HARTFORD, Conn. – Three years ago, Debra Avery and her family were shocked to learn they were direct descendants of Mary Sanford, a wife and mother of five who was hanged in Connecticut in 1692 after being convicted of witchcraft.
On Thursday, they trekked to the state Capitol, in the same city where Sanford and several other convicted witches were executed, to ask state lawmakers to restore their relative's good name. Legislators are considering a resolution that states that those convicted and their descendants should be freed from the stigma of the witchcraft accusations.
Avery, a New Preston resident and an eighth-generation great-granddaughter of Mary Sanford, said it has become a personal mission.
"We talk an awful lot about Mary being with us. We talk about whether we are Mary exonerating ourselves," she said. "But Mary has become a big part of our life. We talk about her a lot. I think it's in the DNA."
According to legislative research, it is believed that nine women and two men were convicted and hanged in the mid-1600s in Connecticut for witchcraft. Others were banished, indicted or fled the colony.
Two women were dropped into water to see if they possessed evil spirits. If they sank, they were innocent. But if they floated, they were guilty because the pure water cast out their evil spirit. One was acquitted while the other was given a reprieve by the General Assembly.
Others were also acquitted of the alleged crimes.
In Mary Sanford's case, there were no records explaining why the 39-year-old was accused of being a witch. Her descendants said they've discovered that six months after Sanford was hanged, an accused witch claimed being with her at a meeting in the woods. Sanford's husband, Andrew, was also indicted but later acquitted.
The resolution before the Judiciary Committee doesn't specifically pardon those convicted, but denounces the trials as shocking and the result of community-wide hysteria and fear. Rep. Michael Lawlor, committee co-chairman, said the legislature does not want to acknowledge witchcraft as a crime. A committee vote is scheduled for Monday.
While Lawlor, D-East Haven, conceded this isn't the most important issue facing the General Assembly this session, he said there's a significance to the issue and "it's the obligation of our state government to set the record straight sometimes."
Sen. Andrew Roraback, who was approached by the Avery family to pursue the legislation, said the blemish of witchcraft on the families shouldn't be there.
"It is my hope we will do justice to those who were wrongly executed so many years ago. It's never too late to right a wrong," said Roraback, R-Goshen.
Massachusetts and Virginia have already granted convicted witches with posthumous exonerations. One town in New Hampshire has also declared its belief that Eunice Goody Cole was unjustly accused of witchcraft in the 17th century.
Witchcraft was a capital crime in each of the New England colonies. Trials were held in Connecticut between 1647 and 1697, but there were no executions after 1662. Historians believe fear among the colonists about sicknesses, floods and other hardships gave rise to the accusations of witchcraft.
"The crimes that they talked about at the time were so unbelievable," said Adelaide J. Avery, 14, Mary Sanford's ninth generation great-granddaughter who has researched Colonial witchcraft thoroughly and pushed for the bill.
"It could be everything from, they couldn't find a butter knife in their house or their pigs were ill. Anything that went wrong or could go wrong was considered an accusation of witchcraft," she said.
Laurie Cayer, of Mansfield, also asked lawmakers to clear the name of her distant relative, Lydia Gilbert.
Gilbert was accused of using witchcraft to cause the death of a man who had been accidentally shot by another man in 1651 during a training exercise. Even though Gilbert wasn't at the shooting and the man admitted to the shooting, it is assumed she was executed in Windsor in 1654 for the alleged crime.
"She was accused of causing Thomas Allyn's gun to fire by witchcraft and it makes absolutely no sense in this day and age, and this why I'm here to have her exonerated," said Cayer, an eighth-generation niece of Gilbert's.