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Mary Sanford and the Forgotten Connecticut Witch Trials

Updated: Nov 20, 2021

So halfway through writing book #3 in the Winds of Freedom series, I’m already excited about my next project. When I discovered my heritage, it really was an obvious choice. Someday, after a lot of time and research, I hope to honor my eight-times great grandmother with a novel version of her story. For now, here are the facts.


This story strikes a personal chord with me. Maybe it’s because I just don’t like seeing people suffer for unjust reasons. This the entire family of Andrew and Mary Sanford certainly did.

Andrew Sanford immigrated from England around 1632 and settled in Hartford with his Uncle Andrew Warner. He married a woman of unknown heritage named Mary soon after. In 1657, he was made freeman and then chimney viewer in 1662. The Winthrop Documents call Andrew a pumpmaker. As a physician, John Winthrop, Jr. (Governor of CT) evidently treated the Sanford children. The family was living on North Main Street in 1662.


witchtrials

In March of that year, John Kelley’s 8-year-old daughter Elizabeth was stricken with severe stomach pains. In her agony, the girl blamed Goody Ayres, a woman known for spreading stories of her meetings with the devil. She begged her father to have the woman arrested and with her dying breath said, “Goody Ayres chokes me!” If that weren’t enough, physician Bray Rossiter performed an autopsy on the girl, determining that she died of prenatural causes. Let the witch hunt begin!


Another woman experienced “violent body motions” and spoke in a Dutch accent as she accused Rebecca Greensmith of witchcraft. Greensmith, referred to by John Whiting as “a lewd, ignorant and considerably aged woman” broke under interrogation and testified in court against her husband. She related stories of strange creatures following him in the woods and his possession of supernatural strength. She said that the devil appeared to her first in the form of a deer and that he had frequent use of her body. She described meetings in the woods attended by goodwives Seager, Sanford, and Ayres. She recounted a  story of her and several neighbors meeting under a tree on the green near her home to dance and have a bottle of sack.


Andrew Sanford was accused of witchcraft on June 6, 1662 and tried in court soon after. He and his wife were both indited for “witchcraft or for holding public meetings other than those prescribed by the elders or for dealings with ‘Sathan.'” Among the jury, “some thought guilty, some strongly suspected.” He was therefore acquitted. Mary was found guilty.


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Andrew and Mary’s Oldest Son Andrew’s Grave in Milford, CT


No record of Mary’s execution has ever been found, though historians believe she was hanged. John M. Taylor states in his book Witchcraft Delusion in Colonial Connecticut that she was executed  Further evidence to support this theory comes from the simple fact that Andrew moved to Milford five years later and remarried. However, some sources disagree. The Colonial History of Hartford states that, “Mary Sanford was convicted first, and was not long detained in jail. Like some weird spectre of the spirit world, she disappeared.” Could Mary Sanford have escaped the hands of her accusers? If so, did she join Andrew in Milford? The name of his second wife remains a mystery. While this version of the story may be unlikely, it’s still an interesting one for her hopeful descendants to entertain.


One factor I still do not fully comprehend is how Andrew and Mary Sanford came to be accused and tried. Rebecca Greensmith’s testimony clearly implicated Mary as attending at least one of her mysterious meetings. I’m still unclear as to how Andrew Sanford was involved. One theory has to do with religious leanings. An article in the New England Historical Magazine refers to the Sanfords of Hartford as “all Quakers”, which would have classed them with heretics. Some believe the couple may have adopted the ideals of Anne Hutchinson from Andrew’s brother Thomas and uncle Andrew Warner, who lived in Boston about five years. Their family may have been holding Bible studies in their home that ran contrary to the religious philosophies of their Puritanical neighbors and government.


I find it ironic that one of the main reasons people came to the New World was for religious freedom and then tragedies like these occurred. The colonials did not understand that true worship of God is only made without coercion. In many ways, we still do not understand. So, looking back on this story of my ancestors who lived long ago, on the people who gave me my life and my name, I gain a lesson to take with me. Treat people with compassion, and do not judge when their viewpoint is different from your own. Perhaps you may learn something, however small, from everyone you encounter. I’ve learned a lot from your life, Mary. In the end, I hope you really did outwit your foes and live a long, super-secret spy life with your beloved. Hey, a girl can dream.


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