The good old days. That term didn’t apply to life in the American Colonies, where epidemics were prevalent, starvation loomed and ignorance pervaded.

Because most colonists were from Europe, they brought superstitions from there with them to the New World. Unfortunately, many areas of Europe believed that diseases and natural disasters were the work of the devil and his witches.

When a town in New England suffered a disaster, residents searched for witches to blame — men or women. Suspected witches were arrested, thrown into jails or sheds, shackled and subjected to witch tests.

If you have traced your ancestry to the Colonies in the late 1600s, you may have an ancestor who was accused, an accuser or a member of their families.

Accused people were sometimes asked to repeat The Lord’s Prayer flawlessly. They might pass this test, but more tests were applied.

A second test was to remove the undergarments of accused people, tie a rope around the person’s waist, and bind the arms and feet. The accused was thrown into a body of flowing water. People who sank (and often drowned) were innocent, while those who floated were declared witches.

Another test was to prick the skin of the accused person using dull blades or nails. Sometimes the skin was scratched with the objects. People who didn’t bleed were declared witches.

Accused people were also examined for witch’s marks. Scars, moles, warts, skin infections, birthmarks and tattoos were all suspect. Another suspicious mark was an extra nipple.

After living in shackles for months and suffering through the torture of witch tests, many people gave up and confessed.

Although people convicted of witchcraft in Europe were burned at the stake, they suffered a different fate in the Colonies. In New England they were hanged, or they were pressed to death by having boards placed on top of their body and heavy rocks added. Many accused people died in prison as they awaited trial.

Witch hysteria was most prevalent in the Massachusetts towns of Boston, Salem, Dorchester and Cambridge. Two Connecticut towns involved were Hartford and Fairfield.

Comments or Suggestions? Contact Frankie Meyer:

Recommended for you