A couple of years ago, the Windsor Town Council took action to right a very old wrong by repenting of the action it took against two women of that town a long time ago, with the intent of “restoring the women’s good names.” It wasn’t really a pardon, legally speaking, but it was the right thing to do.
The women were Alse Young and Lydia Gilbert, and they died on the gallows in 1647 and 1654, respectively, for the then-crime of witchcraft. Nine other Connecticut residents suffered the same fate, long before the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts. The last to be accused was Winifred Benham, of Wallingford, who was acquitted.
Mrs. Gilbert’s indictment accused her of “not having the feare of god before thy Eyes,” of giving “entertainment to Sathan the great Enemy of god and mankind” and of “other witchcrafts for which according to the law of god and the Established Law of this commonwealth thou Deservest to Dye.”
Fortunately, none of that stuff is illegal these days. But efforts to get pardons for all 11 people executed for witchcraft in Connecticut — three and a half centuries later — have failed.
Some years later, we come to the case of Bertha Mag.
In 1905, Mrs. Mag ran a meat market at 153 Pratt St. in Meriden. She was known to butcher meat in a back room of the building, sing songs in Yiddish and write poems in English. But, at least once, she opened her shop on a Sunday. She was arrested and fined for violating the state's blue laws regarding observance of the sabbath.
Her arrest warrant didn’t pull any punches, charging that on Aug. 6, a Sunday, “being the Lord’s day,” she did “willfully and unlawfully and not having the fear of God, keep open a certain shop, store and warehouse known as number 153 Pratt Street, and did in said shop and warehouse at said time and place expose certain property for sale,” an act that was against the law and “against the peace.”
But Mrs. Mag was Jewish, so she was unable to do business on a Saturday, which was her sabbath, and legally constrained from opening her shop on a Sunday, which was Connecticut’s official sabbath. The fact that the state had no business establishing an official sabbath doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone at the time. Except maybe Mrs. Mag.
With “the fear of God” echoing down the years, from 1654 to 1905, Mrs. Mag was fined $10 for her offense, probably close to $300 in today’s money. If memory serves, as late as the 1960s food and drug stores could operate on Sundays, but not much else. However, all those blue laws have long since been ruled unconstitutional or tossed out.
Anyway, her grandson, David Gorfinkle, of Massachusetts, would like a posthumous pardon for his grandmother. And who can blame him? Just like those two women in Windsor in the 1600s, her good name had been soiled.
City Hall can’t issue an actual pardon, of course, but it could always issue a resolution, or something, regretting that Mrs. Mag fell afoul of a law that was unjust in the first place, a relic of the same kind of Puritan mentality that used to justify hanging witches in these parts.
Reach Glenn Richter at firstname.lastname@example.org