The Trial in Fairfield
The trial opened in Fairfield on September 14 with Governor Robert Treat, Deputy Governor William Jones, Secretary John Allyn and four Assistants presiding. The appointment of attorneys for the Crown was the first order of business. A bill against Elizabeth Clauson was committed to the Grand Jury which promptly returned a Billa Vera (True Bill),27Then the following indictment was presented:
Elizabeth Clawson wife of Steuen Clawson of Standford in the county of Fayrefeild in the Colony of Connecticutt thou art here indicted by the name of Elizabeth Clawson that not haueing the fear of God before thine eyes thou hast had familiarity with Satan the grand enemie of God & man & that by his instigation & help thou hast in a preternaturall way afflicted & done harm to the bodyes & estates of sundry of his Maties subjects or to some of them contrary to the peace of our Soueraigne Lord the King & Queen their crowne & dignity & that on the 25t of A prill in the 4th yeare of theire Maties reigne & at sundry other times for which by the law of God & the law of the Colony thou deseruest to dye28
The Grand Jury returned a similar indictment against Mercy Disborough, and both women pleaded not guilty. "Since there is no record of any attorneys for the defense, it was probably assumed that the Devil was advocate enough if guilty, and none needed if innocent."29 Mary & Hannah Harvey and Mary Staples were presented by the Grand Jury as being only under suspicion of practicing witchcraft. The Court made a proclamation three times that if anyone wished to testify against the aforementioned persons "they should be heard." On the following day the same statement was issued with only two individuals coming forward to testify. The Court then decided that "...nothing of consequence appearing agnst them they the afoarsayd persons were quitted by proclamation & all persons were comanded to forbear speakeing cull of the foresayd persons for the future upon payn of displeasure..."30 However the case against the other two women was quite a different matter.
On June 1, shortly after her arrival at the county jail in Fairfield, Mercy Disborough requested "to be tryed by being cast into ye watter." Her plea was granted the next day, and both Mercy and Elizabeth Clauson were subjected to this test for a witch.31 In sworn testimony presented to the Court it was stated that Mercy, after she was put into the water, swam upon it. The affidavit regarding Elizabeth's ordeal is as follows:
The Testimonie of Abram Adams & Jonath Squire allso is that when Eliz. Clauson was Bownd hand & foot & put into the water she swam Like a corck & one laboured to pres her into the water & she boyed up like a corck.
Sworn in Court Septer 15, 1692.32
Although the water ordeal was well known and practiced throughout Europe, it was seldom used in the American colonies. It consisted of tieing the suspect's right hand to the left foot and left hand to the right foot. After securing the accused in this manner she was then thrown into a pond or river. 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 bouyant. If she sank this was considered as a sign of innocence. One can only hope that those who were standing nearby had a rope attached to the accused in order to pull her out before she drowned.
Many leading theologians and jurists of the period rejected this practice. Increase Mather, one of the most outstanding New England divines condemned the water ordeal in a book published eight years prior to the 1692 trials in Salem, Massachusetts. In regard to this test he wrote:
This practice has no foundation in nature, nor in Scripture. If the water will bear none but witches, this must need proceed either from some natural or some supernatural cause. No natural cause is, or can be, assigned why the bodies of such persons should swim rather than of any other. The Bodies of Witches have not lost their natural properties; they have weight in them as well as others. Moral changes and viciousness of mind, make no alteration as to these natural properties which are inseparable from the body. .lt is not devine, for the Scripture does no where appoint any such course to be taken to find out whether persons are in league with the devil or no. It remains, then, that the experiment is diabolical.
In spite of Mather's warning against such tests the Court accepted sworn testimonies of the aforesaid witnesses as evidence. Numerous depositions, made earlier, were presented to the Court and attested to by John Allyn, Secretary of the Colony. Most of these were not favorable toward the accused, thereby becoming useful for the prosecution. Abraham Finch, Jr. testified that he was at the home of Daniel Wescot one evening when Katherine had a seizure. Looking up he observed a light, about the size of both his hands, glancing along the summer beam of the house toward the hearth and then disappear. When David Selleck brought a light into the room, Katherine came to her self and they asked her why she screamed. "She Answered goodie Closon came in with two firy eies." Ebenezer Bishop stated that while he was at the Wescot's home at night he sat down next to Katherine while she was in a "violent fit and calling again said now they are agoing to kill me & crieing out very loud that they pincht her on ye neck." After obtaining a light, Ebenezer observed a red spot on her neck which afterward turned black and blue.
In spite of this testimony a number of individuals were of the opinion that Elizabeth Clauson was innocent. It was a common belief that only a witch would come to the aid of one accused of being in league with Satan. To testify on behalf of the accused was indeed an act of courage and conviction, for in so doing one might come under suspicion of practicing witchcraft, also. Despite this, Eliezer Slawson and Clement Buxton testified that they resided near Elizabeth Clauson for many years and "did allways obserue her to be a woman for Pease and to counsell for Pease & when she hath had prouacations from her neighbours would answer & say we must line in Pease for we are naibours & would neuer. giue threatning words..."
A large contingency of Elizabeth's friends shared the same strong faith in her innocence by subscribing their names to an affidavit attesting to her good character. Despite the wide-spread belief in the existence of witchcraft and the punishment prescribed for its practice, these residents of Stamford stood firm. The testimony to the good character of the accused Elizabeth was a valiant act, perhaps something unique at that time in Connecticut history.
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