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Bizarre History of Cape May: Was Goody Garlick a witch, and did she come to Cape May?

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Conflicts occasionally arise in reviewing the facts of history, as in the case of whether Abe Lincoln did or did not visit Cape Island on July 31, 1849 before it became Cape May.

A new issue of far less significance but of fascinating interest has developed in the research of the cape’s history that flashes back to the late 17th century. The protagonist is a woman identified as Elizabeth Garlick who, one account says, came to the cape with her husband years after things got hot for her in Long Island where she could have been burned at the stakes for practicing witchcraft.

The problem in the recounting of this story is that there were two Elizabeth Garlicks, which is the cause of confusion.

The story begins to be told in Lewis Townsend Stevens’ 509 page book on the history of Cape May County that covers a period from 1638 to 1897. He is considered by many to be the prime local historian for that period. His account amounts to one paragraph but sets the stage for some differences in future accounts elsewhere.

Elizabeth Hardie Garlick was married to John Persons (sometimes spelled Parsons), Stevens wrote, and they lived in East Hampton, Long Island, where his wife was tried and acquitted of being a witch in April of 1658 or thereabouts. Some 22 years later in April 1680, still living in East Hampton, Mrs. Persons gave birth to a daughter, Lydia, and in July 1691 they were all on their way to Cape May where they settled. Persons bought a plantation four miles south of Court House and lived there with his family until he died in January 1695.

Other stories, one in the Smithsonian magazine by writer John Hanc, and another in an Internet piece labeled “Notable Women Ancestors,” elaborate on Elizabeth Garlick’s trials and tribulations.

The woman, so it was said, was not a popular person in East Hampton which like Cape May was to become a favorite summer resort although much more affluent than the one in the south of New Jersey. Rumors floated that Garlick had cast a fatal spell not only on four other women but on a litter of piglets who were later to ham it up on dinner tables. She was not the sort of person you wanted around the house if you were not feeling well, they thought, at a time when there was no Medicare or even doctors on horseback.

Enter the story 16-year-old Goodwife Elizabeth Gardiner Howell, who had given birth in February 1658 and was not feeling well. (In those times, long before women’s lib had arrived and regardless of their character, women were addressed as “Goodwife” or “Goody,” instead of today’s “Miss,” “Mrs.” or “Ms.” The men were called “Goodman” which sometimes was a misnomer.)

On this Friday in February friends gathered in Goody Howell’s bedroom trying to figure out how to help the moaning and groaning woman. Suddenly she interrupted her cries of pain by shouting, “A witch! A witch! Now you are come to torture me because I spoke two or three words against you!”
Her father, Goodman Lion Gardiner, a former military officer and an influential man in town, was summoned. She told him that the witch was in the room and when he asked her what she saw, the young wife of Arthur Howell replied, “a black thing at the bed’s feet.” She was to claim that the evil witch was another Elizabeth whose surname was Garlick.

On Saturday, Elizabeth Howell’s mother, Mary, left her own sickbed to see her daughter.

“Oh mother, oh mother, I am bewitched,” the daughter complained, adding that she had seen Goody Garlick “in the further corner and a black thing at the hither corner, both at the feet of the bed.”

Then there was Goody Simons, a resident of the same house who added fuel to the fire if not to the stakes by claiming that the ailing Elizabeth Howell described Goody Garlick as “a double tongued woman.”

“Did you not see her last night stand by the bedside ready to pull me in pieces? And she pricked me with pins,” Simons said Howell told her.

By this time Goody Garlick realized that thing weren’t going well for her. Sure enough she was to be indicted for “not having the fear of God before thine eyes thou has entertained familiarity with Satan, the great enemy of God and mankind.” It said too that she “deserveth to die.”

She went on trial before three magistrates, but much of the testimony was hearsay and the magistrates came up with what would be considered today as a hung jury verdict which disappointed those who wanted to hang Garlick or even burn her, as was the custom in those days and later. 

The magistrates didn’t leave her off the hook completely, however. They claimed they weren’t all that skilled in the science of demonology so they sent the case to a higher court in Connecticut where they were supposed to know more about demons than those living on Long Island.

The jury there found Garlick innocent and the court gave something of a victory to both sides. It praised the authorities for their “Christian care and providence” and then told both sides to go home and be nice to each other.

This is where the story gets tricky. According to Hanc’s article, as far as can be told in the East Hampton town records, the Garlicks resumed their lives in the community. No mention is made of Cape Island. But in his version, historian Stevens claims that the Garlick woman, her husband John Persons and their daughter Lydia came to Cape Island in 1691, some 32 years after the trial.

Further complicating the issue is the assertion in “Notable Women Ancestors” that another Elizabeth was in the picture.

“Elizabeth has often been confused in references with her daughter-in-law, another Elizabeth who married her son, Joshua Jr., who died in 1677 at age 35,” the article states. “This Elizabeth married secondly John Parsons on May 21, 1679 and thirdly in 1694 for the last time John Fish.”

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