Exploring the American Experience Exploring the American Experience

Before Salem, There Was the Not-So-Wicked Witch of the Hamptons

Why was Goody Garlick, accused of witchcraft in 1658, spared the fate that would befall the women of Massachusetts decades later

Years before the infamous events of Salem, Easthampton, New York was riddled with allegations of witchcraft. Pictured is an old windmill next to a graveyard in the small town. (Kenneth Van Sickle / The Granger Collection, NYC)

(Continued from page 1)

The East Hampton magistrates, having collected the testimony, decided to refer the case to a higher court in Hartford. (As historian Bob Hefner explained in his The History of East Hampton, the village adopted the laws of Connecticut Colony in 1653 and officially became part of the colony four years later. It joined New York Colony in 1664 but kept a commercial and cultural allegiance to New England for centuries more.)

The magistrate’s deference to Hartford alone, the historian T.H. Breen believes, was in some senses an admission of failure. “A little village had proven unable to control the petty animosities among its inhabitants,” he wrote in his 1989 history of East Hampton, Imagining the Past (Addison Wesley). “By 1658, the vitriol had escalated to the point where the justices were forced to seek external assistance.”

Still, the charges against Garlick went well beyond the “your-cow-broke-my-fence” accusations. Witchcraft was a capitol offense—and Connecticut had a record of knowing exactly what do with convicted witches; they had executed several unfortunate women them in the previous years.

But there was a new sheriff in town in 1658: John Winthrop, Jr.—son of the co-founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony—had recently been persuaded to take the position of Governor of the Hartford colony. This was a stroke of good luck for Garlick.

Although it might be too much to suggest that Winthrop, Jr. was an Enlightenment Man a century before the Enlightenment, he was certainly a more forward thinker than many of his contemporaries. “Virtually every person alive in the 17th century believed in the power of magic,” says Connecticut state historian Walter Woodward, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut. “But some people were far more skeptical about the role of the devil in magic, and about the ability of common people to practice magic.”         

Junior was one of those skeptics.      

In part, this was because he was a scholar, a healer, and, although he would not have recognized the term, a scientist. His research sought to explain the magical forces in nature that he and most learned men of his day felt were responsible for the world around them. “He spent his life seeking mastery over the hidden forces at work in the cosmos,” says Woodward, who is also the 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 was dubious that your average farmer’s wife—or for that matter, anyone without his level of training or experience—could perform the kinds of magical acts attributed to witches. So he looked to another explanation for people like Goody Garlick and their alleged crimes; one that would likely put him in concert with sociologists and historians today.

“He saw witchcraft cases as an incidence of community pathology,” Woodward says. “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.”

That pattern was established in the Garlick case, the first of several involving witches that Winthrop, Jr. would oversee over the next decade.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus