Witch hunting, New York style explored in new book

“Accused of Witchcraft in New York,” by S.R. - The History Press/The History Press/TNS

“Accused of Witchcraft in New York” by S.R. Ferrara; The History Press (192, $23.99)


In 1692, the good people of Salem, Massachusetts, went searching for evil.

They could have just looked in the mirror.

Driven by ignorance, or envy, they turned on neighbors, accusing them of black magic. After more than a year of hysteria, 200 people had been named. Twenty were executed.

Salem, however, had no monopoly on madness.

“Accused of Witchcraft in New York” by S.R. Ferrara recounts about 150 years of persecution in another corner of Colonial America. And, as in Salem, most accused of witchcraft in New York were often guilty of nothing more than being female.

“There is something rather Scooby-Doo about researching witches,” Ferrara writes. “You get interested in the spooky magic and monstrous themes, but by the end of your research, you find out it’s the very real and familiar community members who are the true monsters for their spiteful accusations, and the person standing at the end of all the different accusatory pointed fingers is really the innocent one.”

Ferrara’s history begins 50 years before the infamous Salem trials. It also shows that witchcraft was in the eye of the beholder. The first accusers were Native Americans; the accused were Christian men sent to convert them.

The priests thought they were saving people; the Indigenous people thought they were casting spells.

“For the Iroquois of the Mohawk Valley, the French Jesuit missionaries must have seemed so bizarre,” Ferrara writes. “Long-robed, bearded men muttered seemingly innocent magical incantations from a strange book in a foreign language, casting strange hand gestures over healthy and sick alike.

“Anyone unfamiliar with the rituals and ceremonies of the Christian religion may understand how these missionaries were viewed as wandering sorcerers with intentions unknown – that is, until the effects of these magical gestures were realized,” she continued.

Soon after the Jesuits’ visit, Native Americans fell ill and died from diseases.

In 1642, after leaving Quebec, several missionaries — including Father Isaac Jogues and layperson Réne Goupil – were ambushed by a Mohawk war party. They were tortured, with fingers chewed off and skin torn from their bodies. Then they were brought as slaves to a Mohawk village outside present-day Auriesville, New York.

When Goupil persisted in trying to teach the Gospel, his skull was split by a tomahawk. He would earn a place in history as the first European executed for witchcraft in America.

Jogues escaped, and made his way to Manhattan and a ship back to France. Firm in his mission, though, he quickly returned to preach in the New World. He had his head cracked open and was martyred.

“Perhaps the most notorious witch in New York history,” was Elizabeth Garlick of Southampton, also known as Goody. If it seems there were many women by that name in the 1600s, Ferrara explains Goody is short for good wife, used to address a woman of lesser means. The richer women were known as Mistress.

Garlick had mentioned to a neighbor that her baby was pretty. When the infant died soon after, Garlick was blamed for casting the evil eye.

“Garlick’s remark was (presumably) out of concern, though Davis attributed it to the ‘evil eye,’ a death warning and hex performed out of jealousy and envy – in this case, of the infant’s beauty,” Ferrara writes. “From then on, a grieving Goody Davis began to see bewitchment in everything relating to Elizabeth Garlick.”

Davis’ suspicions spread quickly. Soon, any local misfortune – lame livestock, an unexplained death – was blamed on Garlick. The gossip grew until a February night in 1657 when 16-year-old Elizabeth Howell suddenly took sick and began screaming that a witch and her Satanic “familiar” were in her room.

Howell died muttering, “Garlick… double-tongued… ugly thing.” After her funeral, local magistrates discussed putting Garlick on trial. Confessing inexperience in the ways of “spectral evidence,” they sent the proceedings up to a higher court in Connecticut. There, Garlick was charged with “familiarity with Satan,” Ferrara writes.

The case, however, quickly fell apart. Witchcraft was a capital offense but required proof the defendant was in league with the Devil. Garlick’s accusers didn’t claim that she was in a coven or even had “the devil’s mark” on her body. They just complained they had been plagued by “harmful magic.”

Frustrated, the magistrates told everybody to go back to Long Island and just try to get along. It must have worked. There were no more reports of curses. Garlick and her husband prospered and lived into their 90s.

In April 1692, in Stamford, Connecticut, housewife Abigail Wescot dispatched her servant, Kate, to the woods to collect herbs. When the girl returned without them and received a scolding, she dropped to the floor, screaming in pain. Sent to bed, her condition worsened. She talked of seeing magical black cats. “She is bewitched!” Wescot exclaimed.

Wescot and her husband summoned neighbors to help. They reported hearing strange noises in the house and seeing a ball of fire. As the news spread, Kate shared a vision of her diabolic tormentor: “a short and lame old woman… hook-backed … (in) a homespun coat with a waistcoat.”

It was the image of neighbor Goody Miller.

Wisely, Miller didn’t stick around to see what might happen next; she slipped over the border into Bedford, New York, where one brother was the town magistrate, and the other commanded the local militia. Meanwhile, the servant Walsh named five other women as Miller’s accomplices.

Local authorities, angry that Miller fled their jurisdiction, arrested the other suspects. But many in Stamford had begun to doubt the hysterical teenager. Seventy-six townspeople, including Sarah Bates, a midwife, and healer who had examined Walsh, signed a petition supporting the accused. The suspects were eventually acquitted.

Another New York witch, Aunty Greenleaf, was so famous that her story has passed into folklore. Said to have lived in Brookhaven, New York, in the early 18th century, Greenleaf was a loner with “a profound knowledge of herbal remedies, which she sold to the townsfolk,” Ferrara writes. “This arcane knowledge resulted in a local suspicion of her potential malevolent intentions.”

The scary stories spread. Hogs mysteriously grew ill. Women complained that, no matter how hard they churned, their cream wouldn’t turn into butter. When reports surfaced of an all-white deer in the woods, townspeople took it as an ominous sign. The deer was tracked – and shot, with silver bullets – but escaped.

Later, Greenleaf was found in her cabin, moaning in pain. The town doctor extracted three silver bullets from her back. Greenleaf died shortly afterward – and the white deer was not seen again.

It’s a good story, but like many, may not be much more than that. There are no records of Aunty Greenleaf in Brookhaven, though renowned herbalist Elizabeth Greenleaf lived in Massachusetts around then. And notions of magical shape-shifters are ancient.

The tale does, though, have similarities to many stories of witch hunts in Salem and elsewhere. Usually, it’s an older woman, often more prosperous or knowledgeable than her envious neighbors. There’s an accuser – often younger and less powerful. Enter the frantic officials who don’t know what to do and a panic that spreads like a virus.

Because then, as today, people believed what they wanted to believe – and feared anything they couldn’t understand.

© New York Daily News