In a set of early records from Westchester County is an unassuming reminder of the history of witchcraft in colonial New York. Although written in a daunting-to-read seventeenth century hand, the reminder is a statement dated September 5, 1670, acknowledging payment of fourteen pounds to a Katharine Harrison by Joseph Palmer, “fully and abessolutely” satisfying his debt. Aside from its age, it’s not an otherwise noteworthy record. But, as we’ll see, that belies the curious story unfolding around it.
A native of England, Katherine Harrison had settled in Wethersfield, Connecticut in 1651 before marrying John Harrison two years later in 1653. By 1669, Harrison was not only widowed but stood accused of practicing witchcraft by her fellow townspeople. A Hartford jury would convict her in late spring, 1670. The court, exercising discretion, subsequently banished her from Connecticut rather than accept the jury’s recommendation that she be put to death. Harrison, having escaped the far worse fate, ended up moving to Westchester to live with her youngest daughter, Rebeckah and her new husband Thomas Hunt.
It would seem a simple enough story were it to end there but records indicate that a dispute arose over property that Rebeckah claimed had been left to her by her late father but of which her mother had deprived her. It’s reasonable to assume the dispute in some way fueled concerns that soon arose within the town about having an accused witch as a neighbor. Townspeople submitted a petition to that effect and on July 7, 1670 Gov. Francis Lovelace himself summarily ordered Harrison to remove from Westchester. Katharine refused the order which brought her face to face with Lovelace on August 25, accompanied by Capt. Richard Ponton (with whom Harrison was then living and who witnessed the record above).
During the interview Ponton spoke on Harrison’s behalf and presented letters of support. In a statement that seemed to doubt the basis for her original Hartford conviction, Lovelace deferred the matter to the Court of Assizes, to take place that October. There Harrison would ultimately be exonerated of any wrongdoing leaving her free to carry on in Westchester without interference. Unfortunately for Harrison, her innocence in the eyes of the law didn’t persuade her neighbors and she continued to be the object of their complaints. One source even comments that further accusations were leveled against her during New York’s return to Dutch rule, in 1673.