A TALE OF VVITCHCRAFT IN OLD HAMPTON
The consequences of bad mothering are subjects of ancient and enduring interest. The all-consuming and overbearing mother—who is at heart a terrifying hag—is a staple leitmotif of folktales like Beowulf, Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella. One of the finest modern examples is the 2009 animated film Coraline, in which an evil beldam known as the Other Mother deceives eleven-year-old Coraline by pretending to be caring, fun, and outrageously indulgent—the exact opposite of Coraline’s busy, preoccupied real mother. When Coraline realizes that the Other Mother’s attention comes at a dreadful price, she inquires of a world-wise talking cat, “Why does she want me?” To which the cat replies, “She wants something to love. Something that isn’t her.”
Cast off ghost children, trapped in the Other Mother’s netherworld, tell Coraline that the beldam targeted them because “she saw that we weren’t happy,” and were thus susceptible to her sugar-coated wiles. It’s a familiar fairy tale theme, and one that directly relates to the story of nine-year-old Ann Smith of Hampton.
Ann Smith’s Unhappy Childhood
Ann Smith was born in the neighboring town of Exeter in 1663. She and her brother Nathaniel were farmed out to Hampton families not long after their mother died and their widowed father married Mary Deale, who was the embodiment of the wicked stepmother. Before engineering the Smith family’s breakup, Mary had ignored various court orders, refused to administer her first husband’s estate, sued the court-appointed administrator for trying to cheat her, and had been twice convicted of fornication and sentenced to a whipping.
Nathaniel was placed with the family of William Godfrey and Ann was given to John Clifford, a Godfrey kinsman by marriage. If the seven-member Clifford household ever enjoyed a serene existence, that all changed when Clifford married the widow Bridget Huggins, who brought at least six children of her own to the marriage. Little Ann Smith and her needs would have been lost within this great horde of humanity. She would also prove too great a temptation for the childless Goodwife Unise Cole—Hampton’s version of the Other Mother—who sensed in Ann a need for the same thing she herself desired, to love and be loved.
Goodwife Cole’s Tragic Life
Unise Cole and her husband William emigrated from England to Massachusetts in 1636. They lived at Mount Wollaston, south of Boston, until 1638, when they were among the first settlers of Exeter. In 1640 they were granted land in Hampton and settled there about 1644.
By all accounts Unise was a highly disagreeable woman. Stormy relations with her Hampton neighbors began almost immediately, spilling into clashes with the authorities and eventually resulting in her first public whipping in 1656. As the constable carried out the whipping, he discovered witch-marks on her naked body. The terrified magistrates arrested her on charges of witchcraft and sent her to Boston to stand trial.
Twenty-six witnesses, mostly from Hampton, testified against her at the trial, yet the jury found her guilty of a lesser crime, for which she spent four years in the Boston prison. When she returned to Hampton she resumed her cantankerous ways and was again whipped and imprisoned. After her husband died in 1662 she petitioned for release, which the court granted, on condition that she leave the Bay Colony’s jurisdiction forever. Unable to comply with the court’s order, she was sent back to prison, where she remained for the next eight years.
Goodwife Cole was reviled by a community whose religious and legal codes bound them to provide for her, even during her imprisonment. To do so, the town selectmen sold her property, leaving her homeless upon her return to Hampton in 1670. The usual method of caring for the indigent was to board them with a family, but no one dared take a witch into their home. Instead, the selectmen put her alone in a dwelling near the meetinghouse and ordered the townspeople to take turns providing her with food and wood. Shunned by her neighbors, Cole grew desperately lonely, setting the stage for the next episode in her tragic story.
Cole Sets Her Sights on Ann Smith
Beginning with John Clifford’s complaint in October 1672, extant court records tell the story—from the accusers’ point of view only—of Goodwife Cole’s attempts to snatch nine-year-old Ann Smith away from her adoptive family.
Ann’s foster sister swore under oath that one day when she and Ann were “a-coming by the place where Goody Cole lives,” the old woman came out and invited Ann to live with her, saying that there was a “gentleman within” who would give her some plums. When Ann refused, Cole tried to grab hold of her.
Ann herself told a fantastic tale of being led into the Clifford’s apple orchard by an old woman dressed in a blue cap and apron and wearing a white cloth about her neck. The woman offered her plums and a baby if she would consent to live with her. When Ann again refused, the woman knocked her on the head, threatened to kill her, and, in Ann’s own words, “turned into a little dog and run upon the tree then she flew away like an eagle.” An adult kinswoman testified to finding Ann in the orchard with a bloody mouth.
Bridget Huggins Clifford testified that Ann later became frightened by what she said was a gray cat (visible only to her) that had come to the Clifford house to entice her to live with “Her.” Ann fell into a frenzy, shrieking long into the night that the cat was pinching her and pricking her with pins.
The Witchcraft Trial
Witchcraft trials in 17th-century Massachusetts were long, drawn out affairs that kept court officials busy for months. After an initial grand jury indictment, the prosecutor took witness depositions and brought his findings to the next sitting of the quarterly county court. As the name suggests (somewhat mistakenly because it wasn’t exactly true) these courts were held four times a year. In Essex County the towns of Hampton, Salisbury, Salem, and Ipswich took turns hosting the court, and in theory any person from any town could bring his complaints to the court that was next to convene. Because of the distances involved, however, complaints that arose in Hampton rarely made it to Salem or Ipswich. As it evolved (with some overlap), Hampton and Salisbury functioned as shire towns for the northern district and Salem and Ipswich as shire towns for the southern district of the Essex County court system. The Hampton court was held in October and the Salisbury court in April. While these lower courts could judge whether sufficient evidence existed to put a suspect on trial in capital punishment cases such as murder, sodomy, striking one’s parents, and witchcraft, the trial itself could only be held before the Court of Assistants in Boston, which met during the months of March and September.
It was not until April 1673 that the Salisbury court heard the case against Cole. The magistrates ordered the Hampton constables to transport her to the Boston jail, where she would remain until her trial in September. By then, nearly a year had passed since Goodwife Cole had first tried to coerce Ann Smith.
The Boston jury that heard the case seemed less interested in a nine-year-old’s fanciful stories than in the evidence of three respected townsmen, who testified that eleven years earlier they had heard Goodwife Cole conversing with the Devil in her house and had seen something red glowing in the corner near her fireplace. Yet even with that damning evidence the jury could only find “vehement suspicion” of witchcraft and she was set free. Only in 1680, the year Ann Smith married her foster brother Israel Clifford, was she again accused of being a witch, this time by a woman newly accused of having murdered her neighbor’s infant with witchcraft. Such was the repute of Goodwife Cole, now in her 80s, that the magistrates ordered her locked in leg irons and put in jail. One month later she was dead.
As for Ann Smith, she would go on to produce seven children (without the help of the Devil), never again tormented by the threat of witchcraft.
Originally published in the Hampton Union, October 20, 2016.
History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Cheryl Lassiter is the author of several books of local history, including “Marked: The Witchcraft Persecution of Goodwife Unise Cole.” Her website is lassitergang.com.
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