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The USGenWeb Project • Fairfield County, Connecticut

The Verdict is Returned

This remarkable document was signed by seventy-six individuals including several elected officials who served the town of Stamford for many years. Among the signers were Abraham Ambler and Jonathan Bell, Senior, both of whom had during their careers held the offices of representative to the General Court, Selectman and Town Clerk.

After all the evidence was heard, the cases were turned over to the jury. Despite all endeavors and long deliberation, the jury was unable to reach a decision in either case. Faced with this predicament, the Court was of the opinion that it would be best to obtain further guidance from the General Court which was due to meet in October. Until then the prisoners were remanded to "the comon Goale", there to be kept in safe custody. The jurors were instructed to be ready when further called by direction of the General Court "to perfect their verdict." If the attorneys for the Crown found additional testimony they had "liberty to make farther use of them when the court shal meet again." Similar permission for the accused was not mentioned.

The following month a meeting of prominent ministers was called in Hartford, at which time the evidence presented at the trial was given to them for evaluation. After carefully examining all the data, the ministers submitted a formal written opinion on October 17th in which four points were made: (1 ) they concurred with the general opinion of divines that conviction of witchcraft "by swimming is unlawful! & sinfull & therefor it cannot afford any evidence"; (2.) that the unusual excrescences found upon the prisoners' bodies should not be allowed as evidence against them without the "Approbation of some able physitians"; (3.) respecting Katherine's declarations they found "some things testifyed carrying a suspition of her counterfeiting"; (4.) and that there was reason to believe that she suffered from some condition that had troubled her mother, yet they thought that "her affliction being something strange it well deserves a farther inquiry." As to the other strange accidents it was their opinion that ascribing these to the accused "as matters of witchcraft to be upon very slender & uncertain grounds."

In Massachusetts executions had taken place on June 10, July 19, August 19, and September 22, 1692, with a total of nineteen victims, five of whom were men. Eight others who were under sentence when the hysteria ended were not put to death. With the Connecticut trials and executions of 1662 as a background, the tragic events at Salem undoubtedly influenced the General Court and the conferring ministers in Hartford to take whatever steps necessary to prevent similar occurences from happening again in the Colony.

An account of the court proceedings against Elizabeth Clauson and Mercy Disborough was presented to the October session of the General Court. Governor Robert Treat reported that the jury was deadlocked because they could not agree on a verdict. The legislature took cognizance of this situation by requesting the Governor "to appoynt time for the sayd Court to meet againe as scone as may be, and that the jury be called together and that they make a verdict upon the case and the Court to put a finall issue thereto."

Accordingly, the Court of Oyer and Terminer reconvened at Fairfield on October 28th "to put an issue to those former matters that were before the Court in reference to Eliz. Clawson & Mercy Disbrow." After hearing additional testimony, including an affidavit describing further examinations for "witchmarks", the jury retired once again to deliberate the fate of the accused. They reached a prompt decision in the case of Mercy Disborough, finding the defendant guilty as charged. Sent out to reconsider their verdict, they returned saying they saw no reason to rescind it. The Court without further effort to influence the jurors went through the motions of approving it, and Governor Robert Treat passed the mandatory sentence of death upon her.

As for Elizabeth Clauson, the objective of her friends who bravely defended her innocence was brought to a successful conclusion, for the jury found her not guilty. The Court in approving the verdict, "granted her jayle delivery." Consequently, she returned to Stamford where she remained with her husband and family until her death at the age of 83 in 1714. Hopefully her last years were spent in comparative tranquility.

Shortly after the trial, a group representing Mercy Disborough presented a petition to the General Court "calling attention now to the fact that the second half of the trial had been completely illegal." Thomas Knowles of Stratford, Connecticut, one of the original jurors, had been unavailable on October 28th despite the Court's explicit instructions ordering the jury to be ready when further called. Knowles' absence was acknowledged when his name was deleted from the original list of jurors. The General Court reacted to this petition by appointing Samuel Wyllys, William Pitkin, and Nathaniel Stanley as a committee empowered to examine the records of the trial and "take such action as they saw fit." The committee reported back to the May, 1693 session of the General Court that they had reprieved Mercy Disborough and defended their procedure in the matter. After doubting the validity of the evidence, their report concluded with a firm admonition against any further witchcraft trials.

. . . and the miserable toyl they are in in the Bay (Massachusetts) for Adhereing to those last mentioned Litigious things is warning enof, those that wit make witchcraf t of such things wit make hanging work apace·

The witchcraft delusion of 1692 swept through western Connecticut as a storm that comes quickly, raises havoc, and then disperses. Because the friends and neighbors of Elizabeth Clauson in Stamford stood their ground, courage and good sense triumphed over hysteria.

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