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Lessons in local history: Fairfield witchcraft trials fascinate teachers

Updated 4:48 pm, Tuesday, July 29, 2014

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  • Christine Jewell, director of education for the Fairfield Museum and History Center, stands in the depression, once a pond, where two local women were tested for witchcraft in 1692. Looking on are some of the teachers attending a musuem workshop on witchcraft. The workshop brought the local history to life, they said. Photo: Staff Photo, Staff Photo/Gretchen Webster / Fairfield Citizen
    Christine Jewell, director of education for the Fairfield Museum and History Center, stands in the depression, once a pond, where two local women were tested for witchcraft in 1692. Looking on are some of the teachers attending a musuem workshop on witchcraft. The workshop brought the local history to life, they said. Photo: Staff Photo, Staff Photo/Gretchen Webster

 

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It's strange to think of witchcraft as an esoteric subject, but it used to be for some teachers before they attended "The Witch Trials in Connecticut" workshop at the Fairfield Museum and History Center.

But not any more.

Learning about Mercy Disborough, a Fairfield woman accused of witchcraft in 1692, and Elizabeth Clawson, who was put on trial in Stamford for witchery, recently brought the subject of witches home to Connecticut for the teachers.

"The Salem witch trials permeate everything we learn about witches; it's gotten kind of boring," said Katelyn Botsford, a social studies teacher in Shelton. "I love the idea of getting this live," she said as she sat just yards away from a pond on the Town Hall campus where Mercy Disborough was subjected to the water dunking test for witches. She floated -- and "failed" -- because the theory behind the test was that if the accused sank she was innocent, but guilt was indicated if she floated "because the pure water cast out her evil spirit," according to "Connecticut Witch Trials and Posthumous Pardons" at http://1.usa.gov/1rNgGuq. She was later granted a reprieved by the General Assembly.

Two other local women were not so fortunate. Goodwife Bassett and Goodwife Knapp were convicted of being witches in 1651 and 1653, respectively, and subsequently hung.

"It's wonderful to add a local explanation, especially when the local history is just as cool -- and it's in our students' backyard," Botsford said.

The teachers from all around Fairfield County were spending a day at a Summer Teachers Institute sponsored by the museum.

The museum brings in speakers and presents primary, or first-hand sources for the teachers, said Christine Jewell, director of education and community programs. Museum educators also tie the workshop curriculum to the new state's Common Core standards for public school education.

Fairfield Ludlowe High School teacher Lauren Marchello plans to bring the real-life stories about Fairfield witchcraft she heard on presenting evidence and witnesses, trial procedures and interpretation of colonial law, back to her classroom. She intends to use the material in a civics course she teaches on youth and the law. "Fairfield students will definitely be interested," she said.

One concept discussed in the witchcraft workshop she especially wants to emphasize with her students: "Fear and hysteria still exist today; we're not past that," Marchello said. "Individual rights can be compromised when fear enters in."

Some of the teachers attending the witchcraft session had been to other Fairfield museum programs before. Others, after becoming familiar with museum and its programs, planned to bring their students to the museum in the upcoming school year.

"Having them talk about the pond [where Mercy Disborough was tested] and to picture where it is, would be really interesting," Marchello said.

The group of about 20 adults attending the workshop walked out to the wide, but shallow, depression in the earth near Fairfield's historic Sun Tavern and Old Academy buildings. Jewell pointed out how they "tested" the women for witchcraft by binding their arms and legs and throwing them into the pond.

Museum docents who want to gather more information for the walking tours and other programs they lead for the town attended the session, in addition to teachers.

"I like to learn as much as possible," said Michael Brennan, a volunteer museum docent who took photos of the group at the pond site. He plans to take visitors to the former witch-testing pond on his next walking tour, he said.

Also working with the teachers was museum educator Walter Matis. "It's important for us as an institution to work with teachers," he said. "They have so little time for research, and such an enthusiasm for history."

Several free workshops are given each year at the museum. Some of the programs the museum has offered in the past include topics like slavery in Connecticut, local colonial history, and the state's civil rights movement.

The workshops are usually offered in conjunction with a museum exhibit, such as the one on witchcraft in Connecticut that the museum will mount in the fall. "Accused: Fairfield's Witchcraft Trial," opens Thursday, Sept. 25, at the museum.

For more information about teacher workshops or educational programs, visit www.fairfieldhistory.org/education or call 203-259-1598.