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OPINION: Bertha Mag has her day

OPINION: Bertha Mag has her day

As we all know, Sir Winston Churchill’s great-great-great-great grandfather is buried in Meriden, up on Ann Street. When he wrote his will, a couple of years before dying in 1751, he identified himself as “Timothy Jerome of Meriden in Wallingford, in Connecticut Colony in New England,” and he left quite a bit of property — including four enslaved people from Africa: Pomp, Rose, Jenny and Prince. So we know there were at least two classes of people back then: white and black.

But Mr. Jerome left all the property to his sons, allowing his widow only “use of” the kitchen, “use of” one milk cow, “use of” the bedroom and “use of” the hallway. So now we have three classes: white men, white women, and black people.

And it’s easy to forget that Connecticut was essentially a theocracy until 1818; It took an Act of Tolerance to allow people of other denominations to have their own churches after 1708, but they still had to pay taxes to support the official Congregational (Puritan) Church, whether they liked it or not. Not as bad as the Taliban, maybe, but tell that to the 11 folks who were put to death for witchcraft by the official church in this state in the mid-1600s.

And those same Puritans also dreamed up the strict Blue Laws for which we are deservedly infamous. It’s probably a myth that mothers were forbidden to kiss their children on the Sabbath, but there was a ban on any commercial activity, plus dancing, singing, drinking, and just about anything else that’s not absolutely necessary to support human life. The last blue law, forbidding the sale of booze on Sundays, wasn’t done away with until 2012.

When Catholics began coming to Connecticut in numbers, they weren’t exactly greeted with open arms, another chapter in the long, sad story of discrimination by people with power, against people without it.

(So it’s a good thing that school districts in this state have been mandated to offer African-American, Latino and Puerto Rican-focused courses in the next couple of years. General rule: Learning is good; you never know what you’ll find out.)

Anyway, at least the Catholics shared the same Sabbath day with the dominant protestants. But what about non-Christians? That’s probably another class in this story.

Enter Bertha Mag. 

Last week she got a measure of proper respect when the Meriden City Council acknowledged that she “was done an injustice” by the city when she was arrested and fined for working at her 153 Pratt St. meat market on Aug. 6, 1905, which was a Sunday. 

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. 

They threw the book at her anyway, for “not having the fear of God” (the same words used against the supposed witches 250 years earlier) when she opened her shop that day, an act that was “against the law and against the peace.”

The new resolution reads: “The Meriden City Council hereby recognizes that Mrs. Bertha Mag was done an injustice by the city of Meriden when she was arrested for following the dictates of her religion in the practice of the Jewish Sabbath."

Mazel Tov, Bertha!

Reach Glenn Richter at