CT Witch Trial Exoneration Project members and supporters celebrate

CT Witch Trial Exoneration Project members and supporters celebrate the passage of HJ34 at the CT State Capitol. L to R: Mary Louise Bingham, Andres Verzosa, Sarah Jack, Jane Garibay, Saud Anwar, Josh Hutchinson, Beth Caruso, Judy Griego, Tony Griego. All photos courtesy of Beth Caruso.

Windsor Witch Trial History Comes to the Forefront with the Passage of House Joint Resolution

Is it ever too late to apply some measure of justice? In relation to Windsor’s two 17th-century witch trial victims, Alice Young and Lydia Gilbert, as well as nine others who suffered the same dark fate in the former British colony, descendants and advocates argued “No!” They were successful in petitioning the Connecticut General Assembly to pass a resolution entitled Resolution Concerning Certain Witchcraft Convictions in Colonial Connecticut on May 25th, 2023, almost 400 years after unfounded witchcraft indictments and unjust hangings for those crimes.

Alice Young memorial brick on Windsor town green

Alice Young memorial brick on Windsor town green | Photo by Beth Caruso

Alice Young

Alice Young, New England’s first witch trial victim, was an early Windsor settler. In 1647, an influenza epidemic devastated the town, and Alice’s misfortune probably stemmed from this tragic event. Epidemiological data from that period shows that Alice Young lived next door to the Thornton family. Thomas Thornton, a tanner, and his wife Anne lost four children during the year of the epidemic. In the aftermath of his children’s deaths, Thornton radically transformed his life and became a minister. Thornton would later become friends with Cotton Mather, famous in part for his role in the Salem witch trials. Mather explained in his Magnalia Christi Americana that Thornton’s daughter Priscilla, who died during the Windsor epidemic, claimed on her deathbed that “I have been much troubled by Satan but I find Christ is too hard for him, sin and all!” Mather further claimed that Priscilla hoped that other children she knew would “keep a day of humiliation together that they would get power over their sinful natures.” What sins and bouts with Satan did Priscilla think had occurred? And did they involve her neighbor and friend, Alice Jr., or her mother Alice Young?

Matthew Grant diary page recording Alice Young's death on May 24, 1647

“May 26, 47 Alse Young was hanged” Matthew Grant diary, page 95b, A List of Persons Who Were Hanged. Connecticut State Library, State Archives

Priscilla and her siblings weren’t the only children to die during the epidemic. John Warham, Windsor’s minister, lost two children, and Bray Rossiter, the town’s doctor, lost one child. Did villagers decide it was suspicious that Alice Young’s one child lived while so many others perished? Were they doubtful of Alice’s innocence when so many children died in her immediate vicinity? In all, the death rate in Windsor more than quadrupled in 1647 when Alice Young was hanged at the gallows.

The day of her execution is recorded as May 26, 1647, on the inside cover of Windsor resident Matthew Grant’s diary. John Winthrop Sr., Massachusetts’s governor, provided the only other direct record of her death, noting in his diaries in the spring of 1647, “One _____ of Windsor arraigned and executed for a witch in Hartford” (blank line comes from original source).

While the features of Alice Young’s personality and the specific details of what led to her indictment are unknown, we do know that she was married to John Young, a carpenter. He owned a home lot on Backer Row (located by what are now the railroad tracks off Pierson Lane) and other farming and woodlot parcels, including a 40-acre lot near the present-day Pleasant St. neighborhood. After Alice’s hanging, John Young left for Stratford, Connecticut, joining his old neighbor from Windsor, Thomas Thornton. Later, Thornton wrote a note to John Winthrop Jr. describing John Young’s chronic disease, which indicates they were still friends despite Young’s wife’s hanging and the possible circumstances surrounding it.

The Youngs’s daughter, Alice Jr., married Simon Beamon. The couple were married in Windsor just two and a half weeks after the witchcraft indictment of Lydia Gilbert and then left for Springfield. Despite being ill for seven months, John Young did not leave a will, nor did he name Alice Jr. or her sons as his heirs. After his death on April 7th, 1661 in Stratford, his property sat unclaimed for seven years until the town sold it to a man named Goodman Rose.

Lydia Gilbert

Lydia Gilbert has the unfortunate distinction of being Windsor’s second convicted person hanged for witchcraft. Little is known about her, but most historians think that she was married to Thomas Gilbert Jr. A record from the Particular Court of March 2, 1642, states, “Will Rescue is to take into his custody James Hullett, Tho. Gybbert [Gilbert], Lidea Blisse, and George Gybbs, and to keep them in gyves [shackles], and give them coarse diet, hard work, sharp correction.” William Rescue (or Roscoe) was the jailer in Hartford at the time. The Court asking for the jailor to take Lydia and the others into custody shows they were imprisoned and punished for unnamed crimes.

This passage is also the closest documentation that supports the assumption she was the wife of Thomas Gilbert Jr., who bought property from Francis Stiles and became a caretaker to Henry Stiles, providing room and board. A Bliss family had immigrated first to Hartford and then to Springfield, but Lydia is not named as one of the Bliss children. We do not know if she was missed in the records, or if she was a cousin, stepdaughter, other relation, or from another family entirely.

Lydia’s case gives clear testament to the lack of justice for the witch trial victims. In October 1651, the men in the Windsor militia were practicing their maneuvers on the town green. Nineteen-year-old Thomas Allyn mishandled his musket, resulting in an errant bullet killing 51-year-old Henry Stiles. Allyn went to court, was reprimanded for carelessness, and found guilty of what is today called involuntary manslaughter. He was not allowed to carry a gun for a year and the court fined him £20. His father, Matthew Allyn, a wealthy landowner, had to ensure his son’s good behavior.

Three years later, in 1654, Lydia Gilbert was accused and found guilty of bewitching the gun that killed Henry Stiles. Lydia likely would not have been present on the green at the time of the shooting, as only men served in town militias. The fines the Allyn family had paid were refunded, and Thomas Allyn’s name was cleared, allowing him to marry the minister’s daughter several years later. Poor Lydia. We don’t know the particulars of why the authorities turned against her. The only official records that remain are Henry’s Stiles’s probate record, which shows he owed debts to Thomas Gilbert for board, and the record of Lydia’s indictment.

Some speculate that the Gilberts and Henry Stiles had a falling out that others knew about before his death. Lydia may have been an easy target in the face of the powerful Allyn family because she was childless and had a previous criminal record. A 1655 marriage record from Springfield shows Thomas Gilbert marrying into the same family around six months after Lydia’s execution, this time to Catherine Chapin Bliss. Thomas died at Springfield a few years later.

Exoneration Efforts

CT State Senator Saud Anwar and CT State Representative Jane Garibay on Senate floor

Sponsors of HJ 34, CT State Senator Saud Anwar and CT State Representative Jane Garibay on the Senate floor, wave to members of the CT Witch Trial Exoneration Project as it became clear that the resolution would pass.

In February 2017, the Town Council of Windsor voted on a historic resolution to bring the two Windsor witch trial victims back into good standing within the community. It passed unanimously, 9-0. The First Church of Windsor was largely involved in these efforts along with advocates for the victims. Some people felt that although it was a wonderful gesture, it did not go far enough, and the state needed to do more.

Several advocates, me included, joined together to take the necessary steps for justice. The timing was right to take such action on May 26th, 2022. Our group formally became the Connecticut Witch Trial Exoneration Project. Starting in the summer of 2022, we worked with Windsor Representative Jane Garibay to plan an effort for exoneration. Representative Garibay did consensus building behind the scenes and convinced the head of the Judiciary Committee that it was important and timely for an exoneration. The group educated through social media, and descendants and other interested parties joined the effort by sharing important information and signing a petition. In January 2023, a constituent whose ancestors had been perpetrators of the witch hangings encouraged State Senator Saud Anwar to join the cause.

Senate voting board for HJ 34

The voting board in the Senate showing almost unanimous passage of HJ 34 on May 25, 2023.

With broad legislative support, HJ 34, A Resolution Concerning Certain Witchcraft Convictions in Colonial Connecticut, became a bipartisan resolution. Our group and other descendants acting independently came forward to the Judiciary Committee and testified on March 1st, helping to pass the resolution through that committee. After changing some of the resolution’s wording, the measure was voted on successfully.

Finally, on May 25th, 2023, the 376th anniversary of the eve of Alice Young’s hanging, it passed in the Senate after a near-unanimous vote. The state of Connecticut had officially recognized its witch trial victims and apologized to the descendants as an act of empathy. It named all those who were convicted or indicted in early criminal witchcraft cases and stated that historians and the public in general understand that these victims were innocent. This was an extremely important gesture for the descendants of these victims and for advocates fighting present-day witch hunting.

Witch Hunts in the Modern World

One would think that witch hunting would be a thing of the past. Yet, between 2009 and 2019, the United Nations’ Human Rights Council documented witch hunting cases in over 60 countries and over 20,000 injuries and deaths. Overwhelmingly, women are targeted with violence due to witchcraft beliefs, resulting in physical injuries, banishment from their communities, or even death. Advocates believe that these cases are vastly underreported. To learn
more, visit the non-profit End Witch Hunts.

For further reading about the case of Alice Young and the possible influence of Thomas Thornton as a bystander on later witch trials in New England, please see the article “Between God and Satan: Thomas Thornton, Witch-Hunting and Religious Mission in the English Atlantic World 1647-1693” by Katherine A. Hermes and Beth M. Caruso in Connecticut History Review 61:2, Fall 2022.

For more information on the case of Lydia Gilbert, please consult Richard Ross’s book Before Salem: Witch Hunting in the Connecticut River Valley, available at the Windsor Historical Society gift shop.

By Beth Caruso, Historical Novelist and Researcher