Virtually the entire town of Hampton, N.H., believed Eunice Cole was a witch, and from 1656 to 1680 she was hauled into court three times to face charges. She was convicted once. Yet the greatest magic feat she accomplished was dying peacefully in her own bed.
Eunice Cole and her husband William were servants indentured to Matthew Craddock, a Puritan and the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Company. Though Craddock never left England, he was active in recruiting English settlers to move to America and take part in his new venture.
In 1637, when Eunice would have been about 47, she and her husband came to Massachusetts, promising to pay Craddock £10 for releasing them from his service.
The Coles were first offered land in Quincy, Mass. and then Exeter, N.H. and finally settled on a 40-acre parcel of land in Hampton, N.H.. The Coles were followers of the Rev. John Wheelwright, a somewhat controversial Christian minister.
William, a carpenter, never prospered in Hampton, though he and Eunice were accepted members of society and attended meeting. Eunice, by all accounts, was a difficult and unlikable person. This probably contributed to her legal problems.
In 1656, Eunice Cole was taken to Boston to stand trial for witchcraft. She faced a variety of charges that included bringing sickness on people she feuded with, killing their animals through mysterious ways and even knowing secrets about people she could only know through aid of the devil.
The court definitely concluded that Eunice was guilty of familiarity with the devil, but there is some debate about whether Eunice was actually convicted of witchcraft. Some say she was, but others believe the court convicted her of a lesser crime because she was not ordered to be executed. Rather, she was ordered to be whipped and imprisoned for as long as the court thought appropriate.
William Cole apparently did not miss his wife much, though he did miss her labor on their farm. With Eunice languishing in prison, William turned to the townspeople for assistance with his daily needs. The townspeople provided it, but it could not use his property as a means of payment because he had deeded it to Eunice. She had apparently threatened to leave him if he did not.
William Cole petitioned the courts to return his land to him, though he apparently did not ask for the return of Eunice.
Eunice did get herself freed from jail, however, by arguing that her help was needed by her aging husband. But before she could get herself free, William had managed to get the deed to the couple’s property returned to him, and he promptly died. His death set up a dispute over the land. In invalidating Eunice’s deed, the court had ordered the property was to be taken by the town and used to pay for Eunice and William’s care.
William, meanwhile, had written a will that left the property to a neighbor. The court stepped in and settled the matter, giving half the estate to the neighbor and giving half of it to the town, for support of Eunice.
Eunice did not stay free for long. The terms of her release from jail required that she leave the colony within one month. Rather than depart, Eunice went back to her old ways and was soon back in prison by 1662, charged with slanderous speech. In and out of prison over the next ten years, in 1673 she was again formally charged with witchcraft. This time she was accused of attempting to lure a young girl into living with her, taking various animal shapes and causing a neighbor’s oven to produce foul tasting bread.
Unconvinced that Eunice’s crimes met the legal requirements for a finding that she was a witch, the court did conclude that their was reasonable suspicion that she had “familiarity with the devil.”
Eunice’s care was now up to the town of Hampton, which provided her with a small dwelling. Each family in town was required to take turns providing her with food and fuel. In 1680, the townspeople made one final attempt to have Eunice convicted. They gathered up all the previous charges and added a few more and she was once again taken to court. The court, however, was unpersuaded. Eunice was allowed to return home.
With Eunice Cole nearing 90 years of age, one day in October of 1680 several townspeople remarked that no one had seen Eunice for several days. Proceeding to her home, they found her dead. Legend holds that the townspeople hastily dug a grave and tossed Eunice’s body in it. They then attached a horseshoe (for luck) to a stake and drove it through her grave.
Eunice Cole’s story was immortalized in poems by John Greenleaf Whittier. In 1938 the Town of Hampton finally corrected the error of its ways when it adopted a formal resolution acknowledging that Eunice Cole was not a witch.
The Hampton public library maintains a thorough collection of materials related to Eunice Cole at its website.
Thanks to: The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England by Carol F. Karlsen and Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England by John Putnam Damos.