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Colonial Witch Hysteria Recalled

May 27, 2007
By SUSAN CAMPBELL, Courant Staff Writer

On May 26, 1647, a Windsor woman named Alse Young was hanged for witchcraft where Hartford's Old State House now stands.

On Saturday, a group of descendants, historians and interested onlookers gathered down the road at Barnard Park - the South Green - to remember Young and 10 other Connecticut residents executed for witchcraft in Colonial Connecticut. As each of the names of the nine women and two men was read, a bell was rung, and a white rose laid at the base of a tree, over which a hangman's noose dangled. A 12th rose was laid to remember the children of the executed.

"When's the hanging, yo?" asked one passer-by, a man astride a bicycle, prompting several of the assembled to walk over and explain why they were in the park.

If Massachusetts is better known for its Colonial witch hunts, Connecticut's hysteria preceded that state's by a half-century, yet the accused remain mostly unacknowledged by history books. Saturday's ceremony was an attempt to change that, said organizer Kathy Spada-Basto, a teacher at Hartford's Burns Elementary School. She hopes to make the commemoration an annual ritual.

The longtime Hartford-area resident said she became interested in Connecticut's secret past about five years ago after she picked up a book on Colonial witch hunts in New England.

"I've lived here all of my life, and I didn't know this," said Spada-Basto. Researching the trials and getting to know the small army of genealogists and amateur historians who share her passion "has been a labor of love for me," she said.

Young's execution is the first one recorded for witchcraft in New England, and her name is known only because the Windsor town clerk at the time recorded it in his diary. No official record of her trial exists. From some counts, she was the wife of a John, a carpenter, and he left town soon after her death. A woman thought to have been her daughter was later accused of witchcraft in Springfield, though the daughter was not executed and her case may not have even come to trial; historians say second-generation accusations were common.

Also executed (according to historical records and a recent report from the Office of Legislative Research) were Mary Johnson, of Wethersfield; Joan and John Carrington, of Wethersfield; Goodwife (her first name is lost) Bassett, of Fairfield; Goodwife Knapp, of Fairfield; Lydia Gilbert, of Windsor; Rebecca and Nathaniel Greensmith, of Hartford; Mary Barnes, of Farmington, and Mary Sanford, of Hartford.

Two of Sanford's descendants, Debra Avery, and her 14-year-old daughter, Addie, of Washington, Conn., are pushing for official exoneration of their ancestor and the others. Massachusetts and Virginia already have exonerated their witchcraft victims.

Addie Avery, who is home-schooled, has taken on the project for a class. She said she has gotten favorable replies from some legislators in Hartford, and a bill might be introduced in the next legislative session.

Joining the Averys on Saturday was Judy Dworin, of the Judy Dworin Dance Ensemble. In the mid-'90s, she examined witchcraft hysteria in a multimedia show called "Burning." She is reworking that piece with some new research, she said, that will include an appearance by Addie Avery.

Popular retellings of the New England witch hysteria tend to paint the accused - most of whom were women - as residents unable to fit into the strictures of their time, but the real story is more complex, said State Historian Walter Woodward. In Puritan culture, the devil was a real presence, and residents lived in fear for their souls, he said.

"The devil was an agent at work in the world, and he used all kinds of subtle mechanisms to get control of people," said Woodward. "For a society that believed the devil is their enemy and who also believed the devil is the strongest power in the universe next to God, when they think they're under attack by the devil, their response is based on perceived threat. This wasn't just mean-spiritedness. This was the product of intense fear."

Then, too, said Dworin, the land the colonists came to wasn't as hospitable as they'd anticipated, and attack by the natives they'd supplanted was a constant fear.

The green was chosen as the ceremony's site because many of the accused lived in the area, Spada-Basto said. In Hartford, convicted witches were killed by hanging, mostly at the site of the Old State House, or at a public gallows at Albany and Vine.

Spada-Basto, who was also instrumental in raising funds for a North End memorial to Hartford's deadly circus fire of 1944, said she'd like to see a similar memorial to the victims of Connecticut's witchcraft hysteria.

"When you go over to Europe, they have thousands of years of history, and it's still important," she said. "These people mattered. They counted."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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