Folktale Friday: Tom Cook (Alice Morse Earle)

From Stage-Coach and Tavern Days by Alice Morse Earle, 1900, pp. 381-384.

In the year 1741 the little child of Cornelius Cook, the blacksmith of Westborough, Massachusetts, and of his wife Eunice, lay very close to death. As was the custom of the day, the good old parson, Dr. Parkman, and his deacons prayed earnestly over the boy, that the Lord’s will be done; but his mother in her distress pleaded thus: “Only spare his life, and I care not what he becomes.” Tom Cook recovered, and as years passed on it became evident by his mischievous and evil deeds that he had entered into a compact with the devil, perhaps by his mother’s agonized words, perhaps by his own pledge. [This episode supposedly took place in the former blue “plaster house” near the corner of Lyman and East Main Street, which was torn down and replaced with another blue house a few years ago.] The last year of this compact was at an end, and the devil appeared to claim his own as Tom was dressing for another day’s mischief. Tom had all his wits about him, for he lived upon them. “Wait, wait, can’t you,” he answered the imperative call of his visitor, “till I get my galluses [suspenders] on?” The devil acquiesced to this last request, when Tom promptly threw the suspenders in the fire, and therefore could never put them on nor be required to answer the devil’s demands.

Tom Cook became well known throughout Massachusetts, and indeed throughout New England, as a most extraordinary thief. His name appears in the records of scores of New England towns; he was called “the honest thief”; and his own name for himself was “the leveller.” He stole from the rich and well-to-do with the greatest boldness and dexterity, equalled by the kindness and delicacy of feeling shown in the bestowal of his booty upon the poor and needy. He stole the dinner from the wealthy farmer’s kitchen and dropped it into the kettle or on the spit in a poor man’s house. He stole meal and grain from passing wagons and gave it away before the drivers’ eyes. A poor neighbor was ill, and her bed was poor. He went to a thrifty farm-house, selected the best feather bed in the house, tied it in a sheet, carried it downstairs and to the front door, and asked if he could leave his bundle there for a few days. The woman recognized him and forbade him to bring it within doors, and he went off with an easy conscience.

In Dr. Parkman’s diary, now in the library of the American Antiquarian Society at Worcester, under the date of August 27, 1779, is this entry: “The notorious Thom. Cook came in (he says) on Purpose to see me. I gave him w{t} admonition, Instruction, and Caution I could–I beseech God to give it force! He leaves me with fair Words–thankful and promising.” There came a time when his crime of arson or burglary led to his trial, conviction, and sentence to death. He heard the awful words of the judge, “I therefore sentence you to be hanged by the neck till you are dead, dead, dead,” and he called out cheerfully, “I shall not be there on that day, day, day.” And when that day came, surely enough, his cell was empty.

Tom Cook was most attractive in personal appearance; agile, well formed, well featured, with eyes of deepest blue, most piercing yet most kindly in expression. He was adored by children, and his pockets were ever filled with toys which he had stolen for their amusement. By older persons he was feared and disliked. He extorted from many wealthy farmers an annual toll, which exempted them from his depredations. One day a fire was seen rising from the chimney of a disused schoolhouse in Brookline, and Tom was caught within roasting a stolen goose, which he had taken from the wagon of a farmer on his way to market. The squire took him to the tavern, which was filled with farmers and carters, many of whom had been his victims. He was given his choice of trial and jail, or to run a gantlet of the men assembled. He chose the latter, and the long whips of the teamsters paid out many an old score of years’ standing.

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References to Tom Cook in Historical Records and Scholarship

The LIFE, LAST WORDS, and DYING SPEECH of LEVI AMES, Who was executed at Boston, on Thursday Afternoon, the Twenty-first day of October, 1773, for Burglary. Taken from his own mouth, and published at his desire, as a solemn warning to all, more particularly young people. There is a way that seemeth right to a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death. Prov. 14.12.

I have several times taken sundry articles off of lines, hedges, fences, bushes, apple-trees, grass, &c. but cannot recollect the owners. Thomas Cook and I stole two great-coats and sold them. I have left three shirts and several pair of stockings at Scipio Burnam‘s, at Newbury-Port: I then went by the name of Isaac Lawrence. I stole an ax out of a cart and hid it in a stone wall between Watertown and Boston, (the night before I took the money from Mr. Hammond) in Little Cambridge, near to Mr. Dana‘s tavern; there I left it with a design to tell it when I came back. . . .

Some time last fall I saw Thomas Cook, who told me he had seven pounds of plate hid, viz. a tankard, a number of table spoons, and one soup ditto; these he dug up while I was with him; we carried them away from that place and hid them in a stone wall, near a barn, close to the sign of the bull on Wrentham road, but he never informed me where he got them, or how he came by them; he offered me half if I would dispose of them, but I was afraid to do it.

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Simons, D. Brenton. Witches, Rakes, and Rogues: True Stories of Scam, Scandal, Murder, and Mayhem in Boston, 1630-1775. Beverly, MA: Commonwealth Editions, 2005.

“Among his [Levi Ames’s] victims were two officeholders in Waltham, Jonathan Hammond and Jonas Dix . . . He had a partner for the Hammond theft—the ‘infamous’ Thomas Cook, who, according to Boston diarist John Boyle, was soon apprehended. Not only did the pair rob Hammond, but they turned cattle into his cornfield, causing considerable damage to the gentleman’s crops.”

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Parkman’s Diary

1765 September 13 (Friday).  When I returned home Mr. Beeman and his Wife came in, and brought me a Letter from Mr. Manning of Providence.  The Occasion was, Thomas Cook was found to be the Thief who entered Mr. Beemans House on the Lords Day and Stole a variety of Goods from them.  He had been in Jail in Providence for Some Time, for other the like Crimes. 

1765 December 4 (Wednesday).  We have not only Sorrowfull News of the Death of Mr. Cornelius Cook, once of this Town; but of the sad Condition of Several of his sons — That Daniel is hanged, and that Thomas has been condemned and has broke Jayl.  It occasioned sorrowfull Reflections on Such vicious Lives!

1767 December 2 (Wednesday).  John Maynard here at Eve, and Supps with us — relates Particulars of Thomas Cooks being taken, Examined and let go from Harringtons at Waltham plain.

1776 November 14 (Thursday). P.M. The infamous Thomas Cook came boldly to See me.  I gave him what Admonition, Caution and Charge I could. 

1779 August 27 (Friday).  The notorious Thomas Cook came in (he says) on purpose to see me.  I gave him what Admonition, Instruction and caution I could.  I beseech God to give it Force!  He leaves me with fair Words — thankful and promising.

1781 July 4 (Wednesday).  Dr. Crosby made me a Visit, and dined here.  I perceive that the Thieves — [blank] More and Thomas Cook are Sent to Worcester Jayl.

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