Outcome: Found guilty and possibly hanged, although may have escaped
Lydia Gilbert is a harrowing reminder of how few legal rights women had in the Colonial era and how they were viewed in what then was almost an entirely misogynistic world.
According to The Witchcraft Delusion in Colonial Connecticut (1647-1697) by John M. Taylor and other sources, Lydia Gilbert and her husband Thomas were living in Windsor when Henry Stiles was shot and killed on Oct. 3, 1651 when neighbor Thomas Allyn accidentally discharged his gun. Allyn was officially indicted in December and plead guilty; at the trial, the jury returned a verdict of “homicide by misadventure.” Allyn was fined £20 for “sinful neglect and careless carriage,” plus an additional £10 bond, and was placed under a year-long probation that also required that he not carry a gun.
Accidental shooting, guilty party properly chastised, case closed, right? Not so much.
Connecticut was in the throes of the witchcraft hysteria, and for reasons quite not clear, suspicions turned to Lydia Gilbert as the “true” cause for the untimely death of Henry Stiles. On Nov. 28, 1654, Gilbert was brought to court and formally charged.
Here’s the indictment against Gilbert from The Gilbert Family: Descendants of Thomas Gilbert, 1582(2)-1659 of Mt. Wollaston (Braintree), Windsor, and Wethersfield by Brainard, Gilbert and Torrey, via the website of Loren Eiseley, an American anthropologist and descendant of Lydia Gilbert.
“Lydea Gilburt thou are here indited by that name of Lydea Gilburt that not having the feare of god before thy Eyes thou hast of late years or still dust give Entertainment of Sathan the great Enemy of god and mankind and by his helpe hast killed the Body of Henry Styles besides other witchcrafts for which according to the law of god and the Established Law of this commonwealth thou Deservest to Dye.”
Harsh words, to say the least. It’s not recorded of what “other witchcrafts” Gilbert was suspected, although given the fact that she was going to be tried for an accidental death from three years earlier where the person responsible freely admitted their guilt and had been punished, fair to say that it probably was something closer to spurious than legitimate.
Whatever the “evidence,” it was enough to bring about the verdict of “guilty of witchcraft by ye jury,” even though the jury apparently knew about Allyn’s admission of guilt in the death of Henry Stiles.
Interestingly, there is no record of what exactly happened to Lydia Gilbert following her conviction for witchcraft. Historical experts seem to think that in conjunction with the conventions of the era, she was most likely hanged. Others aren’t so sure.
Again, according to the aforementioned anthropologist and descendent Loren Eiseley, family stories suggest that she escaped with her husband Thomas, who shortly after the trial moved to Nayaug, which is part of present-day Glastonbury. Eiseley claims that when Thomas died, it was noted that there were “charges of funeralls for him and wife.” A new wife? Or maybe, did someone, possibly realizing the absurdity of Lydia’s “guilt,” look the other way so the Gilberts could leave Windsor and never return?
Chances are we will never know Lydia Gibert’s true fate, but she will always be remembered for being another victim of Connecticut’s witchcraft hysteria.