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New Haven County Court Records: Blog

A Curious Case of Witchcraft Slander

by Sarah Morin on 2021-07-27T09:00:00-04:00 in Archives, Connecticut, Courts: Connecticut Courts, History, Women's History | 0 Comments

Today we are going to examine an unusual case involving witchcraft slander. When quoting from documents, we will use the actual spelling, including transcriptions of individual words as necessary. (For more information about colonial spelling practices, see The Standardization of American English at

As noted in a recent post, the records for this case, as well as the cases previously profiled in this blog, are currently in the process of being digitized. They will eventually be available for public viewing at the Connecticut Digital Archive (CTDA).

Elizabeth Gould vs. Benjamin Chittenden

Given that the last known witchcraft trial in Connecticut occurred in 1697 and the last known executions for witchcraft took place in 1662-1663 (Connecticut General Assembly, Connecticut Witch Trials and Posthumous Pardons), it was quite the surprise to come across this case in 1742. A widow named Elizabeth Gould sued a man named Benjamin Chittenden (or Chittendon, as the writ also referred to him) for slandering her as a witch. Both the plaintiff and the defendant resided in the North Parish of Guilford.

single page of paper with handwriting

Writ for Elizabeth Gould vs. Benjamin Chittenden

Chittenden’s accusation against Gould was both stunning and lurid: “he did believe She (meaning the Plaintiff) was a Witch and had Reason to believe it because She (meaning the Plaintiff) Took her Neighbour Benton[’]s Sow meaning Ebenezer Benton Junior[’]s Sow of s[ai]d Guilford and rode down here (meaning the Defendant[’]s Dwelling House in Said Parrish, & tied her to an Empty Hogshead in the Street & came in & got upon my Breast (meaning) his the Defendant[’]s Breast & Lay upon me so hard as to make the Blood flie out at my Mouth & Nose.” [This quote was updated in March 2024, after a subsequent court case made it clear that Gould was alleged to have taken Benton’s sow, not son. Given the challenges of deciphering of colonial cursive, we originally misread the w as an n!]

Gould alleged that Chittenden said these things to damage her reputation because he was “Envious at the Happy Estate of the Plaintiff & minding to vex & grieve her unjustly, & her to Slander.” She also poignantly described how his accusation rendered her an outcast in their community, as it served to bring her into “Disgrace Contempt, & Abhorrence, as well as to Deprive her of the Society Traffick & both Pleasant & Necessary Converse of her Neighbours.”

As discussed in the previous post, women in colonial Connecticut were entirely dependent on their families, neighbors, and social networks for survival, and to be cut off from them was tantamount to exile. This kind of slander was not merely devastating to women on an emotional level, it also threatened their very livelihoods, which helps explain why Gould requested the enormous sum of 500 pounds in damages for Chittenden’s defamation of her character.

It was somewhat challenging to determine the outcome of Gould’s lawsuit. When consulting the record book—a tome in which the outcomes of cases were normally transcribed in beautiful and legible handwriting—we found various sections crossed out, which made some portions of the entry difficult to decipher.

page from book with handwriting, some lines crossed out

Record for Elizabeth Gould vs. Benjamin Chittenden

Perhaps there was some contention over the particulars of the case. Or perhaps J. Whiting, Clerk, was having an off day. Whatever the case, it seems that the Court deemed Gould’s assertions insufficient. This was not necessarily entirely due to sexism, as many plaintiffs’ declarations of slander were ruled insufficient between 1710 to 1750 (Cornelia Hughes Dayton, Women Before the Bar: Gender, Law, & Society in Connecticut, 1639-1789, p. 307). However, to add insult to injury, the Court awarded Chittenden the recovery of his court costs. Gould was allowed to appeal to the Superior Court, and a man named Thomas Gould (most likely her son) was bound on recognizance of 30 pounds on her behalf, “payable to the [Treasurer] of this County if the plaintiff Do not prosecute and appeal to Effect and answer all Damages in Case She make not her plea Good” (County Court Records, New Haven County, Vol. 4, 1739 to 1755, p. 139).

Serendipitously, we uncovered additional insight into this case from Cornelia Hughes Dayton, who discussed Gould’s plight in her book about women in the colonial New Haven courts. Concerning slander cases, she noted that “slighting awards of sixpence [were] handed to plaintiffs who had been technically slandered but whose notorious misbehavior had contributed to the dispute,” and named the Gould lawsuit as an example where this occurred (Women Before the Bar, p. 302). So while the courts of New Haven County had evolved past indulging regular citizens’ fear of witchcraft by the 1740s, they still appeared to believe that this maligned widow had done something to merit such callous dismissal.

Another interesting factor surrounding this case is that Gould appears to have been widowed since 1718 and never remarried. This may have been due to the economic disincentive offered by her late husband’s will, which left everything to her but decreed that in the case of remarriage, all real and personal property would be transferred to his four youngest children. Unfortunately, a woman not firmly under the purview of men had a much higher likelihood of becoming a target for defamation. As Allegra di Bonaventura observed, “a lone woman, widowed or unmarried, was an inherently suspect figure—particularly vulnerable to charges of immorality, or even witchcraft” (For Adam’s Sake: A Family Saga in Colonial New England, p. 89). In addition, several cases involving ecclesiastical affairs in the 1740s demonstrate a discernable religious tension in Connecticut during that decade (no doubt due to the Great Awakening movement happening at the time), which could have contributed to the atmosphere of fear and division that led to this dispute between neighbors.

Fortunately, Widow Gould was not in danger of losing her life, as she would have been if she’d faced this kind of accusation one hundred years earlier. But that must have been cold comfort to her, given the travails she described of being ostracized and mistreated by her neighbors. The stress of weathering a sensationalistic slander accusation and a trial that concluded in a disdainful verdict may very well have had a detrimental effect on her health—per genealogical research on the Gould family contributed to Find a Grave, she died in North Guilford in 1745, merely three years after the trial, at age 82 or 83. Her son Thomas subsequently died in 1746.

Sadly, unless the Superior Court ruled decisively in her favor or her fortunes changed in a way that the historical record does not reveal, we can only conclude that Elizabeth Gould spent her few remaining years in Guilford as a lonely pariah who was viewed with suspicion and contempt by the other members of her community.

The Connecticut State Library would like to thank the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) for their generous support of this project.

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