[P]OWNAL — A witch trial involving some of the earliest white settlers of Pownal is among several tales featured in the next segment of the “New England Legends” series, which will air on Halloween evening on Vermont public television.
“Witchcraft,” produced by Jeff Belanger and Tony Dunne, marks the sixth episode in the Emmy-nominated series. The segment will explore the witch trials of New England, including the famous 17th-century trials and executions in Salem, Massachusetts.
Belanger, who was raised in Connecticut, said in an interview that he was surprised to learn the earliest known witch tribunals in New England were held in that state, in Hartford, in 1647. Less was written about those trials, he said, speculating that after the 1692 Salem trials, which generated strong negative reactions, Connecticut officials covered up evidence of their own trials.
In Hartford, 11 executions resulted, beginning with a woman named Alice Young.
“The records are just missing,” Belanger said, adding that researchers know of those events from letters and other family papers from the era.
While working on the “Witchcraft” episode, Belanger said, he began to think of the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s and of playwright Arthur Miller, who wrote “The Crucible” with that era and McCarthyism in mind.
“This story just kept growing bigger and bigger,” Belanger said. “I began to feel like Miller must have felt in the ’50s.”
“It suddenly felt that we needed a reminder of what can happen,” he said.
The historical witch trials of New England “were a lot bigger than just Salem,” Belanger said, although those events in 1692 were the most horrendous. There were 20 executions, he said, and hundreds were imprisoned during mass hysteria over allegations of witchcraft or devilish influences.
In addition to those executed, Belanger said, some people died while imprisoned, and several dogs were hanged.
He said he believes mounting fear during several bloody wars between New England settlers and the Native American tribes they were displacing was a factor in producing hysteria, particularly while preachers were calling the natives “minions of the devil.”
The stories in the show are “strangely relevant today,” Belanger said, referring to increasingly bitter political battles and vicious attacks via social media.
“At least then, you had to stand up and point at someone to accuse them,” he said.
While no date has been ascertained for the Pownal witch trial, there was an attack by Native Americans on the Brimmer Farm in nearby Petersburgh, New York, in 1755 during the French and Indian War.
Other attacks on farms in Pownal and New York state are referred to by historian Joseph Parks in his 1977 history of the town, most occurring around the time of French and Indian campaigns against English-held Fort Massachusetts in what is now North Adams, Massachusetts.
The witch trial in Pownal is believed to be Vermont’s only one. The victim was a woman referred to in an account of the earliest days of Bennington County — compiled by historian T.E. Brownell in the 19th century — as “the widow Kreiger” or “Mrs. Kreiger,” Dunne said.
Dunne said that reference was unearthed by Joe Citro, the author of numerous books on paranormal phenomena in Vermont.
While certainly victimized, Kreiger fared better than many others caught up in a witch trial frenzy. She was accused of “possessing extraordinary powers,” Dunne said, and a committee of townspeople was formed to decide her fate.
She was then subjected to a “trial by water,” he said, meaning she “was tossed into the Hoosic” in winter through a hole cut in the river ice to determine whether she would fail to sink — considered a sign of being a witch, as she would have been held up by the devil.
However, “the legend says she sunk like a stone,” Dunne said. “And she was rescued and presumably lived out the rest of her life.”
Dunne said Kreiger was believed to be a member of one of the early Dutch families that settled along the Hoosic River in Pownal in the early 1700s. Pownal was chartered as a British settlement in 1760 and named after a royal governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Pownall.
Dunne said the show’s researchers could find no gravestone, but the Kreiger name is familiar in Pownal, and a cliff outcropping called Kreiger’s Rocks is located across Route 346 from the North Pownal Bridge over the Hoosic River.
The show’s producers have been working together since 2009 when Dunne wrote and produced the documentary “Things That Go Bump in the Night: Tales of Haunted New England,” for PBS. Belanger was featured in that documentary.
Belanger is the author of more than a dozen books on the paranormal, including “The World’s Most Haunted Places” and “Who’s Haunting the White House?”
He’s the founder of Ghostvillage.com, has written for newspapers like The Boston Globe, and is the series writer and researcher for “Ghost Adventures” on the Travel Channel.
Dunne has lived in New England his entire life and now resides in North Adams. He has spent the past 15 years working as a producer in news, commercial, independent and most recently public television at PBS.