By Annette Hinkle
Sunday night’s blood moon —a rare supermoon coinciding with a lunar eclipse — stirred excitement up and down the East Coast and brought residents out into the warm night to witness a celestial spectacle that won’t come around again for another 18 years.
But if we were residents of 17th colonial America, such an occurrence would not be welcome with joy, but rather fear because it provided proof that there is a witch among us.
At one point, there was a witch among us.
The place was East Hampton and the year was 1657, almost 40 years before the Salem witch trials. The accused was an older woman named Goody Elizabeth Garlick (Goody being short for Goodwife) and the accuser was 16-year-old Elizabeth Howell, daughter of the town’s most prominent resident, Lion Gardiner.
Shortly after giving birth, Elizabeth developed a fever and within days became delirious. She reported seeing a black thing at the foot of her bed and said it felt as if she were being stuck with pins. A neighbor purportedly retrieved a pin that came out of her mouth, and before she died, Elizabeth Howell named as her tormentor Goody Garlick, a woman who had a reputation for being close at hand when bad things happened.
The evidence was sufficient to charge Goody Garlick for witchcraft.
But unlike those poor souls accused in Salem, who were put to death, Goody Garlick was tried in Hartford, Connecticut, where she had the good fortune to appear before Governor John Winthrop, Jr., an alchemist and scientist whose views on witchcraft were decidedly more enlightened for the time.
“The court didn’t find sufficient evidence to take Goody Garlick’s life,” said Aimeé Webb who, along with East Hampton Village historian Hugh King and his wife, Loretta Orion, has spent years researching the case. “But they didn’t acquit her either. Winthrop commended the people for bringing these suspicions. [Her husband] Joshua Garlick had to post a bond and Goody Garlick had to appear regularly, like a parole board.’
Ms. Webb and Mr. King were two of several presenters at a conference on the Goody Garlick case which was hosted by the East Hampton Historical Society last Saturday at the session house of the first Presbyterian Church of East Hampton. Also taking part was Walter Woodward, the Connecticut State Historian, who offered a wider perspective of witchcraft across New England and Europe at the time.
The first question that comes to mind is why was Goody Garlick accused in the first place? The simple answer is gossip run amok. Mr. King explained that suspicion had already been cast on her by other women in town, including the woman who said she retrieved the pin from Elizabeth Howell’s mouth prior to her death.
“Goody Garlick knew about healing. She gave people herbs and many healers were accused if their cures failed,” said Mr. King. “Goody Garlick also may have been a French Huguenot — that would have made her different from others in the town.”
Because belief in witchcraft was compulsory in the 1600s, it was often easier to accuse a neighbor when things went wrong rather than take responsibility for ones failings.
“When you believe that some have supernatural capacity to harm others, it absolves the accuser and explains bad things,” noted Ms. Webb. “In the 16th and 17th century it was heretical to doubt the reality of satanic witchcraft — it was actually punishable.”
The colonial settlers propensity for witch hunting came with them from England and was likely inspired by Matthew Hopkins, an English witch finder who, between 1644 and 1647, was responsible for hanging more people than in the previous 100 years.
“He sent 300 women to their deaths,” said Mr. King. “He had the swimming test. Water rejected witches, so all those who floated were witches, while those who sank and died were innocent, thank you very much.”
Though today, we can’t imagine believing that sort of thing, it’s important to understand society at the time. These were people struggling to survive far from a central power in the midst of a wilderness full of fearful things. Death was rampant and religious fervor strong.
“In our world we have mental firewalls between religion, science and magic — which are discreet and separate,” explained Mr. Woodard. “In their world, the three were twined around one another and could not be separated.”
That meant witches were capable of harnessing the forces of nature and focusing them in order to do harm.
“They were afraid witches possessed a battery of magic powers like love magic or weather magic,” said Mr. Woodward. “When it didn’t rain and crops died, they didn’t ask ‘why,’ they asked ‘who.’”
“That made fear of witchcraft possible then, and why so much of what seems so silly and crazy to us makes sense,” he added. “The terror was real. That’s what’s different between our world and theirs.”
Accused witches tended to be older, poor, and often female, without spouses or family support. They represented the “other” in colonial society. We may not believe in witchcraft today, but there are still plenty of groups who are feared and marginalized — immigrants, minorities, those of different faiths. It seems that stripping people of their humanity allows them to be persecuted more easily, both then and now.
Which also explains why Goody Garlick didn’t hang as a witch. Among those accompanying her to Connecticut were several men, including her husband, who knew John Winthrop, and Lion Gardiner, the victim’s father, who went not to testify, but to ensure East Hampton was still under Connecticut’s jurisdiction.
“Powerful men showed up with Goody Garlick and made her humanity recognizable,” explained Mr. King.
But we still have the question of Elizabeth Howell’s bizarre death. What do we think cause it?
“Childbed fever — or puerperal fever — is an infection of the uterus following childbirth, causing septicemia,” explained Ms. Webb. “It started with a headache, and feeling pricks of pins, or like you’re being pulled to pieces. That’s what it felt like to have this fever.”
She noted that because 17th century midwives and doctors were also farmers with no knowledge of germs, they went directly from handling livestock to delivering babies, thereby infecting their patients.
As for Goody Garlick, she and her husband lived long and prospered. But the true hero of the story was John Winthrop, Jr. who, as governor of Connecticut from 1655 to 1661, convicted no witches.
“He saw witchcraft cases as a case of social pathology and the community needed to be reintegrated,” said Mr. Woodward. “In other words, learn to live together.”
Words to live by, indeed — both then and now.