Was the Barnstable church lady a bootlegger?

2017 story image

There was a loose end left over from last year’s Hallowe’en story (click on its image at left). Records attest that Elizabeth Lewis Blachford (1712-1790) of Barnstable Massachusetts, lived a virtuous life centered on her farm, family and church. However, some writers claim that in 1773 she was fined for selling distilled liquor without a license. Had she really?

It turns out that it isn’t easy after all these years to say one way or the other whether the alter ego of the folktale witch Liza Tower Hill was a convicted petty criminal. But if Mrs. Blachford was fined, then her neighbors – the same neighbors who delighted in telling nasty tales about her – helped her pay.

Which Elizabeth? Witch Elizabeth?

Among the articles passed at the March 10, 1773 Barnstable town meeting was (spelling and punctuation as officially transcribed):

Voted to remitt to Elizabeth Blachford the towns part of her fine for selling spiritous liquor without license.

Is this Elizabeth Blachford our Elizabeth Blachford, the real person behind Liza Tower Hill? That’s unclear.

By 1773, there was at least one other Elizabeth Blachford with Barnstable ties, the wife of Elizabeth Lewis Blachford’s son, David (1744-1822). She was born Elizabeth Ellis, and lived in Provincetown. David and this Elizabeth had married in 1765.

There was also another Elizabeth Blachford living in Barnstable at about that time. On November 4, 1775, according to town records, an Elizabeth Blachford “of this town” married one Benjamin Howland of Yarmouth, an adjacent town.

That Elizabeth is probably not Elizabeth Lewis Blachford, since church records of her 1790 death identify her as “Widow Blachford,” without any mention of Howland. There is also an “argument from silence,” in that local genealogist Amos Otis, who is the source of much of the Liza Tower Hill lore, knew our Elizabeth’s grandchildren personally in a small town setting. It is unlikely that he wouldn’t know it if Elizabeth had remarried, and then failed to mention it on the occasions when he wrote of her life. Nor is this bride David’s wife, since David was alive in 1775 and divorce was remarkably rare.

There is also a chance that she is a grandchild of our Elizabeth. Little is recorded about the grandchildren. Otis mentions some individuals from that generation, but his published comprehensive genealogies focused on the earlier days of Barnstable. If she is a grandchild, then she might be the very young daughter of Benjamin Blachford and Sarah Godfrey, who married in 1761, or a child of Benjamin’s older brother, Peter, who disappears from local records after his baptism in 1737.

The people at the town meeting knew who was meant. There was no need for them to specify their beneficiary further, but we don’t know because the court records for the fine no longer exist. There was a fire at the courthouse in 1827, when nearly all records stored there were lost.

The bottom line, then, is that we have at least two and likely three adults named Elizabeth Blachford known to Barnstable voters during 1773. While the refund measure’s Elizabeth Blachford could have been Elizabeth Lewis Blachford, she could just as well have been someone else instead. Barring further evidence emerging, the question cannot be definitely resolved.

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Chief sources:

town warrant remitting fineBarnstable town meeting of March 10, 1773: “Massachusetts, Town Clerk, Vital and Town Records, 1626-2001,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QS7-9979-3Y2?cc=2061550&wc=Q4DW-JW5%3A353349701%2C353366701%2C353369001 : 20 May 2014), Barnstable > Barnstable > Town records 1765-1855 vol 3-4 > image 182 of 770; town clerk offices, Massachusetts.

Blachford-Howland wedding: As above; navigate to image 277 of 770. blachford howland marriage

 

wisow blachford death record (arrows)Death of Widow Blachford: http://www.congregationallibrary.org/nehh/series1/BarnstableMAEast5158
click on “Church Records (1725-1816), when reader loads, navigate to physical page 168.

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