The 17th-Century ‘Witch’ Saved By Good Logic

By Debra Kelly on Thursday, December 3, 2015
Magic Book with super powers - 3D generated artwork
“It is desired and expected by this Court that you should carry [on] neighborly and peaceably without just offense to Joshua Garlick and his wife and they should do like to you.” —Letter from judge to Goody Garlick’s neighbors

In A Nutshell

Goody Garlick was accused of witchcraft in 1658 following the death of a 16-year-old mother. But her trial didn’t go quite as you’d think based on the time period. When it was referred to the court of Hartford, Connecticut, the judge there uncovered the facts of what was really going on in the small town. Testimony revealed to a general hatred between women in the town. Garlick was found innocent and sent home with a letter telling her town that they all needed to get along.

The Whole Bushel

When it comes to witchcraft in the early United States, we think of brutal accusations and even more brutal executions, but not every case of alleged witchcraft turned out like that. In 1658, a scholarly judge saved the life of one woman who was accused of witchcraft.

Today, the Hamptons are a place for people of a certain economic status. In 1658, the area was a remote English settlement, and in February of that year, 16-year-old Elizabeth Gardiner Howell, who had just given birth was on her deathbed. As Howell’s mysterious illness grew, she began to claim that it was a witch that was tormenting her as punishment for a few misguided words she’d directed in the other woman’s direction. The witch’s specter was in her room, she said, and right before she died, she named the witch: Elizabeth Garlick.

Garlick’s ordeal is often overlooked in light of the Salem witch trials that would follow, but the actual records of what went on in the twilight months of 1658 still exist. Once she was named as a witch by the dying girl, she was accused of a whole host of the standard things, like keeping animals as familiars, making neighbors and children ill, and being at the center of some dark stuff. Neighbors claimed they saw an overwhelming number of black cats near her home, that otherwise healthy livestock sickened and died or had strange accidents, and that she was known to have pricked her neighbors with pins—presumably for her dark magic.

Pointing the finger at Garlick was a bit odd, considering her husband worked closely with one of the town’s most imposing and powerful figures, who also happened to be the father of Elizabeth Howell. No matter who was named, witchcraft was, of course, a serious accusation, and it went to trial.

The town magistrates found themselves unable to cope with everything that surrounded the trial, and it was moved to Hartford. While Connecticut already had a record of executing witches, Garlick’s case was going to go a little differently.

At the head of her case was John Winthrop Jr., whose father was one of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Far from being a supporter of some of the superstitions and beliefs about witchcraft and the devil that we read about today, Winthrop was something of a scientist whose work included attempts to find rational, natural and scientific explanations for the phenomena they saw around them every day. And part of the problem that he had with the case was Garlick’s standing. Even though her husband had a good job, she was still a relatively ordinary citizen. Winthrop didn’t think that an ordinary citizen would have the resources and the know-how to carry out the devious plans of witchcraft, and he didn’t think that if the Devil was going to come from the town, he’d pick someone like her to do his dirty work.

So he did some more looking, and there’s another name that shows up in the trial a lot: Goody Davis. She was one of the accusers, who claimed that her child grew sick and died after Garlick picked him up. What was more likely, though, was some good, old-fashioned hate.

Another neighbor came forward and said that it wasn’t Garlick at all, but that Davis had starved and neglected her child in favor of another baby she was paid to take in.

At the end, it was found that there wasn’t enough evidence for a conviction, and Goody Garlick was spared the death penalty. While her husband had to pay a considerable sum to the court both as a sort of bond and a guarantee that she was going to stay out of trouble, those that brought the accusations against her were also sent a message from the courts. The Garlicks returned to their home with a letter addressed to the entire town, specifying that the residents there were to hold no ill will against them, and to treat them as good neighbors should treat each other.

Show Me The Proof

Witchcraft Trials of Connecticut, by R.G. Tomlinson
Smithsonian: Before Salem, There Was the Not-So-Wicked Witch of the Hamptons
In the Matter of Goody Garlick, by George Dewan