graphic of a great deal of hodgepodge

Our Founding Mother…

Richard Seger, or Seagar, emigrated from England in the early years of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and was one of the first settlers of Hartford, Connecticut. Born in Suffolk in 1595, he married Elizabeth in Hartford in 1649.

There is considerable disagreement about Elizabeth’s maiden name: there is a note below. However, we have an unusual amount of surviving documentation about one aspect of her life. At a time when women were nearly invisible in the public record, Goodwife Seager had the perilous distinction of being tried three times as a witch, twice in 1663 and once, convicted, in 1665. Of course we have no idea what she was like. Often accusations of witchcraft appear to have been in part motivated by property disputes, envy, resentment of an abrasive personality, pride, or an eccentric person’s behavior. At the time of the accusations, Goody Seager’s four children ranged in age from eight to twelve years old. To the best of my knowledge, we can’t be sure of her age, but given the age of the children Richard may have been considerably older than his wife. He died at the age of 87 in 1682.

Life was unsettling for these early settlers of Hartford. By the 1660s, with the restoration of the Monarchy in England, some Puritans appear to have armored themselves with an ever-more fanatical sense of providentiality: their settlement was a New England “Israel,” a bastion of religious purity in an increasingly hostile, impious world. Increase Mather’s famous 1684 tract of “Illustrious Providences” promotes this notion, as well as insisting on a spiritual cause for every affliction. Any unfortunate occurrence — illness, storms, accidents, food spoilage, wolf predation — could be construed as the work of the devil.

At this time a religious schism erupted between two equally self-righteous factions of the Hartford area churches. Ministers were fired; families moved away. Insecure and suspicious of one another, these settlements were out on the inimical frontier, vulnerable, and quick to blame someone else for their problems. Ironically, ministers from both sides of the vituperative Presbyterian/Congregational dispute found a way to come together to prosecute alleged witches in 1662. Four ministers were the primary witch-hunters, who doubtless prompted the afflicted with textbook examples of what witches were supposed to do, and browbeat the alleged witches as well. They determined guilt, and perhaps encouraged confessions, with such actions as water trials [Mather], which we would call torture today. Four of the accused were hanged in 1662-63, others fled the colony, and Goody Seager stayed to argue.

testimony
Case of Goodwife Seager. Robert Stern’s testimony
from Connecticut colonial records, Wyllys papers,
Connecticut State Library.
Physical size of manuscript, 39.4 x 27.9 cm.

Hysterical accusations of witchcraft plagued New England from Berwick in what is now Maine to Connecticut’s Long Island Sound. The last and most famous epidemic of witchcraft hysteria was in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. This earlier instance in Hartford and Wethersfield occurred at a time when Connecticut had been awarded a royal charter for governance independent of Massachusetts, and had an intellectually sophisticated Governor, John Winthrop, Jr.; which may help explain how Goody Seager (and a few lucky others) avoided the noose.

Goody Seager appears to have been sharp-tongued and with a good bit of wit, two qualities that were doubtless unhelpful in a fearful and superstitious time. In one deposition, told that she had been named as a witch, “Goodwife Seager said that Mr. Haynes had writ a great deal of hodgepodge” about her.

(For anyone who wants to get into my shallow end of the weeds of 18th century intellectual history, an aside on Governor Winthrop can be found here.)

Connecticut State Library archives preserve the accusations against Goodwife Seager in two documents in the Samuel Wyllys papers. The transcriptions are those of the Archives. One is the testimony of Robert Stern:

Robt Sterne Testifies as/ followet[h]./ I saw This woman Goodwife Seage/ in the woods w[i]th three more wome[n]/ and wit[h] them {these} I saw two/ black creatures like two Indians/ but taller I saw likewise a Kettle/ there over a fire, I saw the wome[n]/ dance round these black Creatures/ and whiles I looked upon them one/ of the women G Greensmith sai[th]/ lookr who is yonder and then they/ ran away up the hill. I stood still/ and the black things came towards/ mee and then turned to come/ away: He further sait[h] I know the/ F[a]lons by their Habits or clothes/ haveing observed such clothes on/ them not long before:/
 
testimony
Case of Goodwife Seager.
Testimony from Connecticut colonial records, Connecticut State Library.
Physical size of manuscript, 4.25 x 6.375 in.

The second paper, testimony of Stephen Hart, Josiah Willard and Daniel Pratt relates how Goodwife Seager spoke to Satan and evil spirits, and also records her retort to one of her accusers, not denying that she called on Satan, but that she was inaccurately and only partially quoted, with reference to Acts 19:13-15:

Wee underwritten do testifie, that Goodwife/ seager said, (upon the relateing of Goodwife/ Garrett Testimony, in reference to seager/ sending satan, That the reason why she sent/ satan, was because he knew she was no witch, we/ say seager said Dame you can remember part/ of what I said, but you do not speake of the whole/ you say nothing of what I brought to prove that/ satan knew I was no witch, I brought/ that place in the acts, about the 7 sons that/ spak to the evill spirits in the name of Jesus/ whom paul preacheth I have forgot there/ names: Stephen Hart/ Josiah Willard/ Daniell Pratt/

Anecdotes abound in the unpunctuated language of court records, with wayward pronouns making comprehension a bit of a challenge. A number of these transcriptions are available from older publications in digital form, but I do not have the original source material in these instances.

A neighbor, refusing a gift of parsnips from Richard and Elizabeth:

… he told Goodman Seager it was because Ann Cole [a woman suffering from fits and believed to be the victim of witchcraft] at the fast at Mr. Wyllys’s cried out against his wife as being a witch: and he would not receive the parsnips, lest he should be brought in hereafter as a testimony against his wife, then Goodwife Seager said that Mr. Haynes had write a great deal of hodgepodge that Ann Cole had said that she was under suspicion for a witch: and then she went to prayer, and did adventure to bid Satan go and tell them she was no witch. This deponent after she had a little paused, said, who did you say, then Goodwife Seager said again that she had sent Satan to tell them, she was no witch. This deponent asked her why she made use of Satan to tell them, why did she not beseech God to tell them she was no witch. She answered because Satan knew she was no witch.

We underwritten do testify, that Goodwife Seger said upon the relating of Goodwife Garrret's testimony in reference to her sending Satan, that the reason why she sent Satan was because he knew she was no witch, and to prove that she brought that place in the 19 Acts 14. Edward Stebbing, Steven Hart senior Joshua Willard.

Further Goodwife Garrett saith that Will Edwards told Goodwife Seager that she did fly, the said Seager replied that William Edwards made her fly, then Goodwife Garrett said then you own you did fly, the Goodwife Seager replied if I did fly William Edwards made me fly.

An article in Connecticut Magazine, November 1899 by Charles J. Hoadly, LL.D., cites Rebecca Greensmith’s confession and testimony against Goody Seager:

I also testify, that I being in the woods at a meeting, there was with me goody Seager, goodwife Sanford and goodwife Ayres. And at another time there was a meeting under a tree in the green by our house, and there was there James Walkicy, Peter Grant’s wife, goodwife Ayres, and Henry Palmer’s wife, of Wethersfield, and goody Seager; and there we danced and had a bottle of sack. It was in the night and something like a cat called me out to the meeting, and I was in Mr. Varlet’s orchard with Mrs. Judith Varlet, and she told me that she was mu[ch] troubled with the marshal, Jonathan Gilbert, and cried; and she said if it lay in her power she would do him a mischief, or what hurt she could. Taken upon oath in court.

It seems to me that Goody Seager had a sharp mind behind her sharp tongue, and a good deal of intellectual courage. In these times her skepticism was blasphemous, and probably perceived as even more outrageous coming from a woman. She may have been lucky that the governor of the Colony didn’t altogether accept accusations of witchcraft based on “spectral,” rather than physical, evidence. Her acquittal was essentially based on a judicial determination of lack of evidence, instituted by Governor John Winthrop, Jr.. Her stalwart refusal to confess to witchcraft (unlike Rebecca Greensmith, who confessed and implicated her husband and Goody Seager, and was promptly hanged) and her blunt dismissal of her accusers is startling.

A number of controversial acquittals in Connecticut had caused friction between officials determined to uphold legal standards of proof and local residents convinced of a defendant’s guilt. Of the eleven women and men indicted during the 1662-63 Hartford witch hunt, only four were convicted, to the dismay of those who believed them all to deserve death. A few years later, in 1665, another Hartford woman, Elizabeth Seager, was convicted of witchcraft by the jurymen charged with her case. But the governor refused to carry out the sentence, declaring the evidence inadequate. Goody Seager was subsequently freed on the grounds that the jury's decision to convict was legally indefensible. The jurymen were furious and those who believed that Elizabeth Seager was a witch, of whom there were many, made it clear that they felt betrayed.

—Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692 by Richard Godbeer, Oxford University Press, 2005

From an online document:

A court held at Hartford, July 2, 1663
Elizabeth Seager thou art here indicted by the name of Elizabeth Seager the wife of Richard Seager not having the fear of God before thine eyes thou hast entertaied familiarity with Satan the grand enemy of God and mankind, and by his help hast acted things in a preternatural way beyond the ordinary course of nature, as also for that thou has committed adultery, and hast spoken blasphemy against God, contrary to the laws of God, and the established laws of this corporation for all or any of which crimes by the said laws thou deserves to die.

The prisoner pleaded not guilty of the indictment and referred herself to the trial of the jury.

The jury return that they find the prisoner guilty of the indictment in that particular of adultery. Court of Assistants Records, 56. p. 5,CS:

A modern male author dismisses Goody Seger with an assumption that she was an outcast, an adulterer, and unlikable:

Goody Seager probably deserved all that came to her in trials and punishment. She was one of the typical characters in the early communities upon whom distrust and dislike and suspicion inevitably fell. Exercising witch powers was one of her more reputable qualities. She was indicted for blasphemy, adultery, and witchcraft at various times, was convicted of adultery, and found guilty of witchcraft in June, 1665. She owed her escape from hanging to a finding of the Court of Assistants that the jury's verdict did not legally answer to the indictment, and she was set “free from further suffering or imprisonment.” Records County Court (3: 5: 52); Colonial Records of Connecticut (2: 531); Rhode Island Colonial Records (2: 388).
—The Witchcraft Delusion In Colonial Connecticut (1647-1697), John M. Taylor, 2004

As there was no partner named in the accusation of adultery, one wonders whether the alleged partner was the devil. The conviction did not drive her husband Richard away: some years after her release from prison, she and Richard departed Hartford for the more tolerant atmosphere of the Rhode Island Colony. After these events no witches were hanged in Connecticut.

Richard and Elizabeth’s third child, Joseph, born in Hartford around 1652, was the great-great grandfather of Revolutionary War veteran Joseph Seger.

Further Information

As time passes and more research is done on the witchcraft hysteria, I will try to update these references.

book cover

Before Salem: Witch Hunting in the Connecticut River Valley, 1647-1663, 2017

Richard S. Ross III offers a deep view of the cultural and social background to Connecticut’s execution of witches, including its roots in Civil War England and noted the coincidence of conflict and breakdown of governmental authority with the resurgence of witchcraft persecutions.

 

Ellen Ravens-Seger has questioned the attribution of the family name “ Moody” to his wife by earlier family genealogists:

I have removed John Moody from my family tree—I have not been able to find reasonable proof that he is Elizabeth Seager’s father. I have spent hours/days researching this, going back to early genealogical works to see where Charles and Cordelia Seager may have obtained the info, as well as a close look at John Moody’s will (attached), the only apparent source (?) of the name of his “daughter.”

I am now in the camp of another genealogist, Bill Wright (author of The Descendants of John Segar of South Kingstown from Rhode Island, 1992), that Charles and Cordelia Seager made a mistake when they included the relationship in their 1978 published genealogy which is now cited as fact. Savage, a prominent genealogist in the 1850s, read the unreadable last name in John Moody’s will as Elizabeth “Seager”. It has also been read as “Pepper” (the name is quite unreadable, as you can see, attached). Bill Wright said he engaged all the experts at the New England Historical Society Library (he said “you could almost make it read any 6-letter surname you wanted”) and believes that “the interpretation in Cutter is correct—she was Elizabeth Pepper.”

I also note that all of these parties assume that the woman mentioned in John Moody’s will after the “son Samuel Moody” is a daughter, but that is not explicitly stated. Son Samuel is established in other research as their only child, although a daughter accused of witchcraft might understandably be written out of early family histories. Perhaps these genealogists/those familiar with wills of this era have established that only a related female would be mentioned in a will?

From an entry on genealogy.com:

John Moody (son of George Moody and Margaret ???? (Moody) was born abt. 08 Apr 1593 in Moulton, Suffolk, England, and died 1655 in Hartford,CT. He married Sarah Cox on 08 Sep 1617 in St. James, Bury St. Edmunds, England.

Children of John Moody and Sarah Cox:
+Elizabeth Moody, b. 1628, d. Aft. 1666.

The Podcast of Connecticut History, , Grating the Nutmeg, presented three conversations about witchcraft persecution in Connecticut in October 2017; the third is a conversation with Richard Ross.

Kara Seager Segalla provided information on Richard and Elizabeth’s later years in her extensive RootsWeb postings:

By the time the South Side Mill Rates of Hartford were set in 1656/57, Richard Seager had become a substantial property holder in Hartford, Connecticut and was admitted as a Freeman of Connecticut in May of 1657. At a General Court of Election on May 21, 1657, “Were made free before the Court, those whose names are underwritten, Rich. Seager.” With the problems resulting from his wife’s conviction on the charges of witchcraft and the drowning of the[ir] son, Ebenezer in 1669, Richard Seager moved with his wife and their son, John, to Southold, Rhode Island, and were listed there in 1671 (Austin's Rhode Island Record). In about 1678 the Seagers moved east to Westerly, Rhode Island, settling near the Pawcatuck River in an area claimed both by Connecticut and Rhode Island. On May 18, 1671, Richard Seager was one of twenty-two inhabitants of Westerly, who swore allegiance to the King and Rhode Island before a Court of Justices at Westerly (Rhode Island Colonial Records, 2:388). In about 1679, the family moved again settling in Newport, Rhode Island (Carl Boyer III, 1993). Richard died there in 1682, about age 87, but there is no record of the place and time of his wife's death.

Note: “Representative Men and Old Families of Rhode Island”, Vol. 1, pg. 572, published in 1908 by J.H. Beers & Co., Chicago 1908; Orlando Public Library RD 975.5 R V1, age 63 in 1658. Death possibly in RI.; “The Seager Families of Colonial New England” researched and compiled by Cordelia Thies Seager and Chalres William Seager, Illahee Hills, Brevard, North Carolina, copyright 1978. 250 copies were printed by Adams Press, Chicago, Illinois. 929.273 Sel3s at Family History Library.

The Hartford Courant published an opinion piece by Susan Campbell on 20 June, 2019, regarding a memorial for those accused of witchcraft in Connecticut:

Turns out it’s hard to find a place to put a memorial to people accused of witchcraft

Hartford's Ancient Burial Ground is located on Gold Street next to the Travelers building. It's the first graveyard in the city and contains 415 still-standing tombstones. Many of the people memorialized here had connections to Connecticut's witch trials. Tony, says his long-suffering wife, Judy: Let it go.

And Anthony Griego, 78, a retired cop, hears his bride of 51 years. He does. But for years, Griego, of Hamden, has been trying to create a memorial to the people who were executed for practicing witchcraft in Connecticut during colonial times.

Salem, Mass., gets the tourists, but Connecticut wrote the first chapter in New England’s dubious history with witches with the execution of one Alse (alternately spelled Achsah or Alice) Young, a Windsor woman who was hanged (as most of the convicted were) on May 26, 1647, most likely at the site of the current Old State House in Hartford.

witch memorial
Tony Griego’s proposed monument to the victims

Colonial magistrates eventually unleashed the hounds against 11 people, including nine women and two men, the latter of whom were married to executed women. It is one of the Puritans’ original sins.

Griego said nearly 30 other Connecticut people were unjustly accused of conspiring with the devil. Escaping the noose was significant, but based on an accusation, people lost jobs, community standing, family and homes. A witch hunt, as Griego says, isn’t like an Easter egg hunt. It doesn’t end happy. The effects followed the families for generations.

Griego is a pagan, and the notion of people who are different drawing the wrong kind of attention weighs heavily on him. He has drawn a rough draft of the proposed stone memorial, which would stand about 6 feet high, with the names of both accused and executed carved into it. He estimates the monument will cost between $6,000 to $7,000, which can be raised quickly — GoFundMe, maybe — but the sticking point has been finding a group willing to give the stone a home.

Significant Connecticut witchcraft sites aren’t terribly well-documented, and different owners of sites that are well-documented have been slow to respond to Griego’s requests.

Some of that is a lack of documentation. The information on Young’s execution, for example, is mentioned in the diary of a Windsor town clerk. Many of the other records, said Griego, have disappeared. Some of that may be the result of time and the river, but how many records were expunged because the powers wanted to erase this dark chapter?

There has been some movement to acknowledge the past. In 2017, the town of Windsor pardoned Young and another Windsor woman, Lydia Gilbert, who was executed for witchcraft in 1654. The Judy Dworin Performance Project has memorialized the moment in a popular performance. Descendants of the accused and the executed have appeared before legislative committees, pleading their cases.

But so far, all Griego has for a monument is a thick file of disappointments. He has attended meetings, contacted a series of governors, tried to form alliances with similar-minded folks (many of whom have, understandably, given up). He occasionally threatens to throw in the towel, and then something in him ignites and he makes another phone call.

So a couple of weeks ago, there was Griego, calling the Hartford office of Mayor Luke Bronin. Griego said the phone rang a few times, and then it disconnected. He called the switchboard and was given the mayor’s cell phone, but Griego said the mayor’s mailbox was full and could take no more messages.

It’s probably a metaphor for the process so far.

According to the state Judicial Branch law library, witchcraft hasn’t been a capital crime in the state since 1715, and it had disappeared from state law books by 1750. The crime for which people were executed doesn’t even exist now. A faulty judicial system killed them, and we could learn from this, if we’d stop pretending it didn’t happen.

Beyond the morality of righting a wrong, the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism says visitors spend more than $100 million a year in Salem alone, and most of that is spent at historical sites devoted to the witch trials. Tourism has been growing in Connecticut in the last decade or so, and according to the state tourism office, part of the state’s draw is our historical sites. Travelers to the state tend to be educated and older. Done right, an emphasis on righting an ancient judicial wrong could be good business.

Griego may be on to something. Tony? Don’t let it go.


John Winthrop, Jr. by Sir Peter Lely
John Winthrop, Jr., by Sir Peter Lely

Governor John Winthrop, Jr.

What a difference a generation makes!

John Winthrop, Jr. wielded enormous influence in Puritan Connecticut. He was the first governor of the Connecticut [Hartford] Colony. Born in England in 1606 and son of the first governor of Massachusetts, he was an alchemist, a respected scientist and healer, and apparently a bit of a skeptic. His curiosity put him in the ranks of the early enlightenment’s “natural philosophers,” and in tacit opposition to the ideological and religious severity of the first generation of Puritans in Massachusetts. He traveled to Italy and Turkey in his alchemical pursuits. Among his friends were the dissident Roger Williams, a Catholic alchemist, and prominent Quakers, who were still under threat of execution in neighboring Massachusetts.

Chris Pagliuco, in an article in the Winter 2007-2008 Hog River Journal, republished by the Wethersfield (CT) Historical Society, discusses the case of Katharine Harrison, accused of witchcraft in 1669. According to this author, “Like Harrison, Winthrop was frequently paid for healing services. While likely not an astrologer, Winthrop maintained a strong interest in the occult as it pertained to alchemy, a mystical form of chemical experimentation for the benefit of medicine, mining, and industry. Winthrop was also an avid astronomer, bringing the first telescope to the colonies, and he even may have discovered a fifth moon of Jupiter. Winthrop's notoriety in these fields was so great that he was a charter member and the first North American admitted to the famed Royal Society of England, a prestigious scientific organization. ”

Connecticut State Historian Walter W. Woodward offers a deeper view of John Winthrop, Jr., both in his 2013 book, Prospero’s America: John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606-1676, University of North Carolina Press, quoted below, and other articles including one from Spring 2011 published in American Ancestors, which discusses how science served his faith, and about the mining and medical enterprises established by Winthrop and fellow alchemists. A pdf of this article can be downloaded here.

From Woodward’s Prospero’s America:

Winthrop followed a consistent strategy in every witchcraft case with which he was involved. Recognizing that formal public witchcraft accusations reflected a communitywide social pathology, his priority was always reintegrating the community and restoring social cohesion. Winthrop refused to let a witch die, but he was not at all averse to coercing a witch to conform to social conventions…. not completely innocent, but, rather, not exactly guilty. Such findings validated the groups for the public suspicion that had produced the witchcraft charges, without empowering the accusers, thus defusing some of the fear and anger that underlay the charges. Simultaneously, it put witch suspects on notice that there would be strict expectations regarding their future behavior. [p.224]

By the time John Winthrop returned to Hartford in June 1663, four people—Rebecca Greensmith, Nathanial Greensmith, Mary Sanford, and Mary Barnes of Farmington—had gone to the gallows. As many as five others had fled the colony in fear. Only two persons had been acquitted. Andrew Sanford, the first person indicted in the witch-hunt, had barely escaped conviction; his wife Mary had been executed. Elizabeth Seager had been even more narrowly acquitted of witchcraft charges in January 1663,and she already stood accused a second time…. [p.234]

…When court met in July 1663, the month after Winthrop returned from England, Seager was charged again with witchcraft and with additional charges of blasphemy and adultery. Winthrop faced the challenge of attempting to undo a work in progress. He undoubtedly rejected both the heavy-handed verdict of Seager’s first trial and the intellectually discredited means, like the water ordeal, that had been invoked for obtaining evidence against her. Because of the number of witch prosecutions that had occurred in his absence, however, Winthrop took what seems a cautious though moderating stance toward Seager’s second prosecution. Considering the adulation that had accompanied his return to Hartford with a spectacularly generous royal charter and the enhanced intellectual authority he possessed as one of the charter members of England’s newly founded Royal Society, Winthrop might easily have been able to defuse the accusations of witchcraft. More likely a compromise was arranged with his fellow assistants and pressed on an intractable jury. Whatever the tactical considerations might have been, at the end of Seager’s second trial she was once again acquitted of witchcraft, though found guilty of adultery. [p.236]

Winthrop’s activities have generated considerable online attention. For example, alchemy in the American Colonies is the nominal subject of a broad-ranging article by Kimberly Nichols in Newtopia Magazine available at Wordpress, which describes Winthrop’s activities at length. It also presents a good deal of quick biographical reference to Winthrop’s intervention to protect the surviving Pequot and other native peoples and his attempt to establish a more harmonious and respectful relationship with them.