The Effort to Exonerate Those Executed for Witchcraft in Connecticut Continues
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Anthony Griego’s interest stems in part because of his self-identification as a pagan. “I’m going to tell you why I care,” said Griego. “It’s because of one word: Witch. In all probability, they were Christians, but somebody pointed a finger at them and called them a witch and because of that, they died.” Some fellow pagans use the word “witch” to describe themselves but Griego does not. Too much baggage, he says.
Woodward and Griego agree that the Colonists’ more extreme reactions to witchcraft accusations stemmed from their deep belief in magic. For the Puritans, the Devil literally walked the earth. The Colonists’ New World was a big, scary place, and it wasn’t a big leap to blame crop failure or violent weather on “Old Scratch,” and to react quickly and decisively to counter that evil influence in other beings. “Think if you saw someone walking down your street with an assault rifle,” says Woodward. Wouldn’t you react?
For a while, Griego was joined in his quest by mother and daughter Debra and Addie Avery. In 2005, Addie, a home-schooler, and her mom stumbled across a family member, Mary Sanford, who was convicted of “familiarity with Satan” in 1662 and, according to Tomlinson’s book, most likely hanged. Sanford’s husband, Andrew, a Hartford pump maker, was indicted but not convicted. (He moved to Milford and remarried shortly after her death.) For years, the Averys gamely fielded questions from reporters from around the country, attended conferences, and testified before state legislators to get their ancestor and the others exonerated. Addie Avery even appeared in a dance performance, but now the two have stepped away from the battle. “Tony is full speed ahead,” says Debra Avery, “but after the legislation didn’t go through, we wondered what was supposed to happen after that.”
Debra says she understands that some may see the entire effort as frivolous, but “with all the things that are going on—bullying, things like that—this could be presented as an educational thing,” she says. “But that means someone would have to pull it together.” (Even within Avery’s own family, there’s disagreement over how the accused should be handled. Her aunt, a genealogist, believes the convictions should stand so that no one forgets.)
If Griego is alone in his active pursuit of exoneration, there’s a dedicated group following his progress with interest. Take Lisa Johnson, executive director of Farmington’s Stanley-Whitman House, who helped host the Farmington Witch Project, an event that combined theater, music and history. Johnson’s particularly interested in Mary Barnes, of Farmington. Barnes was hanged in Hartford with two others, a husband and wife who’d been convicted for witchcraft. Johnson has written a series of papers about Barnes, and—with help from a Connecticut Humanities Council grant—compiled a book (with Karyl Evans) of witchcraft trial resources in the state. Though much of the primary information comes from the Wyllys papers, smaller museums and historical societies around the state are gold mines of information, she says. But the more she researches, the harder it is to make blanket statements about the trials.
“Most of these were middle-aged women who had outlived their biological usefulness, many had property,” says Johnson. “But when you start getting into individual cases, it becomes harder to generalize.”
Judy Dworin, Trinity College dance professor and founder of the Judy Dworin Performance Project, has incorporated the trials in her work, first with the multimedia piece “Burning” in the ’90s, and more recently with “The Witching Hour” (the one Addie Avery appeared in), which won an award from the American Association for State and Local History. Dworin’s planning to restage that piece in November. [Editor's note: "The Witching Hour" will be presented at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford on Nov. 1 & 2.]
She took some of her inspiration from Katherine Harrison, a Wethersfield herbalist who was tried in 1669. “I felt that I got to know her more than the others,” Dworin says. “She gave voice to everyone else.”
For Dworin, the lessons from the witch trials are plenty applicable today. “I think they stand as a symbol for us to really look at what we can do as a group, as a mob,” she says.
Though her death sentence was overturned, Harrison, a former house servant who rose to become a landowner, was probably indicted for precisely the reason she’s a historical favorite: She spoke her mind. “I love that she called one of the people organizing her harassment, Michael Griswold, a ‘liar,’” says Tomlinson. Harrison also called Griswold’s wife a “savage whore.”
How can you not admire a woman like that?
Griego says he’ll keep pushing for those who weren’t as lucky. “Down the road at some point, I think the state is going to have to say, ‘This is a dark part of our history. The people did what they did because of what they believed at the time. We’re sorry for that. Let’s move on.’”