By any measure, Goodwife Eunice Cole of Hampton was a dreadful person. She was argumentative, foul-mouthed, and generally impossible to get along with. Even with the threat of physical punishment, she refused to change her behavior. Unfortunately, she lived at a time—the 17th century—and in a culture—Puritan—where being a cantankerous old shrew was not in a woman’s best interests.
Eunice and her husband William Cole came to America in 1636, near the end of the so-called Great Migration, the period between 1620-1640 when an estimated 20,000 English men and women crossed the Atlantic to settle in New England. When the Coles first arrived they spent a short time in Boston and at Mount Wollaston with the antinomian minister, John Wheelwright, and were still with him in 1638 for the founding of Exeter. But when he left for Maine a few years later the Coles moved Hampton, where William had been granted a house lot and land. While Exeter seems to have paid no attention to Eunice, Hampton was another story. Almost immediately, from the time they settled in 1643, Eunice was in constant trouble with her neighbors. She was so foreign and disagreeable that it wasn’t long before they began to suspect her of being a witch.
In 1656, suspicion became conviction when witch-marks were discovered on her naked body as she was being whipped for an unnamed offense. Anxious to be rid of her, the magistrates swore out charges of witchcraft and delivered her to Boston to stand trial. Eventually convicted of a lesser charge, she spent the next four years in prison. Upon her release, she returned to Hampton, but a year later was whipped for cursing at her neighbors and sent back to prison.
After eight long years, Goodwife Cole was released from the lock-up on Boston’s Prison Lane, a place that was called “the nearest resemblance to hell on earth,” with its iron-spiked doors and passageways that were like “ the dark valley of the shadow of death.” But the ink had barely dried on her release when she was once more accused of agitating her neighbors with witchcraft. The victims this time were the town constable Robert Smith and his wife Susanna.
One day in late summer, while the Smiths were taking their grain to the mill for grinding, they happened to meet Goodwife Cole on the road, who stepped to the cart and peered inquisitively at the plump sacks and baskets of grain inside.
“Do you grind rye?” she asked.
It seemed like an innocuous, neighborly remark, but knowing that she had been implicated in the strange death, some years ago, of their neighbor John Wedgwood, the Smiths were wary of anything having to do with old Goodwife Cole. Besides, it wouldn’t be prudent to be seen conversing with a reputed witch while their son was courting Reverend Seaborn Cotton’s daughter.
In what must have been the seventeenth century version of “well, duh!”—Susanna answered, “We do usually grind our English with our Indian in the summertime.”
“Indian” was the colonists’ word for the native corn. “English” was their term for any cereal grain that required grinding. The Smiths had grown rye, a hardy grain that fared better than barley or wheat in the short summers and often poor soil of New England.
Later, after the grain had been milled, the Smiths discovered that the bread baked from the English meal “would stink and prove loathsome before it was 24 hours old.” Spots formed like “rotten cheese” on the loaves. Re-baking them only made the problem worse.
Rather than conclude that the rye was at fault, the Smiths suspected that Eunice had bewitched their oven. In an attempt to prove it, they carried on what turned out to be the only documented case of methodical inquiry into the nature of enchanted objects in the town of Hampton. It was an undertaking that would have made the Elizabethan scientist Sir Francis Bacon proud.
They went first to the house of John Wedgwood’s widow, who lived just across the road. She baked bread in her oven using both the Smiths’ English rye and their Indian corn meal. The bread made from the Indian “proved good,” but the English bread stank just as it had for Robert and Susanna. This did not convince them, however, that their rye was spoiled. Instead, they took the suspicious meal up the road to their daughter Meribah Page and asked her to bake bread from it. Meribah’s bread turned out to be “sweet and good” and lasted at least a week. Supposing that her house fell outside the area of Eunice’s baleful spell, they went back to their original suspicion—that their oven was under an enchantment.
Once more, Susanna tried to bake the rye in her oven. The resulting loaves were so bad that she and her husband were “faint” to give them to the swine and dogs. One night after they had gone to bed, the stink in the house grew so unbearable that Susanna swore it would poison her.
“Go to prayer, Rob,” she implored her husband. “We must drive away the Devil!”
Robert got up and lit a candle from the banked fire. Clasping his hands in supplication, he began to pray. Susanna joined him, and after a time the gross smell went away.
Having nothing further to do with the English meal, they turned to the Indian for their bread. But when they baked with that flour, the loaves stunk up the place just like the rye bread. Again they went to their daughter, this time to test the Indian. To their horror, the area of enchantment had grown! Even baked in Meribah’s oven the bread smelled bad. The Smiths were now in “such great straits,” they dared not bake with anybody “for fear of spoiling their bread,” too.
Robert and Susanna Smith had recounted the story of the bewitched flour and enchanted oven in a court deposition, as a part of Eunice’s 1673 trial for “enticing” a nine-year-old orphan named Ann Smith. Like so many other real life stories about this strange woman, it’s a fascinating glimpse into the cognitive orientation, or worldview, of typical 17th century Western minds, especially as it concerns the Smiths’ ordered approach to sorting out what was happening to their grain. It would be interesting to know how they solved the supernatural problem for which their prayers proved only a partial fix. Unfortunately, the existing records don’t tell us how the story turned out, which leaves it to the imagination to suppose that, even though they risked admonishment from their future in-law Reverend Cotton, they had resorted to some sort of counter-magic to unhex their oven.
As for Goodwife Cole, according to the partially decoded journal of fellow townsman Henry Dow, she died on October 24, 1680…just weeks after being accused of witchcraft one last time.
Originally published in the Hampton Union on October 25, 2019.
History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Read the true story of Goody Cole’s life in “Marked: The Witchcraft Persecution of Goodwife Unise Cole,” available at amazon.com and Marelli’s Market. Contact Cheryl at firstname.lastname@example.org or lassitergang.com.