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Reports of the work of witches emanated from Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. The sudden affliction of a servant girl in Stamford and a complaint made by her master started an inquiry into the possibility of Satan's activities in Western Connecticut. Daniel Wescot had served the town as selectman for several years and had represented it in the General Court during this crucial period. In his home lived a seventeen-year-old, French, bound servant named Katherine Branch. From his depositions it is obvious that the girl suffered from some type of seizure, possibly epilepsy.
. ..when she was in those fits rattling in her throat she would put out her tong to a great extent I conceive beyond nature & I put her tong into her mouth again & then I looked in her mouth & could se no tong but as if it were a lump of flesh down her throat and this of ten times.
She was perhaps ridden by fear of losing her secure position in a prosperous home if the true nature of her affliction became known, but the attacks could not be hidden.
On May 27, 1692 a Court of Inquiry began hearings in Stamford. Presiding were Nathan Gold and John Burr of Fairfield, Jonathan Selleck and Jonathan Bell of Stamford.
Upon ye Information & sorrofull complainte of Serjeant Daniel Wescot in Regard of his maide Servant Katherine Branch whom he suspects to be afflicted pr witchcraft.
Wescot testified that about five weeks earlier Katherine had been in a field gathering herbs when she was seized with "pinching and pricking at her breast." She came home and started crying, and was asked the reason for her behavior. She did not answer, but wept and fell down on the floor with her hands clasped and continued to do this (with some respite at times,) for two days. Then she told of seeing a cat, and when questioned what it said, she answered that the cat asked her to go with it and "promised fine things." After several days she said she observed a table in the room where she lay, spread with a variety of meats; and ten cats that asked her to join them. Wescot asked her what was the matter because while in a fit she ran to different places in order to hide. She told him that it was because she saw a cat coming to her with a rat to throw in her face. In addition, she said they told her they would kill her for revealing what had happened. These actions continued for about thirteen days and by then Katherine was extremely afflicted with fits at night, crying out at least forty times "a witch, a witch." Her master ran to her and asked what happened and she said she felt a hand. The following week Katherine saw a woman standing in the house wearing a silk hood and a blue apron. That evening, apparently well composed, she left the house for a brief moment and soon came running in to her master. Upon questioning she said that she met an old woman at the door and that the woman had two firebrands in her forehead. "The next day she named a person calling her goody Clauson & sd there she is sitting on a reel, & again sd she saw her sit on ye pommel of a chair, saying Ime sure you are a witch, elce you could not sit so & ad she saw this person before named at times for a week together."
The affliction incapacitated Katherine to such an extent that the Wescots sent for Mrs. Sarah Bates, "a useful and skillful midwife." (For over sixty years the town of Stamford existed without a resident physician. Doctors were quite uncommon in the early colonial period and it was not at all unusual for some individuals to practice the healing art without any formal medical education, the most notable being Governor John Winthrop, Jr. of Connecticut.)
Upon examining Katherine, Sarah Bates concluded that the illness "might be from sum natural cause" and therefore advised the Wescots "to burn feathers under her nose & other menes yt had dun good in fainting fits and then she seemed to be better with it." But the following morning Daniel Wescot noticed that the girl was "seemingly sence less & speech less" and Mrs. Wescot suggested bleeding. This having been done, after some hesitation on the part of Sarah Bates, Katherine cried out and Mrs. Wescot said that the girl was bewitched. Upon this the girl turned her head away from the Wescots, as to hide it in her pillow, and laughed.
In addition to Elizabeth Clauson, Katherine accused Mary & Hannah Harvey, Mary Staples, and Goody Miller, all of Fairfield, and Mercy Disborough of Compo (Westport).
While Daniel Wescot attested to the truth of Katherine's statements his wife had her doubts. In testimony taken August 24, Lidia Penior said that she heard her aunt Abigail Wescot say that her servant girl Katherine Branch was such a lying girl "that not any boddy could believe one word what she said. . . and that. . . she did not believe that Mearcy nor goody Miller nor Hannah nor any of these women . . . was any more witches than she was and that her husband would believe Catern before he would believe Mr. Bishop or Leiftenat Bell or herself."
On May 28th Elizabeth Clauson was asked if she participated in afflicting Katherine Branch by witchcraft. She emphatically denied "her self to be any such person or yt. she knew of any means whereby ye afore sd. maid was so afflectted." After making this statement she then acknowledged that there had been dissension between herself and Daniel Wescot for about eight or nine years. Actually the disagreement was between Daniel's wife, Abigail, and Elizabeth Clauson over the difference in weight of a quantity of spun flax. Daniel stated that from "thence forward she till now took occasion upon any frivolous matter to be angry & pick a quarrill with booth myself & wife." Unfortunately in most disputes of this nature each was only too ready to believe the worst of the other. The tension between these two families may have been a factor that latter resulted in Katherine's crying out on Elizabeth Clauson. Knowing that her residence at the Wescot's might be endangered by her affliction and by Abigail's distrust of her, it was to her advantage to accuse a person whom her mistress disliked.
A committee of five women was appointed at the Inquiry to search Elizabeth for any suspicious signs of "the Devil's mark." It was believed that when one made an agreement with Satan he marked the witch's body by placing a piece of flesh on it from which he might partake of the witch's blood. These could only be discovered by a personal examination that included, among other methods, running a pin through a suspicious mole or birthmark. It was believed that these "Devil's marks" were insensible and being pricked would not bleed. They reported finding nothing unusual except a wart on one of her arms. A short time later a second search was conducted by the same committee with two additional women serving on it. They unanimously agreed that there was nothing on her body that was not common to other women. A similar search was ordered for Mercy Disborough, the report of which was not as favorable, as several excrescences (that were judged unnatural) were found on her body.
While Mercy was being questioned in the Stamford meeting house, Katherine was carried in and upon hearing Mercy's voice came to her senses and endeavored to arise with her master's help. When she saw Mercy she immediately fell down into one of her seizures. A short time later she revived herself only to succumb to another fit while observing Mercy again.
With the hearings at an end in Stamford, pending further action by the General Court, the accused having been held under an order of restraint, were transferred to the county jail in Fairfield. They remained there until the final outcome of the case. On June 22, the General Court deemed the situation critical enough to create a special commission of Oyer and Terminer.
Whereas there are at present in the county of Fayrefeild seuerall persons in durance upon capitall crimes, which are not soe capeable to be brought to a tryall at the usuall Court of Assistants, by reason of the multiplicity of witnesses that may be concerned in the case, &c. this Court doe grant to the Governor, Deputy Governor and Assistants, to the number of seven at the least, a commission of oyer and terminer, to keep a speciall court in Fayrefeild the 2nd Wednesday in December (September) next, to hear and determine all such capitall cases and complaints as shall be brought before sayd courte.
Throughout the summer of 1692, additional testimony was transcribed and attested to for use in the forthcoming trial. Amongst various problems confronting Major Jonathan Selleck of Stamford was the perplexing status f Goody Miller, one of the accused. Late in June he wrote to Major Nathan Gold, the Fairfield Assistant, about this situation. Mrs. Miller had fled to New York Colony in order to avoid being arrested, and despite several attempts to have her apprehended for examination, she could not be brought to trial. At the same time two ministers visited Major Selleck's home in order to see Katherine Branch, who was being questioned here. The Reverend John Bishop of Stamford and The Reverend Thomas Hanford of Norwalk spoke to the girl, advising her not to be afraid nor to yield but to learn the names of the persons who appeared to her. After hey left her, both clergymen were "going to keep a daye of fast" with the Reverend Abraham Pierson, Jr. of Greenwich.
Major Selleck then reported to Nathan Gold about Katherine's
interrorogation at his home. When he had finished questioning her and the
ministers had gone, he dismissed her. She had gone but a short distance
when she was taken by another seizure. The Major's Indian servant girl,
who had been with her, ran back for help exclaiming that Katherine had
fallen down. His son, John Selleck, and a cousin, David Selleck, went out
and brought her back. Throughout the rest of that day and into the night
she suffered from fits of shrieking and twisting of her arms and neck with
hardly a pause. During a respite she talked with the persons who appeared
to her and cried out, for the most part, on Elizabeth Clauson exclaiming
"you kill me, you kill me…"
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