State lawmakers hear testimony to exonerate people executed for witchcraft
A resolution to exonerate people convicted of witchcraft was one of bills up for consideration by the legislative Judiciary Committee last week. Many supporters turned out to testify.
“It’s Women’s History Month. Let’s celebrate this month by doing the right thing,” testified Beverly Kahn, a former provost of Fairfield University. “There’s been enough unjust accusation, demonization, and killing of innocent people. Not just 350 years ago but today.”
A pair of Republican legislators on the committee, Rep Doug Dubitsky, RChaplin and Rep Craig Fishbein RWallingford, however, were not so quick on calling for the exoneration of women killed in the 1600s after being accused of witchcraft.
“Typically, when somebody wants to have a convict exonerated, whether while they’re alive or after they are dead, they produce evidence that they were innocent. Do you have any evidence that this person was innocent?” Dubitsky asked Beverly Kahn, a supporter of the exoneration resolution.
The specific case Kahn and Dubitsky were discussing was the case of Goody Knapp, a “simpleminded” single woman who was convicted of witchcraft on the basis of a “witch’s mark.” A witch’s mark is a location on the body that the Puritans believed were areas on the body that imps were thought to suckle blood. This, to the Puritans, would indicate a compact with the devil.
In practice people born with bodily abnormalities like extra nipples or who developed skin tags, moles, warts or protruding cysts could be executed for witchcraft.
The submitted legislation would name and apologize to those tried for witchcraft during the 1600s. Members of the Connecticut Witch Exoneration Project are seeking to overturn the judgments, despite the limited documentation. In addition, there hasn’t been a Connecticut witchcraft trial since 1697 and after 1750, the crime of witchcraft no longer appeared in the list of capital crimes.
The movement is also an effort to support the descendants of those killed after being accused of witchcraft. But as two Republican lawmakers questioned whether there was proof leading to exoneration it begged a key question: is proof really needed if history shows those killed were more likely charged not for witchcraft but for some other reason like an illness?
CT Insider reached out to Dubitsky to ask if he believed in witches. Dubitsky did not reply to requests for comment. Fisbein was unclear on his belief in witches.
A global survey from American University found that 40% of people have some belief in witchcraft. That survey found that 16% of people in the U.S. believe in witches. The hearing also came during the same week in which Conservative commentator Charlie Kirk, who once claimed that a group of witches approached him in Arizona to cast a spell on him and his show, accused a grand jury forewoman of being a witch. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones has said that he thinks pop icons Katy Perry and Ke$ha are “illuminati witches.”
During the Connecticut hearing, 14year-old Catherine Cameron spoke on behalf of exonerating the people convicted of witchcraft.
“You seem to discount the existence of witchcraft, is that your position?” said Rep Fishbein. “There was a period of my life where I studied the occult. We have individuals who believe they are practicing witchcraft.”
Cameron replied that while people might have believed in witchcraft that there was no evidence that any of the women convicted were witches.
Fishbein was later asked by a reporter about his occult studies background. In an email exchange Fishbein clarified that he had “read some books” on the subject. When asked whether he thought that witches were real he and said he “hadn’t given it much thought.”
“I have no idea,” he wrote in response to a follow up question. “I take the proposed legislation as presented and try to address the claims and concerns presented and try to ascertain whether or not the proposed legislation addresses those concerns.”
To be convicted of witchcraft means being convicted of entering into a pact with the devil, evil spirits and using dark magic. When pressed on whether he believed that the legislation provided a remedy, Jamison Bazinet, a spokesperson for the House Republicans intervened.
“Rep Fishbein’s role as a legislator is not to judge the guilt or innocence of individuals especially with regard to trials that took place hundreds of years ago,” Bazinet wrote. He did not respond to further questions.
Sarah Jack, who had testified in favor of exoneration tweeted “I got to talk to these man. The men who want proof women are not covenanting with the devil.”
Jack is a direct descendent of two people accused of witchcraft and the co-host of Thou Shalt Not Suffer, a podcast about witch history. Jack said she was surprised by the pushback during the hearing. She explained that witch accusations at the time weren’t really about modern Wicca but about framing people as perpetrators of intentional supernatural harm.
“We all gave them examples of why they are innocent and they did not want to hear that,” said Jack. “They seem to want to cause confusion about the history instead of peeling back the layers to look at what our history is.”
Jack pointed to anti-witchcraft laws that were still enforced in formerlycolonized African nations. The United Nations Human Rights Commission estimates that tens of thousands of people lose their lives every year due to witchcraft hysteria and that such figures are underreported.
“I think it’s alive in modern religious communities. They’re afraid of it [witchcraft],” said Jack. “It emphasizes and encourages the othering mentality, witch hunts that aren’t necessarily about witches. It’s a big problem.”
Ms. Kahn who testified on behalf of exoneration told CT Insider that she didn’t think necessarily that anyone speaking to her believed witches were real.
“I should have said that you’re a public official and you should know Connecticut history,” said Kahn. She explained that all of the witch convictions were all about money and land seizure. “I think if you dig deeper into the history (and Connecticut towns have a lot of history) that you find it was all about the money and property.”