Excerpts from "The Devil in the Shape of a Woman"

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Excerpts from THE DEVIL IN THE SHAPE OF A WOMAN: WITCHCRAFT IN COLONIAL NEW ENGLAND by Carol F. Karlsen, pp. 52-57, 282-287. Copyright (c) 1987 by Carol F. Karlsen. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. This book is an excellent overview of witchcraft in colonial New England and can be purchased through Amazon.com.

Eunice Cole was first tried for witchcraft crimes in Boston in the fall of 1656. It was not her first court appearance; she had been brought before local magistrates in Essex and Norfolk counties on several occasions for lesser crimes, the first time in 1645, when she was charged with making "slanderous speeches."(19) Her reckless speech also figured strongly in the evidence presented in her witchcraft trial. Goodwife Marston and Susanna Palmer testified "that goodwife Cole said shee was sure there was a witche in the towne, and she knew where hee dwelt" and that Cole had also said that she had known somebody years before who was "bewitched as good-wife marston's childe was." Thomas Philbrick, who had lost two calves, deposed that Goody Cole had let him know that if his calves ate "any of hir grass she wished it might poyson them or choke them." Richard Ormsby, constable of Salisbury, said that when he had stripped Cole for whipping he saw "under one of hir brests... a bleu thing like unto a teate hanging downeward about thre quarters of an inche longe ... [with] some blood with other moystness [which she said] was a sore." (20)

On this and other like testimony, Cole was apparently convicted. The magistrates were reluctant to execute her, however. Instead, they sentenced her to what she afterwards called a "duble" punishment: both to be whipped and to be imprisoned "during [her] life or the pleasure of the court." (21) She spent most of the next twelve to fifteen years incarcerated in the Boston jail.

Probably within the first year of her imprisonment, Eunice Cole petitioned the General Court for her release, pleading her own "aged and weake ...condition" and the infirmities of her husband, William Cole, who, "being 88 yeeres of Age," needed the kind of care that "none but a wife would" provide. She also asked the magistrates to consider the condition of "that little estate" she and her husband had accumulated in Hampton, which, she averred, she had been "the greatest instrument under God to get us" but which "all goes to ruine" in her absence. Alluding to the criminal behavior that had brought her to her present straits, she promised "for the future ... to behave [herself] both in word and deed towards those amongst whom" she dwelt.(22). Although the magistrates' response to Cole's plea has not survived, they were evidently unwilling to release her at this time.

In 1659, William Cole sent a petition of his own to the General Court, describing the predicament both he and the town of Hampton were in because of his wife's imprisonment, and asking the magistrates for "some relief in the case." He could not farm the land alone, he said, and could not afford to hire someone to assist him because he had signed his estate over to his wife sometime previously, "to keep her from going away from him." Unable to eke out a subsistence and on the verge of perishing, he had had to call upon the town for relief, which had been supplied. But, he added, "without recourse to a lawsuit..., the town could recover nothing for the assistance rendered." (23)

Goodman Cole does not seem to have been disingenuous about his or the town's plight. He and his wife had no children to assist them with the farm labor, and in 1658, at least the town apparently provided him with some aid. (24) In 1656, moreover, the same year that Goodwife Cole was tried for witchcraft, he had signed a deed of gift, transferring "all his estate" to his wife -- though years later witnesses testified that the transfer was to occur "at his death." (25) Whatever significance this 1656 deed had for William Cole or his community, the General Court invalidated it in 1659. In response to William Cole's petition, they ordered "that the town of Hampton should take into their possession all the estate belonging to the said Cole, or his wife -- as was pretended -- and out of said estate, or otherwise, as they should see cause, supply the said Cole's and his wife's necessities during their lives." (26)

If William Cole specifically requested his wife's liberty in his 1659 petition, his words went unrecorded. But within a year, Eunice Cole was back in Hampton. Despite her earlier promise to watch her tongue, she was soon presented at the county court for "unseemly speeches." (27) By 1662 , whether for this reason or some other, she had been returned to the Boston prison. In that year, her husband died and she petitioned again for her freedom. (28)

Shortly before his death, William Cole had written a will that voided his earlier transfer of his property to his wife and left his £59 estate [minus debts] to his neighbor Thomas Webster, with the stipulation that Webster provide for him "Comfortably" for the duration of his life. (29) The Hampton selectmen, who officially controlled the Cole estate, were not happy with this will; nor were they pleased with the possibility that Eunice Cole might be allowed to return again to their town. Boston jailer William Salter, who had not been paid, at least not in full, by the selectmen for Eunice Cole's prison maintenance, was also upset. When the General Court met on 8 October 1662, they had to consider not only Eunice Cole's petition but one from Salter and one from the town of Hampton. In answer to all three, the magistrates ordered "that the said Unice Cole pay what is due on arreares to the keeper, and be released the prison, on condicion that she depart, within one month after her release, out of this jurisdiction, and not to returne againe on poenalty of hir former sentenc being executed against hir." (30)

Cole was released at this time, but she did not leave the colony within the month. Almost immediately upon her return to Hampton, witchcraft suspicions resurfaced and before long she found herself back in prison. (31) Meanwhile, William Cole's estate was being settled; by October 1663, the county court had divided the remaining Cole property between Thomas Webster and Eunice Cole, but arranged for Cole's share - by now only £8 - to be paid to the Hampton selectmen "for her use." (32) Evidently, the town had still not completely paid the costs of keeping her in prison, because in 1664 William Salter had one of the Hampton selectmen arrested for ignoring his demand for Cole's fees. (33) In 1665, Cole petitioned yet another time for her release. And again the court consented, this time stipulating only that she give security for her permanent departure from the colony. (34) With little or nothing left of her estate, she could not meet the requirements and remained in jail.

At some point between 1668 and 1671, Eunice Cole was discharged from the Boston prison, but by 1671 she was back in Hampton, completely destitute. The selectmen arranged for her maintenance by providing her with what, according to the folklore of the region, was a "hut" along the Hampton River, and by requiring that a different family supply her with food and fuel each week.(35) In 1673, however, she was back in front of the Boston court facing another witchcraft charge. This time she was accused of appearing in various human and animal shapes to entice a young girl "to come to live with her," of "inchanting [the] oven" of the constable who was responsible for bringing her the provisions her neighbors supplied, and of commiting many other crimes, both recent and longstanding. (36) She was acquitted of all specific charges, but with the strong reservations of the court: "in the case of unis cole now prisoner att the Bar -- not Legally guilty according to Inditement butt just ground of vehement suspissyon of her having had famillyarryty with the devill." (37) In spite of the court's reluctance, Cole was allowed to return again to Hampton.

There is little information on how Cole fared the next several years, but clearly her reputation as a witch did not diminish. By 1680, she was in prison again, awaiting the decision of the Hampton court as to whether she should be tried a third time. After hearing testimony, the court decided the evidence was insufficient for indictment -- but not for punishment. The presiding magistrate allowed that there was "not full proofe" that she was a witch, but, he added, "the Court vehemently suspects her so to be." He ordered her imprisoned again "until this Court take further order," this time "with a lock to be kept on her legg" to prevent her escape. (38)

Little else about Cole's life can be verified. According to local legend, she was released from prison one more time and lived out her last days in the hovel by the river, completely ostracized by the community. When she died, it is said, her body was dragged outdoors, pushed into a shallow grave, and a stake driven through it "in order to exorcise the baleful influence she was supposed to have possessed."(39)


(19) Essex Court Records 1:88, and see also 129, 143, 238, 313; Essex County Quarterly Court File Papers, Works Progress Administration Transcripts, 75 vols. (Essex Institute, Salem, Mass.), 1:doc.93 (hereafter cited as Essex Court File Papers); Records of the Quarterly Court, Ipswich, 1645-1663 (manuscript volume, Essex Institute, Salem, Mass.), doc. 12; Norfolk Court Records, 1648-1678 (manuscript volume, Essex Institute, Salem, Mass.), docs. 30, 50.

(20) These depositions are in Massachusetts Archives 135:2-3. Additional testimony presented against Eunice Cole at this time can be found in Suffolk Court Files 2:256a; Trials for Witchcraft in New-England (unpaged), dated 5 September 1656 (manuscript volume, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.).

(21) "The humble petition of Unice Coles, wife of William Coles of Hampton, Now prisoner in Boston," undated doc., Massachusetts Archives 10:261.

We cannot be sure that Cole was convicted of witchcraft at this time, because the surviving evidence is open to conflicting interpretations. John Demos, for instance, argues that "there is reason to conclude" that she was not. He bases his argument on the fact that she was not executed (Witchcraft was a capital crime in Massachusetts Bay, and a judgement of guilt invariably brought the death sentence") and on references in local records that suggest that she was in Hampton in 1658 and possibly in 1659. (See Entertaining Satan, 322; 494-95, nn. 48-49.)

I find the evidence for a guilty verdict more persuasive. First, as I argue in chapter 1, after Ann Hibben's execution earlier in 1656, New England magistrates were more cautious than before in their treatment of witches. At least three of the seven persons who were clearly convicted of witchcraft in the three decades following Hibben's death were not executed. Cole may well have been another, especially considering the brief time period between Hibben's hanging and Cole's trial. Equally important, an indeterminate prison sentence such as the one Cole said she received, though rare for anyone in early New England, would have been a highly unlikely punishment for a less serious crime. Other documents confirm, moreover, that Cole was actually in prison for an extended, if intermittent, period. In addition, when setting conditions for Cole's possible release several years later, the magistrates threatened to carry out "hir former sentenc" if she did not abide by their terms, and her reappearance in jail at a later time suggests that they followed through with this threat.

Although Eunice Cole was clearly in Hampton at least briefly in late 1660 and again in late 1662, I am not persuaded that she was out of prison before late 1659. Demos has uncovered a previously unknown reference to a payment to the Hampton constable "for Expense about G. Coule" for 1658 that he finds establishes her presence in Hampton at that time. But other evidence indicates that this expense was for her husband (Goodman, rather than Goodwife, Cole). In a 1659 petition, William Cole said that the town of Hampton had provided him with relief, and later records show that the town did take some responsibility for his maintenance in the years before his death in 1662. (See below, text and notes, for William Cole's subsequent history and supporting documentation for this interpretation.)

(22) "The humble petition of Unice Coles." Possibly because the General Court responded to one of Cole's petitions in October 1662, other historians have attributed this undated document to that year. (See, for instance, Demos, Entertaining Satan, 323; 495 n. 5; Joseph Dow, The History of the Town of Hampton, New Hampshire (Salem, Mass., 1893), 1:68 (hereafter cited as Dow, History of Hampton.)However, in this petition, Cole mentioned that she was given her indeterminate prison sentence by the Massachusetts Court of Assistants "the last first month," which by the colonial calendar would have been the previous March. Since there is no evidence that Cole was tried again by the Court of Assistants early in 1662 (or late in 1661), I find it more likely that this petition was written earlier. I suspect that in the wake of the controversy over Ann Hibben's execution, the magistrates put off their decision about her sentence in her 1656 trial until March 1657, and that Cole sent her petition to the General Court within the following year.

It has not been possible to confirm the date of this document by the age Eunice Cole attributed to her husband. The only available independent estimate of William Cole's age has him 88 early in 1659; see John Demos, "Old Age in Early New England," in The American Family in Social-Historical Perspective, 2d ed., ed. Michael Gordon (New York, 1978), 247. Although this evidence ostensibly supports my argument that the document was probably written earlier than other writers have said, given the casualness with which early New Englanders kept track of their ages we can assume possible error in records of adult ages of several years in either direction. Eunice Cole's own age, incidentally, is nowhere recorded.

(23) Dow, History of Hampton, 1:68. This petition has been lost since Dow wrote his history of the town. The first and last quotations in this paragraph are Dow's paraphrasing of William Cole's plea.

(24) Town Book of Hampton, 2:343 (manuscript volume, Town Offices, Hampton, N.H.). See also Essex Court Records 3:3, for additional evidence concerning the community's economic assistance to William Cole in the years before his death in 1662. As early as October 1656, a month after his wife's witchcraft trial, William Cole had deeded a parcel of land to his neighbor, Thomas Webster, in exchange for "the carrying of six loades of wood every winter untill ... tenn pounds bee payd." See Norfolk Deeds (manuscript volume, Registry of Deeds, Essex County Courthouse, Salem, Mass.), 1:97-98.

(25) Although this deed has not survived, it was brought into the Hampton court on 10 October 1671, where one of the original witnesses, Thomas Bradbury, testified that the signature was William Cole's. See Essex Court Records 4:428. These court records do not tell us why or for whom this deed was at issue 15 years after it was filed, but it is worth noting that in 1671, Eunice Cole had recently returned to Hampton, with few if any resources, and the town had required all of its inhabitants to contribute to her support (see text, below). Also significant, at roughly the same time that he was testifying about the Cole deed, the witness Thomas Bradbury was also a witness in a protracted inheritance battle involving another accused witch, Susanna Martin--and in the Martin case, the evidence strongly suggests that he was lying. (See below, 89-95.)

(26) Dow, History of Hampton 1:68.

(27) See Essex Court Records 2:375; Norfolk Court File Papers, 1650-1680 (Essex Institute, Salem, Mass.), docs. 16, 18.

(28) Since the exact dates of both William Cole's death and Eunice Cole's petition were not recorded, it is not clear which came first. If I am correct in my assumption that Eunice Cole's first petition for her release was submitted in 1657 or early 1658, then the contents of her 1662 plea are unknown.

(29) This will and some of the subsequent legal actions regarding it are recorded in Probate Records of the Province of New Hampshire, Provincial, Town and State Paper Series, 31, ed. Albert Stillman Batchellor (Concord, N.H., 1907), 53-55 (hereafter cited as New Hampshire Probate Records. The original will, along with an inventory of the estate, are in Essex County Probates (Register of Probates, Essex County Courthouse, Salem, Mass.), doc. 6001. See also Essex Court Records 3:3, 61, 100; Norfolk Court Records, 1648-1678, docs. 56, 60, 65.

(30) Mass. Records 4 (pt. 2): 70. See also Essex Court Records 3:3, 61, 100; Drake, Annals of Witchcraft, 100.

(31) See Massachusetts Archives 135:16; Suffolk Court Files 13:1228. These two documents, part of the record of Eunice Cole's 1673 witchcraft trial (see below, text) refer to November 1662, when the suspicions were first expressed. See also Essex Court Records 3:4 for documentation of a 14 October 1662 payment to Henry Green, "out of old Cole's estate for watching one day and one night with Eunice Coul." Since this payment was made only a week after the General Court set the conditions of Cole's release, it is possible that the county court paid Green for a "watching" of her while she was still in the Boston jail. (See Mass. Records 3:126 for an example of a court-ordered observation of accused witch Margaret Jones in 1648.) If so, it may have been that when Cole's former Hampton neighbors heard about her petition to the General Court for her release, they responded not only by counter-petitioning to keep her in jail, but also by arranging for a "watching" to bolster their position--to prove that the Devil or one of her familiars still came to her.

It is not clear when or why Cole was returned to jail. If she was tried again for witchcraft in late 1662 or in 1663, there is no record of it. More likely, she could not meet the condition that she leave the colony for good, and the General Court simply lived up to its promise to put her back in prison if she did not.

(32) Essex Court Records 3:61, 64, 100; New Hampshire Probate Records, 54-55; Norfolk Court Records, 1648-1678, docs. 56, 60, 65. The "one half" paid to the selectmen for Eunice Cole's "use" was only £8, despite a 1663 inventory that established that William Cole's estate, after debts, amounted to £41.0.5. Possibly it was so small because some of it had been used to pay William Salter for at least part of the cost of her prison maintenance. (See below, text, and Essex Court Records 3:100.)

(33) Dow, History of Hampton 1:67-68; Mass. Records 4 (pt.2):106. The remaining £8 in the Cole estate was paid to Salter after his dramatic move, but it was insufficient to meet his past expenses for Eunice Cole's maintenance, let alone his current ones, which ran about £8 per year. See Drake, Annals of Witchcraft, 100-1.

(34) Mass, Records 4 (pt.2):149.

(35) Dow, History of Hampton 1:79-80. See also Massachusetts Archives 135:13; Drake, Annals of Witchcraft, 101-2.

(36) For the testimony presented against Cole at this time, see Massachusetts Archives 135:4-17 (quotations are from 9 and 13); Suffolk Court Files 13:1228.

(37) Records of the Court of Assistants of the Colony of Massachussetts Bay, 1630-1692, ed. John Noble and John F. Cronin (Boston, 1901-28), 3:254 (hereafter cited as Mass. Assistants Records).

(38) New Hampshire Court Records, 1640-1692, Provincial, Town, and State Papers Series, 40, ed. Otis G. Hammond (New Hampshire, 1943), 368.

(39) Samuel A. Drake, A Book of New England Legends and Folklore in Prose and Poetry (Boston, 1901), 328-31. See also Demos, Entertaining Satan, 338; 501, n. 130.