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Westport’s Witch

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Westport’s Witch

While keeping up with the background research for my Bennett/Danbury Raid Story, I came across a surprising piece of history. Turns out, Salem Massachusetts wasn’t the only place where witches were tried and executed in America. When it came to the business of convicting innocent people of being in cahoots with Satan, Connecticut got there first and kept at it longer than any other colony. In 1647, Alice Young of Hartford became the first person in America to be hanged as a witch. All in all, from 1647 to 1692 Connecticut courts convicted 37 people of witchcraft and of that number 11 were put to death. By way of comparison, the magistrates in Salem packed all of their witch hysteria into one doosie of a year, 1692, when they tossed 150 people into jail and executed 19 unfortunate souls.

One of Connecticut’s accused witches was Mercy Disbrow of Compo (now Westport). She was a middle aged housewife and basically minding her own business when Daniel Westcott, a resident of nearby Stamford brought formal charges against her on behalf of his 17-year old servant girl, Catherine Branch. Catherine was present when Westcott and Mercy had become engaged in some sort of a heated argument. A few weeks later the girl began experiencing violent seizures accompanied by disturbing visions. In one of her dreams a woman with “firebrands” emanating from her forehead appeared in a doorway. “A witch! A witch!” she cried out in her delirium while flopping about on her master’s floor. When pressed by Westcott, the young servant girl described her tormenting apparition as a “black haired woman with thick lips and of a middle stature … neither olde nor young … wearing an old large stomacher, a dirty shift and a dirty cap.” This must have fit the description of Goody Disbrow down to a T, because it was all the proof Westcott needed to file charges against her for witchcraft.

As prescribed by the laws of the day, the first order of business was to have Mercy’s body checked for “witch marks.” Six neighborhood women were given the duty of stripping Mercy naked and carefully inspecting her “skinne and body cavities.” They found a “pale growth” that looked very much like the “third teat” witches were believed to possess for the purpose of suckling imps sent to them by the devil. Next, the court ordered that she be “ducked” in a pond to see if she would sink or float, and as any reasonable person would expect, the poor woman “swam upon the watters like a cork,” giving her accusers the final bit of evidence needed to get her indicted.

Here now is where the Bennett’s enter into this tale of woe. The attorney assigned by the court to prosecute its case against Goody Disbrow was my 9th Great Uncle, James Bennett, Esq., and included among the many witnesses he called to testify was his older brother Thomas Bennett (my 9th Great Grandfather). Grampa Thomas testified that several years earlier Mercy swore she’d make him as “bare as a bird’s tail” (meaning stripped of all his wealth) after they had argued over a small business transaction. Not long after receiving this curse, he inexplicably lost 30 lambs and a day after that two of his calves were found frozen to death along the banks of Grey’s Creek.

It seems as if just about everybody who knew Goody Disbrow had been harboring ill feelings about her for decades. There were obviously scores to be settled with this woman who was by all accounts sharp tongued and outspoken. One of the most bizarre and damning accusations came from a fellow named Edward Jessup. His ordeal began with a friendly supper at Mercy and Thomas Disbrow’s farmhouse one evening in early winter. Everything was fine until it came time to dig into the main course. According to Jessup, the skin of the pig Mercy had roasted looked so “strangely altered by the turning of the spit” he dared to only eat a small portion of what was served to him. After dinner they got into a disagreement about Scripture, and when Jessup asked to see the Disbrow’s Bible in order to prove his point, Mercy caused the print to disappear before his eyes! That nifty display of black magic convinced Jessup it was time to hightail it for home. He lived on Hall’s island (today’s Owenoke Park), which was only about two miles away. It should have been an easy and familiar horse ride home but as he was about to discover, Mercy had him under a spell. When he got to the edge of Grey’s Creek, at a spot that put him just a few minutes from his home, he could see by the moonlight that it was high tide. As he had done a hundred times before, he got down from his horse in order paddle across the water using a canoe local residents kept along the bank for that purpose. “I ordinarily could have shoved the cannoe into ye creek with ease,” he testified, but found it was inexplicably stuck to the ground. After struggling mightily with his little boat for a while, he looked up to see in disbelief that the tide had suddenly turned dead low. Okay fine, he thought with his panic now heading towards high gear, he could simply trot across the mudflats, but by the time he got back on the saddle and organized, he saw that the crazy tide had come back in! His only other option at that point was to ride all the way around the creek. But alas, he concluded to the spellbound jury, his reliable old carthorse Joe proceeded to amble “backwards into ye bushes” and it took him the rest of the long and terrifying night to steer the bewitched beast back home.

James Bennett got the conviction he sought and Mercy Disbrow was sentenced to die by hanging. She was carted back to jail to await her fate. Luckily for her however, the trials in Salem had just been concluded giving the powers-that-be in Connecticut’s judicial system reason to pause. Before the Fairfield magistrates could get the noose around her neck the witch hysteria that had gripped all of New England for the past several decades had finally run its course. Governor Treat in Hartford commuted her sentence declaring that the only truly sinful aspects of her case were the unsupportable accusations levied against her.

Mercy Disbrow was set free and lived in Compo for another twenty years or so. She must have harbored a great deal of bitterness towards those busybody and bigoted neighbors of hers who tried so hard to get her hanged. I can’t help but wonder about that spell she cast to make Thomas Bennett as bare as a bird’s tail. Maybe 30 lambs and two of his cows weren’t enough to sate Ol’ Satan. Maybe after Mercy was acquitted she added a few more eyes of newt to her brew to see to it that the sins of her accusers would be visited upon their sons for generations to come.

Hmmm … a couple of years ago Julia and I had our identity hacked after buying a Dell computer. Our credit got slammed and it took us years to straighten it out. And look – the Dow just tumbled 300 points!! Could it be that Mercy Disbrow’s curse still lives?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Lisa Mischke says:

    Wow. I’m the woman who is Joseph Bennett’s descendant, and thus also Thomas’. A weird thing is on my mother’s side I’m descended from Rebecca Nurse who was hung as a witch in Salem. At least there was a little silver lining to that story if it helped save Mercy’s life.

    Lisa

    • Lisa –
      Yes, the Salem Witch trials definitely had an influence on Mercy’s case. The fever for hanging innocent women as witches broke just in time to save Mercy.

  2. Jim Griffin says:

    Interesting. That Thomas Bennett was my 10th great grandfather. This is the first involvement of any kind (by my ancestors) that I have found in the Salem doings.

    • That must make us cousins of some sort. James Bennett came to Concord Mass in 1639 and moved to Fairfield CT soon thereafter. He had 3 sons: James (who was the Crown’s Prosecutor in the Mercy Disbrow witch trial) and Thomas Sr. (who was the first Bennett to live in the Compo area of what is now Westport, CT, was a key witness) and John (who moved to NY) Thomas’s son, Thomas Jr was another key witness, as was his wife. I am descended this way from the first James Bennett: James B.- Thomas B. Sr.- Thomas B Jr – Deliverance B. 1 – William B. – Deliverance B. 2 – Isaac B. – John Benedict B. – John Henry B. – Jessie Jellife (my great grandmother)- Jessie Schuylyer – Joy Walker – Me. Maybe you can figure out how we’re related. The actual court transcripts of the Mercy Disbrow trial in Fairfield Ct can be accessed online — in both original olde English and in a translated form. If you’re interested I could send you the links. Jono

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