Author: Sandra Whitney
On January 6, 1662, Mary Barnes was taken from her home in Farmington CT, more than likely by John Andrews, the local constable/sheriff, and taken to Hartford where she was indicted for witchcraft. She was approximately 32 years old at that time and had four children. There is not a lot written down about Mary Barnes in the historical records. Who was Mary Barnes? How did this Farmington goodwife became involved in the witch-hunt that was going on in Hartford in 1662?
Mary Barnes was born circa 1631 in England. She married Thomas Barnes in 1648. There are no records of their marriage listed in the records. They moved from Hartford to become two of the original settlers of Farmington, CT. They had four children: Sarah, born circa 1649; Benjamin, born 1653; Joseph, born 1655; and Hannah, born 1657. Hannah died a few months after her mother was hanged.
Farmington at that time was a model Puritan town dominated by the Congregational church. Thomas Barnes was a member of the church and two of his children were baptized in the church. Mary Barnes was not a member of the church. Members of the town, whether or not they were church members, were expected to obey all of the strict moral and legal codes of the time. Farmington was a small community of a few hundred residents, almost all of whom lived within a 3-square-mile area surrounding the village center. There was much scrutiny of the colonists’ activities by their neighbors and not much chance of keeping anything secret. There is much to speculate on Mary’s relationships with her neighbors.
The Barnes family were not unknown to the Particular Court at the time. Thomas Barnes made a complaint against James Tills, a servant of John Miggs, claiming that Tills stole his scythe and his ox. The outcome of that case was that Tills was severely whipped, put into stocks and forced to apologize publicly to Barnes. The records of the Particular Court dated May 17th, 1694 state “as also that a like warrant shall be directed to the constable for apprending and bring upp to particular court Mary Barnes of their town.” This refers to a mention of a previous charge of adultery brought up in a different case against someone else. There are no records of any follow-up on this warrant and there is also nothing about what the charges might be. In any case, charges were never filed.
Mary Barnes would have been familiar with the cases of witchcraft which were being prosecuted at that time. She testified in 1655 in the case against Nicholas Bayley and his wife of Farmington. She spoke of conversations she had with Mrs. Bayley and the fact that Mrs. Bayley had quarrels with Thomas Barnes concerning ducks and pork. Mr. and Mrs. Bayley fled to Rhode Island. Mary Barnes would have known Rebecca Greensmith long before Mrs. Greensmith accused her of witchcraft in 1662. Mary’ own indictment, trial and execution occurred during a very short period of time. Her indictment and trial were on January 3rd and she was hanged, along with Nathaniel and Rebecca Greensmith, on January 25, 1663. According to the records on the Particular Court of Connecticut, her indictment reads, “Mary Barnes thou are here Indited by ye name of Mary Barnes for not haveing the fear of God before thyne eyes. Thou hast entertained familiarity with Satan the great enemy of God and mankind and by his help has acted things in a preternaturally way beyond ye ordinary Course of nature for which according to ye Law of God and ye established Laws of this colony thou deserved to die.
“The Prisoner pleaded not guilty and referd her self for trial by ye Jury
“The Jury returned that they find ye Prisoners Guilty of ye Inditement.“
The magistrates involved were Matthew Allen, Daniel Clark, Richard Treat, Henry Wolcott, Samuel Wyllys and Lt. John Allyn. The jury was Samuel Boreman, John Coles, Lt. Walter Fyler, John Gilbert, Samuel Hale. Captain Samuel Marshal, Ensign John Olmstead, William Wadsworth, Robert Webster, Gregory Winterton and Nathaniel Willett. There is no record of Mary Barnes saying anything in her defense. What was unusual about Mary Barnes’ indictment was that she was not identified as the wife of Thomas Barnes nor was Thomas Barnes indicted separately. There is no record of Thomas Barnes ever coming to the defense of his wife. It is not known if he even attended the trial.
The timing of Mary Barnes’ trial was unfortunate. Governor John Winthrop, Jr. had sailed to England in 1661 on government business to deal with the issue of a royal charter. Governor Winthrop had a deep interest in alchemy, a tolerance of religious matters and political acumen. No one was hanged for witchcraft from the time he was elected in 1657. The witch-hunt in Hartford did not begin until 1662. It is likely that he would have stopped the trials if he were not away in England during this time.
Rebecca Greensmith, Nathaniel Greensmith and Mary Barnes were taken by oxcart to a wooden scaffold set up at Gallows Hill near the cow pasture in Hartford. Crowds gathered, because executions were public events and were treated both as a warning and as a time for merriment. Mary’s children were ages 16 through age 6. It is not recorded if they attended the hanging or who took care of them during this time. It is also not recorded if Thomas Barnes attended the hanging. What is recorded is that Thomas Barnes paid the jail keeper the fee of 21 shillings for keeping Mary in the jail for the three weeks between her trial and her execution. According to tradition, the Greensmiths were executed first and then Mary Barnes was executed. Mary Barnes thus is the last person hanged in Connecticut for witchcraft.
Thomas Barnes did not leave Farmington after his wife’s death, even though he did have the connections and the assets to do so. On March 3, 1662, three months later, he signed a marriage contract with his neighbor John Andrews for the hand of his daughter Mary Andrews. As part of the marriage contract, Barnes agreed to “put out all of his children excepting his son Benjamin Barnes; however, if the aforesaid Barnes, together with the desire of his wife, shall see it comfortable for himself and his wife and child, he hath liberty to keep his daughter Sarah at home with him, to be serviceable to him unit she shall depart from her natural life or unit God shall dispose of her in marriage.” Mary Andrews was only 20 at the time and Thomas Barnes was 48. Thomas Barnes wrote his will on June 9th, 1668. In this will, he left his estate to Mary Andrews Barnes and their two sons. His children by his first wife are mentioned in the following manner “to my children which are already gone from me and disposed in marriage I have formerly given according to my Ability, and which I expect they shall aquiesse.”
It seems as if Mary Barnes was resigned to the inevitability of her fate. However, the why of what happens is a mystery which may never be solved. Her memory has not been lost in history. Her name keeps appearing alongside the names of the other men and women who suffered similar fates during the colonial period. There is a continued interest in the history of witches and witchcraft which exists up to the current day. In 2013, the Stanley-Whitman House held a symposium on colonial New England history of witchcraft. There was a witchcraft trial exhibit and various panel discussions. Also included on that day was a performance of a play written by Virginia Wolf entitled “In a Preternatural Way: The Witchcraft Trial of Mary Barnes.” It is hoped, by various people, that the State of Connecticut will someday pass a law to exonerate the memory of Mary Barnes.
Butler, Joanne. Witches vs. Winthrops. October 2013. Accessed March 27, 2016. http://rebelpuritan.blogspot.com/2013/10/witches-vs-winthrop_31.html.
Karlsen, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.
Taylor, John M. The Witchcraft Delusion In Colonial Connecticut . New York: Grafton Press, 1908.
Telian, Bernice Mabel Grafton. My Grandmother Mary was Hanged. Delhi, NY: Privately Published, 2013.