Back in 1692, in the town of Salem, Massachusetts, a group of young girls believed to be possessed by the devil started calling out local townspeople they believed to be practicing witchcraft. Fear and paranoia spread through the town like wildfire. A court was convened to ferret out those dabbling in the dark arts. Hundreds were accused and 19 so-called witches were hanged. As a result, Salem, Massachusetts is the defacto poster child for this brand of dark weirdness.
35 years before that however, our colonial forebears were earnestly stirring a similar witches brew right here on Long Island, with its main ingredient, the witch herself, narrowly escaping the fate of her Salem sisters. The matter started in February of 1658, on a remote English settlement at the eastern tip of Long Island now called East Hampton.
16-year old Elizabeth Gardiner Howell, who had recently given birth to a new child, was taken ill and bed ridden. As caretakers ministered over the sick girl, Elizabeth shocked everyone with a sudden shriek, crying, “A witch! A witch! Now you are come to torture me because I spoke two or three words against you!”
Her father, Lion Gardiner, a prominent former military officer, was summoned to her side, where he found her at the foot of the bed screaming, her arms flailing at some unseen menace. He asked her, “What do you see?”
“A black thing at the bed’s feet,” she cried.
This invisible adversary Elizabeth would identify as one Elizabeth Garlick, a local woman known for her outspoken, quarrelsome manners. Shortly after, Elizabeth Gardiner Howell died. To investigate the matter, the town elders formed a board of inquiry made of three magistrates.
Testimony was taken of the townspeople, many of whom were well acquainted with Elizabeth “Goody” Garlick since their days back in Lynn, Massachusetts, where a lot of them had lived before resettling in East Hampton. Rumors had been circulating for some time as to the dark goings-on of Goody Garlick, all revealed in the town’s records, still preserved to this day.
Case records indicate that Garlick was accused of casting spells which caused death, illness and injury to livestock. Like the Wicked Witch of the West and her flying monkeys, Garlick used her evil eye to summon animal familiars and send them off to do her evil bidding. One person claimed that she had picked up a baby and after putting it down, the child became ill and died.
After collecting all the accusations made of Garlick, the East Hampton magistrates made the decision to refer the case to a higher court, in Hartford, Connecticut. Why there? At the time, European settlers in America consisted of various colonies, and those in East Hampton, from 1653 to 1664, were part of the Connecticut Colony. It wasn’t until 1664 that it became part of the New York Colony.
This was, it turns out, a lucky break for Goody. A new Governor of Hartford Colony had just been appointed, one John Winthrop, Jr. A son of a co-founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Winthrop Jr. was, according to historians, not one to rush to the conclusion that the devil was behind any and all things that went awry in one’s world. In a time when almost every single person alive believed in the power of magic, Winthrop Jr. could be described as a skeptic and, when compared to his peers, a rung higher on the enlightenment ladder.
Indeed, Winthrop was a man of science, a scholar, a healer and perhaps, in a sense, he could be said to have been a little “witchy” himself. According to Walter Woodward, author of Prospero’s America: John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606-1675 (University of North Carolina Press, 2010), Winthrop Jr., “spent his life seeking mastery over the hidden forces at work in the cosmos.”
According to Woodward, “some people were far more skeptical about the role of the devil in magic, and about the ability of common people to practice magic.” Winthrop Jr. wasn’t so much dismissive of the power of magic itself as he was in attributing the ability to wield that power by the average person. It was a matter of training and experience of which he felt more endowed. He approached accusations of witchcraft in more sociological terms.
According to Woodward, Winthrop Jr. “saw witchcraft cases as an incidence of community pathology. The pattern is clear in cases in which he is involved. It’s the pattern of not finding the witches quite guilty, but putting pressure on them to better conform to social norms. At the same time, he acknowledges the justification of the community to be concerned about witchcraft, but he never empowers the community to follow through on that.”
There were also nuances which rendered the case more mundane than magic, to whit, pettiness and jealousy. Historian Hugh King describes the turbulent nature of the East Hampton settlement at the time, saying, “If you look at the court records before this started, people were constantly suing and arguing with each other about all kinds of things we might see as trivial today.”
Jealousy may have been a motivating factor, being that Goody Garlick’s husband was a trusted employee of Lion Gardiner, having worked on Gardiner’s estate and even carrying large sums of his money for purchases. After consulting with Lion Gardiner, whom Winthop Jr. was an associate of from back in the days of the Pequot Wars, Goody Garlick was rendered not guilty by the court.
Goody Garlick escaped form the ordeal with her life, but the incident reveals something sinister about society at its core, and people in general. A cautionary tale from our forebears, right here in our back yard.