There are many ways to define “wicked.” Red-light districts, drug dens, chalk outlines on the street, dark corners where knives are drawn or bribes are exchanged for favors. Steve Thornton, author of “Wicked Hartford,” has a different definition.
“A city isn’t wicked. The people in it have been wicked. Usually they’re the 1 percent,” Thornton says.
Thornton’s book, the latest in the “Wicked” series by Arcadia Publishing and The History Press, is available online and in stores. It is the sixth “Wicked” book set in Connecticut. Others are set in Bridgeport, New Haven, Waterbury, Litchfield County and Ridgefield.
Thornton’s book tells 12 historical stories of wickedness in the Insurance City. Thornton, a retired labor organizer as well as a historian, has a running theme in his stories of Nutmegger wickedness: the wealthy and powerful trying to ruin the lives of average Joes.
He describes his book as “Howard Zinn disguised as the National Enquirer.”
Thornton, 66, who lives in West Hartford, admires Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” an alternate history of the country focusing on working people struggling against The Man. All the stories in “Wicked Hartford” take this focus. The wicked characters try to crush the little guy. The little guy sometimes is crushed by the wickedness and sometimes fights back.
Considering those wicked characters’ names are on neighborhoods, buildings and streets in the Insurance City, the book gives Hartfordites a new way to look at their history and their town. This ethos of historical re-analysis is reflected in the scores of articles on Thornton’s website, shoeleatherhistoryproject.com.
“I don’t want what I write to be just another rehash of the Charter Oak or Morgan Bulkley or all the historical tropes,” he says. “That’s what Hartford history has been and what it will continue to be unless we go deeper and find out new stories. But also sometimes we have to reinterpret them.”
Take Samuel Colt, the revered gunmaker who built Coltsville into a hub of industry. In Thornton’s telling, Colt is a villain. The armaments mogul sold guns to both the North and South to use in the Civil War, but charged the North 10 percent more. He presided over meetings defending “state’s rights,” a euphemism for pro-slavery. He offered bribes to politicians, assembled a personal army and engaged in voter intimidation. He was a bigamist.
Then there’s Bulkeley, mayor of Hartford, governor of Connecticut and a United States senator. By traditional accounts, Bulkeley was an admirable man. In Thornton’s telling, he was a despotic 1-percenter, and Daniel Birdsall, publisher of the Hartford Telegram, was his scrappy foil. Birdsall’s contempt for Bulkeley, expressed frequently in the Telegram, led to arrests, lawsuits, vandalism of the newspaper office, confiscation of his printing presses and beatings. Three men who tried to kill him were bailed out of jail by Bulkeley.
“All the papers were sucking up to Morgan Bulkeley except Daniel Birdsall’s little Telegram,” Thornton says. “When [Birdsall] was almost murdered, the Courant and the Times were laughing it off, blaming Birdsall for the attack.”
Not all of the “wicked” stories are about people. One chapter, “Hell Hole,” tells the story of the Seyms Street Jail. It was built for 350 prisoners and often housed up to 600 — often with no charges filed — with no access to a sewage line or medical care. The solitary confinement cells, where prisoners were fed just two glasses of water and two slices of bread every day, had no windows or lighting and were situated over the boiler rooms, so inmates’ skin would burn.
Thornton has a personal favorite heroine in the history of Hartford wickedness: Virginia Thrall Smith, an ancestor of Thornton’s wife Kate Butterworth. Smith worked tirelessly as an advocate for orphaned, abandoned and fatherless children and their desperate mothers, helping them regain stability and employment. Smith was besieged and slandered by powerful politician George Fowler, who had contempt for illegitimate children, unwed mothers and women like Smith who challenged traditional gender roles.
“If you were a poor kid, George Fowler wanted you to go to the poorhouse and maybe then work in a factory, but you couldn’t go anywhere else,” says Thornton, adding that Fowler was in control of licensing of the poorhouses.
Another reason Thornton idolizes Smith is because she is an example of how “the rich are bastards” is too simplistic an approach.
“Virginia came from two very well-heeled families. But she essentially betrayed her class to work on behalf of absolutely the most destitute people in the city, women who were pregnant with no husband. You couldn’t get any lower social status,” he says. “She was the rare good example of a well-off person who understood her duty to others.”
STEVE THORNTON will discuss his book “Wicked Hartford” at Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, 77 Forest St., in Hartford, on Feb. 22 at 5:30 p.m. shoeleatherhistoryproject.com.