Zachary Levi shocked to learn ancestor narrowly avoided being killed in witch trial

On Who Do You Think You Are? on Sunday, Shazam! star Zachary Levi was shocked to learn that his paternal 10-times great-grandmother Elizabeth Clawson was accused of being a witch in the year 1692, the same year as the Salem witch trials.

"That's the year of the Salem witch trials. There is the outbreak in Salem. There's only one other outbreak of witchcraft, and it's here. So this is a perilous time for your family," said Ann Little, professor of history at Colorado State University.

While Clawson lived in Fairfield, Conn., not Salem, Mass., Levi's ancestor was still sent to trial, where she would potentially be executed if found guilty. During the witch trials, women who were accused of witchcraft were ducked — bound hand and foot and put into water — as a way to establish whether the suspect was a witch or not. It was believed that "a pure, good-hearted Christian would sink," so when she floated, they thought she was a witch.

"To find out that my 10-times great-grandmother was essentially accused of being a witch is just so mind-blowing and also, like, troubling and sad and surreal. It's always difficult to try and put yourself into somebody else's shoes, but 1692, my 10-times great-grandmother gets thrown into this pond, with her hands and feet bound into one another. She knows the gravity of the situation. She understands what happens to someone who's accused of and convicted of being a witch. I mean, that's death. I would imagine she was scared and angry and confused. I can imagine being in this spot, being surrounded by a bunch of people that you thought were your friends," shared a heartbroken Levi, as he stood by the pond she was ducked in.

However, after more digging into her history, Little and Levi discovered a petition, written by Clawson's husband, Stephen Clawson, and signed by 76 people defending Clawson against the accusations of witchcraft.

"The community, in supporting Elizabeth Clawson, was undertaking something of a risk because of the fear of guilt by association to defend an accused witch," explained Little. "And Stephen certainly was taking a risk in soliciting support for his wife. We've seen in both England and in New England whereby husbands get accused of witchcraft when trying to defend their wives from the accusation of witchcraft. So he did something that is very unusual and very brave." This was a relief to Levi, who prior to learning about his paternal ancestry, had learned that all the men on his maternal side had been abusive and alcoholic. Fortunately, Levi received some better news when he learned that Elizabeth Clawson was, ultimately, found not guilty.

In the end, Levi shared of his journey: "You learn so much about who you are by learning about your family, about your past, because that is you. You are a product of that long line. It's very uplifting to have an example of a man within my lineage, my 10-times great-grandfather, who had that kind of courage and the love of his wife, and was quite, you know, essentially willing to die, if that's what it came to. It's empowering, and I'm grateful to know that that lives within me in my DNA. And then hearing, ultimately, that Elizabeth Clawson wasn't convicted and was set free, that feels very good."

Who Do You Think You Are? airs Sundays at 7 p.m. on NBC.

Watch 'Mom' star Allison Janney being blown away after learning her ancestor arrived on the Mayflower in 1620:

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