Hampton, Massachusetts Bay Colony
November 24, 1662
By the twenty-fourth of November, Unise knew what was in store for her. Her neighbor Samuel Dalton had informed her that because she had failed to abide by the terms of her release, she was to be sent back to jail. The prospect of living in the jail again, perhaps dying there from neglect, surely frightened and angered her. Quite literally, it was enough to make a person start talking to herself…
Girded by a supper of beef and ale, Abraham Perkins donned his woolen cloak and high-crowned hat and stepped out into the chilly November night. Summer’s dryness had extended into fall, and the ground remained bare of snow. The town selectman had a small but disagreeable task to perform this evening, which was to deliver a pair of his wife’s knitting needles to Unise Cole at her house, so that she would have employment while in prison. The task was woman’s work, but his wife Mary had refused to do it, even though she had been the one to promise Mr. Cotton, who preached the evil of idle hands, that it would be done.
“Let her weave stockings instead of spells,” Cotton had advised.
Across the town common stood the meeting house, its unpainted gray flanks and steeple silvery in the moonlight. Filaments of pungent wood smoke laced the still air, curled from the chimneys of the houses that ringed the common. It was reassuring to see the growing number of homes, so many more now than when Abraham and his brother Isaac had come as young married men to this once-wilderness, twenty-two years ago. His outward sense of security did not match how he felt inside, still, he took grim satisfaction in knowing that by morning Unise Cole would be gone, on her way back to Boston jail.
Two house lots stood between his house and hers, making it but a short walk. Angling the needles into his belt, he walked out to the road and made his way eastward, his pace measured by the distant shush of ocean surf rhythmically stroking the pebbled beach of the Great Boar’s Head.
It was anyone’s guess as to what the godly folk of Hampton had done to merit Widow Cole’s vile presence among them. Some had said that the disharmony of the brethren, which had culminated in Reverend Tim Dalton’s excommunication of his counterpart, Reverend Stephen Bachiler, had done it. Indeed, Unise and her husband William, who had died this past May above ninety years, had come from nearby Exeter to settle in Hampton around the time Bachiler had hastily departed for Strawbery Banke.
The trouble started almost immediately between Unise and Abraham’s sister-in-law Susanna. In 1645 his brother Isaac had complained to the Ipswich magistrates about Goodwife Cole’s slanderous speeches aimed at his wife and Lydia, the wife of Francis Peabody. As just punishment Unise had been ordered to sit in the stocks for half an hour and to pay Isaac seven shillings for his trouble. Isaac and his family, and the Peabodys, too, eventually removed from the village, but it was Widow Cole, that most ungodly woman, who should have gone.
In 1647 John Wheelwright, the banished minister whom the Coles had followed into exile nine years earlier to settle the town of Exeter, had been granted Reverend Bachiler’s old farm as an inducement to preach in Hampton. Hadn’t Goody Cole fawned over his children as if they were her own, and hadn’t he allowed it? She had grown bold in his term as minister, causing problems for the townsmen and their families. Wheelwright eventually left for England, but the trouble stayed behind as a constant reminder for the people to mend their ways. Six years ago, after the discovery of witch-marks on her body, the court had taken the severe step of accusing her of witchcraft.
The moonlit quiet was broken by the wail of a wolf in the upland meadows. Quite suddenly, a breath of wind caught at Abraham’s hat. Signs telling him not to dawdle, he quickened his step past Isaac’s old house, now Henry Roby’s, where a horse and wagon waited at the door. Woman’s laughter caught his ear and welcoming fire- and lamp-light brightened the diamond-paned windows.
Until last month, Roby had been the town constable. He had angered the town by failing to deliver a convicted Hampton man to the Boston prison. This disregard for his sworn oath was brought before the General Court in Boston, which ordered the now-disgraced Roby to bring the man to prison and to personally bear all the charges of doing so. Roby’s haughty demeanor at the sentence had certainly spoiled the fun of gossiping about his much-deserved comeuppance. The town had chosen William Fifield to serve out the rest of Roby’s term. It was Fifield instead of Roby who would be taking Unise Cole to Boston on the morrow.
Abraham reminded himself to stop in on the way back to see if Roby was again selling wine without a license, as he once had done in Exeter.
Further on, he passed the old homestead of Francis Peabody that now belonged to Goodman Robert Drake and his son Abraham; like Cole and Roby, they had lived in Exeter before settling in Hampton. In an unseemly scene at this house in 1655, Goodwife Cole had barged in upon a meeting of the selectmen and demanded to be supplied with wood and food. When the men reminded her that she had an estate of her own and needed no help from the town, she had called Roby out by name, saying the town could help him but why not her? It was soon after this incident that Goodman Roby lost a cow and a sheep in a very strange manner.
Abraham arrived at the dilapidated gate that separated the rest of the world from Cole’s land—which now belonged to Thomas Webster, a loving friend who had helped old William Cole in his last years in exchange for everything he owned. The very air of the place seemed hollow and not fit for god fearing folk to breath. The barn that once housed Cole’s livestock stood with its door ajar, as empty as a pilfered crypt. From a window pane in the cottage, feeble firelight struggled to escape.
Abraham withdrew the knitting needles from his belt and prepared to make the unpleasant chore as brief as possible. He had barn chores yet to do, and had no time for one of Widow Cole’s foul-mouthed harangues, as she had done to Hulda Hussey, calling her stepmother a whore and her father a whoremaster. Abraham wanted none of that kind of talk.
As he neared the door, a noise like a strangled yelp came from inside the house. Alarmed, Abraham stopped and waited. Then, brandishing his wife’s knitting needles like weapons, he crept up to a window…but could not make himself look in.
He heard the familiar voice of Unise Cole ranting, and much to his astonishment, a great hollow voice, which sounded to him as if someone had spoken out of the earth or from within some hollow vessel, was answering her tirade. Abraham strained to catch what was being said, but the harder he tried the more confusing the words became.
Abraham recalled that Jonathan Thing had once fallen victim to Unise’s powers to distort a man’s senses, too. She had been walking behind him, and, in a short time, sooner than anyone could possibly go, she was in front of him about twenty rods or more. Another time he spied her among his cattle, staring into his house. When he went up to her to see what she did there, she seemed to swim away through the air, so fast that he, a strong and healthy man, could not catch her.
Unise continued to rant and the voice continued to answer in its strange and unworldly manner. Abraham recalled some words from the Bible…thy voice also shall be out of the ground like him that hath a spirit of divination…the preachers said the Devil had a spirit of divination! Abraham’s heart thumped in his chest; the sweat was cold in his palms. Could this be the voice of the Old Deluder that now blasted his ears?
Abraham had been at the Salisbury court some years ago when Unise Cole had been sentenced to be whipped. When the constable tore down her shift, he discovered a witch-teat lurking beneath one of her breasts. And his wife had seen a place on Unise’s leg where the imps had sucked at her, a sure sign that she was a witch. Later that night she had sent her evil cat familiar to the constable in his bed, just as she had once sent a cat familiar to kill old Goodman Wedgwood as he lay sick in his bed. The constable had gone right to prayer, which likely saved his life. Wedgwood had not been so lucky.
God help him, someone must bear witness to what he was now hearing. He would not be called a loggerheaded fool by the townsmen who said that Unise Cole was not a witch; that she was merely reprobate, not one of the elect, and that it was God’s desire for the saints to live among such forsaken people. They hadn’t listened when not two weeks ago he had found some of his lambs lying dead in the field, with Goody Cole standing nearby muttering, over and over, “It must be so, it shall be so, do what you will.”
But this! This would convince the Sadducees who said that witchcraft was all delusion. The Court would be bound to enforce the law that says “If any man or woman be a witch, that is, hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit, they shall be put to death.”
Mistress Higgins of Boston, the magistrate’s widow, had swung from the gallows for a much less offense. If only the ministers would come out against her, then others would believe, too.
Abraham dropped the knitting needles and ran across the field to Drake’s house, where he found twenty-one-year-old Abraham Drake and another man, Alexander Denham, returning from the barn. Like Perkins’s livestock, Drake’s cattle had been killed by the witchcraft of Unise Cole.
After hearing Abraham tell what he had heard next door, Drake and Denham agreed to return with him to the cottage. Together they crossed the field, stepped through the gate, and braved a look in the window. They could see her ambling up and down the floorboards, stopping now and then to clatter the door, and speaking all the while in an agitated manner. They heard the great hollow voice as it made her answer in a strange manner, that is, she spoke some words in a loud voice and some words more softly. Like Abraham, neither Drake nor Denham could make out the words the hollow voice was saying. Unise went often to the hearth, where nearby in the corner loomed a shimmering red substance.
Cursed livestock, lurking animal familiars, a bewitched babe, a murdered man…and now this! The men hardly dared to breathe. It was time to alert Samuel Dalton, who lived next door. As town clerk, local magistrate, and Hampton’s deputy to the General Court, he would know what to do.
Dalton was at his desk copying court decrees into his journal when the three visibly shaken men arrived at his door. After hearing their story, he flung his great woolen cloak over his shoulders, grabbed a lantern, and went with them across the way. He rapped his stout walking stick sharply against Unise’s door.
“Who talks to you in there, Goodwife Cole?” he demanded to know. Even at the age of thirty-one his stern disposition made him well-suited for his positions of authority.
Inside the cottage, Unise and her hollow-voiced visitor fell silent.
“Who talks to you?” Dalton repeated, and again rapped his stick against the door. “Open this door so we may see.”
After a long, breathless moment the door creaked open. Dalton swung his lantern up to get a good look at Unise standing bareheaded at the threshold, her unbound hair hanging in gray straggles around her face. Her clothes were so old and ragged that if it had not been for the tattered bible she held pressed to her breast, she could have passed for a crumpled bag of dirty linen.
“There’s nobody here but me,” she said in a soft, groveling voice reserved especially for her betters.
Her eyes darted past Dalton to the three men standing like scared deer in her yard, ready to bolt at the slightest provocation.
“That you, Tom Webster?” she called, her voice now a ragged blade that cut the night. “Don’t worry, you louse; soon enough Unise Cole won’t be here neither. Then this great manor house and all its lands will be yours forever. And may you choke on it!”
Dalton, a man of ample dignity, ignored the outburst. “There’s been nobody with you this night?” he pressed.
Back to obsequious. “Nay, nobody’s been a-visiting old Widow Cole.”
“Who was it spoke to you, then?”
“I wasn’t talking to nobody,” Unise insisted. She looked down at her bible. “Maybe I have been reciting some of the good words Mr. Cotton says at meeting,” she offered.
This annoyed Dalton. Dragging the pastor’s name into it would earn no sympathy from him. Without invitation he stepped past her into the tiny house. He surveyed the rooms, still looking the same as the day old William had died, except for Widow Cole’s meager effects, which amounted to not much more than a quarter-cart of old tin and rags, piled in a heap by the door. He peered into the hearth, where a small, wretched fire burned, then into the corner where the men had reported seeing a red glowing form. Whatever they had seen and heard was not there now. He would write down in his journal what the men had seen, but as she was to return to prison the next day, he saw no reason to report it. He would remember the incident, should he need to use it against her in the future.
The next morning, long before dawn had touched the marshes and fields of the pious Hampton planters, Constable William Fifield hoisted Unise Cole aboard his horse and rode her back to Boston, to the jail on Prison Lane that has been called “the nearest resemblance to hell on earth.” With iron-spiked doors and passageways like “the dark valley of the shadow of death,” it was a twilight world of human misery and neglect, one that Unise Cole knew all too well.
Either in ways for or against this proceeding, a dead silence echoed loudly from Hampton and its church.
©2013 Cheryl Lassiter