From The Hundredth Town by Harriette Merrifield Forbes, 1889, pp. 137-146.
There were two persons supposed to be in league with the Evil One living here part of the time contemporaneously, whose names are very familiar to most of the older people now in town, — Tom Cook and Ruth Buck. The former was well known in all the towns of Massachusetts, and more or less throughout New England. He lived in the house afterwards occupied by Dr. Hawes [Ed. note: the former blue “plaster house” near the corner of Lyman and East Main Street, which was torn down and replaced with another blue house] . . .
Here, October 6, 1738, Tom Cook first opened his innocent baby eyes on the world, whose wrongs, in his own eccentric way, he was to endeavor to right. Here he lived, developing his own personality, and by his sweet baby prattle, every day forcing his way further into his mother’s heart. When about three years old, he was taken very ill. Mrs. Cook doubtless received the deacons and listened to their prayers over her sick darling, but it was whispered among the women at the next Sunday’s service that the little boy was getting better, in answer to his mother’s wicked prayer, “Only spare his life ; only spare his life, and I care not what he becomes!”
After reading the paper he was asked if he had anything to say upon it, and he told the church that “he doubted whether he was in a state of Grace at the time of his taking sd oath and was in doubt whether he ought to take it; but insisted that he was not guilty of taking it in the Manner the church had understood, it was in no Passion &c. but as well as he could in the fear of God, even act of worship; but as all his prayers, public attendance &c. were then profane, so was this also, and he could not judge it any otherwise, &c.” After some debate, the Church decided that this confession was unsatisfactory, and it was a year and a half before he succeeded in making one which was sufficient to restore him to fellowship.
When Tom was about fifteen, his brothers, Robert and Stephen, were imprisoned and tried for killing an Indian at Stockbridge.
The Cook family moved to Wrentham, and in 1770 Mrs. Cook was living in Douglass, but was still helped by the Westborough church.
That the Evil One sometimes appeared, was a common belief, and on the Brigham farm, on Brigham hill, Grafton, can still be seen what was once supposed to be the print of his foot in a rock behind the barn. Tradition does not say how, or where, or when, Tom entered into a compact with the devil; but in some way, possibly by his mother, at the time of his illness, he was pledged to serve that individual for a number of years, receiving abundant help in return.
The last year rolled away, and found Tom still clinging to this life, and unwilling to enter upon any other. The devil came for him one morning, when he was dressing for another active day, and his head was full of plans for work. Tom had learned by that time to live upon his wits.
“Wait, wait, wait, can’t you?” he said to his visitor, “until I get my galluses on.” And as soon as the latter had signified his willingness to wait, he threw the suspenders into the fire and never wore them again. He lived many years after this.
Mr. Parkman, forty-one years after he had baptized Eunice Cook’s new baby, in the old Wessonville church, still keeps an interest in him, and writes in his journal under date of August 27, 1779: “The notorious Thom. Cook came in (he says) on Purpose to see me. I gave him wt admon” Instruction and Caution I could — I beseech God to give it Force! He leaves me with fair Words — thankf. and Promising.”
So he parted from the old minister, leaving him to admonish, instruct, and caution, while he, in his own way, straightened out the injustices of the world.
Cook was called a very attractive man; “of medium size, remarkably agile and well formed, — his face and head betokened unusual intelligence. His eyes were his most striking feature,” described by one who had seen him as “of deep blue, the most piercing and, at the same time, the most kindly eyes that he ever saw.” Before his long life closed he bore the scars of many an encounter; on one hand, every finger had been broken, and if set at all, generally in a very un-scientific manner. In some way the various bones grew together, and Tom’s body at length resembled some knotted, gnarled old tree. With children he was a great favorite. His pockets were always filled with toys, which he had stolen for their amusement, and nothing pleased him more than to relate his adventures to their wondering ears.
Among the large class who did not believe in his league with the devil, there were many who admired his shrewdness and skill, and, in a certain sense, were his friends. He was called a thief; now he is usually spoken of as “the honest thief;” his own name for himself was “the leveller.” He spent most of his time wandering about the country, stealing in one place with such skill and boldness that he was rarely detected, and bestowing his booty in another with an equal delicacy and kindliness. He was familiar with the simple habits of the people, and knew at what hour it was best to slip into the well-to-do farmer’s kitchen, to quietly abstract the pudding from the ‘”boiled pot,” and, carrying it in its steaming bag to the next house, where the man was poorer and the family larger, to drop it noiselessly in their less highly favored kettle.
He did not always do his work in so unobtrusive a manner. Many of his acts were unpremeditated and done in full sight. One day he was walking along the country road, and saw some children crying because they were hungry. Just that moment there passed a man on his way home from the corn-mill, with a load of bags of grain. Tom took one from the back of the wagon, and quickening his pace, walked ahead of the man, and gave the grain to the children’s mother. The man saw him, but did not think of its being one of his meal-bags, until he reached home and took an account of stock.
Another time he went into a house, and upstairs. His object this time was to procure a feather-bed for some poor invalid whose slender purse forbade the purchase of such luxuries. He selected the best the house afforded, tied it closely in a sheet, took it downstairs, and knocked loudly at the front door.
“Can I leave this bundle here, till I call for it in a few days?” he asked, politely.
The woman recognized him, but not the bundle, and preferred to have him carry it elsewhere. So he took it up again with an easy conscience, and trudged on.
The farmers bore his oft-repeated thefts, with but few attempts to bring him to justice. Some of the more wealthy, who naturally would have been his chief victims, paid him annually a sum, which exempted them from his depredations, and probably nearly equaled in value what Tom would have expected in the practice of his profession to wrest from them.
He did not confine his depredations to houses, but patronized stores as well. One time, after he had broken into a shop in Woonsocket, and was travelling along the highway, he heard sleigh-bells behind him, which he rightfully guessed belonged to the officers sent in his pursuit. He jumped a wall, went to a haystack, and commenced pull-ing hay for the cattle. The officers drove up and stopped.
“Hullo,” they shouted; “seen a man running past here?”
“Just went by,” answered Tom; “you’ll overtake him in a minute.”
As soon as they were out of sight, he took off his shoes, and in true Indian fashion tied them on with the toes at the heels, and tramped over the snow to a neighboring swamp. The officers finally returned, and saw where the man had come from, but could not find where he had gone.
Another time he was less successful, and was captured by the officers, and mounted on the horse behind one of them, and carried along towards the jail. By using his hands skillfully he managed to tie the man, unknown to him, fast to his horse. He then complained that he was tired of the horse’s hard gait, and asked permission to get down and ride on the other. This was granted him, and once seated behind the second officer, he proceeded quietly to tie him to his horse. This accomplished, he jumped down and disappeared in the woods, probably leaving the officers in firm belief that their missing prisoner was in league with the Evil One, who had sent unseen hands to help his ally in distress.
In the course of his long life he was often arrested. At one time he selected a meeting-house in one of the towns in this vicinity for a place where he could retire after a successful raid, and, undisturbed, look over his booty, and develop his philanthropic plans. It was mistrusted that all was not right, and a watch was set. One night, Tom appeared through the window, seated himself in one of the capacious square pews, with his bag by his side, and commenced hauling out his plunder. Each article he laid aside, after deciding on whom it should be bestowed. Then came a bottle of cider, and he put it down with a smack of satisfaction, — “Ah, this is good for old Tom.” — “Yes,” cried the officer, springing from his place of concealment, “and this is good for old Tom.” And he arrested him, and carried him to the “goal.”
But a time came when more imminent danger threatened Tom, when he was actually brought into court, and heard the awful words of the judge: “And I therefore sentence you to be hanged by the neck until you are dead, dead, dead.”
But under these trying circumstances his courage did not fail.
“I shall not be there that day, day, day,” he answered.
And when the day for his execution came, he had managed in some way to break through bolt and bar, and the wondering authorities thought “best not to look him up.”
Tom never acquired wealth for himself, and, when a severe accident to his leg, together with advancing old age, took away his agility, his means of a livelihood were gone, and he settled down in Westborough. One of the last years of his life he spent on the farm of Mr. Levi Bowman, who boarded the town’s poor. His house was the last on the old Upton road, before reaching the poor-farm. Tom spent his winters contentedly under shelter, but in summer he wandered about, and finally, when nearly ninety years of age, he ran away from his home in the poor-house, and died near Boston. He was brought back here for burial, and at an expense of forty dollars was finally laid to rest.
He left no successor to go on with his cherished work. He had at one time, after the manner of the Jew Fagin, taken a young apprentice to teach him his trade. One evening he gave him a package of valuables to hide. The boy went away with them, and, soon returning, told Tom that he had put them under a certain large stone. When he fell asleep, Tom stole out and removed the goods. The next morning he sent the boy for them, who, coming back, sadly reported that they were gone.
‘”You must have been telling some one where you put them,” said Tom. But the apprentice honestly declared he had told no one.
“But you did,” said Tom; “you told me. That is no way to do business. Keep it to yourself.”
* * *
Note: In 1984, Jacqueline Dembar Greene published The Leveller, a young adult novel about Tom Cook. The book is available at the Westborough Public Library in the Westborough Center for History and Culture.
Note that various versions of the same folk tale will be published so as to compare how each are told.