A Victim of Witchcraft Hysteria
Despite popular belief, no witches were burned at the stake in the American colonies, but UC historian Terri Premo says instead, they were hanged and drowned. Most of the trials took place in 17th century New England, particularly in Salem, Massachusetts, where 19 people, mostly women, were executed.
"Believing in witchcraft was not perceived as unusual. The smartest people in the colonies would blame events on witchcraft. It was connected to the culture they brought with them from Europe," says Premo. Even children were jailed for witchcraft and in 1692, Massachusetts governor William Phips ordered a halt to the trials when his own wife, Lady Mary Phips, was suspected of witchcraft.
Who Lydia Gilbert's accusers were is unknown. Whether ignorant gossip or private enmities brought this ghastly charge upon her, it is impossible to say. That the charge of procuring the death of Henry Stiles could be brought her seems incredible, when everyone of mature ages in Windsor must have known that Henry Stiles met his death by the carelessness of Thomas Allyn, three years before (as a result of a firearms accident which Allyn had been tried upon). But this charge was brought against her.
She was charged with other witchcraft besides this, and it may be that she was one of those unfortunate women to whom suspicion of witchcraft clung, for reasons which cannot now be stated. The evidence upon which Lydia was convicted, and the names of the witnesses against her, are unknown.
The juror's oath, the names of the jury and the names of the magistrates who heard the case are on record, as well as the indictment and the verdict. Six of the magistrates and jurymen were residents of Windsor, five of Hartford and the rest belonged to Wethersfield. The Court considered the case in a special session beginning November 28, 1654.
The jury brought in the indictment and the records seem to show that they brought in the verdict as well. These two functions of a jury are separate in our time, but in 1654 it was not so. This seems repugnant to our ideas of justice. We should like to hope that the Court proceeded after the ancient English manner, receiving the indictment from the jury, hearing the evidence and deciding in accord therewith.
The Juror's Oath
You do sware by the Ever living god that you will diligently enquire and faithfully present to this Court what soe Ever you know to bee a Breach of any Established Law of this Jurisdictyon so far as may conuce to the glory of god and the good of the commonwealth as also what Oreginall offences you shall Judge meete to be presented, as you expect helpe from god in Jesus Christ.
Lydea GiIburt thou art heere indited by that name of Lydea Gilburt that not hauing the feare of god before thy Eyes thou hast of late years or still dust giue Entertainement to Bather [sic] the greate Enemy of god and mankinde and by his helpe hast killed the Body of Henry Styles besides other witchcrafts for which according to the law of god and the Estableshed law of this Comon wealth thou deservest to Dye.
Ye Party aboue mentioned is found guilty of witchcraft by the Jury.
The Hanging of a Witch Dog
John Bradstreet of Rowley was arrested and tried at Salem in 1652, "for having familiarity with the devil." In court he admitted that he "read a book of magic and heard a voice asking what work I had for him," meaning that he had used magic to get the devil to talk to him. Bradstreet testified under oath, "I asked the devil to make a bridge of sand over the sea, and make a ladder of sand to heaven, then go to God and come to me no more." The Magistrates found John only guilty of lying and ordered him to be fined and whipped. He found himself in another dilemma in 1692, however, when he was accused of witchcraft. He was indicted for "inciting a dog to afflict others," which could mean a death sentence during Witch Times. John ran away and hid in the woods, thus avoiding the hangman, but the dog he incited to give two teenage girls "the evil eye," was hanged.
Never Walk Under a Ladder
One superstition from witch-hanging days that persists to this day is never to walk under a ladder. The reason is that when a witch was pushed from the ladder at the gallows, she usually dropped under the ladder, and if you were standing there, this "fire-brand of hell" might touch you. It was thought that if a witch touched anything, especially during her last gasp on earth, it would soon die. Therefore, it was believed that if you walked under a ladder leaning on the gallows tree even after the witch had been cut down and disposed of, her curse might still be lingering there, and you would die within a year.