Year: 1661 Town: Saybrook Outcome: Jury disagreed.
Nicholas and Margaret Jennings were a husband and wife from Saybrook who were charged with witchcraft, brought before the court and—fortunately—acquitted as a result of a hung jury, which meant that they weren’t hanged!
According to The Witchcraft Delusion in Colonial Connecticut (1647-1697) by John M. Taylor and David D. Hall’s Witch Hunting in 17th Century New England, the Jennings were, in the words of one historian, “a rascally pair” long before they first stood accused of witchcraft in 1659-61. In Search of Justice: The Strange Ordeal and Triumph of Nicholas Jennings, part of the Jennings Heritage Project and written by Jennings descendant Nicholas E. Hollis, and Witchcraft Trials of Connecticut, both tell a bit of a different—and better researched—story.
Nicholas Jennings arrived in the New World from England in 1634, soon settling in Hartford along with his two brothers and father John, who was a chimney sweep. Two years later, Nicholas was drawn into the Pequot War, serving with Capt. John Mason, who would become notorious for leading “the Mystic Massacre.” It is not clear if Jennings participated in the gruesome raid.
After the war, he returned to Hartford for a brief time before moving to New Haven, where he met Margaret Bedford, who was an indentured servant to Capt. Nathaniel Turner. The young couple were smitten and soon ran off together, but didn’t get too far before being apprehended. On March 3, 1643, Nicholas was found guilty of “fornication” and publicly whipped; a month later Margaret stood trial and was found guilty of the same crime in addition to theft. She was also flogged, and then ordered by the court to marry Nicholas—talk about a life sentence! The couple also had to pay off the remaining time of Margaret’s servitude as well as for the items that had been taken.
The Jennings bounced between New Haven and Hartford, where “a modest trail of troubles” supposedly followed them, including Nicholas being prosecuted for striking a neighbor’s cow in 1647. Possibly looking for a fresh start, they moved up the coast to Saybrook, where they had three children, including a daughter named Martha.
It seems as though all was quiet for the Jennings until 1659—accounts vary on the date of the indictment vs. the date of the actual trial—when a neighbor, George Wood, accused Margaret of being possessed by Satan and Martha of being pregnant out of wedlock, possibly in retaliation for coming out on the short end of a land dispute.
Here’s the official indictment of Nicholas and Margaret Jennings:
Nicholas Jennings thou art here indicted by the name of Nicholas Jennings of Saybrook for not having the fear of God before thine eyes, thou hast entertained familiarity with Satan, the great enemy of God and mankind, and by his help hast done works above the course of nature to the loss of the lives of several people and in particular the wife of Reinold Marvin with the child of Baalshassar de Wolfe with other sorceries for which according to the law of God and the established laws of this Commonwealth thou deservest to die.
What answerest thou for thyself, guilty or not guilty?
The indictment being rehearsed to each person, particularly the prisoners, answer not guilty.
The case was adjudicated on September 5, 1661, by William Phelps, Richard Treat and George Wyllys, son of a former governor. After listening to testimony, the jury, consisting of 10 men from the neighboring colonies, returned an inconclusive verdict. According to The Witchcraft Delusion in Colonial Connecticut (1647-1697):
“The major part of the jury found Nicholas guilty, but the rest only strongly suspected him, and as to Margaret, some found her guilty, and the others suspected her to be guilty.”
Although not an outright acquittal, it was enough for the Jennings to eventually be set free. Unfortunately, they were not completely exonerated—the court did not think they were fit parents and their three children were taken by the authorities and apprenticed out. During the proceedings it was determined that Martha was not pregnant.
The Jennings remained in Saybrook, where Nicholas died in 1673, around the age of 61. No record of what happened to Margaret following the trial is clear.
The one thing we do know for sure is that neither Nicholas or Margaret Jennings were formally executed for witchcraft, which is a lot more than certain others in Connecticut could say.