1662 Hartford Witch Trials Inspire Novel From Portland Author

Thirty years before the legendary Salem witch trials in 1692, Hartford had a witchcraft frenzy of its own. Not many people today know it happened. Katherine Spada Basto had never heard of it until six years ago.

"I was at the Raven used book store in Northampton and I came across David Hall's book 'Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England.' I read about the 'Hartford witch panic.' A witch panic happened in my hometown?" says Spada Basto.

Basto, a retired teacher in the Hartford school system who lives in Portland, is now an expert on the topic. She has written and self-published a young-adult story, titled "Days to the Gallows: A Novel of the Hartford Witch Panic," that fictionalizes the historical episode.

On May 26, Spada Basto will attend a memorial event in Windsor for victims of Connecticut's witchcraft trials. Windsor is the hometown of Alice Young, who was hanged in Hartford on May 26, 1647.

Between 1647 and 1663, nine Connecticut women and two men were convicted of witchcraft and hanged. The last four deaths happened during the 1662 "witch panic."

For her book, Spada Basto tells a part-fact-part-fiction story using real people from Hartford of that time.

"I wrote it as fiction because I was wondering, 'How best can I tell this story?'" she says. "A lot of nonfiction books mention [the witch panic], but they didn't really bring 1662 Hartford to life."

"Days to the Gallows" is told from the perspective of Hester Hosmer, a pious and obedient 17-year-old. She is a neighbor and friend of Ann Cole, whose behavior is frequently alarming. After a local child, Betty Kelly, dies suddenly, Ann begins having fits and accusing people of witchcraft. The acting governor of Connecticut, John Mason, believes Ann, leading to a period of terror and tragedy.

Spada Basto did extensive historical research before writing the book, and most of its characters play out generally the same heroic, villainous, victimized or neutral roles they did in real life.

"I tried to keep to the true story rather than adding things like a woman who was good with herbs, or supernatural things," Spada Basto says. "I also keep to the timeline of what really happened."

Spada Basto did flesh out some events, such as gatherings where the historical record was sketchy. In addition, three characters — Hester's male friend, Hester's sweetheart and Hester's sweetheart's father — are fictional. Spada Basto added those characters and the situations that arise around them to help drive the plot and create suspense.

"I fictionalized them because it's a young-adult novel and Hester is the same age as the people who will read it," Spada Basto says. "They're dealing with the same issues, like jealousy."

Spada Basto said the witch panic "went fallow" when Gov. John Winthrop returned from a trip to England, removing Mason from the leadership post.

"Mason was known as a Pequot killer," Spada Basto said. "Winthrop was much more understanding. He was an alchemist. He had a broader view of life."

Beth Caruso of Windsor is author of "One of Windsor: The Untold Story of America's First Witch Hanging," a historical fiction novel about Young, the first person in the American colonies to be executed as a witch. Caruso said the history of the witch panic can be confusing and sources up until now have been fragmented.

"We've had no comprehensive story to bring it to life until Katherine's book was published. We had nothing to go on," Caruso says. "It's a complicated story. It took place over an entire year. There were a lot of people involved, accusers, people blamed, some who escaped, some who were hanged. She put it into one cohesive story that is easy to understand."

Spada Basto's book was named as a finalist in this year's Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Spada Basto will go to New York on May 31 to accept her prize. When the school year starts again in the fall, she plans to visit schools and senior centers to discuss her book and the witch panic.

She also is working on another book about Judith Varlet, aka "Dutch Judy," a character in "Days to the Gallows." As described in the book, "There was no woman as beautiful or as dangerous in Hartford as Dutch Judy."

"She is a fascinating character," Spada Basto says. "She gets into trouble again."

Memorial Service

The memorial service on May 26 is part of an awareness campaign: "We're trying to garner support for and raise money to put a plaque at the Old State House with all the victims' names on it," Spada Basto says.

Spada Basto helped organize the ceremony with Caruso and witchcraft historian Tony Griego. Some descendants of hanging victims will attend, including Caruso's husband, whose ancestor, Lydia Gilbert of Windsor, was executed in 1654 as a witch.

Windsor Mayor Donald Trinks will attend the ceremony. In February, Windsor's town council unanimously approved a resolution to clear the names of the 11 witchcraft victims. A similar statewide resolution did not make it out of the state legislature.

The Windsor measure isn't a pardon. According to the state Office of Legislative Research, the state Board of Pardons and Paroles has no procedure for granting a posthumous pardon. Trinks called his town's measure "more like a recognition of an 'oops.'"

Griego, a retired New Haven police officer who studies witchcraft history as a hobby, says a pardon was sought from England, since Connecticut was a British colony at the time.

"I wrote to the queen of England. I got a response from her staff. They said in order for the queen to pardon anybody each individual case would have to be reopened," Griego said. "That wouldn't be possible because most of the colonial records pertaining to witchcraft trials are missing."

Trinks hopes the state measure will be reintroduced to clear the victims' names. "Some of the comments I've heard is 'Why bother, don't we have anything better to do?'" Trinks says. "But these women were wrongly accused and executed. Their names should be cleared so they can rest in peace. ... I find it really a ridiculous thought that people would be opposed to it after 400 years. We've done recognitions of slavery and other things in the past."

A MEMORIAL SERVICE for the 11 victims of Connecticut's witchcraft trials will be held May 26 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the pavilion in Northwest Park, 145 Lang Road in Windsor. "Days to the Gallows" is available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Spada Basto can be contacted at spadabasto@aol.com.

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