The curious history of witches in Westport and Fairfield
WESTPORT — Halloween is around the corner, and with that comes young trick-or-treaters disguised as superheroes, ghosts and the fabled magicians of old — witches. Interestingly enough, the town has its own history with the latter.
Long before the witchcraft craze in Salem, Mass., in the 1690s, a similar fear rippled throughout colonial Connecticut.
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According to Elizabeth Rose, library director at Fairfield Museum and History Center, the first person executed for being a witch in America was Alice “Alse” Young, of Windsor, in 1647.
“People really did believe there was witchcraft,” Rose said. “They looked for things that would confirm this belief.”
From 1647 to 1697, fear of witches spread across the state and led to one Fairfield resident being accused twice. In 1692, another Fairfielder, a young servant named Katherine Branch, began to suffer from fits and delusions. When confronted by concerned neighbors, Branch blamed her fits on witchcraft.
“Neighbors were trying to figure out what was wrong with her,” Rose said. “They observed her to try and figure out an explanation.”
Mercy Disbrow of Compo — which is part of present day Westport — was one the six Fairfield residents to be accused. Others included Goody Miller, Elizabeth Clawson, Mary Staples, as well as Staples’ daughter and granddaughter.
This would not be Staples’ first time facing such an accusation. Nearly 40 years earlier, Roger Ludlow, one Fairfield’s founders, accused her of witchcraft. Rose said Ludlow claimed to have been told by Goody Knapp — a Fairfielder convicted and executed for witchcraft — that Mary was a witch, but the reason for the accusal could have had more mischievous roots.
“These were small communities where the people often had their grievances with each other,” Rose said.
Thomas Staples, Mary’s husband, later sued Ludlow for slander. Ludlow lost the suit and was then fined for defamation. In her second go-round of witchcraft accusations, Mary and her relatives were again acquitted. She would go on to be the great-great-great-grandmother of Horace Staples, the founder of Westport’s high school.
Meanwhile, Miller fled to Bedford, N.Y., where the state refused to extradite her, but Disbrow and Clauson were not so fortunate.
“Mercy actually requested trial by water,” Rose said, adding the woman was determined to prove her innocence.
This trial was called “ducking” and consisted of putting a person tied hand and foot into a pond to see if they would float. If they sank — and often drowned — their innocence was proven. If they floated, they would most likely be considered guilty and hung.
“It was largely based on the idea water was holy,” Rose noted of the trial. “By floating, it symbolized the water ‘rejected’ their body.”
Clawson and Disbrow’s trial took place in a swamp-like area known at the time as Edward’s Pond. Today, the area is filled with grass and trees between Fairfield’s Sullivan Independence Hall and the Fairfield Museum and History Center.
According to Sara Krasne, archives manager at the Westport Museum for History and Culture, this form of trial was in large part connected to the religious beliefs of the Puritans.
“At that time, religion was such a large part of their world,” Krasne said. “Their thinking is these people must be in league with the devil.”
Both Clawson and Disbrow reportedly floated “like corks,” but Clawson was found not guilty on Oct. 28, 1692. Disbrow was convicted of witchcraft, but reprieved on a technicality after a group petitioned the court on her behalf.
Krasne noted the turn of the 18th century would lead to higher courts abandoning the practice and towns slowly following. The advent of medical practices and more people becoming educated also played a part in witch hunts fading out, she said.
“Floods of immigrants also brought their religions in the 1700s,” Krasne said. “That’s where I think this transition began.”
More often than not when witch trials come to mind, people point to those in Salem that took place over the course of a year. However, Krasne noted the large amount of people executed during these trials could be a reason those in Connecticut were overshadowed. Comparatively, the witchcraft craze spanned nearly half a century in Connecticut.
“It was spread out across such a large period of time,” Krasne said.
While local history of witches may be largely lost to the winds of time, a sign in front of the now dried-up pond continues to serve as a reminder of the hysteria that once swept the state.