Thursday, October 9, 2014

Things That Go Bump


     The days are getting shorter here in upstate New York and there's a decided chill in the air.  As the sun's angle grows shallower, the light it casts seems to have a harsh quality that renders everything it falls upon starker in color and outline, unlike the soft, warm light of summer.  For the most part I find this terribly annoying. I'm not a fall/winter person, but it does signal the approach of Halloween.  I have loved Halloween since I was small.  On this one night of the year I was allowed out after dark to roam our small village unaccompanied, imagining ghosts behind every tree as the October wind blew the falling leaves spookily (is that a word?) up the sidewalks...does it get any better?  It wasn't even the candy that drew me, most of which my brother consumed anyway, it was the aura, the other worldliness of it that I adored and still do.

     I was pleased when years ago I discovered the origins of this auspicious evening lay in Ireland, specifically with the Celts who called it Samhain.  Could this be why I am so fond of the holiday? Maybe it's in my blood.  It was here too the eerie aspect I love so much began.  On the eve of October 31st the boundary between worlds was loosed and spirits, pukas and malevolent fairies roamed at will and witches found their powers increased-- what's not to love?

     So it's entirely appropriate that yesterday I discovered the final link between myself and Winifred Benham aka "The Witch of Wallingford".  I had the genealogy worked out to my satisfaction all the way back to James Benham, born 1679 in Wallingford, but just couldn't find the proof that Winifred was James' mother.  I saw online trees that made that assertion, but you know me, I needed proof!  Then yesterday I read, "The History of Wallingford, Connecticut, From it's Settlement in 1670 to the Present Time."  
In it I found this,  
"James Benham; male, birth-1679 of Wallingford, New Haven, Connecticut; Death 10 May 1745; Father Joseph Benham; Mother Winifred King; Spouse Esther Preston.
     A deed from 1743 mentioned James giving land to "his loving son Samuel Benham" and James' executor was another son, Jehiel Benham.  My line was from Samuel to his son, another Jehiel, (clearly Samuel named him after his brother) then to Jehiel's daughter Phoebe Benham who married Abijah Moore.  Those last two generations are well documented.  I had my proof, in time for Halloween yet.

     Grandma Winifred was never found guilty of witchcraft, though they tried three times to convict her, the last time along with her teenage daughter Winifred Jr.  The family left Connecticut after that last trial, and I can't say I blame them, but the trial of Winifred King Benham and her daughter was the last one ever conducted in Connecticut. What was it about Winifred that caused her fellow Puritans to believe she consorted with the devil?  Was she annoying, hard to get along with?  Her neighbor Hannah Parker in particular made accusations, in fact Joseph Benham threatened to shoot Hannah if she continued, landing himself in some hot water.  There is lots on the web about Winifred if you're interested in reading more about her and her fellow "witches".
       Happy, spooky Halloween season to you all!



  1. I so loved Halloween too, Ellie. We’d dress up with masks and witches hats and eat exotic nuts and fruit. We’d fight over the ring in the barmbrack and play Halloween games with my Dad – biting apples hanging on a string from the door frame, fishing shillings from basins of water with our mouth, but most of all I loved the bonfire and ghost stories – my Dad must have saved up the falling leaves for all October. We lived in the middle of nowhere, so never went ‘Trick or Treating’ – I don’t think that was part of the original tradition here. Lucky you to be descended from a real suspected witch!!! My maternal aunts were recently horrified to find out they were collectively called ‘the coven’ ;)

    1. Your traditions sound like such fun! Should I even ask how the coven came about?

  2. I love this story! As a descendant of Rebecca Nurse, I have my own "witch", though she didn't fair as well as Winifred (she was hanged). Don't you just love the old New England books, they are invaluable!

    1. I do love them Nicholas! I wish NY had such books. I'm familiar with Rebecca's story, sort of glad I didn't live back then.