Entertaining Satan

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Similar stories are preserved in the lore of many New England towns. Through them we can trace an enduring interest in the idea of witchcraft and also an unmistakable change. The figure of the witch gradually lost its power to inspire fear. In many towns, for many generations, there were une or two persons suspected of practicing the black arts, but the effects of such practice were discounted. Witches were associated more and more with simple mischief—and less with death and destruction. There was even, as the Moulton story shows, an element of humor in the later lore of witchcraft.

 

In our own time the wheel has turned full circle. There are many new witches among us —self-proclaimed, and proud of the fact. They haunt our television talk-shows and write syndicated columns for our newspapers. Their witchcraft is entirely constructive —so they assure us —and we are all invited to join in their celebration of things occult. Meanwhile some of the old witches have been rehabilitated.

Hampton, New Hampshire: March 8,1938. A town meeting considers the case of a certain Eunice Cole, whose witchcraft was locally notorious three centuries before. The following motion is made: “ Resolved , that we, the citizens … of Hampton … do hereby declare that we believe that Eunice (Goody) Cole was unjustly accused of witchcraft and familiarity with the Devil in the seventeenth century, and we do hereby restore to the said Eunice (Goody) Cole her rightful place as a citizen of the town of Hampton.” The resolution is passed unanimously. In fact, the legend of Goody Cole has become a cherished part of the local culture. A bronze urn in the town hall holds material purported to be her earthly remains. A stone memorial on the village green affirms her twentieth-century rehabilitation. There are exhibits on her life at the local historical society. There are even some new tales in which she plays a ghostly, though harmless part: an aged figure, in tattered shawl, seen walking late at night along a deserted road, or stopping in the early dawn to peer at gravestones by the edge of the green.

And now an author’s postscript:

Hampton, New Hampshire: October, 1972. The living room in a comfortable house abutting the main street. A stranger has come there, to examine a venerable manuscript held in this family through many generations. Laboriously his eyes move across the page, straining to unravel the cramped and irregular script of a bygone era. Two girls, aged nine or ten, arrive home from school; after a brief greeting they move off into an alcove and begin to play. Awash in the sounds of their game, the stranger looks up from his work and listens. “I’ll be Goody Cole!” cries one of the girls. “Yes,” responds the other, “and I’ll be the one who gives you a whipping—you mean old witch!”

It is a long way from their time to ours, but at least a few of the early New England witches have made the whole journey.