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.
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.