New England Myths & Legends: The Bristol Witches

More than 100 years after Satanic Panic died down in Salem, the witchraft craze reared its ugly head in New England once again. From 1800 to 1810 Bristol, Connecticut was caught up in the same hysteria that cost so many innocent men and women of Massachusetts their lives.

There isn’t a clear timeline of events for the Bristol witch hysteria as there is for the Salem events, but some reports say that the supernatural occurrences “began and ended” with a man named King who had come to Bristol to study ministry. It is said that “on his departure, the activity of the evil spirits ceased.”

Was King himself a witch? Or was he somehow responsible for creating an elaborate hoax and spreading panic throughout the village? We may never know.

A man named Truman Norton and his daughter Merilla lived in Bristol in the early 1800’s. The events surrounding Merilla’s “bewitchment” led to a series of witchcraft trials in Bristol, which were some of the last in New England history. As one story goes, Merilla’s aunt was a witch who put a curse on the young woman. The curse caused Merilla to be tormented by pain and stuck with pins by invisible hands.

Norton hired his neighbor Seth Stiles to watch over Merilla at night. Initially Stiles witnessed Merilla writhing in pain with no visible source, but then he actually saw metal pins appear in her skin. Stiles pulled the pins from her body, tied them in a handkerchief and threw them into the fire. Destroying the pins supposedly broke the spell and from that time on Merilla was freed from her aunt’s witchcraft.

The next day the aunt was found horribly burned and dead. By throwing the bewitched pins on the fire, Stiles had not only saved Merilla, but had turned the evil witch’s own black magic back on herself.

But that’s not the only version of the wild story of young Merilla Norton.  In another, the girl claimed that her aunt had bewitched her one night and “rode her like a horse” to Albany, New York where she was then forced to witness a group of witches performing satanic rites. Norton was later the subject of an exorcism. This version does not reveal the fate of the wicked aunt.

Several other stories of possession, torment and livestock mutilation abounded in Bristol during this dark time, including one surrounding the head of the Baptist church and another involving a high ranking Deacon. Some citizens even fled the village altogether.

Although the events in Bristol turned out to be far less bloody than the occurrences in Salem during the 1690’s, it just goes to show how easily panic could spread throughout an entire village in those days.

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