Connecticut Witches on Gallows Hill Apr 30, 2014 1:01:33 GMT -5
Post by Joanna on Apr 30, 2014 1:01:33 GMT -5
Envisioning Witches on Trinity's Gallows Hill
Trinity College senior Travis Merrill says that having a campus with an area called Gallow Hills tends to cast something of a spell.
"It can be spooky," the film major said, "but it's also really interesting to think that we're surrounded by history and that people who were accused of being witches hung from gallows built here."
A Maine native, Merrill isn't alone in believing that some or all of the 11 Connecticut residents executed for witchcraft in the 1600s were hanged from gallows erected near what's now St. Anthony Hall by the corner of Vernon and Summit streets in Hartford.
Myths and mistruths about both the site and Connecticut's little-known witch trials are fairly common, said Trinity Librarian Richard Ross (pictured above). At Gallows Hill, however, the only documented executions were of three or four British loyalists, hanged by the Patriot army during the Revolutionary War 200 years before Trinity moved there.
"One of the problems of that time period is that there wasn't a lot of consistent and systematic record-keeping," said Ross, who is researching why so many of the approximately three dozen Connecticut residents accused and tried for witchcraft between 1647 and 1724 came from Hartford, Old Saybrook, Wethersfield and other Connecticut River valley towns.
"There are no known writings about the hangings," Ross continued, "and we don't have any first-person accounts. For some of the cases, there are detailed accounts of the indictments and convictions. But over time, many papers from 17th century events like the witch trials have disappeared."
One of the people working to dig out and piece together that history is Lisa Johnson, executive director of the Stanley-Whitman House in Farmington. Featuring exhibits and programs designed to educate visitors about the state's earliest days, the museum has become an "unofficial center" of primary sources related to Connecticut's witch trials, Johnson said, which predate Salem's more famous ones by almost 50 years.
Connecticut, in fact, has the dubious honor of being responsible for convicting and executing the first witch in New England and the New World, when a panel of Hartford Colony magistrates in 1647 found Alse (Alice) Young of Windsor guilty of having "consulteth with a familiar spirit" and developing a relationship with Satan.
Although accusations and trials continued into the early 18th century, Farmington resident Mary Barnes' witchcraft execution in January 1663 was Connecticut's last. Annual commemorations at the Stanley-Whitman House dedicated to Barnes include a month-long witchcraft trials exhibit, the performance of an original play about Barnes and, on milestone years like the 350th anniversary of her death in 2013, a symposium that brings together colonial New England history and witchcraft experts for panels and other discussions. The museum's most recent celebration of Barnes ended in January.
"Thankfully, about 15 years after Mary's execution, key players in the trials seemed to begin to regret what happened, and mindsets began to change," said Johnson, who frequently lectures about Barnes and the trials. "But for Mary and many of the people deeply affected by this time, we know next to nothing about them. Colonial women living under British rule didn't have assets or own property, so for many there are no records."
The majority of Connecticut witch trial documents that exist are housed in archives at the Connecticut State Library, Connecticut Historical Society and Brown University in Providence, R.I. Digital images of Brown's collection – which includes a detailed account of the indictment of Rebecca and Nathanial Greensmith, a Hartford couple hanged the same day as Barnes – can be accessed from an online database.
"Two of the things we know for sure about Mary," Johnson added, " was that she was illiterate and a servant. We also know that at some point she was accused of adultery, another capital offense at the time, and she was not accepted as a member of the Farmington church, which means its congregation saw her as unworthy. She also earlier accused someone else of witchcraft, so all those things combined could have put her on the witch radar."
Like Ross, Johnson's belief is that Barnes and the majority of the other convicted witches were hanged from timber gallows erected in the Hartford Colony's south pasture, somewhere in the vicinity of today's Dutch Point, and also where Irving Street meets Albany Avenue.
"The spectacle of the event was very important in Colonial days, so it had to be in a spot where everyone in the colony would see the hanging," Ross said. "It would be nice if more people today were interested in learning about the trials, but it seems that it's mainly descendants."
Indeed, for close to a decade now, descendants of those hanged have lobbied state officials to denounce Connecticut's witch trials, but resolutions never made it out of committee. In 2012, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy turned down requests to clear the names of those condemned, saying he doesn't have the authority to pardon. Similarly, the Connecticut Board of Pardons and Paroles does not grant posthumous pardons.
"Most people think the only witch trials in New England occurred in Salem and occurred out of the blue, but really there was an undercurrent of fear about witches that the Puritans who settled here brought over from England and that had occurred over time," said Ross. "I'd like to see a memorial established for those executed, which would promote more to learn about the trials."
Trinity student Merrill, however, may not need prompting: "There's good in the world, evil in world, and it's important to understand how they've influenced people's actions throughout history."
Source: Cindy Wolfe Boynton, The Hartford Courant, April 25, 2014.