Being one of the first areas that was settled by colonists, here in Connecticut we certainly have a long and colorful history. We are a state that boasts many innovative ideas and inventions that helped shape the United States into what it is today. However, not all of the Nutmeg State’s history is pleasant. Here are nine horrifying stories that you probably never learned about in history class.
1. Waterbury Radium Girls
After the first World War, there was a high demand for wristwatches. The Waterbury Clock Company hired women at low wages to work seven days a week painting numbers on watch faces to meet the increased need. As part of the process, these women would place the paintbrush in their mouths then dip it into the paint laced with radium. Repeating this over and over every day caused the radium to linger in their mouths.
There were more than 30 deaths associated with this deadly practice. The process was not short and it was extremely painful as these women would loose their teeth, their jaws would deteriorate and eventually they would die. These employees were named the Waterbury Radium Girls and the horrifying stories of their deaths is absolutely gut-wrenching. One good thing came out of this tragedy though, as World War II approached our nation had an understanding of the how radium exposure worked because of what these women experienced.
2. Flu Epidemic Of 1918-1919
The Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 hit the entire United States but was particularly devastating to Connecticut. Brought into the port town of New London by servicemen returning from the war, the first case was reported in October of 1918. Within a little over a month 180,000 cases were reported by the State Public Health Service. The disease spread like wildfire and by the time it was under control in February of 1919, there were 8,500 dead in the state of Connecticut as a result of the disease.
3. Seyms Street Jail Punishment Rooms
In 1873 The Hartford County Jail was established on Seyms Street, the jail was more often known by its street name than the town that it was in. During the early days there was no plumbing and little ventilation which made for some uncomfortable circumstances for the prisoners. The miserable conditions were brought to light in 1915 when a committee was formed to investigate the prison conditions.
What was discovered was the existence of four cells called the punishment rooms that were located directly above the jail's boiler - the floor got so hot that it burned the skin off of the prisoner's feet. There was also a lack of windows and light in those cells. Despite investigation into the these horrifying stories, it took until 1977 for a new jail to be constructed and the prisoners moved. The Seyms Street jail was then demolished shortly after erasing any signs of the horrible conditions there.
4. The Hanging Of Hannah Ocuish
Hannah Ocuish at 12 years old was executed by hanging on December 20, 1786. A crowd witnessed this event behind the meeting house in New London as the convicted murderer had her life ended at an astonishingly young age. Hannah Ocuish was an orphan who possibly suffered from some sort of mental illness. She was shuffled from one foster home to another not having any chance at a stable home life.
In the summer of 1786, Eunice Bolles, the six year old daughter of a prominent family, accused Hannah of stealing strawberries at harvest. Hannah plotted revenge against the young girl and several weeks later lured her into the woods where she beat and strangled Eunice. Hannah did eventually break down and confess to her crimes and even though she herself was only a child, the judge sentenced her to hang. Her death in 1786 is the last documented execution of a female in Connecticut.
5. Hazards Of Hazard Powder Company
Working with gunpowder is dangerous in itself, but being forced to sit on a one legged stool while doing so is an unbelievable part of Connecticut's history. The Hazard Powder Company supplied gun powder that was used in the Civil War and to clear the way for the nation's growing network of railroads, but those things did not come without a price. Because working with gunpowder was very hazardous, the company based out of Enfield took some precautions to try to avert any disasters.
Employees were separated into compartments that were bordered by large stone walls to decrease any damage should an explosion occur. In addition workers were not allowed to bring matches or pipes into the buildings with them. But the craziest precaution taken was that the employees who had to keep the gunpowder wet during the grinding process were given a special stool to sit on. They worked while sitting on stools with one leg on which they had to balance while dealing with this explosive material - so that they would not fall asleep while working.
However these precautions did not always work and over 60 workers died due to on the job explosions. In 1913 an explosion that destroyed a large part of the manufacturing building caused the owners to relocate the company to New York rather than rebuild it here in Connecticut.
6. Fales Gray Explosion
On March 2, 1854, a poorly managed steam boiler caused a devastating explosion at the Fales & Gray Car Works in Hartford. The railroad car factory employed 300 people and at least 100 of them were working in the part of the building impacted by the explosion. The blast was so fierce that it broke the walls of the building and tore apart powerful machinery. Workers were buried in the rubble when the roof caved in on top of them. Sixteen people were killed in the explosion and many more were severely injured. This horrific event led to the development of Hartford Hospital as the lack of facilities to treat injuries of such catastrophes became evident with this explosion.
7. Wallingford Tornado of 1878
Tornadoes are pretty unusual in the state of Connecticut, but on August 9th of 1878, the town of Wallingford experienced some severe devastation that swept though the town. The tornado tore through Wallingford claiming the lives of 34 people and injuring another 70. At least 40 houses and a number of barns were destroyed along with a church, the new schoolhouse, the brick factory and the community windmill. It took many years to repair the damage that was caused by this devastating and unexpected tornado.
8. Punishment For Witchcraft
In the mid 1600s, Connecticut society was embarrassingly intolerant of women who did not fit into the cookie cutter mold of an early female colonist. It became very easy for those with extreme patriarchal views to accuse women of witchcraft. For the most part, the women accused were unmarried, poor, sometimes with children and lived on the fringes of society. In other cases, females with "loose morals" were targeted.
Sometimes the accusation was made based on community greed. Laws stated that if a woman outlived her husband and had no male children then she would inherit the husband's estate, but if she died first then the estate became the property of the community. A law making witchcraft a crime punishable by death in Connecticut in 1642 led to many hangings of many women who had by today's standards done nothing wrong. Each of these women had their own horrifying stories of arrest, imprisonment and punishment.
9. East Thompson Train Wreck
What started out as an ordinary day turned into an unexpected disaster when four trains collided in Thompson, Connecticut on December 4, 1891. It began as a simple problem of three trains needing to use the eastbound track heading towards Boston. The slow 212 freight train was scheduled to depart first, followed by the faster passenger trains, Long Island & Eastern States Express and the Norwich Steamboat Express.
The slower freight train was diverted onto the westbound track temporarily so that the faster express trains would be able to bypass it. However, the workers at the East Thompson station were not notified and they were using the west bound track to put together cars for the Southbridge Freight since no trains were scheduled on that track. At 6:40 a.m. those crews were astonished to see a lumbering freight train appear out of the fog and smash into the train they were working on. Both engines were destroyed in the crash but there were no fatalities. One of the railway cars however, had jackknifed across the eastbound track and moments later, Long Island & Eastern States Express traveled around the corner at 50 m.p.h. and slammed into that car. That engine derailed and crashed down the embankment killing the engineer and fireman aboard.
Just five short minutes after the initial crash, the Norwich Steamboat Express came flying around the corner and crashed into the tangled mess of metal, debris and railway cars. It is unbelievable that only two people died in what was one of the most horrible railway accidents in the U.S.
Did you learn about any of these horrifying stories in your history class? To read another one of Connecticut’s horrifying stories, check out this article on
the Hartford circus fire.