The supernatural horror film The Witch, written and directed by a southern New Hampshire native, follows a family of outcasts as they encounter forces of evil on their New England farm. Its strength lies in its realistic portrayal of Puritan culture poised on the knife’s-edge of wilderness, where fear of Indian attacks, long periods of darkness, and a strong belief in the Devil were all part of daily life. It offers a glimpse into what life must have been like in the early days of Hampton, when the witch Goody Cole touched the lives of men like Ephraim Marston.
For Marston, especially, the connection to Cole was a personal one. Born about 1655, Marston was a native born American whose family had settled in Hampton fifteen years earlier. He grew up with the knowledge that she had bewitched his sister and turned her into an “ape,” an affliction that resulted in the girl’s death and led to Cole’s first trial for witchcraft. While we’ll never know what frightening tales he may have passed along to his many descendants, just three generations stood between him and Edmund W. Toppan, the first Hamptoner to put the witch lore into written form.
The Marston family’s contact with the Devil’s minion did not interfere with their children’s ability to find mates. On February 19, 1677, twenty-one-year-old Ephraim married Abial, whose father John Sanborn was a leading citizen, and whose great grandfather Stephen Bachiler had been the town’s principal founder. One month later Abial, Jr. was born, and in October of that year the court convicted Ephraim and his wife of fornication (then defined as sex before marriage). The standard punishment was a public whipping, but in their case only a fine, to be paid in corn, was ordered. Judith, the unwed daughter of Henry Roby, another important townsman, seems also to have escaped with little or no punishment after she gave birth in 1671. Some convicted women, like Hannah Clement and Mary Rundlett, who were without important family connections, found themselves ordered to be “severely whipped.”
In 1695, five years after he inherited the homestead that would remain in his family for the next two centuries, Marston disowned his then 18-year-old daughter Abial for marrying John Green, “contrary to her father’s wishes.” His pique was so great that he gave her name away to another daughter born two years later. The problem may not have been with Abial’s husband, but with his grandfather Justice Henry Green, who in the 1680s assisted the royal government in Portsmouth in its scheme to seize the land of dozens of townsmen. Marston eventually reconciled with his estranged daughter, calling her “beloved” in his 1736 will and giving her “one feather bed or four pounds in money,” the same inheritance allotted to the younger Abial.
Unlike his older brother Isaac, whose garrison stood at the outskirts of town, Ephraim was actively involved in Hampton’s civic life and military affairs. Often called upon to give testimony on important issues affecting the town and province, he served as selectman, boundary and road surveyor, constable, and a sergeant in the militia.
One of his most memorable actions was in response to threats to the traditional communal use of the town’s pastures. In 1693, the freeholders of Hampton voted to make illegal the private fencing of the common land. The law was widely ignored, and for years the town issued warnings only. The situation reached a flashpoint in the summer of 1704, when a large posse that included Marston set out to enforce the law. Their first stop was the Exeter Road farm of Samuel Roby, where “in a hostile manner with force and armes etc. to the great Terror and Afrighting of her Majesties good subjects, [the posse] violently maliciously riotously & randomly did throw down burne and destroye a great quantity” of the fence that Roby had erected around his apple trees and hop vines. The posse then moved on to Francis Jenness’s farm near the beach, “pulling downe and destroying a considerable quantitie of his fence.” They also wrecked the fence of Francis’s son John, “to the indaingering” of his corn crop. Exposing these men’s food sources to predation by animals says much about their desire not only to enforce the law, but to make the violators pay for their lawbreaking in the worst possible way. Roby and Jenness sued Marston and the others for the damage to their property, but the jury found the defendants not guilty.
Tavernkeeper and malt maker
When Love Sherburne ended her long career as the town’s central tavernkeeper, Marston was encouraged to take her place. In 1703 the Hampton selectmen readily approved his application for a license, and for over a decade he and his family ran the tavern. In 1712 the town granted him a quarter acre of land “by the fort in the [Ring] swamp to set a malt-house on.” (As a guard against Indian attacks, this fort had been built up around the meeting house during the period 1689-1692). Marston and his heirs were to “enjoy the same” as long as they would malt barley, used in beer making, for the town.
Marston built his malt house “on the knoll West & North of the Old burial place” (Pine Grove cemetery), and in 1722 the town made a road to it from the “common way” (Winnacunnet Road). By 1731 Ephraim’s “beloved son” Jeremiah was running the malt house, which had grown to an extensive operation that paid a yearly tax of three pounds. In 1736 Marston deeded the malt house to Jeremiah, in recognition of his son’s “immediate care of ye management of my outward affairs.” It was said that the malt house “stood there many years,” and was within the memory of the old-timers of the mid-nineteenth century.
After a long and productive life spent in service to his town, Ephraim Marston died of cancer in 1742. Although his headstone has not survived, he was likely interred in the Pine Grove cemetery.
Originally published in the Hampton Union on November 24, 2017.
Top image courtesy of the New Hampshire Archives.
History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Cheryl’s latest book is “Hampton History Matters,” a collection of new and previously published essays, available at amazon.com. Her website is lassitergang.com.