The Case of the Stolen Turnips

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In the late fall of 1670, Hampton planter John Fuller discovered that someone had pilfered about twenty bushels of his unharvested turnip crop. John Hancock, Fuller’s partner in the patch, swore that if he could prove who did it, the “taker of them” would be prosecuted.

The taker, as it turned out, was a prominent citizen named Nathaniel Weare. To his friends John and Martha Cass he had admitted that he “did take about a bushel and a half” after “accidentally” stumbling upon Fuller’s turnip patch. And if the ground hadn’t been so darned hard, he “might have took a few more.” As he said, he took them because they were so “remote in the woods,” and with the frost and all, he thought they would be “lost.”

John Cass asked if he had been given permission to take the turnips, to which Nathaniel replied “No.” But, he said, he had talked to John Fuller and had paid for the turnips with some pork.

The Turnip Thief is Accused

Given Weare’s status in the community and his payment of pork, the rather minor matter of the stolen turnips should never have seen the inside of a courtroom. But it did, because a man named Edward Gove had publicly accused him of being a thief.

“You fool, you loggerheadedly, boby-headed ass. Get you about your business,” Weare said when Gove confronted him.

“How came I to be your tomfool loggerhead?” Gove wondered.

His response did not sit well with Weare, who then did what any adult male Puritan in his position would do: he hit Gove with a stick. Aghast at his own act of violence, he reportedly fell upon his knees before Gove, not once, but twice, which, Gove claimed, “hath been Weare’s custom so to act to others” besides himself. Apparently Gove knew Weare as a man who had a lot to apologize for.

“Get up again like a lubber,” Gove said as he helped Weare to his feet.

The Accuser Becomes the Accused

Weare wished that Gove, who was known to suffer now and again from an “unsound mind,” would withdraw his accusation and leave him alone. But he did not, perhaps in part because of a grudge Gove may have been harboring, from a time when Weare had driven his hogs onto Gove’s land without permission. Whatever the reason, their present feud had caused enough of a stir that Weare had sent his friend, Nathaniel Clark of Newbury, and Henry Palmer of Hampton to talk some sense into Gove. When they met at Henry Roby’s tavern, located near the present-day Baptist Church on Winnacunnet Road, Gove agreed that Weare had not intentionally taken the turnips. Still, he had broken the 8th commandment (thou shalt not steal), which was contrary to Law.

“It will be an encouragement to others to go on in such wicked courses, contrary to Christianity and civility,” he said to explain why he could not let the matter go.

He added, “It is easy making an excuse for the theft if after the thing be like to be proved against the person.” Translation: Weare confessed only because his misdeed had been found out.

It seems that the only way to make Gove shut up was to sue him. In Norfolk County court, then, Weare brought charges of his “reproachful speeches and assaulting carriage,” and of his killing a hawk on the Lord ’s Day. The jury deliberated the evidence and brought in a verdict of guilty.

The Accused Appeals the Verdict

 Gove appealed the verdict to the Court of Assistants in Boston, saying that “Your appellant apprehends himself much disadvantaged” because the trial jury foreman, who had also been the grand jury foreman, had vowed that if Gove came to trial he “would warrant [Gove] should suffer.” It was Gove’s contention that he would have been acquitted had this biased man not sat on the jury. The record, however, does not agree with his “facts”; it shows that two different men, Lt. Benjamin Swett and Henry Palmer, had served as jury foremen.

Rather than rest on a claim of an unfair trial, he further asserted that he was only defending himself when Weare hit him with the stick, and that he helped Weare to his feet, not pushed him down, as he had been accused of doing. And he had broken no law in calling Nathaniel Weare a thief. It had been John Fuller’s kinsman, William Fuller, who said that Weare had taken the turnips from the field. Why, then, was it Gove and not Fuller who was charged? In answering his own question he said, “Indeed [it was] better for Fuller to lose his turnips than for he that took them disorderly to lose his friend.”

Gove rather unwisely condemned the entire Massachusetts judicial system, saying that if Weare were to be tried in England, with the weight of Gove’s evidence against him, “he would appear in all his colors as he is to all the beholders.” Weare was to Gove like Haman the Evil, an Old Testament figure who had tried to destroy the Jewish people but had had the tables turned horribly upon himself.

If righteous indignation counted, Gove should have won his appeal on that aspect alone. Unfortunately, we’ll never know how things turned out – the record was lost, destroyed, or, just as likely, Gove dropped his appeal after he cooled off. As for Nathaniel Weare, there is no record that he was ever brought to court for taking the turnips.

 Epilogue

From the Case of the Stolen Turnips, it would hardly be possible to peg these two highly imperfect men as stalwart heroes of Hampton’s history, our early defenders of Liberty and Freedom. But both men are venerated for their fervent opposition to New Hampshire’s royal governor Edward Cranfield, a man forever despised as a tyrant.

While it’s true that Cranfield fit the stereotype of the arrogant English nobleman, let’s not blame him entirely for the failures of his regime. He had been given the impossible task of imposing Royal rule on a people who for fifty years had managed their own affairs, under Massachusetts and English law, and had no intention of parting with the privilege.

In 1683, while under the influence of “ardent spirits,” an inherited predisposition to “lunacy,” and a lack of sleep, Edward Gove attempted to muster a rebellion against Cranfield’s government. Doing little more than riding through the towns causing a ruckus, he was soon enough arrested by the Hampton militia – on a warrant that his old nemesis Nathaniel Weare, as Justice of the Peace, had been obliged to serve.

Not even Weare would have wanted what happened next. To all those New Hampshire men whom Cranfield loathed as “unmanageable creatures,” Gove was to be made an example, even though the Governor had been presented with depositions to show that the man was subject to fits of madness. No matter, Gove was put on trial and convicted of high treason. Weare had been among the men summoned to give testimony in the trial.

The Court sentenced Gove to the standard traitor’s punishment: to be hanged by the neck and cut down alive, his entrails taken out and burnt before his face, his head cut off, his body divided into four quarters, all to be disposed of at the King’s pleasure. He was shipped off to England and imprisoned in the Tower of London to await this gruesome fate.

But Cranfield soon realized that he had made a terrible miscalculation. Instead of bringing the rebel dogs to heel, sentencing their fellow countryman to death only stiffened their resistance against him.

In 1684 Weare undertook a mission to England, bearing a petition signed by 219 citizens of Portsmouth, Dover, Exeter, and Hampton, to lay the problem of Cranfield’s misrule at the feet of the King. The petition and Weare’s testimony helped bring about the Governor’s eventual recall.

As for Edward Gove, cooler heads prevailed in the mother country and his sentence was never carried out – in large part, it’s been said, because Nathaniel Weare had a hand in securing his pardon from the King. Both men returned home to New Hampshire.

First published in the Hampton Union, April 28, 2015.

History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach. Cheryl Lassiter is the author of three books of local history, including “Marked: The Witchcraft Persecution of Goodwife Unise Cole, 1656-1680.” Her website is http://www.lassitergang.com.

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