State historian to discuss witchcraft, Election Cake

WILTON — Connecticut may be a small state, but its history runs deep and Walter Woodward, the state historian, knows all its secret nooks and crannies.

Woodward is planning to share some odd but true stories about Connecticut in a virtual talk about his new book, “Creating Connecticut: Critical Moments That Shaped a Great State,” on Thursday, Sept. 24.

The talk is presented by the Wilton Historical Society as part of its “Booked for Lunch” series. It is open to the public and is accessible via Zoom.

“A lot of people do not have much knowledge about Connecticut’s history. I am convinced that if people knew the stories involving the state, they would find it fascinating,” Woodward said in a phone interview.

One of the surprising facts Woodward shares from his new book is how doggedly enthusiastic Connecticut officials were in the 1600s when it came to “witch hunting.”

“Connecticut had a long history with witch hunting, before they did in Salem, Massachusetts,” he said.

Witchcraft was included in the list of capital crimes in Connecticut’s Code of 1650, along with murder, adultery, and blasphemy. Witchcraft was treated as a criminal offense, and those accused went through a formal criminal prosecution, including a jury trial.

Alse Young was executed in Wethersfield, Conn. in 1647, and was the first person put to death in the colonies for witchcraft.

Another story Woodward likes to tell is about the history of the Irish in Connecticut.

The first recorded Irish people in the state date back to the early 1600s, when several were brought to Connecticut as indentured servants.

The Irish weren’t greeted with open arms in a state dominated by Puritans and the Congregational Church. “There was a high degree of anti-Catholic sentiment when the Irish first came to Connecticut, and it continued after they got here,” according to Woodward.

That sentiment was even acknowledged in one of Mark Twain’s books, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” published in 1889, where Twain indicates his hostility to the Catholic church, admitting, he had “...been educated to enmity toward everything that is Catholic.”

Woodward also likes telling about one of Connecticut’s most famous, but least remembered traditions — Election Cake.

Dating back to as early as 1771, Connecticut was known all over the country for making Election Cake, a spiced cake baked in brick fireplace ovens and served on Hartford’s election day, a great day of celebration. The cakes were leavened with yeast and contained — no surprise — nutmeg, as well as cinnamon and ginger.

To commemorate the 2020 presidential election, the Connecticut Democracy Center in Hartford is going to have an Election Cake bake-off, Woodward said.

Woodward could go on and on with stories about Connecticut, which is why he is enjoying “virtual” tours across the state where he discusses excerpts from his new book. “Writing ‘Creating Connecticut’ was a labor of love for me,” he said.

Woodward’s back story is just as interesting as the tales he has uncovered about Connecticut.

He was appointed Connecticut’s state historian in 2004 by the University of Connecticut’s board of trustees. The appointment came with a paid position in the university’s history department.

A true Renaissance man, Woodward was born in 1949 in Vienna, where his father, an Air Force officer, served as a military attaché. He spent summers visiting his grandparents in Columbia, Conn.

As a young adult, he attended the University of Florida, where he helped pay his expenses by singing in coffeehouses.

Woodward had successful careers in both the music and advertising industries. He was the composer of two hit country songs (“Marty Gray” and “It Could’a Been Me”) in the 1970s, as well as music for film and television, for which he won two Emmy Awards and two special achievement awards from SESAC performance-rights organization. His advertising creativity won him eight Clio Awards, and in 1980 he was named Cleveland’s Advertising Person of the Year.

Woodward is also the author of five books and won the Homer Babbidge Prize from the Association for the Study of Connecticut History.

So why did he leave successful careers in music and advertising?

“Curiosity made me a historian,” he said. “Everyone has their calling. I have this theory that at least one person in every two generations of a family is called to be the historian in the family. Someone who collects the family stories. I was that person for my family, even as a little kid,” he said.

To learn more about Connecticut from Woodward, “Booked for Lunch” is being held on Zoom on Thursday, Sept. 24, from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. Suggested contribution is $10. Registration is essential. Register by email: After you register, you will receive a confirmation, Zoom session ID Code, and instructions about how to submit questions.