Beverly Kahn testifies remotely on a resolution to exonerate Connecticut witch trial victims

Beverly Kahn didn’t hesitate when a Connecticut state representative asked her Wednesday to produce evidence that her long-dead ancestor — Goodwife Knapp — was actually innocent of the witchcraft charges for which she was executed back in 1653.

“Yeah, there’s detailed histories of Fairfield — I can get the book,” Kahn, a retired Fairfield University professor, said. “It’s on my table.” 

Kahn was one of several descendents of accused witches to testify before the legislature’s Judiciary Committee. She spoke in support of a resolution that would have the State of Connecticut posthumously exonerate and apologize for the dozens of people indicted for witchcraft in its colony back in the 17th century. 

Of those people 12, most of them women, were convicted and 11 were killed in public executions. That included poor Goodie Knapp.

By raising the resolution, Connecticut lawmakers look to follow in the footsteps of nearby Massachusetts, where legislators finished exonerating the victims of the Salem Witch Trials last year

Although they have not captured the same level of public attention, Connecticut’s witch hunts predate those in Massachusetts by several decades. Like the Salem trials, historians believe those that took place in colonial communities like Windsor and Fairfield had more to do with local personalities and politics than witchcraft or Satan. 

Kahn told the committee that her “great-to-the-eighth grandmother” Knapp’s conviction came down to her refusal to direct a witch hunt at someone else: the wife of a political rival to Fairfield founder Roger Ludlow. 

“Ludlow conspired against Goodie Knapp, a poor commoner, because he wanted to get her to testify that Goodwife Staples was a witch and, despite significant pressure, Knapp refused to accuse Goodwife Staples or any others of witchcraft,” Kahn said. “Knapp proclaimed her own innocence until they killed her.”

Three hundred and seventy years later, not everyone on the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee was willing to take Knapp’s word for it. Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, asked Kahn whether she could supply evidence of the woman’s innocence.

“Typically, when somebody wants to have a convict exonerated, whether while they’re alive or after they’re dead, they produce evidence that they were innocent,” Dubitsky said. “Do you have evidence that this person was innocent?”

Kahn said she did. History books have preserved the transcripts of the 17th century trial and provide insight into Fairfield’s politics at the time, she said. Historians have also documented other atrocities committed by Ludlow including the killings of members of the native Pequot tribe, she said. 

Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, participates remotely in a Judiciary Committee hearing

“The history is clear, the transcripts are there — even the testimony that some people gave at the trial are there,” Kahn said. “This isn’t, like, fabricated.”

Dubitsky sought to refocus the testimony. “Mr. Ludlow is not on trial here. Is he?”

Kahn conceded that he was not, but insisted that Ludlow had been engaged in a political struggle that resulted in dire and unjust consequences for her ancestor.

“Okay,” Dubitsky said, “but you’re not presenting any evidence of that today, are you?”

Kahn offered again to cite the “wonderful” history text, which she said detailed Fairfield’s past from its earliest days until 2000, including a long chapter about Ludlow’s tenure. Dubitsky cut in. “Are you asking the Judiciary Committee to all read that book?”

“No,” she said. “But you asked, ‘Is there evidence?’ Yeah. There is evidence.”

Dubitsky thanked Kahn for her time and concluded his inquiry.

Earlier in her testimony, another lawmaker, Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, worried that by considering the resolution the state legislature was spending too much time on symbolic efforts to redress past wrongs rather than acting on more pressing and current issues.

“If you didn’t have a personal relation to this woman, would you really care so passionately about it?” Kissel asked. 

Kahn, who taught political science, said democracy required setting an example for the next generation.

“We need to support justice and we should avoid discrimination and accusation of innocent people,” she said. “So yes, your vote is a symbolic vote but it’s an important message for people today.”