Decades before the Salem witch trials, two women were accused of witchcraft in New Hampshire. Jane Walford and Eunice Cole stood trial in the same year, within just a few miles of each other, but their lives ended quite differently. The fates of these women might provide insight into what a historical witch actually was, and why some survived their trials while others did not.
This is first episode of "The Real Witches of New Hampshire," a three-part series and collaboration between New Hampshire Public Radio and New Hampshire Humanities.
Listen to the rest of the series:
- Part 2: The Cutting Edge of the Occult traces the evolution of modern witchcraft and the occult.
- Part 3: The Road to Witch City, a look at the commercialization of witchcraft, feminism, and tragedy.
You can tell a lot about a person and the time they lived from their grave. But even more telling are the gravestones missing from the cemetery.
In Salem, Massachusetts, at the edge of a 17th century graveyard, off a side street near downtown, lies a memorial. It's a shady square lined with stone benches, each carved with the name and death date of the victims of the 1692 witch trials, the biggest witch hunt in early America.
During the witch trials in Salem, nineteen people were hanged, one man was pressed to death, and five died in prison, including an infant. In total, at least 150 people were arrested and perhaps 200 were accused.
Since the victims were found guilty of a religious crime, the memorial in Salem today is not a grave – in fact, no one actually knows where their bodies are buried.
The story of the Salem witch trials has become the dominant and, perhaps, only story that people know about historical witch trials, even though witch trials occurred throughout New England. Yet even in Salem, questions remain surrounding the cause of the witch hunt, and new theories regularly emerge to try to explain why many people got caught up in the fear and why so many people died.
But decades before the Salem Witch Trials, two women stood trial for witchcraft in New Hampshire in the same year. Jane Walford and Eunice Cole lived within just a few miles of each other, but their lives ended quite differently. Their fates might provide insight into what a historical witch actually was, and why some survived their trials, and others did not.
The figure of the witch has transformed radically over time. In some depictions, like The Witch (2015), they are terrifying acolytes of the devil.
A "pop culture" version emerges in the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz and more relatable modern witches like Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Monty Python and the Holy Grail depicts a medieval witch enduring a sham trial, making a joke out of one of the scariest aspects of the witch: the label functioned as a means of persecution, and a definition that leaves no way out.
Historian Emerson Baker defines witchcraft as "a satanic pact that an individual makes with the devil in order to gain power and knowledge from Satan... the enemy of God and mankind." Victims of historical witch trials didn’t proclaim themselves to be witches but were accused of witchcraft by others.
New Hampshire's Seacoast communities might have been primed for a potential witch hunt.
"You almost could have had a mini outbreak of witchcraft [on the Seacoast]," said Baker. "Under different conditions, I think there might have been."
There were several factors that likely contributed to outbreaks of witchcraft accusations in New England: primarily, the Puritan population on the Seacoast.
The Puritans were a very devout group of Christians who left England because it wasn’t devout enough for them. Their belief structure meant that for them, the world was a terrifying and enchanted place, and all the more so when they arrived in the New World. Essex County, Massachusetts - which includes Salem - was predominantly Puritan.
The Puritans were responsible for more witch trials and executions than any other group of early American colonizers, partly because in the 17th century, they grew more interested in rooting out common forms of household magic. At the time, a lot of people routinely performed small acts of magic, like spells for toothaches or finding lost objects.
Some people found themselves on the wrong side of the line, a confusing and terrifying turn that was codified into religious and legal doctrine in England, and eventually New Hampshire:
“Yf any man or woman be a witch (that is) hath or consulteth with a familliar spirit, they shall be put to death.”
By the time Eunice Cole and her husband William arrived in New England in the 1630s, she and her husband were already in debt from their passage from England.
They settled in Hampton and Eunice quickly found herself running afoul of her neighbors. She gained a reputation as a grumpy, argumentative person, and frequently got into fights with over issues like property boundaries and roaming livestock.
“At the time that they moved over here, all of sudden, things start happening for Eunice. She had a mouth... she was not well-liked by her neighbors,” said Lori White Cotter, an author, retired teacher, and volunteer at the Tuck Museum in Hampton.
Eunice was charged with slander in 1645. Two years later, she and her husband were charged with stealing pigs. In this dispute, Eunice bit the constable.
In the 1650s, the stakes escalated. Instead of neighborhood disagreements, people started accusing her of being responsible for their personal misfortunes, like the deaths of young children, sinking ships, and ailing cattle.
"They started trying... to pinpoint this one thing. They had to have a reason. They went to church every Sunday and heard these speeches of people who said, 'the Devil is among us! If you don't do what the Church says, you're going to be struck by the Devil.' When people listen to that, they think, who is the devil among us?" said Cotter.
Eventually, Eunice was accused of being a witch.
The case against her relied on signs and evidence explained in guidebooks that helped people identify witchcraft, including one published by King James I of England.
First, witches were associated with animals, especially cats. This is because, after a witch makes a pact with Satan, he gives them an animal familiar, or a demon in animal form.
In Eunice’s case, signs of an animal familiar appeared during her first trial. Her neighbors testified that, while they were discussing the possibility that Eunice might be responsible for a child’s death, they on a sudden "heard something scrape against the boards of the windows," but they "looked aboute and could see nothing."
The scraping "was so loude that if a dogg or a catt had done it.”
Second, a witch can be recognized for her “witch’s mark.” Today, this might be interpreted as a skin tag, mole, or another sign of aging, but in the 1600s, a witch’s mark was the place where an animal familiar fed on a witch’s blood.
The discovery of a witch’s mark was a key piece of evidence in Eunice Cole’s trial. During one of her punishments, in which she was publicly whipped, the constable “saw a blue thing like unto a teat hanging downward about three quarters of an inch long not very thick..”
When the court called for a group of women to inspect the mark more closely, Eunice scratched it off her body.
Eunice was found guilty and sent to prison. While she was in prison, her husband William passed away. When she returned to Hampton, she found herself poor and landless. With nowhere to turn, she became the town’s responsibility.
Eunice was accused of witchcraft again in 1673 and 1680. In each case, the court found her likely guilty of witchcraft, but lacked the evidence for a conviction. When she wasn’t in jail, Eunice lived out the rest of her days in a hut on the town green.
"We're not sure when she died.... she couldn't be registered because she was not a Christian," said Cotter. Historical information is sparse and like the victims of the Salem witch trials, no one actually knows where Eunice Cole was buried.
"So the rumour that was said, that they dragged her out of the house... she had boarded up the house, didn't want any visitors. Didn't show up for three days or so, so they went in and found she had passed away. So, they took her out. The people gathered her up, threw her in a ditch somewhere, and then on top of her grave, put the stake with the horseshoe on it to ward off any evil spirits."
“Frankly, you can look into it with a mirror and see whatever you want to see when you’re looking at witchcraft,” said historian Emerson Baker.
“I see witchcraft more than anything else as a sign of community trouble, and it plays out in many different ways… whether it’s gender, whether it’s ethnicity, or any number of different factors.”
For instance, to explain the factors contributing to the Salem witch trials, Baker points to a combination of fears: frontier warfare with the Wabanaki, tension between different religious groups, and a period of particularly bad weather.
That being said, though, “it clearly is a gendered crime,” said Baker. Historically, roughly three-quarters of people accused of witchcraft were women. Historians of witchcraft in New England have also identified a pattern of accusations being leveled against women who had property by people who were in a position to buy or take control of that property – including in Salem.
Some of those political and gendered dynamics are evident in the case of Jane Walford, another woman tried for witchcraft on New Hampshire’s Seacoast in 1656. Like Eunice Cole, Jane Walford was accused of witchcraft three times. But her story played out quite differently.
"She's one of the rarest of witches to have not only accusations at three different times in her life, but to have survived them all!" said Emerson Baker.
Jane was first accused of witchcraft by Elizabeth Rowe in 1648. Jane then sued Elizabeth for slander and the court, amazingly, ordered Elizabeth to publicly apologize to Jane and to pay her two pounds.
Unlike Eunice, Jane had the protection of her husband, who was, in the early days of Portsmouth, an important man in town. Since most accusations of witchcraft were made against women and women had very little status in the 17th century, a woman without a man to stand up for her was more likely to end up in trouble. Plus, Jane’s accuser was known to be “quarrelsome,” the kind of woman who might herself be vulnerable to a witchcraft accusation.
Jane was accused again a few years later after an encounter with a neighbor, Suzanna Trimmings. Suzanna reported that she heard rustling in the woods one night and saw Jane emerge from the trees. Suzanna was attacked by “a clap of fire” and she saw Jane Walford turn into a cat and then canish.
But Jane had her supporters. One neighbor testified that he’d seen Jane at home on the evening when Suzanna claimed to have seen her. Ultimately, Jane was acquitted, and when she was accused a third time – by a physician in Boston, no less – she again sued for slander and won five pounds.
If Jane had lived elsewhere, perhaps in Salem, she might not have escaped a death sentence. One explanation for why she was spared could be the evolving legal system in New Hampshire.
Part of the case brought against her was spectral evidence, which relied on the theory that a witch’s spirit or animal familiar could be sent out in the night while her physical body was somewhere else - perhaps at home, as Jane's neighbor testified.
The inclusion of spectral evidence puts the accused in an impossible position: if witches can be in multiple places at once, demonstrating one’s innocence might prove difficult.
Spectral evidence played a major part in escalating the Salem witch trials. But in New Hampshire, which was home to a mix of Puritans and more moderate Anglicans, the courts were growing stricter about the types of evidence allowed.
For instance, a different witch trial originating in Hampton in 1681 (brought by some of the same people who accused Eunice Cole) was eventually brought before a higher court in Dover, but was dismissed.
New Hampshire’s legal system protected Jane but accusations of witchcraft continued.
In fact, one of Jane’s daughters was later accused of witchcraft because of a belief that witchcraft traveled in families.
To this day, Jane Walford is still associated with witchcraft.
Author and metaphysical instructor Roxie Zwicker operates historical ghost tours of Portsmouth, and her “Spirits of the Past” trolley tour of Newcastle includes the setting of Jane Walford’s story.
Over three centuries later, the site is still called Witch Cove.
At some point, collective public understanding of witchcraft largely shifted from fear to a sense of massive injustice. Eventually, the town of Hampton began to demonstrate regret for its treatment of Eunice Cole.
“We talk about things being cyclical in our culture,” said Amanda Reynolds Cooper, executive director of the Lane Memorial Library in Hampton. “They come around. But there is a reason!”
“We basically persecuted this woman for being a single elderly lady who had a bad attitude... how do we make this all okay, with a wave of our magical wand?” added Stacey Mazur, the library’s assistant director.
In 1938, Hampton threw a week-long party to celebrate its 300th anniversary. The celebration included a remembrance of the Eunice Cole organized by the Society in Hampton for the Apprehension of those Falsely Accusing Goody Cole for having Familiarity with the Devil.
The event involved a ceremonial burning of copies of her court documents, and the ashes were placed in a canister with soil from her “home and burying place,” according to articles covering the affair. The event was attended by 3000 people, including Mrs. Harry Houdini.
At their town meeting that year, Hampton also voted to exonerate Eunice and declared her “unjustly accused of witchcraft and of familiarity with the devil.”
But some residents were concerned with the protection of their ancestors’ reputation, including Arnold Philbrick from Haverhill, a descendent of one of Eunice Cole’s accusers, Thomas Philbrick.
The Hampton Union & Rockingham Gazette reported that, "with considerable pride… [Arnold Dodge Philbrick] pointed out qualities of his ancestor and the other pioneer settlers to the town, which made them able to withstand the rigors of the time and trying conditions which they were continually to meet and which they successfully overcame.
He registered his opposition to any action which would in any way discredit those concerned in the persecution of Goody Cole. They acted in good faith. 'Pity them if you will, but do not censor them,' he wrote.”
Decades later, Hampton Falls resident Robert McClung doubted the town’s motivations in 1938, partly because they didn’t actually install her memorial until the 1960s. His doubts were not eased by the sale of Goody Cole dolls, commemorative coins, and stamps at the 1938 celebration.
“I could relate to her story because I basically felt that this was a woman that had gotten picked on,” said McClung.
In 2013, McClung produced a symphonic progressive rock album called “The Legend of Goody Cole,” and used the proceeds from its sales to install a plaque in front of her previously unmarked memorial stone.
But even after her exoneration and memorial stone, Goody Cole still makes appearances in legends and ghost stories, including a story featured in a 1997 docu-drama produced by NH Public Television called The Mysteries of New Hampshire.
In the film, a police officer notices an older woman walking the streets of Hampton. When he slows to speak to her, she simply tells him, "I have been walking here for centuries." Before he can stop her, she disappears - but not before leaving an old bonnet in her place.
In the story, Eunice Cole is still a witch.
While historical witches like Eunice Cole and Jane Walford would never have called themselves a witch (and almost certainly hadn’t signed a pact with the devil), that’s not the case now.
Today, there are plenty of witches in New Hampshire.
That's in the next episode of Second Greatest - dropping October 30.