State apologies to Staples women, others for witchcraft accusations | Westport Journal

“Witch” consorting with devil. / Image, Connecticut State Library

By John Schwing and

It took more than three centuries, but Mary Staples has her apology for being falsely accused of witchcraft.

An early ancestor of the family that later played a significant role in Westport’s history, Mary Royce Staples, her daughter and granddaughter were among more than 30 people — primarily women — accused of being witches in the early days of the Connecticut colony. Nine of those women and two men were convicted and hanged for witchcraft during the latter half of the 17th Century.

Last week, the state Senate gave its approval to a resolution that “absolves” those people “convicted and executed for the crimes of witchcraft and familiarities with the devil.”

For those like Mary Staples and her two descendants, who were lucky enough to escape the gallows, apologies were extended for having endured the trauma of being falsely accused of witchcraft and familiarity with the devil, plus the consequences of having “their reputations destroyed and their family names tarnished.”

The resolution further apologizes to descendants of all those executed for witchcraft and those accused of the crime, acknowledging “the trauma and shame that wrongfully continued to affect the families of the accused.”

The resolution was approved last Thursday evening by the Senate with only one senator voting no. Two weeks earlier, the proposal had easily cleared the House of Representatives.

Friday marked the anniversary of Windsor resident Alice “Alse” Young’s 1647 hanging. Her execution was the start of years of trials and executions, sanctioned by Connecticut colonial officials, for those accused of witchcraft or consorting with the devil.

The House had already adjusted the resolution earlier this month, ultimately voting to “absolve” rather than “exonerate” those accused. The resolution maintains that misogyny played a large role in the trials and specifically absolves the nine women and two men killed for what was then considered a capital crime. 

“It is the right thing to do, to say that this is wrong, to move past it, to atone for what happened in our state,” said state Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown.

There previously were a few unsuccessful attempts to absolve those accused of witchcraft in Connecticut, including a 2008 resolution that didn’t make it out of a legislative committee, a 2012 request to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy for a proclamation and appeals to the Board of Pardons and Parole.

The trials and tribulations of Mary Staples

Mary Staples was particularly victimized by witchery accusations, having endured such allegations twice roughly four decades apart.

Staples, who by historical accounts was an outspoken woman — an uncommon trait in that era — in 1653 apparently ran afoul of her powerful neighbor, Roger Ludlow, founder of the English settlement that became Fairfield and a former deputy governor of both the Connecticut and Massachusetts colonies.

In some accounts, Ludlow claimed that Goodwife Knapp — who was hanged for being a witch in Fairfield in 1653 — told him minutes before she was hanged that Mary Staples was a witch.

But Beverly Kahn, a political scientist who once lived in Fairfield and taught at Fairfield University, testified in March before the General Assembly that Knapp was a pawn in a power struggle between Ludlow and the Staples family.

“Ludlow conspired against Goody Knapp because he wanted her to testify that Goodwife Staples was a witch,” Kahn said at the time. “Despite significant pressure put on her, Goodwife Knapp refused to accuse Goodwife Staples or any other person of witchcraft.”

Although Mary Staples never was formally indicted at the time, Ludlow is said to have discussed the witchcraft allegation openly in public, drawing the ire — legal action — from Thomas Staples, Mary’s husband.

Two rounds of litigation ensued, including a liable suit filed against Ludlow, with both decided in Thomas Staples’s favor — perhaps, in part, because Ludlow had left the colonies and never returned.

Nearly four decades later, in 1692, Mary Staples, along with her daughter, Mary Harvey, and granddaughter, Hannah Harvey, all faced formal accusations of witchcraft. 

Another local woman, Mercy Disborough, was similarly charged the same year.

The three Staples women were acquitted at trial, and there are no records of Disborough’s case going forward.

Despite her tribulations, Mary Staples’s legacy in Westport resonates to this day. She was the great, great, great grandmother of Horace Staples, the philanthropist responsible for Westport’s Staples High School. Another of her descendants, Samuel Staples, was the benefactor of the academy that became Samuel Staples Elementary School in Easton.

“Closure” for descendants

Some descendants of the Connecticut women and men persecuted as witches had lobbied for the resolution’s approval by the General Assembly, several legislators said during the debate.

“People are experiencing generational trauma, and they want closure,” said state Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor.

The Senate’s debate ranged from covering the misogyny in the trials and generational trauma to the history of witchcraft and personal beliefs about the occult.

State Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, offered a history of witchcraft, which included the biblical King Saul consorting with the Witch of Endor (a reference that led to comments briefly about George Lucas’s fictional moon in “Star Wars”) to summon the ghost of the prophet Samuel.

He said as someone who believes in the afterlife, he thinks “there are things on the other side of the veil.”

But that belief, Kissel said, is moot. The trials were about consolidating power and ostracizing certain groups, he added.

“Even if they were witches, they were not tried appropriately or properly,” he said, offering support for the bill. “Justice was not done.”

Why relitigate centuries-old trials?

State Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, was the sole no vote on Thursday.

He said he doesn’t believe it’s the job of the state legislature to relitigate trials that occurred years ago.

“Where does it end?” he said. “Will we be back next year litigating Attila the Hun and the atrocities committed by him?”

He said it was arrogant of lawmakers to think they know better than those at other times of history, without being presented the same set of facts.

“I would not dare to suggest that I know any better because I’ve not studied these folks,” Sampson said. “I certainly wasn’t present, and none of us were.”

In the closing statement, Lesser responded definitively to comments about whether it is the job of the Senate to absolve those accused of witchcraft.

“Frankly, it is,” Lesser said.

The governing body that oversaw the laws allowing people to be executed for witchcraft is the predecessor of the Senate, Lesser said.

“I don’t think it is arrogant, I don’t think it is hindsight of 2020 to say that it is an injustice for people at any time in history to have been executed for a crime that simply should not exist,” he said.

With reporting by Ginny Monk,

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