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How to fill a conversational void

Carol Sommer

Publication: The Day

Published May 12. 2013 4:00AM

My enthusiasm for history is a family joke. When we're chatting around the dinner table and I suddenly blurt out, "Here's a little known fact...," my family rolls their eyes in tolerant amusement as I launch into a recitation of some tidbit which I feel compelled to share. When I'm finished, everyone smiles indulgently and resumes normal conversation.

Sometimes I run into interesting items that don't fit the current column or constitute stories all by themselves. It seems a shame not to give them an audience, so here are a few that caught my fancy. Just like my dinner table outbursts, there's no unifying theme or logical flow.

In 1775, William Coit, of Coit Street, New London, was captain of the Harrison, part of the infant American navy operating in Massachusetts Bay. In spite of the Harrison's derelict condition, William captured two British ships that were carrying supplies to the troops occupying Boston. To emphasize the humiliation of their situation, William made his English prisoners come ashore on Plymouth Rock.

In a column about Witch Meadow Road Salem, I mentioned my ancestor, Edward Griswold, who was a juror on a witch trial in Hartford. He actually heard two cases, both of which resulted in the accused being hanged. Later, Edward's own sister-in-law, Anna, was accused of witchcraft by a jealous neighbor. How ever righteous Edward may have felt in his stance against Satan, this must have struck awfully close to home. Fortunately the court exonerated Anna and reprimanded her accuser for unjustified allegations.

While researching a Killingworth street named for Kenilworth, England, I learned about a 13th-century civil war that ended with a siege at Kenilworth Castle. When the Archbishop of Canterbury exhorted the rebels inside to surrender, they refused. When he threatened to excommunicate them, one of the men dressed up as a priest and pretended to excommunicate the archbishop as well as the king. A resolution was brokered by the pope, but not before he considered mounting a crusade against the holdouts. Meantime one rebel escaped into the woods and became an outlaw, possibly inspiring the Robin Hood legend. Today Robin Hood Golf Course is near Kenilworth; you can reserve a tee time on their website.

In 1849 when Griswold Avery's cousins from Waterford went to the Gold Rush, part of their journey was a 28-day walk through the jungles of Panama. When Griswold joined the rush six years later, he crossed Panama, too, but possibly not on foot. The world's first and shortest transcontinental railroad (47 miles long) had just been completed. Aboard a brightly painted train chugging past exotic birds and wild monkeys, travelers could cross Panama in only three hours.

While I was learning about Burrows Street in Mystic, I found Capt. Albert Burrows who made more than 100 trips across the Atlantic for the Mallory steamship line. On one trip the boat caught fire, and the passengers were transferred to an Italian barque nearby. Then Albert, cool as a cucumber, ran his ship onto a shoal, quelled the fire by sinking the boat to her decks, pumped out the water, and refloated her. Back in business, Albert overtook the other ship and reclaimed his passengers.

And finally, here's a tidbit about Yale University, which started as a book collection in someone's home in Killingworth, and then relocated to Saybrook. When it was decided that New Haven would be a better permanent location, Saybrook citizens went wild. In an admirable if excessive show of educational ardor, residents surrounded the school and tried to prevent movers from entering to box up the books. They damaged the movers' wagons, drove off their horses, and then for good measure dismantled bridges along the route. Those Puritans would have been a handful at a PTA meeting.

With a supply of colorful historical facts like these at the ready, you'll never be at a loss for words.

Carol Sommer of Waterford is a self-proclaimed history nut. She writes a monthly history column inspired by local street signs.

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