Which witch was hanged?
Well, when it comes to Connecticut the answer probably is: none.
But there were women hanged here long ago, and there is little doubt they were not guilty of anything, let alone witchcraft.
And we say that with a nod to the Constitution that has a prominent amendment we like a lot: It bars Congress from making law establishing a religion, “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
That means you can’t be guilty of witchcraft — at least not since the Bill of Rights was passed.
Yet, in 1647 things were a little different.
That’s when Alse Young of Windsor was executed. This unfortunate event took place right near the Old State House. Try not to think about that next time you drive past that stately and historic building.
Alse was the first, but she was not the last.
Even before there was talk of trials in Salem, Mass., there was Connecticut “witch hysteria,” according to the New England Historical Society,
In all its gruesomeness, this hysteria led to Connecticut charging at least 46 people with witchcraft between 1647 and 1697.
Eleven of those people were executed, some of them men.
According to the New England Historical Society, Greater Hartford was part of that trend, as John and Joan Carrington of Wethersfield “weren’t among the lucky ones” and were hanged in 1651. And Mary Barnes of Farmington “was another unfortunate victim” who was executed in Hartford in 1663. Poor Mary’s crime? She was hanged for “having entertained familiarity with Satan, the grand enemy of God and mankind,” the society reports.
Things have changed since then, Connecticut no longer has capital punishment, and we are not quite sure anymore what evidence proves such familiarity with Satan or why a jury would believe such an accusation.
Yet, while you’re not likely to hear anything similar in courtrooms these days, something has not changed even with the passage of time: the call for justice.
People such as Alse C. Freeman are working to have the Connecticut General Assembly exonerate the victims of the Connecticut witch trials.
If Freeman’s first name rings a bell, yes, she uses that of her ninth great-grandmother, the Alse who was hanged in Hartford.
With other descendants and people interested in justice, Freeman and members of the Connecticut Witch Trial Exoneration Project seek to amend Connecticut law to allow for posthumous pardons. This also would benefit others whose false conviction was not overturned prior to their death.
A change would be necessary because Connecticut’s governor can’t issue pardons and the State Board of Pardons and Paroles doesn’t have a posthumous pardon process.
As it is for Freeman, it’s also personal for others who are working on this project.
“Only individuals who are connected in this way can comprehend that we actually feel the pain of our ancestors,” Sarah Esterly, a descendant from Nevada told The Courant’s Alison Cross.
This type of effort has failed in the past, including when it went to the legislature. But now state Rep. Jane Garibay, D-Windsor, has said that she would try to find a way for posthumous pardons to be allowed in Connecticut.
“I do hope that if there is a path forward that we will be able to do it next session,” Garibay has said.
It’s the right thing for Connecticut to do.
Scotland has already apologized for its history of witchcraft persecution, Massachusetts exonerated its witches, including Elizabeth Johnson of Salem, who only got her justice earlier this year — more than 300 years after she was accused.
Connecticut has been a little slow to recognize its place in the history of injustice that brought about the hangings here. It could be a need to learn more about the past and its impact on the present.
As do other past injustices, this one still brings pain.
Or as Garibay said, she “may not have had one of my ancestors murdered, but you can still feel for the people that went through that.”