Before Salem – First to Confess

Part of a series of posts on the 17th century Connecticut witchcraft trials.

Alse (Alice) Young of Windsor was the first individual executed for the crime of witchcraft in the English New World. link

The first recorded confession for familiarity with the devil was given under duress in 1648 by Mary Johnson, only a year after the hanging of Alse.

Mary Johnson was a servant whose legal troubles began around 1646, when, accused of theft, she was publicly whipped in Hartford. The incident was repeated a month later at Wethersfield.

On December 7, 1648, Mary was indicted by a jury as guilty of “familiarity with the Deuill (sic).” Under pressure from minister Samuel Stone, she fuly described her crimes. Cotton Mather tells us (Magnalia Christ Americana, 1698, VI 71-78): “her confession was attended with such convictive circumstances that it could not be slighted.”
So, what exactly did Mary admit to doing? Her contact with devils came about because of her discontent with her work as a servant. “A Devil was wont to do her many services, she said. For example, when her master once blamed her for not carrying out the ashes, “a Devil did clear the Hearth for her afterwards.” When her master sent her “into the Field to drive the Hogs that used to break into it, a Devil would scowre (sic) them out, and make her laugh to see how he feazed ’em about.” Mary also admitted that she was guilty “of the Murder of a child” and of “Uncleanness with Men and Devils.”

For some reason, odd in this theocracy, Mary Johnson was not indicted for murder or adultery. But the charge of familiarity with the devil stuck, and on the strength of her confession, was sentenced to death.

For several months prior to the execution of her punishment, Mary was imprisoned in Hartford, under the care of the jailer, William Ruscoe. She gave birth to a baby boy while in jail, giving proof to her admission of “uncleanness with Men.” It is not known if her hanging was deferred specifically due to her pregnancy, but this often happened when criminals were pregnant. The jailer’s son, Nathaniel, offered to bring up the child and educate him, and this arrangement was later sanctioned by the court.

It was reported that, before she died, Mary Johnson repented. The jailer was paid six pounds, ten shillings for twenty four weeks of services, ending June 6, 1650, which is assumed to be the date on which her sentence was carried out. According to Mather, she died in “a frame extremely to the satisfaction of them that were spectators of it.”


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