week later, Mary Sanford was indicted and found guilty. This action furthered the ultimate indictment of Nathaniel and Rebecca Greensmith, which occurred December 30, 1662. They were both found guilty [see Footnote below]. The woman's testimony implicated her associates. On January 6th, Mary Barnes of Farmington was indicted, and was also found guilty.

The tragic scenes, which closed this horrible episode of our local history, can be all too clearly imagined. Mary Sanford was convicted first, and was not long detained in jail. Like some weird spectre of the spirit world, she disappeared. Goodwife Barnes was confined three weeks, for which Daniel Garret, the jailkeeper, was allowed 21s., to be paid by Goodman Barnes.

The jailor was also allowed 6s. a week for keeping Nathaniel and Rebecca Greensmith, to be paid out of his estate. His inventory states that he was executed January 25, 1662 3. Hutchinson quotes the diary of Goffe, the regicide, under the date January 20th, as saying "three witches were condemned at Hartford."

On this date the Particular Court met.

He also says of Rebecca Greensmith: "Upon this confession she was executed, and two more of the company were condemned at the same time." The scene was doubtless accompanied by the public sensation common to such occasions in England. It was the last time any witches were hung in Connecti cut, and forty years before the excitement over the Salem witch craft.

Elizabeth Seager was indicted on the same day with Mary Barnes, and twice later. In 1665 she was convicted, but the Court of Assistants found a way to release her, after a year's imprisonment. It seems probable that the witches were executed outside of the town plot, on the road from the Cow Pasture into the Country. There the gallows of early times was located.

On March 10, 1711 12, John Read sold to John Olcott a tract of about seven acres, bounded south on the "highway leading out of Hartford town towards Symsbury," now Albany Avenue. It is described in the deed as "near the house lately built by Joseph Butler, near where the Gallows used to stand." The place is near enough identified as on the north side of the avenue, on the east end of the present Goodwin lot. There, a large elm tree on a rise of ground might well memorialize the place where this tragedy of Hartford's early history was enacted.

[FOOTNOTE, concerning trial of Nathaniel Greensmith:] The indictment reads: "Nathaniel Greensmith, thou art here indicted by the name of Nathaniel Greensmith for not having the feare of God before thine eyes; thou hast entertained familiarity with Satan, the grand Enemy of God and Mankind, and by his help hast acted things in a preter naturall way beyond human abilities in a naturall course, for which according to ye Law of God and ye established laws of this Commonwealth thou deserveth to die." The form of the information, used in the Superior Court for many years, assigned all crimes to the instigation of the Devil. The magistrates at this trial were as follows: Mr. [Mathew} Allyn [DIRECT ANCESTOR], moderator, Mr [Samuel] Wyllys, Mr [Richard] Treat [DIRECT ANCESTOR if Richard (1) TREAT of our database, otherwise son Richard (2) TREAT, brother of DIRECT ANCESTOR Joanna TREAT], Mr. [Henry] Woolcot, Danll Clark, Sec., Mr. Jo. Allyn. The jury were: Edw. Griswold, Walter Ffiler Ensign [Nicholas] Olmstead [sic: this may mean Walter Ffiler, Ensign and Nicholas Olmstead we have DIRECT ANCESTOR James ENSIGN, and Nicholas OLMSTEAD was father in law of Hannah MIX, sister of DIRECT ANCESTOR Daniel (1) MIX)], Samll Boreman, Goodm [Gregory] Winterton, John Cowles [DIRECT ANCESTOR], Samll Marshall, Samll Hale [DIRECT ANCESTOR], Nathan Willet, John Hart, John Wadsworth, Robert Webster. The execution of the criminals then devolved upon the Marshal, who was Jonathan Gilbert. One of the accused is said to have seen this worthy official in a dream, which seemed to presge the end. He was the first of three appointed to settle Greensmith's estate.

Jonathan Gilbert succeeded Thomas Stanton in this office, and was followed by George Grave.