The Hampton Witch
By David V. Craig
New Hampshire Echoes
The scene was not Salem of the 1690's. Nor was the principal a trembling crone standing in the shadow of the gallows. The year was 1938 and the locale was Hampton, New Hampshire. The subject of witchery was pertinent, however, as the occasion marked the formal exoneration of Eunice "Goody" Cole from a charge and subsequent conviction of witchcraft, the only woman ever to be so convicted in New Hampshire.
The mention of witchcraft, of course, brings to mind the Salem hysteria of nearly three centuries ago when 19 men and women were hanged and another individual was pressed to death. Few realize, perhaps, that these victims of colonial paranoia represented but a small percentage of the total number actually tried for dealings with the devil. Many others were either acquitted or received lesser sentences.
One of these was Eunice Cole, a citizen of Hampton in the mid-1600's. Historically, she seems to have been a rather unpleasant person and this fact probably preluded her ultimate conviction. She lived with her husband, William, on a rise of ground overlooking the marshes and the Hampton River. Life was harsh in those days and folks who scraped out a year-to-year existence found little humor in it. Goody Cole was one of these.
She had the added irritation of having one of the best wells in the area. The fact that its water was rarely if ever brackish plus its proximity to the Hampton River resulted in a number of passing boatmen using the well as a convenient oasis. John Greenleaf Whittier, in his poem "The Wreck at Rivermouth," pictured an irate Goody Cole heaping maledictions upon an ill-fated boat wending its way to the sea.
One did not have to overtly profess a kinship with the powers of darkness to fall under suspicion in the early years of our country's history. A general irritability of temperament coupled with certain eccentricities would often serve the same purpose, especially if the subject looked the part. Unfortunately, Good Cole filled the bill. At the time of her conviction she was quite elderly, probably in her late seventies. Hampton had been settled only 18 years before and carving an existence from the wilderness had most likely done little to improve her physical appearance. Besides, there was always the irascible guardianship of her well.
Joseph Dow, in his History of the Town of Hampton, N.H., states: ". . . she was both hated and feared. That she did not possess such traits of character as were suited to gain the affection and good will of her neighbors, may readily be believed. She may even have been, as she was said to be, ill-natured and ugly, artful and aggravating, malicious and revengeful."
Whatever the reasons, cumulative or impulsive, in 1656 concerned officials of Hampton ushered Goody Cole before the County Court of Norfolk. There she was tried and found guilty of witchcraft for the usual nebulous reason -- familiarity with the devil. The court, in a comparatively humane gesture, sentenced her only to be flogged and then imprisoned for life in Boston. Logically, capital punishment could have been meted out as she, according to historian Dow, "had made a league with the devil, and that by his aid she was able to render persons deformed, to torture, and even to drown them with 'an invisible hand'."
Six years passed. While Eunice Cole languished in jail, the witchcraft hysteria was slowly gaining momentum and men of the intellectual caliber of the Mathers were beginning to question the seemingly nefarious conduct of their neighbors.
In 1662, Goody Cole begged the court for her release. Her husband, she claimed, was 88 years old and needed her attention. She may or may not have been aware that three years earlier, William Cole had declared what was tantamount to bankruptcy. He was too old and infirm to support himself and the town of Hampton magnanimously agreed to assume responsibility for the welfare of the Cole family.
Dow reports: " . . . the town of Hampton should take into their possession all the estate belonging to the said Cole, or his wife -- as was pretended -- and out of said estate, or otherwise, as they should see cause, supply the said Cole's and his wife's necessities during their lives, and afterward account for what should remain unspent -- if anything -- after being paid for their trouble."
Most members of the court were family men and their hearts were not hewn from stone. If Goodwife Cole would but pay the cost of her board, which was in arrears, she would be released. The sum for her maintenance was a paltry eight pounds annually. Unfortunately, she did not have the necessary funds or the means to raise them so she remained where she was.
The cost of her imprisonment had heretofore been footed largely by her husband from their meager savings. Upon his death, the town continued to pay Eunice's expenses until the coffers of the Cole estate were depleted. At this point, her officious jailer, William Salter, journeyed to Hampton and arrested Thomas Marston, town selectman, on July 14, 1664, for the balance due. Happily, for the sake of this public servant, the account was brought up to date with the proceeds obtained from fines levied against lesser crimes than witchcraft.
In 1665, Goody Cole once again petitioned the court for her release. She was told that this was possible as long as she relocated to an area outside the jurisdiction of the Norfolk Court and never returned under penalty of her former sentence being executed against her. This, she could not do. She was presumably well into her eighties and incapable of foraging for herself.
Goody Cole languished in prison 15 years.
No one knows how often Eunice "Goody" Cole petitioned the court. However, in 1670 or 1671, she was finally released after nearly 15 years in jail and allowed to return to Hampton.
She did not return to the same town she left. Her husband was some years dead. Her former home was most likely occupied by new tenants or had fallen into such a state of disrepair as to render it uninhabitable. Her one-time neighbors, needless to say, viewed her disparagingly. She became, in effect, a ward of the town.
Her dwelling until her death seems to have been a house at the foot of Rand's Hill (in the vicinity of the Meeting House Green), probably provided by the town of Hampton, the "executor" of her husband's estate. The neighbors were ordered to take turns supporting the aging woman, providing her with adequate food and fuel.
If Goody Cole though her trials and tribulations were over, she was sadly mistaken, In October of 1672, she was once again arraigned and, as before, on a charge of witchcraft. The case against her was somewhat more specific this time. She had appeared publicly in the various guises of a dog, an eagle and a cat. She had further "enticed" a young girl by the name of Ann Smith to live with her as an apparent domestic.
Once again, Goody Cole was convicted of witchcraft. In April of 1673, almost 20 years before the Salem hysteria, she was tried in Salisbury, Mass. A preliminary hearing seemed to indicate that suspicious were founded well enough to hold her over for a full-fledged Boston trial. Accordingly, she spent a few months in a familiar cell while awaiting a verdict.
The final outcome was Pyrrhic victory for the persecuted woman. The prosecution's decision was, in view of the nature of the case, an exercise in ambiguity. The verdict read thusly: "In ye case of Unis Cole now prisoner att ye Bar not Legally guilty according to Inditement butt just ground of vehement suspissyon of her having had famillyarryty with the devill."
She returned to Hampton where, feared and shunned by all, she lived out her last few years in a solitude nearly as profound as that which she'd suffered behind iron bars. Her final resting place remains a mystery. There is no extant marker or specific reference to where she lies. One legend has it that upon her passing she was buried with indecent haste in unhallowed ground, and then only after a stake had been driven through her heart by those who feared such "evil" might otherwise transcend the grave.
Curious, the impact of Goody Cole upon the town of Hampton did transcend her mortal existence. Motivated, perhaps, by a sort of "sins-of-the-fathers" ancestral guilt, a group of concerned citizens in 1937 formed an organization with the unlikely name of "The Society in Hampton for the Apprehension of Those Falsely Accusing Eunice 'Goody' Cole of Having Had Familiarity With the Devil." Obviously, those who were originally responsible for the persecution of the unfortunate woman were not available to answer for their indiscretion. While posthumous retribution clearly was not feasible, exoneration was. Thus, on February 17, 1938, two hundred and ninety-eight years after the arrival of the Coles in Hampton, the Society contacted Judge John W. Perkins with a strange request. This was the year of the Hampton Tercentenary and Judge Perkins was its chairman. The member proposed that at some point during the upcoming observances, Eunice Cole be formally exonerated of all charges of witchcraft and reinstated as a citizen in good standing of Hampton.
Accordingly, at the 300th Annual Town Meeting on March 8 , the following motion was made and unanimously carried:
"Resolved: that we, the citizens of the town of Hampton in town meeting assembled do hereby declare that we believe that Eunice (Goody) Cole was unjustly accused of witchcraft and of familiarity with the devil in the 17th century, and we do hereby restore that said Eunice (Goody) Cole her rightful place as a citizen of the town of Hampton."
At two o'clock on the afternoon of Thursday, August 25, the ceremony, which received national news coverage, took place at Hampton Beach. In a setting more accustomed to boardwalk glitter and sun-tawny bathers, certified copies of the original incriminating documents were publicly burned. The ashes, together with soil from Goody Cole's last home and reputed final resting place, were placed in a canister and now repose in a section of Hampton's Tuck Memorial Museum devoted to the Cole memorabilia.
Does the spirit of Eunice Cole, wherever it may be, rest at ease now that her status as a witch has been officially repudiated? Perhaps -- then again, perhaps not. Stories persist of an elderly lady clad in the garments of a long-gone era, who is seen from time to time in that part of town originally settled in the early 1600's. Kindly citizens who have offered this stranger cooling drinks on hot, humid days tell of here inquiring as to the whereabouts of certain Hampton families who today exist only on the yellowing pages of genealogies.
During the summer of 1955, a housewife living in the area of the Winnacunnet Plantation invited a little old lady into her home for lemonade. Her guest expressed indignation at not being able to locate the memorial to Good Cole that was supposed to have been erected on the old village green.
"I've hunted and hunted but I can't find it," the elderly woman claimed.
Upon being informed that such a memorial was still in the offing, she abruptly left the house, exiting through a closed screen door.
One of the more credible cases involves a police officer who slowed his cruiser to advise an aged woman to exercise caution in walking the road about the old section of town due to the absence of sidewalks.
"I guess I'll get along all right," he was told. "I've been walking along these roads for hundreds of years."
The possible implications of her statement did not dawn upon the officer until some time later.
With the 350th anniversary of the town of Hampton a scant 16 years away, it might be well to seriously consider initiating a push to raise the funds necessary for the erection of a suitable memorial to Eunice "Goody" Cole, the Hampton witch. Considering the fact that she was most likely born even before Shakespeare began writing his plays, she deserves a little peace and quiet. In pace requiescat.
[Note: A memorial stone WAS erected in 1963, but it was unmarked and few knew about it.]
Ashes from burned certified copies of official documents relating to the false accusations against EUNICE (GOODY) COLE, together with soil from the reputed last resting places and from the site of the home of EUNICE (GOODY) COLE, be gathered and placed in this cannister.