Historian tells tales that are 'classically Connecticut'
By Kevin Hotary - Staff Writer
Colchester - posted Mon., Oct. 10, 2011
Diana Ross McCain, head of the research center at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford, came to the Cragin Library in Colchester recently to tell a few tales that are, as she described them, “classically Connecticut.”
Drawing on the wealth of information available at the center, McCain first told a story of one of the most infamous times in New England history – a time when a simple accusation of witchcraft could lead to the execution of the accused.
“There were a lot of people executed for witchcraft in Connecticut,” said McCain, including one woman from Windsor who was executed about 50 years before the well-known Salem witchcraft trials. In those times, the early 1600s, everything was seen as a struggle between good and evil, and “everyone believed in witchcraft,” said McCain.
McCain also related the story of Amy Archer Gilligan, a mass murderer, also from Windsor, who served as the inspiration for the story, “Arsenic and Old Lace.” She and her husband, who later died mysteriously, opened a nursing home in which more than 40 patients died. An eventual autopsy of one of her victims discovered that “he had enough arsenic in him to kill three people,” said McCain. Originally sentenced to death for her murders, a retrial sentenced Gilligan, who pled insanity, to life imprisonment. After spending some time in a Middletown hospital, Gilligan lived to be nearly 90 years old, dying in 1962.
McCain’s final story was one familiar to many Connecticut residents, that of the “Leatherman.”
“It’s just so weird and wonderful at the same time,” said McCain of the Leatherman, who through the late 1860s walked a 365-mile route from the Connecticut River to the Hudson River every 30 days, never speaking, and sleeping in caves and other hideouts in the woods, and all the while wearing an outfit cobbled together from scraps of leather, weighing about 60 pounds.
Believed to be a Frenchman, the Leatherman “became a part of folklore,” said McCain, with the timetable of his route published, and, “like any celebrity, he was photographed by the paparazzi.”
Found dead in New York in 1889, the Leatherman was buried in a pauper’s grave, his suit eventually lost in a museum fire. And to this day, “nobody knows who he was,” said McCain.