Monday, October 24, 2016

Rebecca Steele

Hanged as a witch in January 1663, she was reportedly lewd, foul-mouthed (I like her already), emotional, and possibly mentally ill, or just really fed up with her thieving husband's (and everyone else's) sh nonsense ... But a real witch? Probably not.  She was, however, the last person in Connecticut to be executed as one.

Three decades before Salem, Massachusetts put witch trials on the colonial map, Hartford, Connecticut found itself ground zero of a witchcraft frenzy all its own between 1647 and 1663 beginning with the sentencing, and execution of Alse Young, a woman whose trial we know next to nothing about.  In the next seven years, four more executions would follow: Mary Johnson, John & Joan Carrington, and Lydia Gilbert.  A fourth, and final wave of hysteria swept Hartford in early 1662, according to court documents, the fuss originally centered around a little girl in the throes of illness crying out accusations of witchcraft in her demented state.  The child subsequently died, and all hell broke loose. By the time 1662 had rolled around, my 7th Great-Grandmother, Rebecca Steele originally from Devonshire, England, and the widow of two (by all accounts I have found) upstanding men (Abraham Elsen & my 7th Great-Grandfather Jarvis Mudge) who had the misfortune of tying up for the third time with a certain Mr. Greensmith, a man that according to probate records seemed to have a difficult time with drunkenness, battery, truthfulness, and keeping his paws off other people's property, had been fully, and thoroughly dragged into the witch hunt.  The couple kept the company of a colorful motley crew comprising of blasphemers, thieves, liars, adulterers -- your basic rabble of undesirables from a Puritanical point of view.  It appears that this, and their late-night merrymaking under a tree on the green near the Greensmith's house which included drinking and dancing (gasp!) was a great jumping off point for neighborhood suspicions.  So basically they were those neighbors ... Every 'hood has that one house where they install a portable hot tub on their front lawn, get absolutely trashed, and then proceed to fight and yell loud enough so they can hear each other's insults over the constant thrum of jacuzzi jets ... Wait, what?  I can't possibly be the only person so richly blessed!  To be perfectly honest, if witchcraft accusations held the same weight as they used to, and I could get away with it, and depending on how much sleep I'd lost due to the "merrymaking" I dare say, I'd be tempted.  I mean, I get it ... And so it turns out that my grandmother, Mr. Greensmith, James Walkley, and Goodwives Ayers and Seager were those people, and the other villagers were sick of it and wanted them gone, granted, they went about it in a pretty savage way.

December 30th, 1662 in a Hartford courtroom, a formal witchcraft charge was brought against the Greensmiths (thanks to their next door neighbor, and daughter of John Cole, Ann).  Both were indicted.  Once in custody, Rebecca spilled her guts, offered a full confession, and went a step further according to A Case Of Witchcraft in Hartford by, Charles J. Hoadly:

I speak all of this out of love to my husband's soul, and it is much against my will that I am now necessitate to speak against my husband.  I desire that the Lord would open his heart to own and speak the truth.

She ratted out her ol' man!  Either she had sincere concern for her husband's life / soul, and believed some sort of leniency would be granted upon her testimony, whether here or the afterlife, or this is a classic, "if I go down, I'm taking you with me" moment!  Was this her opportunity to get even with an abusive husband?  Something tells me by this advanced age, and time in her life the "love to her husband's soul" might have been wearing a bit thin. Or did his actions of defending his wife's "honor" when accusations first began to fly, and which ultimately led to his own witchcraft charge, soften her heart for the old coot?  It is unlikely that we'll ever know the actual truth behind her decision, but we do know she didn't stop there...

I also testify that I being in ye wood at a meeting there was wth me Goody Seager Goodwife Sanford & Goodwife Ayeres; and at another time there was a meeting under a tree in ye green by or house & there was there James Walkely, Peter Grants wife Goodwife Aires & Henry Palmers wife of Wethersfield, & Goody Seager & there we danced, & had a bottle of sack: it was in ye night & something like a catt cald me out to ye meeting & I was in Mr. Varlets orchard wth Mrs. Judeth Varlett & shee tould me that shee was much troubled wth ye Marshall Jonath: Gilbert & cried, & she sayd if it lay in her power she would doe hin a mischief, or what hurt shee could.

Was she truly overwhelmed with concern for all of their souls, or was she just a spiteful old hag settling a few scores with her dirt-bag friends, or did she just think by throwing more names into the mix she'd take some heat off herself?  I'd love to be able to ask her, having been falsely accused of one or two things myself I can't help but feel for her, even though she'd probably cuss me out for bringing it up, then we'd get drunk, exchange vulgar stories, dance around a bonfire, and cackle like a couple of, uhm ... well, witches.

In an awkward twist, like Linda Stuhler of the blog Inmates of Willard, it appears I'm a descendant from both the accused, Rebecca (Steele) Greensmith, and Edward Griswold, my 10th Great-Grandfather, originally from Warickshire, England, and a tribunal member partly responsible for her conviction, and murder, but from completely different offshoots than Stuhler's.  Following the execution of the Greensmiths, 139 years later to be exact, Nancy Ward (my 4th Great-Grandmother, and Mr. Griswold's descendant) married Reverend Jesse David Braman (my 4th Great-Grandfather, and Rebecca Steele's descendant) in an 1802 ceremony in Coeymans, New York.  In fact, Edward Griswold shows up three separate times in my family tree, one of his grand-daughters even married into my dad's colonial family.  Perhaps this would be unsurprising to most, after all the villages were small, and the dating pool, I imagine, was quite shallow, but for me it was a shock to even find any lines of my family linking me to Colonial America at all, I thought we were just recent (4th or 5th generation) transplants before this little tree project came about.

  • Line from Rebecca Steele (married Jarvis Mudge) > Micah Mudge (married Mary Alexander) > Martha Mudge (married Jesse J. Braman) > Jesse D. Braman (married Nancy Ward) > Jonathan W. Braman.

  • Line from Edward Griswold (married Margaret Diamond) > Deborah Griswold (married Samuel Buell) > John Buell (married Mary Loomis) > Lois Buell (married Supply Strong) > Rachel Strong (married Samuel Beach) > Nancy Beach (married Jonathan Ward) > Nancy Ward (married Jesse D. Braman) > Jonathan W. Braman.

Soooo ... Half witch, and half self-righteous moral authority?
(No comments from the peanut gallery)

In recent years many 8th and 9th generation descendants of the accused, and quite frankly, unjustly murdered "witches" of Hartford have been eager to see the names of their ancestors cleared once and for all, like those of Salem.  Even attempting at one time to get pardons for the eleven persons wrongly executed for crimes they never committed, the efforts however, seem to have been in vain since Connecticut does not issue posthumous pardons.  Perhaps for the other families involved, this is of some importance, but every time I dive into Rebecca's story, I can't help but think this broad wouldn't care what a single living person today thought of her, or remembered her as.  And that makes me smile.