Hampton, New Hampshire, 1938. Three hundred years since its founding and 257 since the death of the accused witch Goodwife Eunice Cole, the town had grown to nearly 2,000 inhabitants. Almost everyone in this small, close-knit community was a descendant of at least one early settler, and some were descended from five or more founding families. As Hampton prepared to celebrate its 300th birthday, residents became intensely interested in the history and legends of the town their ancestors had founded.
But they also had to contend with the Great Depression, during which unemployment levels reached as high as 25 per cent. In New Hampshire, expensive government programs meant to fix the country’s economic problems were met with skepticism and more than a little apprehension by conservative newspaper editors and their vocal, middle class readers. In Hampton, welfare expenditures nearly doubled during the Depression years, giving local residents cause to voice similar concerns.
Americans also worried about the political machinations “over there” in Europe. They sensed that the world was on the brink of war, one that Secretary of State Cordell Hull observed would not be just “another goddamn piddling dispute over a boundary line.” Fears of renewed worldwide conflict, coupled with the never-ending march of economic misery, had a way of outstripping even the most optimistic person’s ability to cope. As the world went to hell in a handbasket, many Americans turned to escapist fantasies served up by Hollywood, while others turned to nostalgia for the good old days.
Founding members of The Goody Cole Society (l-r): James Tucker, Phyllis Tucker, William D. Cram, 1938. Courtesy of the Hampton Historical Society.
A ‘somewhat mystic society’ is formed
In Hampton, anticipation of the town’s 300th year exemplified the latter trend. In the 12 months leading up to the official celebration, scheduled for the week of August 21-28, 1938, the Hampton Union & Rockingham County Gazette regularly published stories about Hampton’s olden days. The first in the year-long series was “The Story of Goody Cole.”
It was no accident that this story of Hampton’s most famous witch had been written by William D. Cram, a newspaperman who penned a regular column called “Little Stories of Old New England.” With Hampton Beach Chamber of Commerce employees Phyllis Tucker and her father James, Cram had recently formed The Society in Hampton Beach for the Apprehension of Those Falsely Accusing Goody Cole of Having Familiarity with the Devil (thankfully shortened to The Goody Cole Society). The trio’s objective for their “somewhat mystic society” was to draw attention to the town’s upcoming anniversary by “making restitution to Goody Cole and restoring her citizenship” of which she had been deprived by years of imprisonment in the Boston jail.
Besides the original threesome, other known members were district court judge John Perkins, “Singing Cop” Bill Elliot, Governor Francis P. Murphy, Highway Commissioner Fred Everett, and, from California, Beatrice Houdini, widow of the famous illusionist.
‘Vacillating Yankees’ make amends
While Cram worked up membership cards and fed stories to the press, James Tucker wrote and presented a resolution at the March 1938 town meeting, which read: “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 seventeenth century, and we do hereby restore to the said Eunice (Goody) Cole her rightful place as a citizen of the town of Hampton.” The resolution called for the destruction of certified copies of the original court documents, to be ceremoniously burned at the 300th anniversary celebration in August.
As the town’s legal counsel, Judge Perkins pointed out that while “the incident holds a strong warning for people of today concerning the conviction of innocent persons through mob hysteria,” Hampton in the 17th century was part of England, and it was therefore impossible for 20th century voters to reestablish Cole’s citizenship in a country to which they did not belong. Nevertheless, the resolution received unanimous voter approval, making Hampton the first community to publicly pardon an accused witch.
In the media, the vote was treated as a quirky publicity stunt. As columnist Howard Baker of the New Yorker magazine wryly observed, “The voters of Hampton Beach, New Hampshire are taking steps to absolve a woman who was imprisoned for witchcraft in 1656. That’s the way with those vacillating Yankees—always changing their minds.”
‘A few bars of something weird’
Hollywood was not alone in its ability to concoct escapist fantasies. Two weeks after the historic (and somewhat silly) town vote, the NBC-Blue Radio Network broadcast a dramatized version of the event called The Witch of Hampton: A Tale of Early New England. Staged at the NBC studios in New York, the imaginative radio drama featured voice actors who portrayed the real-life persons of James Tucker, Margaret Wingate, and meeting moderator John Brooks. Having met them in person, the script writer advised the program director that “there is not the slightest suggestion of the ‘New England Rube’ about any of them,” and suggested how the actors were to play the characters. “Mr. Tucker,” he wrote, “is a well-educated gentleman who speaks with faultless diction and a Yankee accent barely discernible, Mrs. Wingate is a pleasant-spoken lady with a low, well-modulated voice,” and of Mr. Brooks he observed that “there is nothing of the political orator in his manner.”
With “a few bars of something weird…down behind” to set the mood, the live radio drama commenced. “The National Broadcasting Company presents a special program entitled…The Witch of Hampton!…A story of New England based on historical facts and legends.”
The program opens to a chatter of townspeople. The meeting moderator bangs his gavel, reads aloud the article, and asks Tucker to make the motion to accept.
“Mr. Moderator, fellow townsmen,” Tucker responds, “there has been some talk of opposition to this resolution on the grounds that in clearing the name of Goody Cole we smear the names of those who were her accusers. I feel certain when I say that if those men and women were alive today, they would vote for this resolution themselves.”
The drama then turns back to seventeenth century Hampton, where a fishing vessel has just gone down off Boar’s Head and all onboard are drowned. Sure that Goody had cursed the ship, an angry mob of villagers prepares to go after her.
“Pshaw!” she scoffs when a sympathetic townsman warns her of the impending danger. “The villagers are a lot o’ nincompoops! Is it Goody Cole’s fault if a ship is destroyed at sea?”
Apparently it was, as the “fear-maddened people of Hampton” drag her off to court, followed by a melodramatic retelling of her trials, imprisonments, lonely old age, and death, after which the villagers waste no time hammering a stake through her body and burying it.
Back in the present, the voters readily pass the resolution. The broadcast concludes with a question posed to Arnold Philbrick, the real-life descendant of one of Goody Cole’s accusers. “If Thomas Philbrick were alive today, how do you suppose he would react to what the people of Hampton have done?” To which Philbrick replies, “I’m sure he would congratulate them for proving that ignorance is a horrible thing, even if it does take nearly three hundred years to prove it.”
Goody Cole Day
Listening to the program from her home in California, Beatrice Houdini was inspired to write a letter to the “Mayor of Hampton Beach,” which read, “May I, in the name of Houdini, thank you for the honest and clear-sighted effort the officials of your lovely town are making to clear the name of one of your former citizens. For centuries the belief in witchcraft has permeated the nation. Definite action, such as yours, will go a long way to tear the veil from superstitious reaction. Your town has led the way; more power to you.—Sincerely, Mrs. Harry Houdini.”
She also traveled 3,000 miles to attend Goody Cole Day, which, as part of the tercentenary celebration, was held at the beach bandstand on August 25, 1938. As the day’s special guest and a member of The Goody Cole Society, Mrs. Houdini gave a short speech, then witnessed the selectmen’s ceremonial burning of the court documents that had so long ago sealed Eunice Cole’s fate.
As the now-pardoned woman’s symbolic tomb, the metal urn in which the papers were burned was to have been buried in an appropriate spot. Whether from forgetfulness, fear of vandalism, or a change of plans, the urn never made it into the ground. It remains to this day on display at the Tuck Museum, along with other Goody Cole Day memorabilia, as a physical reminder of, depending on how you look at it, a work of unabashed hucksterism, an absurd civic melodrama, a sincere effort to atone for a past wrong, or all of the above.
Originally published in the Hampton Union on October 26, 2018.
History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. “Marked: The Witchcraft Persecution of Goodwife Unise Cole” is available at amazon.com, Tuck Museum, and Marelli’s Market. Contact Cheryl at firstname.lastname@example.org or lassitergang.com.