State house absolves convicted witches
HARTFORD — The state House of Representatives on Wednesday offered absolution, though pointedly not exoneration, to the nine women and two men hanged for witchcraft in 17th-century Connecticut, a dark and overlooked chapter of its colonial history.
By a vote of 121-30, the House approved a resolution that was rewritten to sidestep lawyerly concerns, most notably whether contemporary Connecticut has a right to overturn verdicts reached during British colonial rule.
“We have absolutely no power to exonerate someone who was convicted under a different government,” said Rep. Craig Fishbein, a lawyer and the ranking House Republican on the Judiciary Committee.
“Connecticut was a British colony,” said Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, also a lawyer. “And all of these injustices that were carried out on these people were carried out by the British, and this amendment makes that clear.”
To mollify opponents and get the measure called for a vote, the resolution’s sponsor, Rep. Jane Garibay, took the deal: Among other tweaks, Connecticut would absolve, not exonerate, the condemned “of all crimes of witchcraft and familiarities with the devil.”
The resolution still would assert “misogyny played a large part in the trials and in denying defendants their rights and dignity” and that “Connecticut apologizes to the descendants of all those who were indicted, convicted and executed.”
The apology was galling to at least one lawmaker.
“I’m gonna say it. I’m really not sorry,” said Rep. Jason Perillo, R-Shelton. “Nobody from my family was here. And I’m looking at a lot of other folks. Nobody from your family was here.”
Garibay said the apology was important to descendants of the condemned witches who attended a public hearing of the Judiciary Committee in March.
“They’re not asking for money,” Garibay said. “The only thing they’re asking is that as a community we say, ‘We are sorry this happened to you.’”
Garibay is a Democrat from Windsor, a community settled by the English in 1633, just 14 years before the village turned on one of their own, hanging Alice Young.
Young was the mother of a daughter who escaped an epidemic that claimed neighboring children in 1647, a source of envy and suspicion — ingredients in witchcraft accusations that persist, often directed at women.
The May issue of Scientific American magazine reports that even today more than 1,000 people per year around the world are “tortured, expelled from their homes or killed after being charged with witchcraft — using magic, usually to cause harm.”
Leading religious figures and founders of Connecticut played roles in the trials. John Haynes and Thomas Welles, the first and fourth colonial governors, were magistrates at the trials. Hartford’s founder, the Rev. Thomas Hooker, endorsed them.
The First Church in Windsor acknowledged complicity in 2017 and apologized for its role in the hanging of Young and another woman, Lydia Gilbert, during a time of unexplained deaths.
Garibay had to overcome skepticism about the need for the General Assembly to follow suit, as descendants of the executed had urged at the public hearing. House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, acknowledged he had to be convinced.
“Traditionally, we do not do resolutions in the House, because you could go down a lot of rabbit holes. This one’s been worked on very hard,” Ritter said.
By rabbit holes, Ritter meant a fear that the House could be drawn into regular debates on matters not germane to the General Assembly or that have “no direct nexus to Connecticut.”
“We will be very firm in the future,” Ritter said. “Otherwise, we get opining on foreign policy in the United States government all day long. And we have two U.S. senators and five congressmen who do a fine job doing that for us.”
Garibay told the House the resolution was relevant.
“This complements the work that we are doing in the General Assembly by taking another step towards the justice that this government, our state, all of us, are constantly working towards,” Garibay said. “It is far from frivolous.”
During the floor debate, Fishbein took issue with the claims of misogyny. He read the names of a half-dozen men who were indicted on witchcraft charges, not all of whom were convicted.
“All appeared to be non-female, and therefore, it’s a people bill and not a women’s rights sort of initiative,” Fishbein said.
Dubitsky claimed a measure of absolution, or least vindication, for himself.
His challenging, and quotable, questions at the public hearing about whether the condemned could be proven innocent went viral, drawing ridicule: Did he really need evidence that Alice Young was not a witch?
Dubitsky said during the floor debate that he simply was exercising due diligence.
“We didn’t know at the time of that Judiciary Committee meeting what these people had been accused of, what they had been convicted of, and what the disposition of those convictions were. So I asked for some of that evidence,” Dubitsky said. “Well, silly me.”
Dubitsky detailed his efforts.
“I spent weeks searching through our statutes and could not find witchcraft or ‘familiarities with the devil’ as crimes in our current penal code. So it makes sense that we would find — as is represented in this amendment — that we don’t any longer find those to be penal crimes,” he said. “Now, you may have personal objections to those, to that type of conduct. But as we sit here today, they are not crimes under Connecticut law.”
And that was good enough for him to support the resolution.
So did Fishbein.
All 98 Democrats voted for the resolution, joined by 23 of the 53 members of the Republican minority.
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