Norwalk Historical Society hosts virtual talk on Connecticut's witch trials

An unusual but apropos topic for a Women’s History Month lecture is the role that gender played in the New England witch trials.

Women’s historian Dr. Leslie Lindenauer, a history professor at Western Connecticut State University, will present a virtual lecture for the Norwalk Historical Society called “Giving Entertainment to Satan: Witchcraft and Witch Persecution in Early New England” on Thursday, March 25. A Q&A follows the lecture.

When you mention witch trials, nearly everybody will conjure up thoughts of Salem, Mass. While the infamous witch trials that began there in 1692 are well known, even more people were accused of being witches and put on trial in Connecticut. Men were sometimes accused of witchcraft, but overwhelmingly women were persecuted.

Lindenauer explores these points in a lecture that looks at witch hunting in the 17th century with keen attention to the role gender played in the trials and in Puritan culture in general. A Q&A follows the lecture.

“I am trained as an early American historian,” Lindenauer said, noting her doctoratal dissertation and another book she wrote that focuses Puritan culture. “It’s really hard to study American history without studying witches, so that’s how I got into it, but it’s really hard to let it go because it’s so fascinating on so many levels.”

A commonly accepted tenet among historians is that if you write a book about the Civil War or Salem, you’re bound to get it published. This speaks to the inexhaustible supply of interpretations about witchcraft, the enduring interest in the subject and how widespread the practice was in New England.

Decades before the Salem witch trials, there were trials in Connecticut and elsewhere in Massachusetts.

“There were almost 100 cases in New England before Salem between 1647 — which is the first documented trial — and 1687,” Lindenauer said. With 50 cases in Massachusetts and 43 in Connecticut, the split is pretty even.

Across the board, from New England to Europe, about 75% of all those cases involved women.

There are endless theories about the causes of the persecution, from male Puritanical fears of strong women to needed to control them.

“That’s part of it,” Lindenauer said, noting that women who had inherited money and had no male heirs were more vulnerable to accusations, along with others who simply didn’t fit into conventional society.

“There is some evidence to suggest that women who were sort of outliers, women who were brash or women who used language that was untoward for a Puritan woman would be more vulnerable,” she said. “There are all sorts of Puritan religious descriptions that might have led Puritans to believe that women would be more vulnerable to the devil.”

A good portion of women who were accused were past their childbearing years. “If you think about what that means with regards to the stages in a woman’s life, it is not that big of a leap,” Lindenauer said. “These are women, some or many of whom are still married, who are beyond their primary goal in life, which was to bear children... so there’s something that women are more vulnerable when they’ve gone beyond when they are most useful as part of a Puritanical community.”

In her research, Lindenauer discovered that, even as witch trials decreased, vilifying women continued, though stories about evil stepmothers continued for some time.

“I think that there is a relationship there, but it surprised me how directly related those two things were not just in fairy tales but in popular culture in general,” she said. “Somehow culture needs to have the woman who at the very least had a troubled relationship with children and who was outside the norm of society.”

Lindenauer’s lecture will be held over Zoom on March 25 at 5:30 p.m. Tickets for the Zoom lecture are $5 per household and available at norwalkhistoricalsociety.org .

Andrea Valluzzo is a freelancer.