The Effort to Exonerate Those Executed for Witchcraft in Connecticut Continues

 

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.”
 

 

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.’”
 

The Effort to Exonerate Those Executed for Witchcraft in Connecticut Continues

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