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A Curious Case of Witchcraft Slander, Continued

by Sarah Morin on 2024-03-21T08:30:00-04:00 in Archives, Connecticut, Courts: Connecticut Courts, History, Women's History | 0 Comments

painting of two alleged witches being tried in Salem, Massachusetts as part of the infamous witch hunts, oil on canvas board en grisaille

There is a flock of yellow birds around her head by Howard Pyle, 1892. Public domain image courtesy of Brandywine River Museum of Art, via Wikimedia Commons.

In honor of Women’s History Month, we examine the continued case of Elizabeth Gould, a widowed woman who was accused of witchcraft by Benjamin Chittenden, a fellow townsperson in the North Parish of Guilford. To repair her ruined reputation, she sued him for slander. After the County Court deemed her plea insufficient and awarded Chittenden recovery of his court costs, she appealed to the Superior Court.

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 In certain circumstances, we will add missing letters to abbreviated words or substitute modern spelling in brackets to enhance reader comprehension.

A Slight Correction

Before we delve into the Superior Court case, we must correct an error that we made previously. Given the difficulty of deciphering colonial cursive, we originally quoted the County Court case as follows (errata in bold underline):

Benjamin Chittenden “did believe She (meaning the Plaintiff) was a Witch and had Reason to believe it because She (meaning the Plaintiff) Took her Neighbour Bentons Son meaning Ebenezer Benton Junior Son of s[ai]d Guilford and rode down here (meaning the Defendants Dwelling House in Said Parrish, & tied her to an Empty Hogshead in the Street & came in & got upon my Breast (meaning) his the Defendants Breast & Lay upon me so hard as to make the Blood flie out at my Mouth & Nose.”

single page of paper with handwriting, with red notations to text

The two “sows” underlined in red look virtually indistinguishable from the word “son.” The squiggly black mark that the red arrow points to is an S added to “Junior” in order to make the word a possessive noun. Possessive nouns can be difficult to discern in colonial-era documents, given the lack of apostrophes and other punctuation.

However, the Superior Court case makes it clear that Gould was alleged to have taken Benton’s sow:

single page of paper with handwriting, with red notation to textsingle page of paper with handwriting, with red notation to text

The word “sow” is much more clearly formed in these Superior Court case documents.

As such, here is the amended quote for the County Court case document (corrections in bold underline):

Benjamin Chittenden “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.”

On to the Case!

single page of paper with handwritingsingle page of paper with handwriting

Front and back of the writ for Elizabeth Gould vs. Benjamin Chittenden

In March 1742, Benjamin Chittenden “of ye North Parish in Guilford” was summoned to the New Haven County Court to answer to Elizabeth Gould “of Said Parish Feme Sole,” for violating the statute An Act for the Punishment of Defamation. According to the writ pictured above—a "true Copy" that was included with the Superior Court case documents for the appeal of this slander lawsuit—Gould alleged that Chittenden accused her of witchcraft because he was “envious at ye happy estate of ye Pl[ain]t[iff] and minding to vex & grieve her unjustly & her to Slander.”

Because of the “great & greivous dammage” that his “false, feigned, Scandalous, & opprobrious English Words” caused to her reputation and relationships with neighbors in Guilford, Gould requested the significant sum of 500 pounds in recompense.

multiple pages of paper with handwriting

Witness summons for Elizabeth Gould vs. Benjamin Chittenden

Several witnesses were summoned to provide testimony in this case, including John Gould and Thomas Parmele, late of Guilford but now of Middletown; Sergeant John Hubbard, Huldah Stone, and Ebenezer Talman of Guilford; Benajah Stone and Joseph Bishop of Branford; and William Ston[e] and Nathaniel Parks of Guilford or Branford. (The summons did not clearly list town of origin for the latter two witnesses, most likely due to the Court not knowing their precise location.)

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Front and back of evidence for Elizabeth Gould vs. Benjamin Chittenden

Per “Evidence Taken and Seal’d up for ye Superiour Court to be Holden at New Haven ye 30th: of August AD 1743,” John Gould and Thomas Parmele testified that they went to Benjamin Chittenden’s dwelling house “on or about” February 12, 1742 and “Asked Said Chittenden how he Did (we having heard he had Lately been not well) he answered pretty well... Gould Asked Said Chittenden what he thought had Ailed Him... Chittenden Said he knew well Enough what had Ailed him... Gould asked him Again then he Said he was bewitched... Gould Asked him who he thought had Bewitched him... Chittenden Said It was Said Gould[’]s Mother... Gould Asked Said Chittenden what Reason he had to think His Mother had Bewitched him... Chittenden Said he had Reason Enough... Gould Asked What... Chittenden Said I[’]ll Tell you I See her take her Neighbour Benton[’]s Sow and Rid her Down to my house and Tyd her to an Empty H[ogs]h[ea]d In ye Street and Come In and Got upon my breast and Lay upon me that ye blood flew out of my mouth & nose & Further Says not.”

Huldah Stone also testified under oath that “She was present & heard ye above questions & answers and agrees in full with ye s[ai]d Go[u]ld & Parmelee Save only ye when s[ai]d Chittenden answered ye he See her take his Neighbour Benton[’]s Sow and ride &c he s[ai]d Chittenden added these words viz.—To his Thinking.”

single page of paper with handwritingsingle page of paper with handwriting

County Court plea and proceedings for Elizabeth Gould vs. Benjamin Chittenden

These were “A true Copy” of documents from the original County Court trial held in April 1742. In summary: Chittenden pled that Gould’s declaration was insufficient, whereas Gould declared that her declaration was indeed sufficient. The County Court sided with Chittenden and awarded him the recovery of his costs. However, Gould was allowed an appeal to the Superior Court, and Thomas Gould of Guilford (presumably her eldest son) was bound on recognizance of 30 pounds on her behalf “in Case She make not her plea Good.”

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Superior Court dockets from August 1742, February 1743, and August 1743

As these dockets demonstrate, Elizabeth Gould vs. Benjamin Chittenden was indeed a protracted legal battle, given that it appeared in three Superior Court sessions:

  • Case number 32 in August 1742
  • Case number 28 in February 1743
  • Case number 10 in August 1743

The Final Verdict

The Superior Court documents for Elizabeth Gould vs. Benjamin Chittenden unfortunately lack a verdict, making this curious case of witchcraft slander a true mystery to unravel. Given that the record books for the Superior Court are not housed with the New Haven County Court records—and that we were initially unsure whether the State Library held them or if they even still existed—it was somewhat difficult to discover the outcome of this lawsuit.

We couldn’t check the newspapers, as we did in the case of the four Hamden women who were charged with conspiracy in August 1873, because such publications did not exist in Guilford until the nineteenth century. As noted in the History of New Haven County, Connecticut, “The first periodical published at Guilford was the Clionian Banner, a small paper issued by the members of the Clionian Literary Society of Guilford village. It had a limited circulation and a short existence. The first general newspaper was the Shore Line Sentinel, whose first issue bore [the] date March 8th, 1877” (J. L. Rockey, p. 133).

Serendipitously, Cornelia Hughes Dayton’s book, Women before the Bar: Gender, Law & Society in Connecticut, 1639-1789, provided a vital clue as to where exactly the verdict to this case could be discovered. Thanks to footnote 35 on page 302, we were finally able to track down the information we needed. As it turns out, extant record books for the Connecticut Superior Courts are located in the Early Records series of the Judicial Department records (RG 003) at the Connecticut State Library.

page of paper from bound volume with handwriting

Elizabeth Gould vs. Benjamin Chittenden, Connecticut Superior Court Records, Volume 11, September 1741-August 1745, p. 193

Per this record book entry from August 1743, “In this case ye Jury find ye Defend[an]t is Guilty in Manner & form as ye Pl[ain]t[iff] in his Declaration hath alledged & do find for ye Pl[ain]t[iff] Six pence lawfull Money Damage & Costs—This Judgment was Satisfyed in Court.” The jurors assigned to this case were Stephen Munson, William Diodate, Timothy Jones, James Peck ye 2d, Stephen Baldwin, David Cook, Nathaniell Beedle, Eliakim Hall, Timothy Baldwin, Isaac Johnson, John Collens, and Benjamin Wooden.

Interestingly, the Court describes the plaintiff’s declaration as “his” instead of “hers” (and did this in the County Court plea, as well), perhaps deferring to Gould’s son Thomas, since he had been bound on her behalf. Regardless, Elizabeth Gould was at long last vindicated in a legal sense—although the Court’s award was a lot lower than her originally requested 500 pounds in damages.

While “in the aftermath of the Salem outbreak witch trials were no longer countenanced by either ministers or magistrates,” (Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England, p. 44), it is not out of the realm of possibility that the Court believed Gould had in some measure deserved Chittenden’s slander against her. As Dayton observed about awards in such cases:

Those familiar with court tradition could have discerned coded meanings assigned to certain sums, with five pounds going to innocent, respectable citizens who had been maligned, ten pounds reserved for plaintiffs of high rank or who had been smeared with especially damaging charges, and slighting awards of sixpence handed to plaintiffs who had been technically slandered but whose notorious misbehavior had contributed to the charges. (Women Before the Bar, p. 302)

She also cited Gould’s case as a potential example of this kind of slighting (p. 302, footnote 35).

More Information about Gould, Chittenden, and Guilford

In our search for answers, we examined the following histories written about Guilford and genealogies compiled about local families:

Bafflingly, Elizabeth Gould’s case was not mentioned in any of the histories—one would think a witchcraft accusation would be prime fodder for gossip, especially during the Great Awakening religious revival of the 1740s—but we did find some relevant background information about the Gould and Chittenden families.

Elizabeth Gould was the daughter of Thomas Robinson, who bought land in Guilford in the 1660s from John Caffinge, “one of the first prominent settlers and one of the original grantees” (The History of Guilford, p. 15). After this purchase, Robinson “became one of the wealthiest of the settlers. He was noted for a long and very expensive lawsuit with the town, originating from his taking up land on the front of his lot, which was claimed by the town. The suits which grew out of this act were appealed eventually to the legislature, and finally were adjusted and settled by the interposition of a committee therefrom” (The History of Guilford, pp. 28-29). A History of the Plantation of Menunkatuck devotes an entire chapter to these contentious lawsuits, which stretched from 1677 to 1684. Although the Honorable Smyth—or perhaps Steiner—theorized that “The trouble here... arose from taking up land ‘disorderly’” (p. 112), Robinson ultimately emerged (somewhat) victorious: “the General Assembly, deciding that the interest was usurious, gave Mr. Robinson a verdict and ordered [William] Stone to pay him £15.8.0 in county pay” (p. 114).

Unusually for the time period (Allegra di Bonaventura, For Adam’s Sake: A Family Saga in Colonial New England, pp. 192-193), Elizabeth Robinson Gould remained a widow after her husband Benjamin passed away in 1718—perhaps due to the economic disincentive offered by his will, which left everything to her but decreed that in the case of her remarriage, all real and personal property would be transferred to his four youngest children. As a “Feme Sole” with her own property, she would likely have been viewed with at least some suspicion regardless of her actions or behavior, given that “a lone woman, widowed or unmarried, was an inherently suspect figure—particularly vulnerable to charges of immorality, or even witchcraft” (di Bonaventura, For Adam’s Sake, p. 89).

In addition, as Karlsen pointed out in The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, witchcraft accusations were connected, often indirectly, to land disputes:

Inheritance disputes surface frequently enough in witchcraft cases, cropping up as part of the general context even when no direct link between the dispute and the charge is discernable... The amount of property in question was not the crucial factor in the way these women were viewed or treated by their neighbors, however. Women of widely varying economic circumstances were vulnerable to accusation and even to conviction. Neither was there a direct line from accuser to material beneficiary of accusation: others in the community did sometimes profit personally from the losses sustained by these women... but only rarely did the gain accrue to the accusers themselves. Indeed, occasionally there was no direct temporal connection: in some instances several decades passed between the creation of the key economic conditions and the charge of witchcraft; the change in other cases even anticipated the development of those conditions. (p. 115)

Now we examine Benjamin Chittenden’s background. He was a great-grandson of William Chittenden, one of the original settlers of Guilford (History of New Haven County, pp. 112-113). While Benjamin was not mentioned in any of the town’s histories that we looked at, several notable Chittendens were discussed, as was their family’s fecundity: “Dr. David D. Field, who visited Cranbrook in 1848, says the Chittendens are still numerous there” (A History of the Plantation of Menunkatuck, p. 44).

However, Benjamin was included in the Chittenden family genealogy compiled by Alvin Talcott in the late nineteenth century. He married Elizabeth Hotckin in 1746 and had two children, Elizabeth and Benjamin Jr., before passing away in 1760 at age 40—which would have put him in his early 20s during his legal battle with Elizabeth Gould. Given Benjamin’s relative obscurity in an exceedingly large family (his personal line appears to have ended with great-grandson William), perhaps his accusations were motivated by jealousy over an elderly widow’s largesse. In addition, perhaps there was some lingering animosity between the Chittendens and Robinsons regarding the lawsuit that Guilford launched against Thomas Robinson in 1677 “for breaking the peace by offensive carriages, traducing, quarrelling with contemptuous and scandalous speeches against the Messenger of God’s Word” (A History of the Plantation of Menunkatuck, p. 112).

The Gould family did not appear to be nearly as prominent as the Robinson and Chittenden families in Guilford, given that we found only scant mention of them in these histories. Per A History of the Plantation of Menunkatuck, “Benjamin Gould settled at Guilford about 1707, married Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Robinson, Sr., and died May, 1718” (p. 136). The Find a Grave record for Elizabeth Robinson Gould quoted this excerpt and added a statement that appears to confirm the family’s obscurity: “This was at least four years after the birth of Benjamin Gould’s last known child, whose family whereabouts prior to 1707 cannot be found in any readily available colonial record.”

According to The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Benjamin and Elizabeth had 11 children: Benjamin, Mary, Ann, Thomas, Nathaniel, Sarah, (name unknown), John, David, Ebenezer, and Elizabeth (Mr. Thomas Robinson of Guilford (Conn.) and His Descendants, compiled by Hon. R. D. Smyth and communicated by Dr. Bernard C. Steiner, p. 57). This amount of offspring seems to be confirmed by a statement in Benjamin’s will, but there are researchers who dispute this number and claim they only had five known children.

Interestingly, we did find various passages of complimentary description—some of which bordered on reverential—regarding the character of Guilford’s early settlers:

The first inhabitants were people of property and of strong religious principles and purposes. The society has been noted for the elevation of its views and aims respecting education and the number of educated men it has sent forth. (Chapter XXVIII, North Guilford, A History of the Plantation of Menunkatuck, p. 201)

North Guilford was surveyed and divided in 1705... This community has always been noted for its excellent class of citizens, many of whom were highly educated... The inhabitants of Guilford have always been characterized for their conservative views and fixed purposes. These traits, continued from generation to generation, have been the means of keeping a large proportion of the estates of the original settlers in the family name, or in the hands of the descendants, who cherish the traditions of the past. Hence, here a larger proportion of the old homesteads have been allowed to remain unchanged than in any other part of the county. (History of New Haven County, p. 118)

Not a few treasures in the literary storehouses of this country were gathered or contributed by inhabitants or descendants of the founders of Guilford in periods reaching from the settlement to the present time. One of the latter class quaintly says: “Guilford was born with a book in her hand,” and gives the credit of the first authorship to the founder and leader of the Guilford colony, the Reverend Henry Whitfield. (History of New Haven County, p. 154)

In addition to these emigrations of families, many a fireside in distant states has been graced and made happy by the presence of the daughters of Guilford, who have carried with them to their husband’s homes the rich dower of truth, gentleness and Christian character, attained in their New England home. (The History of Guilford, p. 33)

They wished also, and they succeeded with no inconsiderable success, in transmitting their principles to their posterity. Doctor Dwight says in his Travels (vol. 11, p. 514), “that the inhabitants of this town more than most others in this state have retained the ancient manners of the New England colonists[.] Parents are regarded by their children with a peculiar respect derived not only from their domestic government and persona[l] character, but in a considerable degree from the general state of manners. Old people are in a similar degree revered by the young, and laws and magistrates at large. Private contentions have heretofore been rarely known, and lawsuits so rare that no lawyer till lately has ever been able to acquire a living in town. The weight of public opinion has been strongly felt, and diffused a general dread of vice.” No inhabitant has ever suffered capital punishment. (The History of Guilford, pp. 57-58)

One can’t help wondering why Elizabeth Robinson Gould’s protracted legal battle against witchcraft slander was omitted by the Honorable Smyth/Smith and other nineteenth-century historians. Given that Widow Gould’s fraught situation rather contradicts the bucolic and erudite view of Guilford put forth in these histories, perhaps it was deliberately forgotten by the citizens of North Guilford after Elizabeth died in 1745, Thomas followed in 1746, and her other known children—Betty, John, and David—relocated to other towns in Connecticut. If this chapter in Guilford’s history was not widely discussed after the passing and/or emigration of the Gould family—who were not one of the prominent town dynasties in the first place—it was not likely to be recalled by subsequent generations.

Although we have finally discovered the Superior Court’s ruling in this curious case of witchcraft slander, we are always interested in learning more about the people involved. If any readers come across mention of Elizabeth Robinson Gould or Benjamin Chittenden in records such as diaries, reports, town meeting minutes, oral histories, etc.—we would love to hear from you!

As noted in a previous post, the records for several of these cases, as well as 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).

This project is made possible through funding from the Historic Documents Preservation fund of the Office of the Public Records Administrator. We also recognize the past support of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).

logo of stylized book and color splashes representing each department with text: CT State Library Preserving the Past. Informing the Future. logo of eagle with text: National Archives National Historical Publications ampersand Records Commission

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