by Cheryl Lassiter
Goodwife Unise Cole (c. 1600-1680) is a legendary figure throughout the seacoast towns of New Hampshire. She lived in Hampton, New Hampshire when it was still a town of the Massachusetts Bay colony. Married to a man much older than herself, childless, ill-tempered and shrewd, she was a bane to her neighbors. Over a 35-year period they repeatedly complained of her behavior and three times accused her of witchcraft. She was place under bond, fined, set in the stocks, whipped at least twice, and held in the Boston prison on and off for years. After her husband died, the court took her house and land and made her a ward of the town, which constantly sought to have her returned to prison. Some of her problems may have stemmed from her childlessness, as each fresh round of witchcraft accusations involved children in some way. As the prosecutor in her 1673 trial noted, “It was her design formerly to insinuate herself into young ones.“
1. What was Goody Cole’s birth name and when/where was she born?
We’ll never know the answers to these questions with absolute certainty, but, based on my discoveries in the records of St. Dunstan’s Anglican Church, Stepney, Middlesex, England, her birth name was Giles. Unise may have been born in County Sussex in 1597 (female Geales), Norfolk in 1597 (unknown Gyles), Devon in 1598 (female Giles), Lancashire in 1601 (unknown Gyles), or none of these.
2. When did she marry William Cole?
Of the more than 100 marriages of Englishmen named William Cole between 1600-1636, only one of them had a bride with the unusual name of Eunice, or, as the parish priest wrote it, “Eunica.” This woman married William Cole at St. Dunstan’s on February 2, 1634/5. Note that the image below says “1634.” But that was back in the day when March 1 was the first day of the new year, and February was the twelveth month. Hence the modern notation, “1634/5.”
3. Why do you spell Goody Cole’s first name with a “U” – as in Unise?
“Unise” was how Samuel Dalton, the Hampton justice, always spelled her name. Also, on the only document known to bear her personal mark, the scribe spelled her name as “Unice.” Close enough!
4. How many times was Unise accused of witchcraft?
During her heyday, probably once a day by her long-suffering neighbors! Officially, she was indicted by a court of law three times: in 1656, 1673, and 1680.
5. Was Goody Cole hanged?
Just like today, sentences of death were a big deal in the 17th century. Only the court in Boston could pass such a sentence, and only after a jury had found the accused person guilty of a capital crime. Witchcraft, of course, was a hanging crime, and in May 1656, just months before Goody Cole’s first trial, Mistress Ann Hibbins of Boston was found guilty of witchcraft (on the flimsiest of evidence). She was hanged the following month.
Since Unise was sentenced to corporal punishment and imprisonment, we might conclude that she was not convicted of the crime at her first trial. Some historians think that the magistrates’ shocking decision to execute the obviously innocent Ann Hibbins caused the people to think twice, and as a result those who were accused after her were treated less harshly. However, during the same period Quakers received brutal treatment at the hands of the Puritans: cut off ears, slit noses, tongues bored with hot irons…besides the usual whippings and hangings at the Boston gallows. And what about the three Quaker woman who were whipped through the towns three months after Unise’s 1656 trial, half-naked, tied to the “cart’s tayle” (Hampton has the infamy of having been one of those towns)? To say that overt brutality shocked the populace into handing out lesser punishments doesn’t quite ring true…unless anything short of death was then considered “lesser punishment.”
Some records from Unise’s 1656 trial no longer exist, so we will never know what verdict the jury handed down. My current opinion is that she was convicted, punished, and imprisoned for a lesser crime – yet, they did find the damning witch-marks on her body, which always makes me wonder, why wasn’t she put to death for a witch? I’m keeping my mind open on the subject.
The jury in her second trial in 1673 found her not “legally guilty,” but by God they vehemently suspected her of having had “familiarity with the Devil.” And back to Hampton she went, free as a bird.
In 1680, Unise died before they could hold a trial.
6. What witch-marks did they find on Unise?
In 1656 Unise was whipped. As the constable stripped off her blouse to whip her, below her left breast he saw a suspicious-looking “teat.” A jury of women was hastily assembled to inspect the rest of her body. They discovered a place on her legs that was a conjunction of veins all matted together. Sounds like varicose veins, doesn’t it? The “teat” must have been a supernumerary nipple, which is more common than you think…google Mark Wahlberg, he has one. Unfortunately for people like Unise Cole, such naturally-occurring imperfections were signs of witchery in the 17th century.
7. How many years did Unise spend in prison? How many times was she whipped?
During the quarter century encompassing 1656 – 1680, she spent about 13 years in the Boston prison. She was whipped at least two, and perhaps three, times. The first time was at Salisbury in 1656, the second (supposed) time at Boston in 1657, and the third time at Hampton, probably in 1661. Since we’re on the subject of corporal punishment, she was also set in the stocks for 1/2 hour at Hampton in 1645.
8. Did Unise Cole have children?
No. But wouldn’t it be fun to write a story in which she bears the bastard child of Hampton minister John Wheelwright? In the TV version, the child resurrects in the 21st century to save the town from his immortal, evil mother who wreaks revenge in the modern day on the town that did her wrong. Move over Vampire Diaries and Sleepy Hollow, FX here I come!
9. Did Unise Cole live in a shack near the Hampton river?
No. Near as I can tell, the 19th-century poet John Greenleaf Whittier was the first to place her at the riverbank in his poem, Wreck of Rivermouth. The dull fact is that Unise lived in the center of the village, somewhere near the meeting house, probably on the town’s alms lot.
10. Did Unise have a magic well near the river?
No. That appears to be a 1938 creation of the Goody Cole Society, made up for the 300th anniversary celebration of Hampton’s founding. I’ve written a special section at the end of my upcoming book, The Mark of Goody Cole, about their role in the tercentenary, culminating in the symbolic burning of Unise’s “ashes” (copies of the old trial documents) on Goody Cole Day. By the way, those ashes are on display in their original container at the Tuck Museum. Go see ‘em, and while you’re there, visit the new marker next to the iconic Goody Cole rock on the museum green. The marker was placed through the efforts of musician Robert McClung and unveiled at the close of the 375th celebration in August 2013.
11. When did Goody Cole die?
October 24, 1680. By law, the town clerk was obliged to record all births, deaths, and marriages in the town records. Henry Dow (my favorite Hampton Puritan!) was the clerk at the time. He kept pretty good records…except in Unise’s case. While the vital statistics of the other townspeople were written down in neat columns, Henry scribbled the notice of Unise’s death on a page of Norfolk County tax rates. He also wrote it in his coded journal, shown below (Henry Dow’s diary (photocopy), Hampton Historical Society Archives).
12. Did they drive a stake through her heart when they buried her?
No. In the 17th-18th centuries, by law those persons who committed suicide were buried by the highway with a stake in the grave to alert all who passed by of the profound sin of self-murder. I have theories that 1) this was the genesis of the modern method of destroying once-and-for-all the evil undead, and 2) that Unise may have committed suicide shortly after she was arrested for the third time on charges of witchcraft.