Seedy Stories: Peter C. Vermilyea’s “Witches Of Litchfield County”
By Amy Krzanik
Horror movies and haunted houses are all well and good for a Halloween fright-night, but sometimes the scariest thing of all is the disclaimer “based on a true story.” Yikes.
In keeping with the spirit(s) of the season, local historian Peter C. Vermilyea will explore a spooky chapter from his most recent book, Wicked Litchfield County. In the illustrated lecture “Witches of Litchfield County,” he’ll discuss the real lives of four 18th century residents who were accused of witchcraft, their alleged activities, and the possible motivations behind the name-calling. He’ll appear at Scoville Memorial Library in Salisbury on Saturday, Oct. 22 at 4 p.m. and at The Litchfield Historical Society the following day at 3 p.m.
While researching Wicked, his second book, Vermilyea says he couldn’t believe what he was finding: counterfeiting, bank robberies and scams, capital punishment, slavery, speakeasies, ministers gone bad. And witches.
Litchfield was settled decades after the Salem witch trials, and by then Vermilyea says, “people realized they probably went a little too far,” so there wasn’t the hysteria often associated with witches. The women around these parts were thought to be not so much evil as simply nuisances. “They didn’t really harm anyone, they’d just cause little impediments in peoples’ lives – suddenly looms stop working, people can’t get their butter to churn,” he says.
Since witchcraft was considered a crime, old county histories from the 1830s to the 1880s include it in their official documents. Vermilyea found that Litchfield’s historical data fit perfectly with the national pattern of witch history, which is that it was a manifestation of gender in the mid-18th century. “They were calling them witches, but really they were just not acting the way that women were supposed to act,” he says. A telltale sign is that two of the four witches were named Molly – Moll Cramer of Woodbury and Molly Fisher from Kent – because Molly is the old English term for prostitute. “Some of the women were face healing – using alternative medicine and spirituality to heal – in a male-dominated church and medical world. Women were trying to help their neighbors and they got termed witches.”
This was definitely a class thing, too, Vermilyea says. Fisher was a transient – no one knew where she lived, or perhaps she was homeless. Cramer was the wife of a struggling blacksmith.
Bizarre stories abound, he says. “People put stock in stories that today we’d think were ludicrous.” He posits that the cause was a tremendous fear of isolation, as the early settlements had terrible roads and were cut off from each other by wilderness, and the population suffered from epidemics in which two-thirds of a town’s inhabitants would die. “There was fear,” he says, “and an inability to explain how these things were happening.”
To learn more about Litchfield’s witchy history, attend a lecture this weekend and pick up Vermilyea’s book, where witches are only one chapter in the seedier side of the northwest corner’s past.