After more than 300 years, the Connecticut residents accused of witchcraft finally might be vindicated thanks to what began as a school project.
State legislators took up the issue Thursday of Connecticut's witch trials, the result of efforts by 14-year-old Addie Avery and her mother, Debra Avery, descendants of a Hartford woman accused of witchcraft and probably hanged. The judiciary committee discussed a resolution that would absolve the approximately 40 residents accused of practicing witchcraft in the mid- to late-17th century.
"This isn't something that happened 350 years ago in some far-off place that doesn't relate to us," Addie Avery said during testimony before the committee.
Clearing the names of the victims of Connecticut's witch hysteria has been a project of the Averys, who live in Washington, Conn., since they learned a few years ago that they are directly related to Mary Sanford, one of the accused.
Debra and Addie are eighth- and ninth-generation descendants of the woman who was charged, according to state records, with "not haueing the feare of God before thyne eyes" and having "familiarity with Satan."
The charges stemmed from a report that Sanford was seen dancing outside late at night and drinking alcohol.
Records show that she was probably hanged.
Addie, who is home-schooled by her mother, focused on the subject as a school project about women in witchcraft. The more the twostudied the subject, the more convinced they became that the state needed to take official action. A brisk letter-writing campaign to state officials soon followed.
The Averys have since heard regularly from people around the country who believe they're descendants of the accused, and their home has increasingly filled with copies of old court records and books about the witch trials.
Also testifying before the committee was Laura Barber Cayer of Mansfield, a descendant of Lydia Gilbert, who was accused of causing a man's gun to accidentally shoot her neighbor during military training exercises.
Outcomes of many of the state's witch trials are unclear, since records were either lost or purged, but historians believe Gilbert probably was executed.
Debra Avery noted that the resolution before the judiciary committee doesn't name the accused specifically, since it's possible that additional names might emerge in state records in the future.
State historians say at least eight of the accused definitely were executed, and another three probably were put to death.
In 1647, Alice Young of Windsor was the first to be hanged for witchcraft — more than four decades before the Salem witch trials began. Of those who weren't put to death, some were acquitted of the charges, and others fled.
Because all but two of those executed were women, the Averys and Cayer also see the resolution as a women's rights issue.
Often, women were accused simply for being outspoken or eccentric.
Debra Avery has also said that the topic is close to her because of her family's spiritual beliefs, which she describes as pagan.
If the resolution gains full legislative approval, Connecticut would be the third state — after Massachusetts and Virginia — to clear the accused of wrongdoing.
Judiciary committee Co-Chairman Rep. Michael Lawlor, D- East Haven, noted that the resolution doesn't technically call for an exoneration or pardon, because doing so would imply that there was a crime to commit in the first place. He and committee member Sen. Andrew W. Roraback, R-Goshen, helped draft the resolution.
Lawlor said it's fitting that the judiciary committee is taking up the issue, since talk of proverbial witch hunts are common in the legislature.
Though it's "not the most significant issue that the legislature will take up," Lawlor said, the matter of the wrongly convicted still resonates today. He specifically mentioned the case of James Tillman, who was awarded $5 million last year after spending 18 years in jail for a rape that he didn't commit.
"It's the obligation of our state government to set the record straight," Lawlor said.
Lawlor anticipated that some might criticize the resolution as frivolous, but he didn't need to worry about his own committee, which embraced the topic enthusiastically after hours of discussing legal minutiae on a variety of others topics.
Committee members thanked the Averys and Cayer for bringing attention to the matter and launched into a spirited discussion that jumped from 17th-century climate changes and poisoned crops to Monty Python skits.
Rep. Faith McMahon, D-Bloomfield, mentioned that she's a descendant of Mary Barnes of Farmington, who was the last to be executed for witchcraft in 1662 (trials, however, continued until at least 1697).
Monday is the deadline for the committee to vote on the resolution.
Based on the panel's response Thursday, the Averys and Cayer are optimistic that the resolution will wend its way through the legislative process for approval.
Even if it does pass, though, the Averys' work won't be done. Addie said she and her mother hope to get a memorial installed in the statehouse that would bear the names of all the accused.
And they might have another project, thanks to committee member Sen. John A. Kissell, R-Enfield, who proved an astute scholar of witch trial history.
During the hearing, he suggested that the resolution could be a starting point for educational programs like those in Salem, including re-enactments of the trials.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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