New England States Are Exonerating Colonial-Era Witches — But Not Everyone Is On Board

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Connecticut state Rep. Doug Dubitsky does not believe in witches. He wants to make this very clear. 

“There are plenty of people in this day and age who think there is such a thing as witchcraft,” Dubitsky said in a recent phone interview. “I don’t happen to be one of them.”

Dubitsky’s unusual clarification was prompted by coverage of his objections to a bill currently before the Connecticut state legislature — coverage he says made him look like “a rube” who believed in witches — to exonerate Connecticut residents who were convicted of crimes relating to witchcraft in the 1600s. Dubitsky said he took issue with the vague wording of the bill and wanted more information about the crimes “related” to witchcraft and what exactly the legislature was going to exonerate them for. 

The bill is part of a microtrend of late: Nearly 400 years after their infamous witch trials, New England states have been introducing and passing legislation to exonerate those who were convicted. Last year, through a budget amendment, Massachusetts finally exonerated Elizabeth Johnson Jr., the last person convicted in the Salem witch trials who had not yet had her name cleared. And a bill is currently pending before the New Hampshire legislature to posthumously exonerate Eunice “Goody” Cole, the only Granite Stater ever convicted of witchcraft. 

But while acknowledging the injustices of the past may seem like an objectively noble task, Dubitsky isn’t the only person with hesitations about these bills. Others have questioned whether this kind of legislation is the best use of lawmakers’ time at a moment when living, breathing women still face real threats. 

Connecticut’s bill was largely the product of a campaign by a group of historians and descendants of convicted witches seeking closure. These people, many of whom testified in favor of the bill during a public hearing, still feel a sense of injustice for their ancestors who were wrongly convicted, according to Jess Zaccagnino, a policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, who testified in support of the bill.

“There’s a lot of families out there that really want closure,” Zaccagnino said. “Even though this happened back in the mid-1600s, that kind of reconciliation is important, because there are still families right here in Connecticut that are hurting from this.”

Legislators who sponsored the bill have cited this as the main motivation as well, but there are other reasons why this type of legislation is appealing. Connecticut state Sen. Saud Anwar, who co-sponsored the bill, said the main motivation was to acknowledge the injustice of the state’s puritanical (literally) witch hunts. But he said that this kind of stance also communicates that the state supports women at a time when women’s rights face renewed threats. “It’s no secret that what happened 300-plus years ago was because the women were women and they were being targeted,” Anwar said. “When men are in control … they use their means to try and take away the rights of women. It was prevalent then. It remains prevalent now.”

Anwar pointed out that many of the accused were targeted for being “independent women.” State Rep. Jane Garibay said in a hearing that some of the accused were women who simply dressed differently or were “too assertive” and that the bill was “not about witchcraft. This is about women’s rights and justice.” In this sense, the bill is not only a symbolic gesture to right the wrongs of the past, but also a way for the (largely) Democratic lawmakers supporting it to signal their feminist bona fides without having to pass any actual new laws. 

But there are those who question the value of these kinds of symbolic gestures. Dubitsky said he opposed the bill not because he thought maybe the accused were actual witches, but because he thinks exoneration by the state legislature should be taken seriously, and he wanted the language to be clear and explicit. 

“If it’s just some flowery, nice thing to do that has no substantive meaning, get rid of it completely,” Dubitsky said. “We shouldn’t be doing bills like that. We should do bills that have substance. We have too much work to do.”

Even Katherine Howe, an author and historian of the witch trials who is herself a descendant of two women who were convicted of witchcraft, wondered whether this was the most meaningful way to support women, or even right historical wrongs, in 2023. She said exonerating those convicted of witchcraft was “great” but “a lot of bad stuff happened 300 years ago.”

“I can think of something that’s actually worse that still has pretty big effects in contemporary society — I’m talking about slavery,” Howe said. “It’s easy to go back and say, ‘Look at this wrong that we have righted.’ And I think it’s partly because we don’t really have to reckon with the aftereffects of it anymore. That’s a nice, easy, feel-good thing to do. And yet at the same time, we just lost Roe v. Wade — like, are we actually worried about women today?”

During the public hearings, at least one Connecticut resident also spoke out against the bill wondering why lawmakers were focused on exonerating a small group of people who were convicted centuries ago when there are still individuals convicted of crimes related to marijuana in a state profiting off the legalized sale of the drug. 

Proponents of the bill say it’s not a zero-sum game and there’s no reason lawmakers can’t do it all. There are laws and bills around overturning marijuana convictions in Connecticut, for example. In the end, proponents and opponents may each score a win. Anwar said he’s “optimistic” that Connecticut’s bill — which passed favorably out of the joint judicial committee — will pass, while New Hampshire’s is currently blocked in a Senate committee despite passing the House. But atoning for every wrongdoing perpetrated by the state over the past three or four centuries, while also protecting modern-day citizens, is a tall order, and might take more than a little magic to pull off.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux contributed reporting.

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