Centuries later, descendant of Wallingford witch trial victim fights for justice

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WALLINGFORD — In 1697, two Wallingford women were indicted but not convicted of witchcraft. Now, centuries later, a group is working to exonerate all of Connecticut’s witch trial victims.

Sarah Jack is the ninth generation great-granddaughter of Winifred Benham Sr., who alongside her daughter Winifred Benham Jr., were the last two Connecticut residents accused of witchcraft. Jack is related to Winifred Benham Sr. through one of Winifred Benham Sr.’s sons. Winifred Benham and her husband had eight children, but six died young.  

Jack, who lives in Colorado, said that when she was looking into her genealogy, she learned more about the various witch trials that took place in New England, which led her to start a Facebook group to discuss these trials. 

“As much as I thought I knew about my own heritage with witch trials, I did not understand the scope of the New England witch trials and trying to find out more information on Winifred, led me to create a Facebook group where we can talk and chat about New England witch trials,” Jack said. “I was hoping to draw out other interested researchers and authors.”

Through her research and talking with others interested in learning more about New England’s witch trials, Jack realized that Connecticut’s residents accused of witchcraft are not as well known and they are not exonerated. 

For example, Jack pointed out that Elizabeth Johnson Jr., the last person accused of witchcraft in Massachusetts, was exonerated this past summer. This was during the 375th anniversary of Alice Young’s hanging. Young lived in Windsor and died in 1647. It was the first recorded instance of execution due to being accused of witchcraft in the 13 Colonies. 

“There was like all of this attention in Boston,” Jack said. “Nobody knows our first hanged witch in our country was in Connecticut.” 

Jack is the president of End Witch Hunts, a movement aimed to stop witch-hunting. The movement includes the Connecticut Witch Trial Exoneration Project. Jack and one of her project partners also created a podcast called Thou Shalt Not Suffer: The Witch Trial Podcast. This podcast includes many episodes talking about Connecticut’s history with witch trials. 

The Benhams 

Tony Griego, an activist with the Connecticut Witch Memorial, wrote about the history of Winifred Benham Sr. and Winifred Benham Jr. on Facebook. The page is dedicated to educating the public about Connecticut’s witch trials. 

Griego, in the post, quotes author R.G. Tomlinson, who wrote “Witchcraft Prosecution: Chasing the Devil in Connecticut.” 

Firstly, Benham Sr.’s mother, Mary Hale, was accused of witchcraft in Massachusetts. 

Benham Sr.’s husband, Joseph Benham, was first accused in court for “riotous seizing and restraining” in 1684, but defended himself on these charges. 

 “Now the Benhams had appeared on the town radar screen as people to watch,” Griego wrote. 

Then, in 1692, Benham Sr., was accused of witchcraft, and Joseph Benham “threatens to load his gun with two bullets and shoot” the woman that accused Winifred Benham Sr. of witchcraft. 

“At that time the court warned the Benhams that any further problems they would be called again in to court,” Griego wrote. 

Then, on Aug. 31, 1697, both Winifred Benham Sr. and Winifred Benham Jr. were accused of bewitching three people.

“They were water tested,” Jack said. “The accusations included spectral evidence, saying that they had caused sickness on other people because they themselves have what was considered witches’ marks. They fled, so they left.” 

It is believed they fled to the New York Colony.

Fight for exoneration

Rep. Jane Garibay of the 60th district proposed H.J. No. 21, “Resolution Recognizing the Unfair Treatment of Individuals Accused of Witchcraft during the Seventeenth Century.” Jack said Garibay and Sen. Saud Anwar of the 3rd district.

Anwar proposed S.J. No. 5, “Resolution Exonerating the Women and Men Convicted for Witchcraft in Colonial Connecticut.” 

Jack said that along with advocating and supporting the exoneration of those accused in Connecticut, her group is also fighting to prevent future crimes from happening in other countries. 

“Unfortunately there’s lots of things happening now and each of those countries have their own situations, it’s not all the same,” Jack said. “We’re looking to amplify the messages so that we don’t repeat those historical wrongs again here, so that we can help stop it with our world neighbors.” 

‘Black mark’ persistslocally

At the Wallingford Historical Society, Bob Beaumont, president, said there is not a lot on display about Winifred Benham Sr. and Winifred Benham Jr, but there are a few pages about them in a volume on the history of Wallingford that was written in the mid-1950s. 

“Basically it’s the information from the court and it is a total of two pages,” Beaumont said. 

“There’s not a lot that we have that I am aware of,” he added.

Jack said that as a descendant of Winifred Benham Sr. and president of the End Witch Trials movement, it is important to reach out to the towns where victims of witchcraft used to live and see if they are going to do anything to honor the victims.

Jack said she would really like for Wallingford to do something one day.

“There are so many misconceptions about her story, she’s kind of folklore,” Jack said. 

Beaumont said he has no problem with doing something to honor the Winifreds if the state officially exonerates those accused of witchcraft during the seventeenth century. 

“There never should have been a black mark (on the name) to begin with and that’s the part that is too bad,” Beaumont said. 

jsimms@record-journal.com203-317-2279Twitter: @jessica_simms99


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