Wicked Litchfield County

A shameless self promotion …

My new book, Wicked Litchfield County, was published last week by the History Press. Here is their description:

“Thieves, rumrunners and rapscallions all color the unsavory side of Litchfield County history. Townspeople accused women of witchcraft simply for not bearing enough children in the early days of the region. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Owen Sullivan and William Stuart took advantage of the county’s isolated stretches and a currency shortage to build counterfeiting empires. In 1780, Barnett Davenport’s brutal actions earned him infamy as the nation’s first mass murderer. Small-time speakeasies slowly took hold, and the omnipresence of alcohol-fueled crime led to the birth of the nationwide prohibition movement. Local historian Peter C. Vermilyea explores these and other devilish tales from the seedier history of Litchfield County.”

The book is available at local book stores, including Kent’s House of Books and Washington’s Hickory Stick Bookshop. I will be doing many book events around the county in the coming months. Hope to see you at one of them!

 

Hidden Nearby: Charles Grandison Finney’s Birthplace

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Monument at the birthplace of Charles Grandison Finney on Cunningham Road in Warren.

There were no great battles fought in Litchfield County, nor were any presidents born here. The county has, however, left an indelible mark on American history, perhaps in no area as great as in religion. The county was the home of Joseph Bellamy, Lyman Beecher, Horace Bushnell, and Michael McGivney. Another extremely prominent American religious leader who called the county home was Charles Grandison Finney, born in Warren in 1792. Finney was the youngest of fifteen children, and the family moved to upstate New York soon after his birth.

Charles Grandison Finney

Charles Grandison Finney

Finney has been called the “Father of American Revivalism,” and the area in western New York in which he operated became known as the “Burned-Over District” for the intensity of the religious revivals there. The high point of Finney’s revivalism was 1825-1835, and they were particularly popular in towns like Rochester that were undergoing dramatic economic transformations brought on by the opening of the Erie Canal.

Rochester, NY 1830

Rochester, NY 1830

Finney preached salvation through faith alone, but also wrote of the role of the individual’s will in achieving salvation. Finney’s religious views led him and his followers to promote social reforms, especially abolitionism and educational opportunities for women. These beliefs led him in 1835 to Oberlin College in Ohio, which accepted both genders and all races. Finney would go on to serve as the school’s president from 1851 to 1866.

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Getting to this monument is very challenging; it is advised that those seeking it walk or mountain bike down Cunningham Road. Thanks to Warren historian Ellen Paul and the dog walker I fortuitously met along Cunningham for the directions! Thanks also to Jason and Amanda McGrew for their assistance.

For more on Finney and his revivals in Rochester, see Paul Johnson’s wonderful A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837.

Litchfield County at Gettysburg

I’ve just returned from my annual trip to the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, which led me to think about Litchfield County’s role at the battle. Gettysburg was not Litchfield County’s battle; the majority of volunteers from the northwest hills served with the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery. Their day would come at the Battle of Cold Harbor, nearly a year after Gettysburg. Still, a glance at the casualty lists on Charles P. Hamblen’s Connecticut Yankees at Gettysburg reveals the sacrifices made by some residents of the county in the Civil War’s greatest battle.

Robert McCarrick of Lakeville was 19 when he left the state to serve the Union cause, enlisting as a private in the 20th New York State Militia (also known as the 80th New York  Infantry). He was captured by Confederates on July 1, 1863, the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. He returned to the Union army and served through 1864.

Allen Brady of Torrington served as the major of the 17th Connecticut, which was primarily a Fairfield County unit. When Lt. Colonel Fowler was killed on July 1, Brady assumed command of the regiment, which bravely repulse a Confederate assault on Cemetery Hill on July 2nd. In this action, Brady was wounded by a shell fragment and was discharged from the army for disability. He received an honorary promotion to colonel.  With Brady on Cemetery Hill was Private Daniel Hunt of Bethlehem. He was captured by Confederates on the morning of July 3rd. Paroled in August, he served through the rest of the war.

Charles Squires of Roxbury, a private in the 5th Connecticut Infantry, was captured in the fighitng on Culp’s Hill on July 2nd. He was paroled in August 1863, but was killed in fighting at the coincidentally-named Culp’s Farm in Georgia in 1864.

Nathan Abbott of Watertown, a sergeant in the 20th Connecticut, was wounded in the fighting on Culp’s Hill on July 3rd. He recovered from his wounds and was promoted to be an officer. He served through the remainder of the war, returning home in June 1865.

 

 

Litchfield County’s most famous Civil War soldier was John Sedgwick of Cornwall. A West Point graduate and a major general, Sedgwick commanded the Sixth Corps of the Union Army of the Potomac, at 18,000 men the largest corps in the army. He led his men on a famous 34-mile march to Gettysburg, arriving in time for some of his men to go into action on July 2nd and 3rd. Following the battle, Sedgwick was tasked with leading the pursuit of Robert E. Lee’s retreating Confederate army. Sedgwick was killed at the battle of Spotsylvania Court House in May 1864. He is buried in Cornwall, and monuments to his honor stand at West Point, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania, and in his hometown.

 

 

LHRR Series: The Last 1/10th Mile

Runners making the final turn from South Street to West Street experience the surge of adrenaline that comes with the wall of sound rising from the crowds along the sidewalk and the Green. The Green, the center of community activity in Litchfield, has not always been the pastoral heart of the town.

An 18th century map of Litchfield drawn by Ezra Stiles. Courtesy of Yale University.

Like many Connecticut communities, the Green began as simply a very wide road. In Litchfield, it was Meeting House Street, and was what is now East and West Streets. The western portion of this road was 264 feet wide, with the eastern portion stretching to 330 feet wide. (Colonial roads were much wider than our modern roads, in part because the lack of effective road building tools meant that large boulders and tree stumps would be left, so travelers needed ample space to get around them.) In the roadbed where Meeting House Street intersected with North and South Streets stood the Congregational Church. In 1752, the county courthouse was also built in the center of the road, and the sheep and pigs of local farms milled about.

Lyman Beecher, minister at the Litchfield Congregational Church from 1810 to 1826.

At that point the town did not have a centralized commercial district, but in the coming decades, especially during the Revolutionary War, businesses in town clustered around this intersection. An 1814 map of town shows a great deal of activity on North Street, with the courthouse having been moved to the southern side of West Street. The Congregational Church – with Lyman Beecher as minister – still stood in the intersection. This is commemorated with a monument that today is in the southern portion of the Green; there was, however, no grass there in 1814.

 

The Litchfield Green,. 1907.

What we would recognize as the Green began to emerge after a new Congregational Church was built outside of the intersection in 1828-29. The town decided to grade its central area to create a commons. This was divided into three sections, East, West, and Center Parks. By the time of the 1851 county centennial, this had become the major meeting place in town. The early 20th century would see transformations of the Green by Litchfield’s Village Improvement Society, but for the new sidewalks, lighting, and trees that came and went, the Green had become the heart of town, which it will be tomorrow when approximately 1,500 await the start of the 40th Litchfield Hills Road Race.

Good luck to all runners!

For more on the development of the town of Litchfield see Rachel Carley’s book Litchfield: The Making of a New England Town.

For more information on the history of the Litchfield Hills Road Race, see Lou Pellegrino’s book A History of the Litchfield Hills Road Race: In Smallness there is Beauty (now available at the Litchfield Historical Society).

 

 

 

 

 

LHRR Series: The Seventh Mile: Gallows Hill

A lone runner practicing on Gallows Lane. Courtesy of the Hartford Courant.

A seventh mile featuring Gallows Hill is certainly an ominous way to end a road race, and the historian, trained to be a skeptic, wonders if the appellation survives a historical inquiry. It does, as Gallows Hill was the scene of three of the four widely documented executions in Litchfield.

The pillory, a frequently used method of punishment in early America.

 

There are many instances in Litchfield history of the gallows being used for punishment that did not quite rise to the level of execution. For example, Sheriff Lynde Lorde wrote  in February 1776, “I caused the within named John Thomas to be taken from the common Gaol in Litchfield to the place of Execution and there Set upon a Gallos with a Rope Round his Neck for the full Term of one hour and Then tied to the Tail of a Cart and Transported to four of the most public places in the Town of Litchfield and there whipped on his naked body Thirty-nine stripes in the whole.” Other uses of the gallows were more extreme. In 1768, John Jacob, a Native American, became the first documented prisoner to be hanged in Litchfield. On February 17th of that year he killed Jacob Chokerer, a member of the Schaghticoke tribe in Kent with a hatchet.

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A map of Litchfield at the time of the Davenport trial. Note the church and the courthouse in the center of town. Courtesy of Yale University.

One of Connecticut’s most brutal and best known crimes saw its climax come on Gallows Hill in 1780. Barnet Davenport had served with George Washington’s Continental Army until he deserted and became a live-in worker with Caleb Mallory’s family in Washington, Connecticut. In early February of that year, Mallory arranged to have several members of the Mallory family leave on a trip, while he killed Caleb, his wife Jane, and their three granddaughters. He then gathered up the family’s valuables and set fire to the house, believing that if the entire structure was destroyed, investigators would think that he had also perished in the fire. He fled to Cornwall, but was captured while sleeping in a cave. He was sentenced to 39 lashes before being hanged on the gallows.

This illustration depicts the short-drop gallows, designed to kill the condemned through strangulation, an exceedingly painful enterprise. It was used for Litchfield’s first three executions.

Five years later, Thomas Goss, a Barkhamsted tavern keeper from Barkhamsted, was convicted for the ghastly crime of splitting his wife’s head open with an ax, then smearing her blood on the couple’s three children who were sleeping in the bed with their mother. He later told the authorities he committed the act because his wife was a witch, and he was acting only to save the children. Goss was sentenced to death by the gallows on November 7th, 1785, but swore that the sheriff would never be able to carry out the act, as Goss was in fact that brother of Christ and that the Heavenly Father would intercede to save Goss and kill 30,000 men in retribution. Sheriff Lorde soon disabused  Goss of these notions.

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Andrew Borjesson. Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society

Litchfield’s final execution did not take place on Gallows Hill, but rather in a special building erected for the occasion in the courtyard of the county jail on North Street. In 1890, Andrew Borjesson, a Swedish immigrant living in Kent, killed Emma Anderson at the Buckingham home in New Milford. Borjesson had paid for his fellow Swede Anderson’s passage to the New World in exchange for her promise to marry him. When she later refused, Borjesson climbed to the roof of the home in which she lived, entered her room through the window, and slashed her eight times with a knife. As it had been over 100 years since there was a public execution in town, some worried that it wouldn’t be carried out efficiently. “The town green was packed with a seething mass of humanity from end to end,” the Litchfield Enquirer reported. “There was great fear lest a human stampede erupt. When the black flag of death was hoisted above the jail a great cheer burst forth from the crowd.” “Every detail of the execution was carried out without delay or painful mistake whatever,” another story reported. Still, the Enquirer did not that “an unnecessarily large number viewed the scene, many of whom were more or less intoxicated.”

For more on crime and punishment in early Litchfield, see my forthcoming book, Wicked Litchfield County (History Press, July 2016).

For more information on the history of the Litchfield Hills Road Race, see Lou Pellegrino’s book A History of the Litchfield Hills Road Race: In Smallness there is Beauty (now available at the Litchfield Historical Society).

 

 

LHRR Series: The Sixth Mile: The West Cemetery

Microwave Mile (Courtesy of Janet Serra)

Entering the sixth mile of the Litchfield Hills Road Race, runners encounter what is known as the “Microwave Mile.” Here the shade of White Memorial forests is left behind, and in the open the sun of a hot June afternoon is brought fully to bear. The scene becomes more ominous to those runners who take note of the West Cemetery alongside the course.

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Here, some of the town’s earliest settlers were buried. Current burials continue in the adjacent Saint Anthony’s Cemetery (an annex is across the street). The historian, however, is drawn to effigy markers, gravestones without accompanying bodies. One of these is a memorial to Joseph Harris, the first original settler of the town to die. In 1723, Harris was killed by  a group of Native Americans while tending to his fields. Shot dead and scalped, his body was found by neighbors the next day, sitting on the ground with his head resting against a tree. This was in the area of town where Litchfield Ford now stands. That area became known as Harris Plains.

Harris’s burial location is no longer known, but in 1830, Litchfield residents erected a monument to their ancestor in the West Cemetery. It reads:

In Memory of Joseph Harris who was murdered by the Indians in the year 1721. While plowing in his Field in the vicinity of the Alms House, he was shot by the Indians concealed in Ambush. He was found dead Sitting on the Ground, his Head and Body reclining against the Trunk of a Tree. To record the first Death among the original Settlers of this Town & to perpetuate the Memory of a worthy but unfortunate Citizen this Monument is erected 1830 by the voluntary Benefactions of individual Subscribers

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Effigy graves in the West Cemetery

A second example of effigy graves is in the area of the cemetery reserved for Civil War veterans. Initially, this land was donated as a potters field for those soldiers who could not afford a grave plot. Over time, it became a place for families to erect markers to their sons and husbands whose bodies did not return home from the war. In Victorian America, the idea of a “good death,” in which the stricken died at home, in their bed, surrounded by loved ones, gave comfort in times of grief. The Civil War, with young men dying in brutal fashion in unfamiliar surroundings posed an obvious but serious threat to this notion. A solution was the effigy grave, a place on which where families could focus their grief and prayers.

For more information on the history of the Litchfield Hills Road Race, see Lou Pellegrino’s book A History of the Litchfield Hills Road Race: In Smallness there is Beauty (now available at the Litchfield Historical Society).

 

 

 

LHRR Series: The Fifth Mile, Whitehall and the Chickadee Bridge

As runners pass through the gates of Whitehall, the estate of the White family, they will soon enter the race’s fifth mile. The slight downhill grade provides a respite for these runners, who will soon enter the Microwave Mile and face Gallows Lane. This wooded environment was the heart of the estate.

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The Windmill Hill windmill (From Rachel Carley, Litchfield: The Making of a New England Town

There are many vestiges of the past splendor of these grounds. The shingled building to the right was the family’s carriage house. From here, they traversed the miles of carriage roads that crossed their thousands of acres. The hill behind the carriage house is Windmill Hill, so named for the wind-powered pump that filled a cistern to provide water to the home. This hill was also the site of exotic tree plantings by the family, who planted over one million trees on their estate.

Whitehall (Courtesy of White Memorial Foundation)

The current visitor’s center was Whitehall, the seat of the estate. John Jay White moved his family here following the New York City draft riots in 1863. Alain went on to study botany at Harvard, and became a master chess player, a skill that led to his recruitment as a cryptographer during World War I. May’s philanthropic spirit centered on bringing children from New York City to Litchfield for summers. The family home was designed in quintessential Victorian style, with garrets, a tower, and many chimneys. The structure underwent extensive renovations when it became the center of the White Memorial Foundation.

Note the tree stump on the right side of the image. (Courtesy of the White Memorial Foundation)

Across the street from the visitor center is a concrete tree stump, a reminder of earlier days when this area was the scene of picnics and even duck pin bowling, on an alley painstakingly leveled by Alain White for the use of the Sanctum club.

Chickadee Bridge (Courtesy of White Memorial Foundation)

A notable feature of the race for runners is crossing the Bantam River on the Chickadee Bridge. This bridge allowed the Whites to access their carriage roads on the east side of the river. The shoreline is now covered with trees, rendering this view impossible. The Whites often called this Silver Bridge, and noted that it was the farthest up the river that motorboats could venture; today, the presence of beaver dams makes this also impossible. The Chickadee Bridge stands as a reminder to runners that while they here turn back toward Litchfield, their journey is going to get much more difficult.

For more information on the history of the Litchfield Hills Road Race, see Lou Pellegrino’s book A History of the Litchfield Hills Road Race: In Smallness there is Beauty (now available).