His wife is known only as "Goodwife" Knapp—a title that’s equivalent to "Mrs." Knapp in modern times. (Sometimes shortened to “Goody”. Women with a higher status in society were referred to as “Mistress.”) In 1653 Goodwife Knapp was accused and convicted of witchcraft and executed by hanging in Try’s field outside the village of Fairfield. (None of the witches executed in New England were burned at the stake.)
Nothing is known of the trial of Goodwife Knapp or what she was accused of. This was right in the middle of the epidemic of witch trials and executions in England and Scotland and the phenomenon naturally made its way to the new colonies. Typically, the witch was accused of associating with the Devil, sometimes intimately. The “evidence” was usually a series of unusual happenings that occurred in the presence of the accused, or strange behavior that was deemed to be inappropriate. In many cases, the accused women seem to be rather more outspoken than others—in other words, they didn’t know their proper place.
Men who were accused of witchcraft were also people who were not satisfied with the status quo.
One of the books put on line by Googel is The Salem Witch Trials: a Reference Guide (by K. David Goss). It recounts the trial of Anne Hibbins who was hanged in 1656.
Anne Hibbins (1656) was censured by Boston church leaders for her contentious behavior in repeatedly accusing a local craftsman of overcharging for his labor. She was furthermore charged with supplanting her husband’s position in dealing with this problem, violating the puritan belief that wives should submit themselves to the leadership of their husbands. For this offense, she was unrepentant. She was removed from membership in the Boston church and found guilty of witchcraft in 1654 after the death of her husband. Although the magistrates denied the initial vedict, a second trial was held before the Massachusetts Great and General Court. Anne Hibbins was convicted a second time of witchcraft and executed in 1656. In his assessment of this tragedy, Governor Thomas Hutchinson, in his "History of Massachusetts," places the blame for this conviction upon the people of Boston who disliked Anne Hibbin’s contentious nature. He wrote that the trial and the condemnation of Anne Hibbins for withcraft was "a most remarkable occurrence in the colony," for he found tha is was her temper and argumentative nature that caused he neighbors to accuse he of being a wtich.It’s very likely that Goodwife Knapp was hung for the same reasons three years earlier in Fairfield in the New Haven Colony.
The remarkable thing about the Goodwife Knapp execution is not the trial itself but the aftermath. Roger Ludlow, the Deputy Governor of Connecticut, had been fighting on and off for several years with his neighbor Mary Staples (wife of Thomas Staples, also known as Staplies). In 1651 Ludlow won a suit against Mary Staples for slander but this did not put and end to their dispute.
During the trial and imprisonment of Goodwife Knapp, Roger Ludlow and his supporters tried to get her to affirm that Mary Staples was a witch but Knapp refused. Just before the execution, Ludlow claimed that Goodwife Knapp came down the ladder and whispered in his ear that Mary Staples was, indeed, a witch.
Ludlow told this story to his friends, Rev. John Davenport and his wife, and it soon spread to the entire village of Fairfield. Accusing someone of witchcraft was a very serious charge—especially just after Goodwife Knapp had been hanged. When Thomas Staples heard that Ludlow was making these accusations against his wife he filed a defamation suit against Roger Ludlow.
The trail took place in May, 1654. There are several accounts on the internet taken from books that have recently been scanned. The best and most readable is from The Witchcraft Delusion in Colonial Connecticut by John M. Taylor. This is from the trial records and some of the descriptions are quite graphic, particularly the account of the examination of Goodwife Knapp’s body for witch’s teates.
There’s another good account in Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England: A Documentary History 1638 ... by David D. Hall.
The role of the Sherwood family in the trial is described in A Changing America: Seen Through One Sherwood Family Line 1634-2006.
The reason for my interest in this trial is that many of my ancestors lived in Fairfield at the time and their names are mentioned in the account. Some of my ancestors were friends of the Staples and defended Mary Staples while others sided with Roger Ludlow. Ludlow lost the case and he left Fairfield the following year (1654), making his way eventually back to England and then to Ireland where he remained for the rest of his life.
By an extraordinary coincidence, my good friend and former best man at my wedding, Charles Beach, is a descendant of Mary Staples and Thomas Staples. Their daughter, Mary Nicol Staples (1630-1677) married John Beach (1623-1677).
My living relatives might be interested in our connections to the trial: here they are.
These are ancestors of Isabelle Hooper Burns (1862-1923) the mother of my maternal grandfather. More specifically, they are direct ancestors of her mother’s mother, Esther Treen (1807-~1891).
Here are the names of people mentioned in the defamation lawsuit. Our direct ancestors are underlined. (Some of these have subsequently been proven to be incorrect = strikeout.)
John Banks (1619-1684), attorney for Thomas Staples. (He is my great9-grandfather. Most of the others are from this generation or one generation earlier: great10)
Witness: Goodwife Sherwood = Mary Onge? second wife of Thomas Sherwood (1586-1655). Thomas' first wife, my ancestor, was Alice Tiler1 (1585-1635).
Witness: Thomas Lyon (1621-1690).
Witness: Thomas Barlow was the second husband of Rose Sherwood, daughter of Thomas Sherwood (1586-1655) and Alice Tiler1 (1585-1655).
Goodwife Pell is not an ancestor of mine but she has an interesting connection. She is Lucy Pell, wife of Thomas Pell who later founded Pelham, in what is now the Bronx, New York City [The Involvement of Thomas Pell's Family in the Witchcraft Persecution of Goody Knapp].
1. Usually given as Alice Seabrook but this is almost certainly wrong according to A Changing America: Seen Through One Sherwood Family Line 1634-2006, Volume 1 By Frank P. Sherwood.
The drawing of the hanging of Ann Hibbins and the map of the colonies in 1650 are from the HTY277 website of the University of Maine at Farmington.