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Thursday, October 30, 2003

Witches of Westport: There’s a History Here

By Alice Shelton

WestportNow Community Correspondent For the past several years, I’ve portrayed the Wheeler House Witch for the Westport Historical Society. It’s great fun handing out lollipops to the hundreds of trick-or-treaters in Westport’s annual Halloween Parade.  As I donned my witch’s costume for this years parade, I couldn’t help feeling thankful for the freedom to pretend to be a witch without fearing for my life.  It wasn’t always so. Three centuries ago, the crime of witchcraft carried a death sentence. In 1692, Mercy Disbrow of Compo, (part of present-day Westport) was one of six Fairfield County women accused of being witches. The accuser was a 17-year-old servant girl named Katherine Branch.
Witch Alice Shelton dispenses goodies in front of Westport Historical Society Wednesday. WestportNow.com photo
Five of the women were subsequently indicted. The sixth fled to New York. Disbrow was the only one convicted.

Following a trial, she was sentenced to death on Oct. 28, 1692. But, luckily, the sentence was not carried out. Court records for May 1693 indicate that she was reprieved. 

We don’t know much about her later life, except that she was still alive in 1709.

Also among those indicted were Mary Staples, her daughter Mary Harvey and her granddaughter Hannah Harvey, all of Fairfield. Westport, then part of Fairfield and Norwalk, didn’t become a separate town until 1835.

All three women were acquitted when only two persons came forward to testify against them. 

But this was the second time that Mary Staples was accused of being a witch. Mary, who was the great, great, great grandmother of Horace Staples, the man who built the first Staples High School, had been accused of being a witch 38 years earlier. 

She had apparently come under suspicion after criticizing the conviction of another woman accused of witchcraft in 1653.

Mary’s accuser was none other than her very powerful neighbor, Roger Ludlow. Ludlow was not only the founder of Fairfield; he was a former deputy governor of the Massachusetts colony, a former deputy governor of the Connecticut colony, a magistrate for the Connecticut colony and the author of Connecticut’s code of laws, adopted in 1650. 

Although they were next-door neighbors, Mary Staples and Roger Ludlow apparently did not get along.  It seems that Mary Staples was a woman who did not hesitate to speak her mind.  But, being argumentative was not a valued trait for women in the 1600s.

Ironically, Mary Staples husband, Thomas Staples, used Ludlow’s own code of laws to defend his wife. Thomas Staples sued Roger Ludlow in 1654 for defaming his wife’s character and endangering her life. 

Staples won his lawsuit.  It probably helped that Roger Ludlow had fled the colonies and was not present at the trial.

So when you see someone in a witch costume in Westport on Halloween, give a thought to what it meant to be accused of being a witch here three centuries ago.

And if you are intrigued about Westport’s witch history, you might want to visit the current TV Neighbors exhibit at the Westport History Center. Included is the television show “Bewitched.”

It is set in the bewitching town of—where else—Westport.

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Posted 10/30/03 at 04:10 AM  Permalink



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Roger Ludlow was a key person in the trial and hanging of Goody Knapp I believe it was in 1652.  Mary Staples, an outspoken woman, had questions for Ludlow about the validly of the trial and subsequent hanging.  Ludlow’s distain for her led him to start rumors insinuating that she was a witch also.  Thomas Staples took pre-emptive action against Ludlow.  He used Roger Ludlow’s own Code of Law and sued him for defamation of character and endangering the life of Goodwife Staples.
I am writing a book that takes place in Westport, part of it goes back into the History of Witchcraft in Westport.  That’s how I came across this information at the Westport Library.  I enjoyed your article and learned a few things I had not uncovered.

Posted by Angela P. Duncan on September 22, 2008 at 03:36 PM | #
 

Angela, best of luck with your book.  I hope to read it some day – sounds fascinating.  I hope you’ll keep WestportNow posted so us readers will know when it’s available. 

Glad you enjoyed the witch article.  Many thanks for the kind words.  (Isn’t it great that WestportNow has such extensive archives on-line?)

You might want to visit the Westport Historical Society for additional background information.  Most of the information in my article came from the WHS archives.  If you contact them in advance, you might be able to make an appointment with one of their volunteer archivists.  Their website is:  www.westporthistory.org   By the way, if you have any spare time, the WHS is a great place to volunteer!

Other resources include Woody Klein’s book, “Westport, Connecticut – The Story of a New England Town’s Rise to Prominence” (see page 30) as well as Joanna Foster’s “More Stories from Westport’s Past” (see page 13).  Both are available at the WHS.  I’m not sure if the Foster book is still available for purchase, but it should be available in the WHS library.

By the way, it looks like I did have the wrong year for Goodwife Knapp’s trial.  According to both of the above sources, the year was 1651 (not 1653). 

Won’t be long until it’s Halloween again.  Time to dust off my witch’s hat soon.

Posted by Alice Shelton on September 24, 2008 at 03:10 AM | #
 

Thank you, Alice, for writing about the defamation suit brought by Thomas and Mary Staples against Roger Ludlow! I have a particular affinity for Staples v. Ludlow, as my 9th-great-grandfather and immigrant ancestor, John Banks, was counsel for the plaintiff in that case.

It is a source of some family pride that Papa John played a small yet undeniable role in the beating back of spurious witchcraft accusations by spiteful egotists like Mr. Ludlow. I like to think his willingness to stand up as lead advocate for his friends Thomas and Mary acts as some small measure of redemption against the awful history of the New England “witch trial” era.

(Incidentally, please forgive my late arrival to this conversation; I happened upon this article during a Google search for information on Goodwife Staples.)

Posted by Charlie Banks on March 24, 2009 at 08:31 AM | #
 

I read Charlie Banks comment about the great-grandfather 9 times back, and I have to say you should be very proud.  In those days if you stood up for some one accused of witchcraft, you could be accused as well, it took courage to stand up to people like Mr. Ludlow.  It is because of people who spoke up and said the truth, no matter what, that people like Ludlow couldn’t get away with their lies that destroyed lives.  Koodos to your Great-Granfather!
Angela Duncan

Posted by Angela P. Duncan on March 25, 2009 at 02:55 PM | #
 

As the 9 times back granddaughter of Mary Staples, I am thrilled to discover that people are still remembering her and defending her!

Posted by Naomi Riess on April 13, 2009 at 09:10 PM | #