October 14, 2014 01:10AM
By Leigh Tauss
WALLINGFORD — In the late 17th century the Benhams had a bad reputation in town. In his spare time, husband Joseph allegedly bashed local magistrates, and wife Winifred was believed to use magic to inflict harm on children. While she would eventually be acquitted, her legacy as the Witch of Wallingford lives on.
Walter Woodward, the state historian and an associate professor of history at the University of Connecticut, said it all began in 1691, the year before pandemonium erupted at the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts. Joseph Benham was brought before the New Haven court for criticizing the magistrates, allegedly saying, “these people are no more fit to rule this government than dogs.”
Woodward said Joseph Benham was “soundly put in his place” by the court. A year later, however, in 1692, rumors began circulating about the nefarious activities of his wife, Winifred. While Woodward said he could not confirm any connection between the two, what’s clear is that, by the time accusations were brought against Winifred, this was a family people had been talking about for a long time.
“Witchcraft charges don’t just appear all at once, they bubble up for a long time and finally come to the surface,” Woodward said. “My assumption is that this family had been difficult members of the community for some time in ways that made people uncomfortable enough that they began to think of the wife as a possible witch.”
Author Cynthia Wolfe Boynton wrote in “Connecticut Witch Trials” that Goody Parker was the first to accuse Winifred King Benham of witchery.
Joseph Benham allegedly threatened Parker for this, saying that if she continued to accuse his wife, “he’d load his gun with two bullets and use them both on her,” according to Boynton. The threat led to Joseph and Winifred facing the courts, but the charges seemed to have been dropped, and suspicions surrounding the family persisted.
“Often it was the cantankerous, difficult, angry or unconventional person who stood out as being the most likely suspect” of witchcraft, Woodward said.
In 1697, Winifred King Benham and her daughter Winifred Jr. were accused of witchcraft once again, this time by three local teenagers, who claimed she inflicted bodily harm on them in the form of “the appearance of spots,” according to Boynton.
Woodward said Winifred King Benham and her daughter were brought before a grand jury in Hartford, but the case was dismissed. Woodward said this was likely due to a modification in Connecticut’s standards for evidence of witchcraft, which was changed following a previous witch hunt in the 1660s. The result was that no one was executed in the state for witchcraft again.
Woodward said colonial elites began to be skeptical that the people being accused were not capable of it. Despite the growing skepticism, Woodward said the belief in magic remained unquestioned. Even if the state stopped executing people for it, the general consensus was that “witchcraft was very, very real,” he said.
“It’s hard for us to believe because we live in a different time but these people truly believed in and were afraid of magic,” Woodward said. “To them the ability to wield magic isn’t all that different from the ability to be a terrorist, it’s something terrible than can happen and that someone could do.”
Unable to put their bad reputation behind them, the Benhams eventually ended up relocating to New York after the trial.
On Center Street, in front of First Congregational Church, “Joseph Benham” is listed second to last in the first column on a plaque commemorating the founders of Wallingford.
Benham’s house is said to have stood across the street, where the post office is now, according to local resident Erin Benham. While Erin Benham is not related to Winifred King Benham, she said the topic seems to come up every year around Halloween.
“We certainly get a lot of people asking questions,” Erin Benham said. “We’ve joked about it over the years.”
No record exists of Winifred King Benham’s trial and there is little left of that era in Wallingford, except for the Nehemiah Royce House down the street at 538 N. Main St., built two decades earlier, in 1672. Houses can’t talk but it’s safe to say mysteries can swirl forever.