Another Account of the 1653 Witchcraft Trial of Goodwife Knapp In Which Thomas Pell's Wife Testified
Home Page of the Historic Pelham Blog.
Order a Copy of "Thomas Pell and the Legend of the Pell Treaty Oak."
-- Words of Goodwife Knapp not long before she was hanged for witchcraft following testimony by Lucy Brewster Pell, wife of Thomas Pell.
"If this [implicating another as a witch while on the gallows] was done in the hope of obtaining a reprieve, as seems likely, the poor creature was disappointed, for she was speedily turned off by the executioner, and hung suspended until life was extinct."
-- Account of the execution of Goodwife Knapp for witchcraft in late 1653.
By the 1650’s a preoccupation with the supernatural and a hysterical effort to root out those who “covenanted” with the spectral world had swept through Connecticut – home of Thomas Pell, the founder of the Manor of Pelham. Sadly, it seems that Thomas Pell’s family members were not immune from the hysteria. Thomas Pell's wife, Lucy, and his step-daughters were involved in the witchcraft persecution that led to the execution of Goodwife Knapp not long before Thomas Pell acquired the lands that became Pelham and surrounding areas.
I have written on several occasions of the involvement of Lucy Brewster Pell and her daughters in the witchcraft persecution of poor Goodwife Knapp in 1653. See:
Fri., Jul. 07, 2006: The Involvement of Thomas Pell's Family in the Witchcraft Persecution of Goody Knapp.
Thu., Oct. 30, 2014: Did Thomas Pell Act on Pangs of Remorse After Witchcraft Persecution Involving His Family?
Bell, Blake A., The Involvement of Thomas Pell's Family in the Witchcraft Persecution of Goody Knapp, The Pelham Weekly, Vol. XIII, No. 4, Jan. 23, 2004, p. 11, col. 1.
We know a great deal about the witchcraft trial and execution of Goodwife Knapp due to a subsequent lawsuit brought by the husband of Goodwife Staples, an acquaintance of Goodwife Knapp who implicated Staples in witchcraft from the gallows steps in an unsuccessful effort to gain a reprieve. Mr. Staples sued to clear his wife's name and succeeded. The depositions taken during that lawsuit, however, paint a horrid, sad, and brutal persecution and execution of Goodwife Knapp.
We may know a great deal about the witchcraft persecution, trial, and execution of Goodwife Knapp, but we do not know precisely what conduct led to the witchcraft accusations against her. We do know, however, of the torment and anguish that Goodwife Knapp suffered before her execution.
After her conviction, an ad hoc "committee" of women visited her in confinement. Lucy Brewster Pell led the group, accompanied by two of her daughters referenced as "Goody Lockwood, and Goodwife Purdy." These were step-daughters of Thomas Pell, likely the product of Lucy Brewster Pell's first marriage to Francis Brewster who was lost at sea in 1647. The women tormented Goodwife Knapp, demanding that she confess to witchcraft and threatening that unless she confessed, the devil would take her soul more quickly after her death. Goody Knapp seemed to believe that the ulterior motive of the women was to have her implicate an acquaintance -- Goodwife Staples -- as a witch. Goodwife Knapp refused, saying she "must not say anything that was not true" and "must not return evil for evil." She further warned the women against encouraging such accusations, saying "Take care, that the devil have not you; for you cannot tell how soon you may be my companion."
The women led by Lucy Pell and her daughters continued their onslaught and continued to demand a witchcraft confession from Goody Knapp. They urged her to confess since, due to her conviction, she would die anyway. At this, Knapp burst into tears. She begged her persecutors to cease and piteously cried "never, never, poor creature was tempted as I am tempted; pray, pray for me."
On the appointed day, a procession of "magistrates and ministers, young persons and those of maturer years, doubtless nearly the entire population of Fairfield" led Goodwife Knapp to the gallows. Even along the way the local minister urged Goody Knapp to confess to witchcraft.
At the gallows, Goody Knapp mounted the ladder and had a "moment's grace." She then descended the ladder and approached Roger Ludlow, one of the magistrates involved in her trial. She whispered in his ear and then returned to the gallows where she "was speedily turned off by the executioner, and hung suspended until life was extinct."
Once dead, the body of Goodwife Knapp was cut down and laid next to a grave that had been dug nearby. Once again, a group of women stepped forward and demanded to examine the body for marks of the devil. One of those women was Goody Staples. According to one account:
"Calling upon her companions to look at the supposed witch-marks, she [Goody Staples] declares that they were naught but such as she herself or any woman had. 'Aye, and be hanged for them, and deserve it too,' was the reply of one of the older women present. Whereupon a general clamor ensued, and seeing that there was now nothing to be gained, and much to be apprehended if she persisted, Mrs. Staples yielded, and returned home."
What did Goodwife Knapp whisper in the ear of magistrate Roger Ludlow immediately before she was hanged? Apparently in hopes of a last minute reprieve, she repeated a story she had told before about an acquaintance and neighbor, Goodwife Staples. She told Ludlow that Goodwife Staples had admitted that an Indian had visited her and shown her glowing objects as bright as day that were Indian gods that would bring wealth and power to their possessor.
Goodwife Staples saw Goody Knapp whisper in the ear of Magistrate Ludlow at the gallows and must have feared what Goody Knapp told him. Indeed, Goodwife Staples was the one who exclaimed to the women who examined the body for marks of the devil that all the marks present "were naught but such as she herself or any woman had."
After these sad events, Roger Ludlow repeated Goodwife Knapp's last words about Goody Staples and the glowing Indian objects. The husband of Goody Staples sued Ludlow to clear his wife's name. The records of that lawsuit preserve the story of this terrible moment in the history of the family of Thomas Pell and the settlement of Fairfield.
Today's posting to the Historic Pelham Blog transcribes the text of yet another account of the witchcraft persecution, trial, and execution of Goodwife Knapp. The text, from a book published in 1886, is followed by a citation and link to its source.
* * * * *
"'In October, 1653, about two and a half years after the event just narrated, the General Court passed another resolution in the following words: 'Mr. Ludlow, Mr. Wells, Mr. Westwood and Mr. Hull, are desired to keep a perticulier Courte at Fairfield, before winter to execute justice there as cause shall require. 4 [Footnote 4 reads: "Col. Rec., i. 249."]
'The unfortunate person on whose account justice was to be executed was, as before, a woman, charged with witchcraft. She is designated simply as 'Knapp's wife,' or 'goodwife Knapp,' in the only account we have of the proceedings; namely a number of depositions in the case of Thomas Staples of Fairfield, who in the spring of 1654, sued Roger Ludlow of that place, for calling his wife a witch. It is not impossible that goody Knapp may have been the wife of Roger Knapp of New Haven, who removed to Fairfield, although his name is not mentioned among the residents there until 1656. His son, Nathaniel, lived in Pequannock in 1690, and joined the church afterwards organized there, his name occur- [Page 148 / Page 149] ring frequently upon the early records of the North Church in Bridgeport.
'The trial took place in the autumn of 1653, before a jury and several 'godly magistrates' (the same probably that are named in the order of the General Court), and doubtless lasted several days. There were many witnesses, but the indictment and the substance of the greater part of their testimony are wanting. We learn, however, that a strong and perhaps decisive point against the accused, was the evidence of Mrs. Lucy Pell and Goody Odell, the midwife, who by direction of the Court had examined the person of the prisoner, and testified to finding upon it certain witch marks, which were regarded as proof positive of intimacies. Mrs. Jones, wife of the Fairfield minister, was also present at this examination, but whether as a spectator or as one of the examiners, is not clearly stated.
'The jury brought in a verdict of guilty, and goodwife Knapp was sentenced to death. After her condemnation she was visited by numbers of the towns-people, who constantly urged her to confess herself a witch and betray her accomplices, on the ground that it would be for the benefit of her soul; and that while there might have been some reason for her silence before the trial, since a confession then might have prejudiced her case, there could be none now, for the reason that she was sure to die in any event. The pains of perdition were held up to her as sure to be her position, in case of a refusal.
'Upon one of these occasions, the minister and a number of the towns-people being present, the poor woman replied to her well-meaning tormentors that she 'must not say anything that was not true,' she 'must not wrong anybody,' but that if she had anything to say before she went out of the world she would reveal it to Mr. Ludlow, at the gallows. Elizabeth Brewster, a bystander, answered coarsely, 'if you keep it a little longer till you come to the ladder, the devil will have you quick, if you reveal it not till then.' 'Take care,' replied the prisoner indignantly, 'that the devil have not you; for you cannot tell how soon you may be my companion.' 'The [Page 149 / Page 150] truth is,' she added, 'you would have me to say that goodwife Staples is a witch, but I have sins enough to answer for already, and I hope that I shall not add to my condemnation; I know nothing against goodwife Staples, and I hope she is an honest woman.' She was sharply rebuked by Richard Lyon, one of her keepers, for this language, as tending to create discord between neighbors after she should be dead, but she answered, 'goodman Lyon, hold your tongue, you know not what I know; I have been fished withall in private more than you are aware of. I apprehend that goodwife Staples hath done me wrong in her testimony, but I must not return evil for evil.' When further urged, and reminded that she was now to die, and therefore should deal truly, she burst into tears, and desired her persecutors to cease, saying, in words that must have lingered long in the memory of those who heard, and which it is impossible now to read without emotion, -- 'never, never, poor creature was tempted as I am tempted; pray, pray for me.'
Yet it appears that her fortitude sometimes gave way, and that she was induced to make a frivolous confession to the effect that Mrs. Staples once told her that an Indian had brought to her several little objects brighter than the light of day, telling her that they were Indian gods, and would certainly render their possessor rich and powerful; but that Mrs. Staples had refused to receive them. This story she subsequently retracted.
'The procession to the place of execution, which is stated by an eye-witness to have been 'between the house of Michael Try and the mill,' or a little west of Stratfield boundary, included magistrates and ministers, young persons and those of maturer years, doubtless nearly the entire population of Fairfield. On the way to the fatal spot the clergyman 5 [Footnote 5 reads" "Rev. John Jones, who came from England in 1635."] again exhorted the poor woman to confess, but was rebuked by her companion Mrs. Staples, who cried, 'Why bid her confess what she is not? I make no doubt, but that if she were a witch she would confess.'
'Under the shadow of the gallows the heart of Goody Knapp must again have failed her, for being allowed a [Page 150 / Page 151] moment's grace after she had mounted the ladder, she descended and repeated her former trifling story respecting Mrs. Staples, in the ear of Mr. Ludlow, her magistrate. If this was done in the hope of obtaining a reprieve, as seems likely, the poor creature was disappointed, for she was speedily turned off by the executioner, and hung suspended until life was extinct.
'When the body had been cut down and laid upon the green turf beside the grave, a number of women crowded about it eager to examine the witch signs. In the foreground we see Mrs. Staples kneeling beside the corpse, and in the language of one of the witnesses, 'wringing her hands and taking ye Lord's name in her mouth,' as she asseverates the innocence of the murdered woman. Calling upon her companions to look at the supposed witch-marks, she declares that they were naught but such as she herself or any woman had. 'Aye, and be hanged for them, and deserve it too,' was the reply of one of the older women present. Whereupon a general clamor ensued, and seeing that there was now nothing to be gained, and much to be apprehended if she persisted, Mrs. Staples yielded, and returned home.
Among the names occurring in that narrative are some like Gould, Buckly and Lyon, that are common in Fairfield to this day. The Odells and Sherwoods may have been residents of Pequannock. 6 [Footnote 6 reads: "There were no settlers at Pequannock as early as 1654."] Mr. Ludlow saw fit to repeat the story told him by the dying woman, and to further assert that Mrs. Staples had not only laid herself under the suspicion of being a witch, but 'made a trade of lying.' Hence the suit already mentioned, in which the New Haven Court had the good sense to give a decision in favor of the plaintiff, and allow him fifteen pounds damages."
Source: Orcutt, Samuel, A History of the Old Town of Stratford and the City of Bridgeport Connecticut, Part I, pp. 148-51 (New Haven, CT: Press of Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor, 1886) (Published under the auspices of the Fairfield County Historical Society).