The Effort to Exonerate Those Executed for Witchcraft in Connecticut Continues

Anthony Griego has been waging a one-man crusade to exonerate those who were wrongly executed for witchcraft.

Anthony Griego has been waging a one-man crusade to exonerate those who were wrongly executed for witchcraft.

Arnold Gold

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Anthony Griego is a retired New Haven cop with a serious-looking white mustache and a heavy-duty pentagram ring. And he’s on a mission.

For years, Griego, of Hamden, has been seeking the exoneration of 11 Connecticut Colonists executed on charges of witchcraft in the mid-1600s. He knows precisely how that sounds—it was a long time ago—but it galls him that nine women and two men in Connecticut were accused, convicted, and executed—most of them hanged—because of superstition, fear and even jealousy. Griego believes it’s not too late to right that wrong.

He and others have lobbied state legislators and in 2008 came close to getting an official acknowledgement that the 11 were wrongly accused and put to death, but the effort came to naught. He’s written letters to the editor, contacted the state Board of Pardons & Paroles and, after being told the state government has no jurisdiction over Colonial Connecticut, he even wrote to the Queen of England. Eight months later, he received a thoughtful, if disappointing, reply from a Mark Woodham of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in London. Noting that the granting of a “posthumous Free Pardon” was “extremely rare,” Woodham wrote that he assumed the granting of such a pardon should fall to Connecticut’s current governor. (To date, Gov. Dannel Malloy has shown no interest in issuing one.)

Anyone else would have abandoned the quest by now. Not Griego. Those indicted souls were deprived of their lives for a crime not even on the books anymore, and he can’t let that rest any more than he could let a bad guy go free during his 30-plus years on the force. Like any good cop, he will follow this case to the end—and he hopes it’s not a bitter one.

Griego first got interested in the issue in 2003 after hearing State Historian Walter W. Woodward speak about the witchcraft trials. “We asked if anyone had ever sought exoneration,” Griego says. “And he said, ‘That would be a good idea.’ So this is kind of his fault.”

But now Griego finds himself in genial disagreement with Woodward, who’s since suggested that it’s unwise to judge past epochs by today’s standards. “It’s hard to live in one time period, which has its own cultural mores, its own sense of right and wrong, and make effective judgments about another time period,” says Woodward. “Once you start crossing the border, you forget that the past is a foreign country. It’s a slippery slope.”

Puritans are generally portrayed in black and white, as austere, mean and intolerant, he says, citing H.L. Mencken’s definition of Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” The real picture, of course, is more complex, and so are the witch trials.

Salem, Mass., pretty much has the market on tourism cornered. Most people don’t realize that Connecticut’s witch scare happened well before Salem’s and lasted much longer. In fact, what’s thought to be the first execution for witchcraft in the New World occurred in Hartford in 1647—45 years before the ones in Salem—when a woman named Alice (or Alse) was hanged, probably on May 26 of that year. And Connecticut’s persecution of witches continued, despite the efforts of one Colonial governor to stem the tide, into the 1660s. Salem’s, in 1692-’93, lasted little more than a year.

A formal complaint would be launched, the accused searched for a “witches’ teat,” a bodily mark from which it was believed demons could feed. If such a mark was found, the poor unfortunate was put on trial. For years, an accusation could come from just one person, and sometimes, it was nothing more than a neighbor’s attempt at a land grab, though the trials themselves were infused with Biblical references. (Court transcripts often began with an accusation that the accused did not have “the fear of God before thine eyes.”)

Some 40 other Connecticut residents were put on trial and acquitted. And that, says Woodward, is something for which the state should get some credit: The rule of law—albeit Colonial law, which allowed for the physical embodiment of the Devil—was followed. Massachusetts and other New England states would eventually follow suit, requiring more than the spectral visions allegedly seen by one accuser in order to indict a citizen.

Richard G. Tomlinson wrote extensively on the subject in Witchcraft Prosecution: Chasing the Devil in Connecticut (Picton Press, 2012). Tomlinson, of Glastonbury, is founder and director of the Connecticut Society of Genealogists. His interest was piqued by Lydia Gilbert, a Windsor woman who was accused of using witchcraft in the shooting death of a man in 1651. The man who actually fired the gun was fined; Gilbert was hanged. In the 1970s, when Tomlinson wrote his first book on the subject, Witchcraft Trials of Connecticut, he’d thought he was a direct descendent of Gilbert’s, but it turned out she was his ninth-great-aunt. (“She’s in my tree,” he says, “but I’m disappointed she’s not in my direct line.”)

His most recent work examines the trials using primary sources such as the papers of Samuel Wyllys, a Colonial court magistrate whose property was home to the fabled Charter Oak. “One thing comes across after you spend some time with those documents,” said Tomlinson. “These people weren’t stupid. They could be very skeptical and very demanding of proof.”

The Effort to Exonerate Those Executed for Witchcraft in Connecticut Continues

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