Between God and Satan with Beth Caruso and Katherine Hermes – Thou Shalt Not Suffer: The Witch Trial Podcast
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Jump into an informative discussion about revealing research of the Connecticut and Massachusetts witch hunt with Beth Caruso and Katherine Hermes, authors of the article “Between God and Satan: Thomas Thornton, Witch-Hunting, and Religious Mission in the English Atlantic World, 1647–1693 which was published in the Fall 2022 issue of Connecticut History Review.
Beth Caruso, a Thou Shalt Not Suffer Podcast listener favorite, is the author of the books One of Windsor and The Salty Rose, and Cofounder of the CT Witch Memorial and Connecticut Witch Trial Exoneration Project.
Dr. Katherine Hermes, J.D., Ph.D., is professor of history at Central Connecticut State University, co-host of Grating the Nutmeg podcast, and publisher of Connecticut Explored, the premier magazine of Connecticut History. We connect past witch trials to today’s witchcraft fear with a discussion answering our advocacy questions: Why do we witch hunt? How do we witch hunt? How do we stop hunting witches?
Sarah Jack: Welcome to another episode of Thou Shalt Not Suffer: The Witch Trial Podcast. I’m Sarah Jack.
Josh Hutchinson: And I’m Josh Hutchinson.
Sarah Jack: Today’s guests are Beth Caruso and Katherine Hermes, authors of the article ” Between God and Satan,” which was published in the fall 2022 Issue of Connecticut History Review. It brings the witch trial bystander Thomas Thornton into focus. Although Thomas Thornton could be considered a possible bystander to New England witchcraft trials, he was a neighbor [00:01:00] of Alice Young, the first accused witch of the American colonies executed, in Connecticut Colony in the Backer Row neighborhood in Windsor, Connecticut, where he also lived.
Josh Hutchinson: He was also present at many other Witch trials, in the same place at the same time, including the Salem Witch trials towards the end of his life. So he’s the one person who connects the first witchcraft execution in New England to the last.
Sarah Jack: And this very researched and informative article is available for you to read and to continue research.
Josh Hutchinson: You’ll enjoy the conversation we have today and learn more about [00:02:00] Thomas Thornton later.
We have so much good content coming to you in this 2023.
Sarah Jack: It’s very exciting to be able to bring so many great conversations. It’s really setting the stage for a great year of content.
Josh Hutchinson: We’re having a wonderfully busy and productive year. We’ve got a lot going on with End Witch Hunts and with the Connecticut Witch Trial Exoneration Project. Legislation is on the table to exonerate those accused of witchcraft in colonial Connecticut, and we couldn’t be more excited about that.
Sarah Jack: I’m very excited. I’m personally excited as I descend from one of the accused victims of Connecticut, Winifred Benham, Sr. of Wallingford, and not just because of my connection to her, but [00:03:00] having my interest in the American colony witch trials has encompassed Connecticut, and there’s dozens of accused from that colony that are gonna have the opportunity to no longer be looked at as guilty.
Josh Hutchinson: And whether you’re a descendant of one of the accused or you’re just interested in seeing justice for the victims of the witch trials, please join us on our Discord server to learn how you can help get that legislation passed. We’ll have a link in the show notes.
Sarah Jack: If you are even a little bit interested in volunteering or finding a way to participate in this exoneration project, we want you. Anybody who’s interested, there’s room for you to join us.
Josh Hutchinson: We’re coming from across the country to direct our [00:04:00] message at Connecticut that we believe this legislation is important and that they should pass it and clear these names.
Sarah Jack: We believed that a collaboration would be important to fulfill this project, and it is. It’s a huge collaboration. There’s lots of Connecticut residents that want this, but we’re able to support them, and everybody’s doing it for these victims and coming together to correct a historical wrong.
Josh Hutchinson: And we’re looking to send a message about the other witch hunts going on in our world right now. We think that the legislature of Connecticut and the governor can make a powerful statement that we will not tolerate witch hunts.
Sarah Jack: When our country has completely stood against this horrible history, [00:05:00] it is a statement to the rest of the world that it needs to stop, that it was never okay, that it isn’t an acceptable behavior now.
Josh Hutchinson: As we speak, volunteers are mailing letters and sending emails to legislators in Connecticut, and there will be a hearing of the judiciary committee in February or March, we don’t have the date yet, but we’re looking for volunteers to come there and just be part of a show of strength and support for this legislation. If you’re interested in doing either of those things, again, please follow the link in the show description to our Discord server.
Sarah Jack: Thank you for joining us and for making our efforts stronger.
Josh Hutchinson: Yes, thank you. And we want to announce that we have a new [00:06:00] Zazzle store for End Witch Hunts and a Zazzle store for Thou Shalt Not Suffer: The Witch Trial Podcast. So if you’re interested in showing your support of witch hunt victims from around the world, those in Connecticut, or you want to buy merch from the show, please head on over to our Zazzle stores, follow the links in the show description.
For additional news on what’s going on with the exoneration effort, visit Connecticutwitchtrials.org or join our Discord server.
And now I present to you a summary of the life of Thomas Thornton, the subject of today’s episode.
Thomas Thornton was a tanner who came from near London to Dorchester, Massachusetts, and then settled in Windsor, Connecticut by 1638. In 1647, there was a spate of child deaths and an outbreak [00:07:00] of influenza in Windsor, where Thomas Thornton was still living. Four of his six children died at that time. His neighbor, Alice Young, was hanged as a witch in Hartford in that same year. After that, Thomas relocated his family to Stratford, Connecticut, where Goody Bassett was tried for witchcraft in 1651 and executed. Her trial and execution led in turn to the trial and execution of Goody Knapp of Fairfield, whose trial and execution led to an accusation against Mary Staples of New Haven.
Thomas Thornton later became a minister and preached in Ireland for a time before King Charles II was restored to the throne, and Thornton was ejected as a Non-conformist. He returned to New England and settled in the Plymouth Colony in the town of Yarmouth, where he was the minister for many years. On March 6th, 1677, Thomas Thornton wrote a [00:08:00] letter to Increased Mather, which is significant because that was the same day that Mary Ingram was tried for witchcraft in Plymouth. Katherine Hermes and Beth Caruso believe that Thomas Thornton sent that letter from Plymouth on the date of Mary Ingham’s trial.
Thomas Thornton was connected to many important figures in politics, religion, and witch trials. He communicated with Connecticut Governor John Winthrop, Jr., the Mathers, including Increase and Cotton, the Cottons, John Sr. And John Jr., and witch trial Judge Samuel Sewell.
In 1692, Thomas Thornton moved to Boston, where he became a member of the Mathers’ Church. He was present at Margaret Rule’s bedside while she was dealing with her affliction, possible diabolical possession, as believed by many at the time. Later on, when Thornton was on his deathbed, which trial Judge Samuel Sewell kept [00:09:00] vigil.
Thomas Thornton had many links to Witch trials, from the first witchcraft execution in the colonies, that of Alice Young in 1647, to the last witchcraft execution in the colonies, which was in Salem in 1692. He was connected to key players involved in these trials.
Sarah Jack: Thank you for that summary, Josh.
Josh Hutchinson: You’re welcome.
Sarah Jack: And I’m excited to introduce Beth Caruso and Katherine Hermes, authors of the article “Between God and Satan,” which was published in the fall 2022 issue of Connecticut History Review. Beth Caruso is the author of One of Windsor and The Salty Rose
Dr. Katherine Hermes, JD, PhD, is professor of history at Central Connecticut State University. She’s co-host of Grating The Nutmeg podcast and publisher of Connecticut Explored, the premier magazine of Connecticut history.
Josh Hutchinson: What can you [00:10:00] tell us about the meaning behind the title of your manuscript published in Connecticut History Review called “Between God and Satan?”
Kathy Hermes: So the title really comes from a number of sermons that talked about the fact that New England was part of the battleground between God and Satan. Cotton Mather, in particular, was famous for holding this view, but many other ministers in New England believe that because it was this godly mission that the devil took a special interest in undermining that mission.
Beth Caruso: I think in the article, that title also refers to children as being vulnerable in a space where they are vulnerable to influences by Satan, they are vulnerable to being bewitched or falling to evil. And at that [00:11:00] time, it’s the parents’ duty and responsibility and the church’s responsibility to raise them and instill the proper morals, because they’re not truly grounded in those morals at that point in time.
Sarah Jack: Who was Thomas Thornton before his exposure to witchcraft accusations?
Beth Caruso: Thomas Thornton was a tradesman, basically. He came to New England from an area outside of London, and he first settled in Dorchester, Massachusetts. And after that he settled with many others from Dorchester in Windsor, Connecticut. He had several properties in Windsor. His home lot was on Backer Row. He also had properties which were farm lots and wood lots, and also [00:12:00] probably a place where he did his tannery business, which was in the Palisade on the Farmington. We have to remember tannery can be a little stinky and needs water, but the property record for him as a home lot is on Backer Row. And his wife was Ann Tinker, who was one of several sisters who also landed in Windsor on Backer Row.
Josh Hutchinson: What was Thornton’s first experience with witchcraft?
Beth Caruso: We know in 1647 there was an epidemic that came through Windsor, and at the very same time, Thornton’s neighbor, Alice Young, was hanged for witchcraft. It just so happened that Thornton had six children, [00:13:00] possibly five. His youngest we’re not sure if he was born in Windsor during the epidemic or shortly after. But we found out through research that four of those children, three definitively died. And the fourth, because the records for him stop at the same time Alice Young was hanged. So we don’t know for sure if he had any other exposure to witch trials before that, but that incident on Backer Row was so tragic and so influential in his life that he went from being a tanner to a minister in just a short time.
I just wanna say as far as Thornton, he wasn’t [00:14:00] initially the focus. The focus was Alice Young, and there was so little information about her. There’s only three direct records about her. One was, “one of Windsor hanged as a witch in Hartford.” That was by Winthrop Sr. There was another notation by Winthrop Jr. in a disease about John Young. On the back it said, “his wife was hanged as a witch in Hartford.” And then the very last one was on the inside cover of the Matthew Grant diary, which said, “Alice Young was hanged on May the 26th, 1647.” So this whole investigation into Thomas Thornton really started out as a investigation [00:15:00] into what happened to Alice Young.
And I thought, why not investigate her neighborhood, the people where she lived? And it was in doing that that Thomas Thornton showed up, and the interesting facts about Thornton just really stood out so much. It was still difficult to find information about Alice Young, although through Thomas Thornton, we know much, much more now.
But when I was working on this for information about my book, One of Windsor, and then later to try and write a article about Alice, Kathy was mentoring me and I had tried a couple times to put out an article, but I said, “I want your honest feedback. What do you think?” [00:16:00] And, in discussing this, we realized that Thomas Thornton was really the person that we needed to focus on, because of all his connections from this first witch panic on Backer Row to what we found out later on, information where he was involved, at least on the periphery, in other witch trials, including Salem.
In investigating Thomas Thornton, the things that really jumped off the page right from the get-go were that I saw that he had a daughter, Priscilla, who died in 1647, and Cotton Mather wrote a testament to her piety. He was giving examples of children [00:17:00] who were pious, and I was amazed. I thought, “how in the world does Thomas Thornton, this tanner person, later become a minister? And Cotton Mather writes about his daughter, and his daughter is one of the ones that died in 1647 on Backer Row.” And in this description of Priscilla and her piety, there are also things about brushes with the devil and wanting to do a day of humiliation with fellow children that needed to become more good and righteous.
I thought, “that’s strange.” And then the other thing that stood out too is he’s at the bedside of Margaret Rule, which is someone who’s bewitched during that whole same Salem period in Boston. And finally, you know what really blew my mind was [00:18:00] here’s this guy, he’s dying, he lives a very old age, and Samuel Sewall, a judge during the Salem Witch trials, is at his bedside doing vigil with him. So all these things about Thornton really stood out.
Kathy Hermes: Yeah. Thornton had an extraordinary life, and we didn’t know anything about really his time in Ireland. There are big gaps in the biographical information about Thomas Thornton that I think we finally closed by finding the letter from Reverend Hook in New Haven to Cromwell saying that Thomas Thornton would be coming over to Ireland and was joining the recruits for the ministry. Finding a little documentary evidence of his time in Ireland about where he served at several garrisons, like six Mile Bridge and in Limerick and so on. And then realizing that [00:19:00] his time was coterminous with that of the Mathers themselves, that Samuel, Nathaniel, and Increase Mather were all in Dublin at that time, under the tutelage of a man named Samuel Winter. And, even though my dissertation work was on religion and law in colonial New England in the 17th century, I really hadn’t studied the input of Irish ministers or ministers who were in Ireland. Many of them were actually from England who were in Ireland. And so I hadn’t really heard of Samuel Winter, even though he had connections with the Reverend John Cotton of Boston and then, later on, the Mathers. Winter turned out to be a very fascinating character, who I think was probably greatly influential on all of the ministers who were later ejected from Ireland when the interregnum ended and King Charles II was restored to the throne of England.
Sarah Jack: [00:20:00] What else would you like us to know about Alice Young?
Beth Caruso: Alice Young was in the middle of all these Tinker sisters on Backer Row, so I thought she possibly could be related to them or maybe her husband was related to them. It was not just because of her placement on Backer Row. It was also that after this witch trial in 1647, everyone left Backer Row fairly quickly, except for one woman, Rhodie Tinker, who was then widowed and was waiting to remarry. And those days you certainly didn’t wanna be connected to a witch, a defined witch in your society, because that could come down on you later on that connection.
So I found it [00:21:00] interesting how all these people from the same family, they all left, and we know Thomas Thornton and his wife left, as well after their children died. You find them pretty early on in Stratford, and that’s the same place where John Young ends up going. His daughter ends up staying in Windsor, because we know that Alice Young had one daughter, Alice Jr., and we do know that she stayed in Windsor, because the marriage record we found is that she married Simon Beamon in Windsor before they went to Springfield together. But Backer Row during that time, there were a lot of children living there. And unfortunately, during the epidemic, there were, like I said before, four of the Thornton’s children who died, but [00:22:00] another household right up the way, there was another child who died, Sarah Sension. I thought it was interesting because piecing together the ages of the children, that there were a lot of young girls right around menarche age. Priscilla was 11 years old when she died. Her sibling Ann was nine when she died. These would’ve been the playmates of Alice Young’s daughter right next door. And then Sarah Sension, she was right around that age. Rhodie Tinker Hobbs Taylor, she had two daughters from her first marriage, and we think they probably would’ve been right around that age, too. So what’s interesting when we’re looking at this case and we’re piecing things together, is the amount of young girls. This [00:23:00] element that you see later in Salem, but also this element of illness connected to a witch panic during the Hartford Witch Panic. It all started with a young girl on her deathbed who was sick.
Josh Hutchinson: That’s a very interesting connection. So many witch trials, you have the childhood illness, and a lot of it revolves around young girls. Why do you think that might be the case?
Beth Caruso: The Puritans thought of women as the weaker sex than men. They certainly weren’t the only religion to do that or the only religious sects to do that, but in so many of these witch trials, it’s a young girl right around the age of menarche who’s bewitched. I mentioned Thomas Thornton at the bedside of Margaret Rule. She’s another young girl of that age. So [00:24:00] the young girls, they’re weak, because they’re susceptible to being bewitched.
You don’t really see that with the young boys. At least I can’t recall seeing that. It’s the adult women who tend to be accused of witchcraft. The majority of people accused were female, and they were supposed to be the weaker sex, because they were more susceptible to the devil, as well, not with the outcome of bewitchment, but with the outcome of being actual witches and signing a pact with the devil. So it was interesting to see some of those elements that pop up again and again on Backer Row.
Kathy Hermes: I kinda look at it maybe a little differently. The Puritans believed in a morphology of conversion. They really saw [00:25:00] life in terms of stages. And it’s a little like Eric Erikson’s terrible twos and so on. Where they thought the children were born really in a state of depravity without salvation, they had to be baptized as infants, and that would help as a converting ordinance.
But they would have to go through a stage of preparation, where they learned moral behavior, and these things had kind of age ranges attached to them. They weren’t hard and fast. Normally, in the teenage years people would experience, if they were going to experience it, saving grace, what they call justification. And so that conversion experience that people often expected in the teenage years was a time of great spiritual crisis. And it was often preceded by what was called a period of humiliation.
I think of it as most of us can relate to this, right? That when you’re, like in middle school or [00:26:00] whatever, you just feel like awful about yourself, and through your teenage years you’re struggling, and then you come out of them. And often you have some period of realizing you’re not so bad after all. The same kind of transformation took place with a religious understanding that, and I think that, in particular, first of all, women were more often converts. They were more likely to experience justification.
That period of crisis also is a period where they might realize that they aren’t justified, and they realize they are in fact damned. And it’s really these two things that puritans struggle with. Am I saved, am I damned? We have examples of women, for example, killing their infant children or trying to, because they can’t take the tension of not knowing whether they’re saved or damned. I see that context as well.
Sarah Jack: That’s a really great [00:27:00] layer. And Priscilla was facing this health crisis, as well as the spiritual transformation crisis at the same time, and she made statements about that.
Kathy Hermes: She’s a little bit young for a conversion experience, but sometimes the very pious have them a little earlier, or mature 11 year olds might have them sooner. And she’s on her deathbed, and it’s a critical moment.
Josh Hutchinson: What was the significance of Priscilla’s story on how she faced death and the spiritual statement she made in the story of Thomas Thornton and witchcraft?
Kathy Hermes: So Priscilla died in 1647, as we’ve said, and the story was recorded later on by Cotton Mather around 1698, published in 1700. My assumption is, and this is an inference, is that Thomas Thornton was telling that story, [00:28:00] because there’s so many details that are quite precise. And so I think he’s committing this story to memory and sharing it with people as he goes through life, because it dovetails with this critical moment of the accused witch being executed and being his neighbor. And he’s got this godly child who’s really saved from the snares of the devil, and when he finally recounts this to Cotton Mather, or when Mather writes it down, right in the late 17th century, by then mentioning witchcraft is off the table, right?
And by 1698, no one wants to talk about witchcraft anymore. And I think elements of the story are divorced from that. It’s more about her conversion. But we have another instance where that story is mentioned, or at least we believe it’s [00:29:00] the one referred to by Nathaniel Mather when he writes to his brother Increase and says, why didn’t you tell the story of the girl in Connecticut? And we thought about could this be a different girl? Could this be Mary Johnson, for example, who was executed in Weathersfield? And Johnson was a woman. She already had a child. She was not a girl. And Mather doesn’t mention an execution. “She died for the same crime,” he says, and with a conversion, a genuine conversion. And I think that what Mather’s talking about here is an earlier version of the story, in which the witchcraft was probably mentioned along with the conversion.
We were trying to piece together a kind of oral history of this narrative. So what you find in the Magnalia where Cotton Mather published it, or in the catechism that he published that was written first by a guy named Janeway. There’s no [00:30:00] mention of the witch element, but I think it’s there, I think it’s implicit in the story. She talks very much about wanting to save the other children, as Beth mentioned. And she talks about needing a day of humiliation and prayer.
Beth Caruso: I printed off what he wrote about her. And there are several references to good and evil, brushes with evil, needing to be pious and get, and this is a direct quote, “get power against their sinful natures.” And even on her deathbed, she says she was thanking her superiors and the direct quote is, “twas because they had curbed her and restrained her from sinful vanities.”
And she said, “were I now to choose my company, it should be among the people of God.” [00:31:00] There’s so many interesting polarities within that description. The other reason why, and this isn’t directly said that this is Thornton, but Cotton Mather also writes in “Enchantments Encountered,” a chapter in Wonders of the Invisible World. He mentions this, and Kathy and I believe Cotton Mather, in this, is referring to Thornton. He said, “we have been advised by credible Christians still alive that a malefactor accused of witchcraft as well as murder and executed in this place,” meaning the colonies, “more than 40 years ago, did then give notice of a horrible plot against the country by witchcraft. And the foundation of witchcraft then laid, which if it were not [00:32:00] seasonably discovered, would probably blow up and pull down all the churches in the country.” And again, this also ties into what Kathy was describing as the space between good and evil, between God and Satan.
Sarah Jack: Do you think that Priscilla could have been Alice’s accuser?
Kathy Hermes: I think it’s possible. It’s interesting that Thornton remains close to John Young. Whatever happened there on Backer Row, Thornton didn’t distance himself from John Young in any intentional way. So it’s hard to say if his daughter had been the accuser, there might have been more distance between the men, but it doesn’t appear that John Young came to his wife’s defense. So it’s also possible John Young thought the same thing. I think it’s just too speculative to know, but of course it’s possible.
Sarah Jack: And Thornton was looking out for Young’s health.[00:33:00]
Beth Caruso: We do think that they maintained a relationship, because in one of the references to Alice Young being a witch and connected to John Young that I mentioned in the beginning is a description of John Young’s disease. There is no signature on that as to who the author was, but this would’ve been somebody at the bedside of John Young describing his disease. Kathy had found a letter from Thomas Thornton to Increase Mather. And so we had his handwriting.
Kathy Hermes: Beth and I went to the Massachusetts Historical Society to look at some documents, and in particular John Winthrop Jr’s papers, because that’s where this account of John Young’s disease was. And it was considered an anonymous account. We then, from the Boston Public Library, [00:34:00] got a copy of the letter that Thomas Thornton wrote to Increase Mather. And as I was looking at the two, I thought this handwriting looks the same. And it’s pretty distinctive, because it’s more in the Elizabethan style than in the later style of handwriting that even John Winthrop himself had or someone of Thomas Thornton’s age. It’s a little bit like seeing the cursive of your grandmother, right, rather than the handwriting of, if you wrote like your grandmother, instead of someone now.
And so Beth actually did the close up comparison. She focused in on some letters, and it was pretty clear once we put the letters side by side that this was the same handwriting. And these letters provide important clues for a number of reasons, not only that Thornton wrote about this disease, but that he was in [00:35:00] communication with important people, John Winthrop Jr., Increase Mather. We don’t have many things written in Thomas Thornton’s hand. These are the two things that survive, that we know of.
Beth Caruso: And just the fact that he’s at the bedside, and he’s writing about the disease, and he sends it to Winthrop, Jr., tells us that he still has a relationship with John Young. At the time, John Winthrop Jr., he was physician to most of Connecticut, but obviously he couldn’t always be there in person to cover all that territory. So people would be at the bedside of a sick person. They would write a description of the disease and then send it to Winthrop. So we were extremely excited to make this discovery, because it did fit in with the order of where they both were at the time. It [00:36:00] reflects on their continuing relationship, but it’s also extremely exciting for the possibility of more things showing up later that may give light to more layers and more information about the witch trials in New England. This was a snippet that he had written about John Young, which he hadn’t signed. There are many other documents out there that have no signatures. His signature is very distinctive. We know he’s all over the place, as far as which trials in New England. So we’re hopeful that maybe more documents of his will show up now that there are two good examples of his handwriting.
Kathy Hermes: I’ll also say [00:37:00] about the letter, it goes into graphic detail about Young’s disease. And if Young had this in Windsor, it might have contributed to some of the feelings about Alice Young, because his skin is peeling off, and it’s in striations, and it’s a very gruesome illness. And he seemed to have experienced it while in Stratford where Thornton writes the letter, right?
He is experiencing it in Stratford, where there’s also, at the very same time witchcraft accusations going on, and this is total speculation, that this disease pops up during times of witchcraft. Cuz actually when John Young died in his final illness, we don’t know if he had this disease, but it seems like it, and that too is simultaneous with some witchcraft accusations, I think, in Hartford.
Beth Caruso: It’s Goody Bassett at the time and then Goody Knapp. [00:38:00] So there were the two hangings in the south, and Goody Bassett had been from Windsor. Thomas Thornton and John Young would have known her. She came there probably after both of them, but we just don’t know any details about that case.
But then there’s the Goody Knapp case, which is right nearby in 1653, and it was late 1653 that Thornton joined the ranks in Ireland, but by this time he had gained some clout. He was a deputy in the legislature for Stratford. If we can find some more documents, or if other researchers could really look through some of these documents from that era, from other eras connected to witch trials to see are there testimonies, are there other descriptions that are unsigned with [00:39:00] this unique handwriting, then maybe we can learn a little more. Because, unfortunately, no trial records are left for Alice Young. I don’t know if they’ll ever show up. As for so many others in Connecticut, including Goody Knapp and Goody Bassett in the South, I did just hear that the Winthrop Jr. medical records are going to go online probably this summer, and they haven’t been thus far. Because also of his atrocious handwriting, I think there are probably a lot of incredible little chunks of history that we would wanna know more about in those records, as well.
The other part of John Young’s disease that’s really interesting is that in the probate records, John Young was noted to have a disease for seven [00:40:00] months before he actually died. Yet he did not leave a will, so his property was left unclaimed in Stratford for seven years. Alice Young Junior never claimed it.
Josh Hutchinson: Thank you both for such great answers. It’s been wonderful, and I’m excited to hear that Winthrop Jr.’s papers are coming online. That’s really big. And we have a friend going off to read some Winthrop papers right now, and she testified to the quality of the handwriting or lack of quality to the handwriting.
Beth Caruso: She’s the one who told me she had talked to them at the Massachusetts Historical Society, and they expect his works to be online by the summer, hopefully.
Josh Hutchinson: That’s exciting. And It’s [00:41:00] very interesting to me how Thornton shows up in all these places where witchcraft accusations are happening. He’s in Windsor for Alice Young. He’s in Stratford for Bassett and Knapp, and later on, he’s possibly connected to some others as well. Is that correct, with his time in the Plymouth Colony?
Kathy Hermes: I think it’s interesting that he went from Ireland to Plymouth, avoiding the witchcraft trials in Hartford, right? He diverts himself from there and goes to Massachusetts, and Plymouth Colony was the only colony among the orthodox colonies, we’re excluding Rhode Island here, to not have any witchcraft accusations until the one in 1677 that involved Mary Ingham, and we think he was there because of the letter to Increase Mather right at that time, [00:42:00] dated March 1st.
There’s a lacuna, a hole in the manuscript, that leaves some letters blank, and then ends with M O U T H, where it was sent from. And of course, the editors of the Mather papers assumed Yarmouth because that’s where Thomas Thornton lived and ministered from, but we believe it was Plymouth. Now again, no proof of that except that Thornton would almost certainly have had to be at that court day. It’s a court day where three native men were accused of murder and where Mary Ingham’s accused of witchcraft and where money is going to be distributed. A collection was taken up in Ireland to help people who suffered in King Philip’s War in 1676, and so that money’s going to be distributed in Plymouth Colony in the towns where Thornton [00:43:00] lived and near where Thornton lived. And so this is the guy who would clearly meet all three criteria, for taking care of the funds, having witchcraft expertise, and having experience with native men because he ministered to a praying town, Mattakeeset.
Again, speculative. It makes me think about many years ago when I was in graduate school we were all pointed to a book by Robin Winks, The Historian as Detective. And every time we present this article or talk about this, historians always say to us, “it’s really circumstantial evidence.” And yet most criminal cases are made on circumstantial evidence. The number of coincidences just can’t be accounted for any other way. And, of course, sometimes you’re wrong when you do something on circumstantial evidence, but I feel like here we’ve tried to be good detectives. We’ve tried to look at things objectively and see where there might be other possible [00:44:00] answers.
Sometimes there aren’t, but I think here the letter coming from Plymouth makes much more sense, and he also would’ve had a way for that letter to be delivered to Increase Mather, if he was in Plymouth rather than in Yarmouth. That letter’s, I think, critical to placing him at the trial of Mary Ingham.
Beth Caruso: And the other interesting thing about Thornton is he was one of the few ministers who was interested in the Halfway Covenant, which allowed for children to be baptized.
Kathy Hermes: I’ll say a little bit more about the Halfway Covenant. Children were not being baptized, because their parents had not become full members of congregations. Now, in order to become a member of a congregation to be in the church, a person had to be [00:45:00] baptized and had to have the experience of justification, which allowed the person then to take communion, right? And that created a full membership in the church. Full members had their children baptized.
Those children of the second generation wanted to baptize their own children, but many of them had not yet had the conversion experience or the justification experience. And so some churches adopted the Halfway Covenant, something championed by Increase Mather. No other churches in Plymouth Colony adopted the Halfway Covenant, except for Thomas Thornton’s church. So this, too, was a critical thing. He’s got this very close relationship with Increase Mather that I think shaped his theological views in many ways. And he was distinctive in that with respect to the adoption of the [00:46:00] Halfway Covenant.
Josh Hutchinson: And he was very interested, Thornton, in infant baptism, wasn’t he?
Kathy Hermes: Yes. There was a baptism controversy in the 1640s that eventually is resolved with the Cambridge Platform. And the minister in Windsor was away for a time that summer in 1647, in Boston discussing baptism. So this is an issue of critical concern. When he went to Ireland, he was exposed to a number of sermons and debates about infant baptism because in the Cromwellian period, the Anabaptists as they were called, or the Antipedobaptists, believed in adult baptism, not infant baptism.
And Thornton would’ve come into contact with that controversy in Ireland. It was a big thing at the time, during the Cromwellian period. [00:47:00] And then when he got back to Plymouth, they’re faced with this crisis in the 1660s of people not converting. So it would’ve been right on his doorstep. He would’ve been in the midst of that everywhere he went.
Beth Caruso: With his experience with the four tragic deaths of his children during this flu epidemic in Windsor, one could speculate about how it might have been an influence for him to see that children could die early and could die under horrible circumstances, influenced by the devil in some way, and how it would be important for children to have some kind of protection that baptism might afford them.
Sarah Jack: I’m really seeing how you have these network of ministers, these controversial spiritual things. You have the development of these [00:48:00] colonies and law. It’s all really interesting.
Kathy Hermes: The reform congregationalists, the people we call Puritans, they were really trying to dive into a kind of primitive theology, to get back to the earliest days of the Christian Church, and they wanted to be very pure about it. And the reason the Halfway Covenant, something like the Halfway Covenant, was so controversial is that some Congregationalists thought that it was getting away from the pure church, right? That it was a compromise done for social reasons, rather than for sound theological reasons. But for people who were worried about the souls of children, the Halfway Covenant allowed for, as Beth said, some protection for the children. It was considered a saving ordinance. Most Congregationalists also believed in the perseverance of the saints, that [00:49:00] is that salvation would persist in families, right? Not always, but for the most part that godly families produced godly children. And so this was a way to continue the perseverance of the saints. They really had a long-term vision in mind. They thought that they were near the end times and were interested in converting native people. Some of the English people were even what they called philosemites and believed that native people were members of a lost tribe of Israel. And so this was part of the conversion of the Jews that had to take place before the Millennium. So there are many, many complicated ideas that go into these saving ordinances like baptism.
Josh Hutchinson: We’ve talked about a lot of Thornton’s connections to witchcraft. After [00:50:00] Yarmouth, he moved to Boston and joined the Mathers’ church in the year that the Salem Witch Trials were happening. Do you think that Thornton’s views on witchcraft could have influenced the Mathers to any degree?
Beth Caruso: At this point in time, we really don’t know if he was a shadow influencer, because he certainly is in line with the thinking of theirs, coupled with his early experience. What we need is more information about what his actual views were, and that is why we are so excited to put forth this research in hopes that other researchers will get ahold of it, and it will open many more doors and that we can find more documentation about Thornton or more works that he’s written, more sermons, [00:51:00] things like that. I think there’s more to discover before we can fully answer that question.
Kathy Hermes: Yeah, I think that’s true. I do think that the Mathers were quite well educated and Thornton was not, and so he would probably have deferred to them in theological matters, at the same time that his direct experience would have been of interest to them, but how they influenced one another, we can’t say, and I think this is important. Something we came to late in writing the article was to discuss Thornton’s position as a bystander. In Holocaust studies, they talk a lot about bystanders, because bystanders are, by the mere fact that they’re there, influencing what’s going on, right? But often in ways that are intangible. We didn’t write this in the article, but it’s what we both thought of as the Forrest Gump effect, right? What [00:52:00] effect does somebody being there all the time at all these situations have in the history of the way in which these things develop? And Thornton was not a theologian. The Mathers were theologians, but by virtue of his being present at so many things and having so much direct experience, it’s unlikely he stood mute and neutral.
And what I would like to see, if I can make a plug for it to some listener, is a master’s thesis that uses maybe distant reading techniques on the writings of the ejected ministers from Ireland who wind up in the Boston area, James Allen and Bailey and some of these other folks, Thomas Walley, who was in Barnstable near Thomas Thornton. I think if you took that kind of literary approach to their writings, you might be able to find ideas that [00:53:00] connected them all. And you might be able then to determine some of the influence that these collective ideas had on the Mathers, because the Mathers were themselves in Ireland. They weren’t part of the ejected ministers, but they were there at the same time the ejected ministers were. So I think that’s actually a very promising kind of area of scholarship.
Josh Hutchinson: Thank you so much for that plug. We think that’s important for the story to be continued. And for the research done.
We know that the spectral evidence was accepted early on in Connecticut, and then John Winthrop Jr. basically rejected it, but then it turns back up in Salem, and we’re wondering where that influence came from, that spectral evidence. Is there any, are there ideas out there of how spectral evidence came back at Salem?
Kathy Hermes: So there were only two witchcraft cases in [00:54:00] Ireland at the time that Thornton was there. And we don’t know, again, because of the fire, I think they don’t have any records of what went on. But typically Ireland was not a place that accepted the idea of specters. And what’s interesting is that I think some of the ejected ministers question the acceptance of specters in Boston. What Thornton’s view was, we don’t know. It was always a debatable thing about whether you could trust a specter. The idea that specters existed was accepted, but what to do with the presence of a specter and any information one received from the specter was the matter of debate.
Josh Hutchinson: And Cotton in his Wonders of the Invisible World seems to defend spectral evidence, [00:55:00] while Increase in Cases of Conscience says that the Devil can appear as an angel of light. And that was a big turning point in Salem rejecting the spectral evidence. But I find it interesting also that John Winthrop Jr. rejected it and then his son, Waitstill, is one of the judges at Salem. And it’s all kinds of weird connections with the spectral evidence.
Kathy Hermes: With any Puritan debate, they picked these things to death, and they loved argument. And I know that often, particularly when witchcraft trials come up, people tend to think of the Puritans as irrational and unscientific, and really nothing could be further from the truth. Cotton Mather himself was quite interested in Isaac Newton’s discoveries and things like that. They thought of themselves as rational, and they were trying to work through supernatural experiences, which [00:56:00] they believed in rational ways. And sometimes that doesn’t make sense to us in the 21st century, but I think that’s why you have these debates among people who are even very close. And obviously no two people were closer than Increase and Cotton Mather, who shared a congregation and a family linkage.
Sarah Jack: Is there anything else about Thomas Thornton’s connection to Salem?
Kathy Hermes: Beth did talk about Margaret Rule, but maybe a little clearer explanation of that incidence. Margaret Rule suffered from what appeared to be a demonic possession or a diabolical possession, which was a bit different from some other types of possessions. And many people were called to her bedside. Again this is a point where we’re in contradiction to some other historians, but we believe the Thomas Thornton who signed the evidence about Margaret Rule was Reverend Thomas [00:57:00] Thornton.
But Samuel Drake, who was one of the early publishers of documents on this case, suggested that it was a bricklayer named Thomas Thornton. And it doesn’t make sense that the bricklayer would be there . But that incidence of Rule being possessed, she levitated during the viewing and all of these men witnessed it. This was a scene that must have conjured up memories of Priscilla. And it may be again, something that shapes that final story of Priscilla, as it goes through its various oral iterations in this, because Margaret Rule is really the last case in Massachusetts where the supernatural is front and center, as far as I know, and no witchcraft accusation results from it. They’re done with that.
Beth and I debated a lot about whether Thornton [00:58:00] was a believer in witchcraft and how zealous he was in terms of rooting out witchcraft. And I think both of us feel like, and again, this is a feeling, it’s speculation, nothing definitive, that he probably had a somewhat nuanced view of it that might account for the acquittal of Mary Ingham. That there were certain tests that were applied in figuring out who in fact was a witch, according to their own ideas. Had Thornton had a vehement reaction against Mary Ingham’s acquittal, we might have seen some evidence of that, since he did write to Increase Mather on that day.
Beth Caruso: The thing is, Thomas Thornton had a very long life, so he may have started thinking about witchcraft and rooting out witchcraft crimes in one way, and [00:59:00] that may have evolved to be in a different place. Again, it’s very hard for us to know, because he never directly says how he feels about witchcraft. It’s all very circumstantial of him showing up at these different places and the whole trajectory, starting out with this personal tragedy, and then having very strong connections later on to people who were connected to the Salem trials. The biggest clue we can get to Thomas Thornton as a person and his personality is probably in his sermon that Sewall wrote down, and in it the king has taken over again, and he doesn’t seem like a bitter person. He seems [01:00:00] like a kind and loving person. He says, “have nothing but love for the king in your heart.” And of course, the king has just taken over again, and Puritans are probably not liking that so much. They’d rather have Cromwell in there. But he’s taking a charitable approach.
You can often at least tease out a little bit of someone’s personality through their letters and the way they word things. He seems like a fairly humble person. He doesn’t seem aggressive or bitter or anything like that. So combined with his showing up at these different witch trial scenes and eras, it’s difficult to know. I hope a researcher’s out there. I hope you’re listening. This is something that [01:01:00] is an invitation for you to explore.
And I, in my heart of hearts, I do really think that there are more documents that will be discovered of Thomas Thornton, and people may have those documents already, but he just hasn’t been on the radar, because, quite frankly, no one has ever connected the Thomas Thornton who’s in Salem as a minister, hobnobbing with Judge Sewell and the Mathers, with the humble tradesman in Windsor, who tragically loses all these children in 1647. Our article is the bridge between these two Thomas Thorntons, which even, you know, some descendants in the past writing about him never connected. So we hope that now that he’s on the radar with this [01:02:00] article, that there will be more discoveries and they will shed a lot more light on the New England Witch trials and about him and his attitude toward all of this.
Sarah Jack: How do people access the article?
Kathy Hermes: The article will be in the Connecticut History Review, which is published by the University of Illinois Press. So copies can be ordered through the Association for the Study of Connecticut History, A S C H, the ASH organization. And you can subscribe to Connecticut History Review. It’s the only scholarly journal for the history of Connecticut.
Josh Hutchinson: Now here’s Sarah with information on the efforts to exonerate the accused on the efforts to exonerate those accused of witchcraft in Connecticut.
Sarah Jack: Here is Connecticut witch trial exoneration legislation news. The first [01:03:00] community led remembrance day for all Connecticut Witch trial victims was on an anniversary of Alice Young’s execution, May 26th, 2007. It was held at South Green in Hartford. Tony Griego, police officer and co-founder of the Connecticut Witch Trial Exoneration Project and other commemorations, memorialized the executed witch trial victims with 12 white roses, one for each of the 11 victims hanged and one for all the children Orphaned. He would like a white rose on a permanent stone memorial in Hartford.
Tony’s exoneration efforts with several descendants followed. Attempts were first launched in 2008 and 2009. These unsuccessful efforts stirred minds and produced important witch trial history, exoneration, and permanent memorial site conversations.
In the beginning of 2016, the Connecticut Witch Memorial Facebook page and effort was formed to reach the masses when Beth Caruso joined up with the education and advocacy endeavors of Tony Griego. The social media and storytelling project allowed for victim stories to be told, [01:04:00] events to be shared, and updates to be given on efforts and calls for action to be amplified. They have connected descendants and others with a common interest in witch trial justice. Next, the CT Witch Memorial team went town to town, looking for local communities to remember and acknowledge the witch trial victims from their history.
Out of this effort, a collaboration with the First Church of Windsor, and Windsor Town Council, a resolution passed nine to zero on February 6th, 2017, recognizing the town’s two victims, Alice Young and Lydia Gilbert. Stay tuned next week to hear about more localized efforts to memorialize individual victims at the local community level.
Today, the Connecticut Witch Trial Exoneration Project is an organized collaboration of these founding advocates and many other diverse collaborators working for an official state exoneration of the 17th century accused and hanged witches of the Connecticut colony. We are also seeking [01:05:00] out all local communities to continue recognizing their local accused witches. We are all coming together, along with the state representative Jane Garibay and senator Saud Anwar, to support the proposed exoneration legislation, the Joint Committee on Judiciary’s bill, HJ Number 34, Resolution Concerning Certain Witchcraft Convictions in Colonial Connecticut. This proposal could bring a public hearing shortly.
This resolution will be an example to others working to recognize and address historic wrongs. Connecticut is taking a stand against injustice. By acknowledging the mistakes of the past, we educate the public that similar actions are not acceptable today. The Connecticut Witch Trial Exoneration Project strongly urges the General assembly to hear the voices of the witch trial victims being amplified by the community today. They were not witches. We hope you will pass this legislation without delay. Our project is offering several ways for exoneration supporters to plug in and participate or learn about the exoneration [01:06:00] and history. Please download our robust lineup of episodes featuring witch trial descendants, education about hanged witch Alice Young and other victims, and Connecticut Colony’s governor John Winthrop, Jr.’s positive influence against convicting Witches.
You can go to our project website for an informative and easy to understand fact sheet of the Connecticut Colony witch trial victims, places, and dates. You can follow along by joining our Discord community or Facebook groups. Links to all these informative opportunities are listed in the episode description.
Use your social power to help Alice Young, America’s first executed witch, finally be acknowledged. Support the descendants by acknowledging and sharing their ancestor’s stories. Remember the victims in modern day facing the same unfair and dangerous situations. Please use all your communication channels to be an intervener and to stand with them. The world must stop hunting witches. Please follow our projects on social media @ctwitchhunts and visit our website at ConnecticutWitchTrials.org. [01:07:00]
The Connecticut Witch Trial Exoneration Project is a project of End Witch Hunts movement. End Witch Hunts is a nonprofit organization founded to educate about witch trial history and advocate for alleged witches. Please support us with your donations or purchases of educational Witch trial books and merchandise. You can shop our merch at zazzle.com/store/endwitchhunts or zazzle.com/store/thoushaltnotsuffer. And shop our books at bookshop.org/endwitchhunts. We want you as a Super Listener. You can help keep Thou Shalt Not Suffer podcast in production by super listening with your monthly monetary support. See episode description for links to these support opportunities. We thank you for standing with us and helping us create a world that is safe from witchcraft accusations.
Josh Hutchinson: Thank you, Sarah, for that important update. And thank you for listening to Thou Shalt Not [01:08:00] Suffer: The Witch Trial Podcast.
Sarah Jack: Join us next week.
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Sarah Jack: Visit thoushaltnotsuffer.com and our Zazzle store.
Josh Hutchinson: Remember to tell all your friends and encourage them to listen to the show and buy our merch.
Sarah Jack: Support our efforts to end witch-hunts. If you’d like to learn more or make a donation, visit endwitchhunts.org.
Josh Hutchinson: Have a great today and a beautiful tomorrow.