By Gregory B. Hladky
9:51 AM EDT, October 17, 2012
Alice Young was the first to die at the end of a hangman's rope for something no longer considered a crime. Mary Barnes was the last; her life also ended with a noose around her neck.
In between, nine other people were executed in Connecticut for allegedly committing the same crime as Young and Barnes: witchcraft.
All that happened during a turbulent 15-year period in the mid-1600s, a time in Connecticut when troubles like crop failures, Indian raids, disease and fatal accidents were considered evidence of a Puritan God's wrath against sinners.
Today, a retired New Haven police sergeant named Anthony Griego is leading a campaign to formally clear the names of the people put to death for witchcraft in Connecticut.
"We think these people were executed wrongly," says Griego, a 70-year-old Hamden resident who's been working on this witchcraft issue for seven years. "They were probably God-fearing people who went to church every Sunday."
"We wouldn't execute a person today because a neighbor's bull died or someone's beer soured," Griego points out.
Griego originally hoped to have all 11 alleged witches pardoned the way Virginia, Massachusetts and New Hampshire have pardoned people who were executed for witchcraft in those states.
But quirks in the way Connecticut handles pardons apparently makes that impossible.
His campaign to clear the names of those executed as witches in this state has included a letter to the Queen of England and an appeal to the Connecticut General Assembly. Neither of those worked.
So Griego is running a lobbying effort to convince Gov. Dannel Malloy to issue a proclamation on behalf of those condemned to death as witches. He's also posted an Internet plea for Connecticut wiccans and pagans to send Malloy postcards reminding the governor, who's up for reelection in a couple of years, that they are also voters and constituents looking for a little something from their guv.
(Back in 2000, a survey by one wiccan organization put the number of pagans and witches in the U.S. at more than 768,000, and reported that 86 percent of them were registered voters. Griego says a "fair guess" would be that Connecticut has at least hundreds of wiccans and pagans within its borders.)
So far, the campaign to exonerate those executed in Connecticut hasn't made a dent. "To this day, I've never received any information from the governor's office," Griego says.
Andrew McDonald, the governor's legal counsel, insists Malloy has responded. Unfortunately, it's not what Griego and the descendants of those accused witches want to hear.
"While we can appreciate how passionate the people involved with this effort are, we have told them that we will not be issuing a proclamation," McDonald said in an e-mail last week, "mostly because the Governor has no authority under the Constitution, state statute or common law to 'pardon,' 'exonerate' or otherwise 'clear' individuals for their past conduct or perceived conduct."
"If they want to pursue a pardon in this case, they should seek legislative action in the coming session," McDonald added.
That route has already been tried once, back in 2008, and it never got very far, Griego points out.
Pardons in Connecticut, unlike a lot of states, are handled by a separate state commission. Officials of that board told Griego they have no legal authority to issue "posthumous pardons."
That effort to convince the Connecticut legislature in 2008 fizzled because lawmakers apparently "ran out of time," says Griego. "It was never voted on… and it kind of went into limbo."
When he contacted state Senate leaders to make another effort, they recommended he ask the governor for a non-binding resolution. And that route has apparently turned into another dead end.
But this former cop isn't about to give up.
Griego's interest in witchcraft in New England dates back to at least 1992 when he and his wife went to Salem, Massachusetts for the 300th anniversary of that community's infamous witch trials. The hysteria in Salem triggered 20 executions, 19 by hanging and one by being pressed to death by heavy stones.
One recent theory is that a yeast spore sometimes found on wheat may have triggered LSD-like hallucinations in the young girls whose accusations sparked the Salem witch hunts.
In Europe during the 1500s and 1600s, thousands of people were denounced as witches and killed. This past June, the Cologne City Council pardoned 38 women who had been executed as witches centuries ago, according to German news reports.
Massachusetts, like the Connecticut and New Haven colonies here, were in the 1600s governed by the laws of England. The English law on witchcraft was based on biblical injunctions such as, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live."
Griego, by the way, believes in God. It's just not the God of the Christian Bible.
"I use the title 'Pagan,'" he explains. "There's too much baggage with the name 'witch.' " His God, Griego says, is both male and female, and he believes that animals have souls and shouldn't be mistreated, and that we "should take care of the Earth."
Griego's determination to clear the names of those executed by Connecticut for witchcraft has more to do with his sense of justice than his pagan beliefs. He didn't realize that others felt the same way until he attended a 2005 lecture on witchcraft in New England given by Connecticut's state historian, Walter W. Woodward.
It was there that Griego met some of the descendants of those condemned as witches, and together they decided to make the effort to clear the names of the people who were hung.
The evidence and court records in these cases is often missing or blurred by time. But some of the circumstances, in Griego's estimation, appear "bizarre."
Take, for example, the case involving Lydia Gilbert.
In 1651, a simple training session for local militia in the Hartford area turned fatal when Thomas Allyn's musket went off accidentally, killing one of his buddies. Allyn was fined 20 pounds and barred from carrying a firearm for a year – a pretty stiff sentence in those colonial times.
But in 1654, a court found Gilbert, of Windsor, guilty of causing that man's death "by witchcraft," according to Griego. No other records are apparently available to offer any explanation.
A legislative researcher for the General Assembly wrote a 2006 report on witchcraft executions in Connecticut and listed Gilbert as "probably executed." Griego says she was most likely hanged in Hartford on or near the spot where the Old State House now stands.
Alice Young of Windsor was sent to the hangman in 1647. Mary Barnes of Farmington was executed in 1662 or 1663, according to the legislative report.
Here are the names of the other people executed in Connecticut on charges of witchcraft: Mary Johnson, of Wethersfield, 1648; John and Joan Carrington of Wethersfield, 1651; Goodwife Bassett of Fairfield, 1651; Goodwife Knapp, also of Fairfield, 1653; Rebecca Greensmith of Hartford, 1662; Nathan Greensmith, also of Hartford, 1662; and Mary Sanford of Hartford, 1662.
"A single witness was all it took to support a witchcraft conviction prior to 1662," according to the Connecticut legislative research study. "Beginning that year, Connecticut required simultaneous witnessing of the same incident by two or more people" to obtain a witchcraft conviction.
Not surprisingly, there were no more of those Connecticut convictions after 1662.
What few court records remain do reveal that not everyone accused of witchcraft in Connecticut was convicted. Some were acquitted, others fled before their trials.
Those 11 others weren't so lucky or so quick, and the effort to clear them has been a long and frustrating one for Griego and his allies.
And that appeal for a pardon by Queen Elizabeth II?
"I got a very nice letter back," Griego says sadly. The Queen's staff said that, in order for her to issue a pardon, the entire case would have to be reopened – which would be basically impossible because so many of the court records have been lost or destroyed.
Anyway, said the letter from Buckingham Palace, the whole Connecticut witchcraft business was, after all, entirely "a colonial matter."
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