A Fundamental Flaw (Part II)

Roby’s brushes with witchcraft, role as a father in trying circumstances, and a risky confrontation with the church.

Brushes with witchcraft           

Soon after settling in Hampton, Roby and his family encountered the purported maleficium of their neighbor Unise Cole, with whom they were already acquainted from their days in Exeter. From early on, Cole may have seen Roby as an antagonist. In Exeter, her husband and others had to pay Roby and another man “a peck of corne for harm done to them by swine.” From a modern perspective this seems like mild restitution, but those were starving times in the young settlement, and men were given the authority to search houses for surplus corn to feed the poor. While the Coles were poor, the Robys were not, and it must have rankled Unise to give up a portion of her precious store of food to a young man whose circumstances were far better than hers.

By the 1650s Unise Cole’s reputation as a witch had been firmly established, based partly on testimony the Robys had given against her in 1652-53. Nor did she help her cause when, in 1655, she interrupted a selectmen’s meeting at Robert Drake’s house to badger them for wood and “other thinges.” When they refused her demands, she told them, “They could help Goodman Roby, being a lusty man, and she could have none. This should not do.” The men were concerned that her words had conveyed more than just the worries of an old woman in need of charity. Witnesses reported that a few days later Roby lost a cow and a sheep “very strangely,” which they attributed to the devilish works of Unise Cole. Then when Cole was put on trial for witchcraft in 1656, Roby’s wife Ruth testified that Unise had tried to “insinuate” herself into the lives of her children. Ruth herself had been tormented by Cole, who appeared to her in “many ways” and in “many forms.” We don’t know what supernatural horrors Mrs. Roby had been witness to, but some of Cole’s forms were said to be those of a dog, an eagle, and a gray cat.

In 1680, in the midst of the threat of Indian attacks and the uncertainty brought about by the separation of Hampton and her sister towns from Massachusetts, Roby was foreman of a jury of inquest impaneled to investigate the death of John and Mary Cox Godfrey’s infant son. The jury decided that the boy had been murdered by witchcraft, and they named Rachel Brabrook Fuller, a young woman with children of her own, as the witch who had done the deed. In the court depositions that followed, a witness repeated Rachel’s story of a great row at Goodman Roby’s in which Dr. Reed, one of Roby’s lodgers, was pulled out of bed by witches, who “with an enchanted bridle did intend to lead a jaunt.” Roby’s strange mojo, which caused these reputed witches to call him out by name, could afflict others, too—throughout the summer of 1682 his kinsman and business partner George Walton was plagued by “stone-throwing devils” at the tavern that he and Roby owned on Great Island (Newcastle, New Hampshire).

 In Judith’s defense

According to the historian Joseph Dow, Judith was the third child and first daughter of Henry and Ruth Roby. Born about 1650, she would have been old enough to work in her parents’ public house by the time Roby received his first tavern license in 1669. In March 1671 she became pregnant by John Young, an Exeter man with whom her father was acquainted through his legal work for the town of Hampton. In December 1671 Judith gave birth to a son, naming him John after his father. There is no record that she was ever called to court to answer for her sin of fornication, unlike the experience of many young men and women of the time. John refused to accept the child, and Roby sued him for support. Young then promised to pay two shillings six pence per week, but he was so lax with payments that Roby had to complain to the court on several more occasions. To make matters worse, during this time his wife died, leaving him with three minor children to care for, and his unmarried sister-in-law became pregnant, for which he had to post a bond for her appearance on charges of fornication (she was eventually found guilty and sentenced to 15 stripes if she could not pay her fine). Roby began drinking heavily, to the detriment of himself, his family, and his tavern.

In October 1674, at the last court appearance of which there is a record for the “maintenance of the bastard child,” Roby’s new wife Elizabeth Garland caused such a scene that the justices ordered her committed to prison. Elizabeth was not a woman to be taken lightly, and she was not afraid to stand up for her rights. After she had successfully sued a man for roughing up her teenage son Jacob at Roby’s tavern, she hired Roby to sue the town of Hampton for seizing a load of wood staves that belonged to her son John (Roby won the case, and two months later he and Widow Garland were married). But Elizabeth was also smart enough to know when she had overstepped her bounds. After she confessed that she was “very sorry” for her “contemptuous carriages in open court,” the justices remitted her sentence.

Roby’s sister-in-law married her child’s father, but Judith did not. She and her son continued to live at the Roby homestead. Although she had committed a grave sin, it’s clear that Roby kept his daughter in his heart. In his 1687 will he bequeathed to her a feather bed, all the apples she wanted from his orchard, and ten pounds money, “so long as she lives single unmarried.”

We don’t know what became of Judith’s son John Young Roby, but in 1693 she married the widower Samuel Healey. In 1697 John Young, Sr., still living in Exeter, was slain by Indians.

 Confronting the Church

In 1662 the “half-way covenant” was introduced into New England’s churches. The object of this covenant was to bring more members into the fold by allowing the baptism of children whose parents were not in full communion with the Puritan church, thereby passing on the “benefits of godliness” to those children. The new covenant was not universally accepted and remained a contentious issue for many years. As late as 1678, Frances Jenness of Hampton (later, Rye) was presented at court for saying that some children recently baptized “had received the mark of the beast.”

Henry Roby, who considered himself one of God’s elect (and therefore his place in Heaven was assured), publicly disapproved of the new covenant. He declared to Hampton’s congregation that their minister Seaborn Cotton “would baptize all ye heathen in the country if there were water enough.” To a friend he said that Cotton “might as well have cast ye water upon a beast’s face standing by as upon these children.” In his journal Cotton wrote of another occasion when Roby turned his back on the sermon, departed the meetinghouse, and refused to return. Cotton’s supporters accused him of the serious crimes of “reviling the ordinance of baptism and reproaching the minister,” and he was put on trial. No doubt Roby, like his courtroom nemesis Edward Colcord, had a way with words, as the justices merely admonished him and bound him for good behavior. As we will see in the next and final installment, Cotton never truly forgave Roby for the incident.

Originally published in the Hampton Union on January 27, 2017.

History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Cheryl Lassiter’s latest book is “The Queens of Hampton Beach: A History of the Carnival Queens and the Miss Hampton Beach Beauty Pageant, 1915-2015.” Her website is lassitergang.com.

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