On May 26, 1647, Alse Young was the first person executed as a witch in the American colonies, when she was hanged in Hartford, Connecticut.
Women were accused of practicing witchcraft due primarily to religious, medical and economic reasons. Examined more closely, the witch persecutions of both Europe and New England reveal a hidden agenda dedicated to the suppression of women. The overwhelming percentages of women who became victims of this movement were in fact highly skilled healers and midwives. In a patriarchal society, at a time when women were not regarded as citizens (could not vote, could not own land, did not have legal protection from being beaten in the best interest of ‘keeping the peace of the household’ ~ most of which did not change until the early-to-mid 1900s in North America and continues on today in some cultures throughout the world) women of wealth, knowledge and skill were feared, resented and, yes, killed.
Very little is recorded of Alse Young however. Her existence is only known through her reputation as a witch. She is believed to have been the wife of John Young. Like many similar cases of witchcraft, Alse Young was a widow [at the time] and [a woman] without a son when the accusation was lodged, which implied that she would be eligible to receive through inheritance her husband’s estate [and what better way to prevent a woman from land tenure than to accuse her of the wickedness of witchcraft?]. There is no further record of Young’s trial or the specifics of the charge. A journal of then Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop states “One… of Windsor arraigned and executed at Hartford for a witch.” The second town clerk of Windsor, Matthew Grant, also confirms the execution with the May 26, 1647, diary entry, “Alse Young was hanged.”
In 1642, witchcraft became punishable by death in Connecticut. This capital offense was backed by references to the King James version of the Bible: Exodus 22:18 says, ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’. And Leviticus 20:27 says, ‘A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood (shall be) upon them’. The crime of witchcraft disappeared from the list of capital crimes when the laws were issued in 1750.
Though women have equal rights and opportunities in North America today, in the grand scheme of things historically, we haven’t exactly come a long way. The litany of injustices women still face in most parts of the world today, and behind many closed doors in North America, is reprehensible. Conversely, the number of women who have risen to great heights, educationally, politically and financially, are at an all time high.
After reading such facts and statistics, trying to balance faith and doubt in humanity is a delicate matter. While there is much cruelty, sadness and injustice, there is equally as much goodness, kindness and virtue. If witchcraft, by the Baroque definition of the term, remained a capital crime today, can you imagine how many women would be guilty? And, proud of it.