Folktale Friday: Reflections on Westborough Folktales, Past and Present

Note: Below are some reflections on Westborough folktales that I read at the end of the Westborough Reads program on March 31, 2019, where we read several of the folktales that have appeared in this blog series to each other. This post concludes the “Folktale Friday” series of blog posts.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian, Westborough Public Library

Many of the stories we have told her today were compiled and retold by Harriette Merrifield Forbes in The Hundredth Town published in 1889, right around the time that our country, and Westborough in particular, was experiencing rapid social change due to the Industrial Revolution. Many writers and historians gathered similar stories in their regions both in fear that they would be lost and that they had something important to tell us about ourselves and our communities.

When we talk about folktales, we are talking about stories that are always already out of date. They are stories that have been passed down, supposedly through generations, but are now out-of-sync with the culture in which we live. This is not to say that they are irrelevant. We continue to tell them because we believe that they hold some value for us.

What is this value? It could be that they possess some kind of lesson or instruction for our lives, sometimes spelled out at the end as a moral, but usually hidden beneath the story’s “surface” so that it requires us to tease out the lesson. Similarly, folktales might tell us something important about our community, and this “something” might also be buried as hidden treasure somewhere within the narrative. The value of folktales could be that the story encapsulates a “forgotten time,” and so it gives us a feeling of experiencing history and a chance to reflect on how our present is different from the past. The stories may also help us to define our community: if you know the story, you become part of an inner-circle that is mindful of our community’s past, and so by definition, your knowledge of the stories is a sign that you are a part of our community.

What does it mean to question the history of a story that is considered folklore? Does it matter that the details of the story are true? Or is the “general impression” important, just as long as there is some element of truth in the story, such as the names of people who truly existed?

We don’t ordinarily get the chance to compare folktales to “historical records,” as we do with some of the stories here. And when we do get the chance to compare them, the two rarely match up. But the difference between folklore and the historical record might give us clues about the power of the stories and why they continue to be told. Many of the stories we shared today involve criminality, which as a practice threatens the fabric of a community. Ruth Buck was an outsider. We know that she was so poor that she had to be placed on poor rolls, which is probably why she was chased out of Southborough to Westborough. She had a baby out of wedlock, which quite possibly contributed to her poverty. She had to do odd jobs around town to support herself. Talk of a turban that hid her ears because they were cropped “like a pig’s,” is taken as a sign that she was possibly a witch—or perhaps it was really a sign that she had committed burglary and had her ears cropped as punishment at some point in her life. All of these details come together to create a picture of a woman who did not fit into Westborough society and perhaps was perceived as a danger to it, whether she was truly a witch, a criminal, someone with psychiatric problems, or simply someone trying to survive with few resources at her disposal.

In The Hundredth Town, Forbes groups both Ruth Buck and Tom Cook together as two Westborough residents who were both influenced and perhaps guided by the Devil. Cook is a criminal, but he leaves town to ply his trade in other towns around New England, only to return later to live out his days on the Bowman Poor Farm here in Westborough. Is the fact that he did not live in Westborough throughout his prime contribute to the development of his reputation as a Robin Hood figure, so as not to disrupt the reputation of our modest town? Or was he himself a fabulist by recasting his life as “The Leveller,” a kind of Robin Hood, so as to protect his own reputation and perhaps garner some sympathy from those who might hold resentment against the social elite?

By the way, the notion that Robin Hood “stole from the rich and gave to the poor” is an American invention and is not rooted in the stories that were told about him back in England. In other words, Tom Cook could be more of a Robin Hood than Robin Hood! But the historical record does not indicate that Cook acted in this way. What is the appeal of this redistribution myth, and why did it develop in the United States, where the spirit of capitalism and individualism is so strong? We might find the answer by digging deep into the stories of Robin Hood and Tom Cook, where their myths are wrapped up in a desire to believe in some sense of divine justice: that those at the top who abuse their power and position will eventually fall at the hands of those who seek to uphold and protect moral right, even if it takes a criminal hero to topple them.

I pulled some of the stories we told today from twentieth-century newspapers. Are they folktales? If not, will they eventually become folktales? I included them in this program, because I had come across references to them in other parts of the archive’s collections—so they were stories that generated more interest than most that appear in newspapers—AND because of their themes of witches and criminality that appear in the other tales. It’s possible that if I hadn’t used these stories in our program today (or at some other point in the future), they could have “disappeared.” Who else would have found them and thought to retell them as folktales? Will our use of these stories in this program elevate them to the level of “Westborough folktales”? Will some of the stories that you told today be elevated as well? Perhaps time will tell.

What do these stories tell us about Westborough? What is their significance? And is it important for us to continue to tell them, since they all seem to be “out of sync” with the lives we live today? The Encyclopedia of Local History says that contemporary folk research sees folk “as representing a communicative process used by people acting in groups. In this view, folk is not a level of society [that is, it is not primitive or comes out of a lower class of people], but a type of learning and expression used by all people; it can be useful to reveal social needs and identities enacted in different settings.” It goes on to say that folklore speaks to “the significance of traditions and the role of community in passing and adapting those traditions.”

We gathered here today to tell stories to each other. And the stories we told are special, because they are stories that people in Westborough have told to each other for generations. The fact that we are all together here today telling familiar stories to each other in a community setting makes all of these stories special, because they work towards uniting us together as a community. In telling these stories to each other, we reaffirm our identities as Westborough residents and as a bonus are entertained by their intriguing plots and characters in the process.


Click here to read more Westborough Folktales!

Note that various versions of the same folk tale will be published so as to compare how each are told.

Folktale Friday: “The Legend Of Lake Hoccomocca” (Westborough Historical Society Third Grade Program)

Judge W. Trowbridge Forbes and his four children in a boat on Hoccomocco Pond, ca. 1890.

Lake Hoccomocco was one of the places used by early Native Americans for hunting, fishing, and making tools.  According to Indian legend, the Evil Spirit or Hobomoc, hides beneath the dark surface of Lake Hoccomocco.  The legend starts with the story of the beautiful maiden Iano.

Many young Indians wanted to marry the beautiful Iano. She chose the young chief, Sassacus.  One brave, Wequoash, was angry at not being chosen. He wanted to get revenge.  On the eve of the wedding, Wequoash went off into the woods to go hunting for a mountain lion.  He found a mountain lion and killed it. 

On his way back to the village, Wequoash saw Iano out in a canoe on the lake.  He swam underwater to her canoe. As she leaned over the side, he grabbed her hair and pulled her into the water. He used a rock to sink the canoe and Iano’s body to the bottom of the lake.

Sassacus and his men were searching for Iano by moonlight when the chief saw his bride and her canoe disappear mysteriously into the dark waters.  He was convinced that the Evil Spirit Hobomoc had killed her.

When Wequoash returned a few days later with the mountain lion, he was praised by Chief Sassacus for his bravery. That was not enough for the greedy Wequoash!  He wanted to be the chief. He secretly poisoned Sassacus and killed him.

On a night one year later Wequoash saw a blue flame in the middle of the lake. Then a mysterious canoe floated across the lake. Wequoash got into the canoe. The canoe took him to the flame that turned into Iano’s face!

Another year passed.  Wequoash again saw the blue flame. The mysterious canoe came towards him again.  He boarded the canoe and traveled to the spot of Iano’s murder.  This time the spirit whispered, “Only once more.”

Wequoash became sad during the next year. He gathered his tribe about him on the shores of the lake. He finally confessed to the murders of Iano and Sassacus.  When the ghostly canoe came this time, it took Wequoash to the middle of the lake again. Now he saw the face of Sassacus in the blue flame. Wequoash was frightened.  He wrapped his cloak about himself and disappeared forever.

From that time on, every time the Indians crossed Lake Hoccomocco, they dropped a rock at the spot Iano was drowned. They wanted to please the Evil Spirit.  A pile of rocks was built up in the middle of the lake.  Years later, fishermen would often run into it.  If you stand at the side of the lake, look very hard out into the middle.  See if you can make out a rock pile marking Iano’s resting place.

* * *

Hoccomocco Pond on Otis Street, ca. 1970.

From “A Look at Westborough’s Historic Past,” The Community Advocate, June 27, 1997.

According to Jacqueline Tidman (former historical librarian):

It was said that this pond [Hoccomocco] was where a beautiful Indian maiden was drowned by a spurned lover, and her body and canoe were secreted in its depths. The man went on to poison her soon-to-be bridegroom, and assumed a position of leadership amongst their tribe.

On the anniversary of her death, the maiden’s spirit returned, beckoning the traitorous warrior back to the pond. On the second anniversary of her death, her spirit returned once again, drawing him to paddle out to the spot where he had drowned her.

On the third anniversary, he could contain his secret no longer, and confessed his crime. With the entire village watching, he paddled out to meet the maiden’s spirit. But, instead of the maiden, the spirit of his rival appeared, and amidst thunder and smoke the spirit and the murderer disappeared forever.

It is said that, even into the nineteenth century, people avoided the environs of the haunted pond—especially at night.


Click here to read more Westborough Folktales!

Note that various versions of the same folk tale will be published so as to compare how each are told.

Folktale Friday: Tom Cook (Forbes)

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.


Click here to read more Westborough Folktales!

Note that various versions of the same folk tale will be published so as to compare how each are told.

Folktale Friday: “The Witch of Westborough,” By Margaret Anderson

Many years ago in the village of Westborough there lived a woman named Ruth Buck. Ruth Buck was stout and always wore a plaid kerchief on her head. She wandered from house to house plying her trade as a seamstress. She had a very sharp tongue and the children were frightened at the sight of her.

Many farmers and their wives were very superstitious and looked on Ruth with suspicion. You see many in the town believed she was a witch. Whenever the cows did not give milk or the sheep got sick everyone would blame Ruth Buck.

One day a prosperous farmer named John Belknap was loading his wagon with eggs. He was going to travel up the turnpike to Boston and sell them at a handsome profit. John and his hired hand, Eli, loaded the wagon until it was completely full. They carefully placed a board across the back to make sure the eggs would not fall.

John and Eli were working so hard that they did not see Ruth Buck walking up the hill. Ruth called to them, “Good day, Squire Belknap, and where might you be going? Your wagon is loaded particularly full. Would you be so kind as to give me a few eggs, you have so many a few will hardly be missed.”

John Belknap was not glad to see Ruth. He was anxious to get started on his long journey and did not want to be bothered. “I have not time for you, Ruth,” he said. “I must get started for Boston if I am to arrive there by nightfall. I will not tive you any of my eggs. They are packed and ready to be sold.

Eli looked at his master with surprise. “Mr. Belknap, what are you doing? Don’t anger Ruth Buck for you know what they say about her, she is a witch,” he said. John Belknap knew what the townfolk said about Ruth, but he was a sober man who did not consider such things. “Eli, I do not believe in old farmer’s wives tales.”

Ruth grew angry. “I ask you again, Squire Belknap, will you give me some of those eggs?” “No, I must be going so be off with you,” replied John. Ruth looked at him with cold, beady eyes and said, “Squire Belknap, you will never get those eggs to market. I promise you that all the eggs will be broken before you reach Boston, and you will never receive a penny for them.” She walked off leaving an angry John and a scared Eli.

John and Eli clicked the reigns and the horses pulled the wagon through the village of Westborough. The sun was shining and the day was warm. They soon forgot about Ruth Buck. They traveled down the Boston Turnpike through Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, and Newton. The sun was beginning to set as they started to climb Chestnut Hill. Midway up the hill the horses stopped and nothing could persuade them to go further.

John Belknap grew impatient and handed the reigns to Eli. “I will pull them you hold tight,” he said. He grabbed the bridles and pulled the horses until they reluctantly moved forward. The horses stopped again and all of a sudden there was a crash. The board on the back of the wagon fell to the ground and all the eggs tumbled out. Eli and John ran to the back of the wagon and found ALL of the eggs were broken.

All they could do was look at each other and think of what Ruth Buck had said. She was right, none of the eggs had reached Boston. John Belknap had to turn his wagon around and go home. He made no handsome profit selling his eggs at the market that day.


Click here to read more Westborough Folktales!

Note that various versions of the same folk tale will be published so as to compare how each are told.

Folktale Fridays: The Rice Boys (Forbes)

Rice Brothers Memorial, 1906 (near the current Westborough High School).

From The Hundredth Town by Harriette Merrifield Forbes, 1889, pp. 32-35.

One of the stories that the old people a hundred years ago told to their grandchildren was about Edmund Rice’s capture by Graylock, an old Indian living in the forests around Westborough, who occasionally made raids on the settlers. The women during the day were clustered together in the garrison-houses, while the men, with their guns near by, cleared their farms.

Edmund Rice was a young man, fitted by nature and circumstances to be a pioneer in a new country. He was bold and fearless, convinced that, whatever trouble might come upon others, he would live to make for himself a name in the annals of the new town. He would like to see the Indians attempt to capture him! Let Graylock come, — he might get the worst of it!

One morning Rice was swinging his scythe through the tall grass, with no suspicion of the dusky form creeping stealthily towards him.

With one quick, agile spring, Graylock was between him and his gun. He himself was armed, and all that Rice could do was to take in silence the trail pointed out to him, his captor following with levelled gun.

So they went for some distance, Rice, on the way, picking up a stout stick, upon which he leaned more heavily as they advanced on their journey.

There was but one chance of escape for him, and with his usual boldness and intrepidity he took it. Turning around quickly, when he saw that for a moment Graylock was looking in another direction, he felled him to the ground with his heavy stick. Leaving him dead, he ran back lightly over the fresh trail, and went on with his morning’s work.

This was probably before 1704, when the Indians revenged the death of Graylock by killing one of Mr. Rice’s sons and capturing two others. This massacre occurred near the garrison-house of his brother, Thomas Rice, which was situated on the Christopher Whitney estate, on Main street, then the “old Connecticut way.”

The account of this raid was written by Rev. Peter Whitney, the old Northborough minister and friend of Mr. Parkman. The latter doubtless heard the full particulars of the story from Timothy Rice, one of the boys. He writes: —  

“On August 8, 1704, as several persons were busy in spreading flax on a plain about eighty rods from the house of Mr. Thomas Rice (the first settler in Westborough, and several years representative of the town of Marlborough in the General Court), and a number of boys with them, seven, some say ten, Indians suddenly rushed down a wooded hill near by, and knocking the least of the boys on the head (Nahor, about five years old, son of Mr. Edmund Rice, and the first person ever buried in Westborough), they seized two, Asher and Adonijah, — sons of Mr. Thomas Rice, — the oldest about ten, and the other about eight years of age, and two others, Silas and Timothy, sons of Mr. Edmund Rice, above-named, of about nine and seven years of age, and carried them away to Canada.”

In about four years Asher was redeemed. Adonijah married and settled in Canada, while Silas and Timothy mixed with the Indians, had Indian wives and children, and lost all knowledge of the English language. Timothy became one of their chiefs. They called him Oughtsorongoughton. In September, 1 740, he returned to Westborough and made a short visit. Mr. Parkman writes: “They viewed the house where Mr. Rice dwelt, and the place from whence the children were captivated, of both which he retained a clear remembrance, as he did likewise of several elderly persons who were then living, though he had forgot our language.” They then visited Governor Belcher. Timothy, as chief of the Cagnawagas, was quite prominent in the history of the time, and influential in keeping the Indians from joining the English during the Revolution. The Cagnawagas were the principal tribe of the Canadian Six Nations. They “peremptorily refused” to join the king’s troops in Boston, saying, that if they are obliged to take up arms on either side, “that they shall take part on the side of their brethren, the English in New England.” Both brothers were living in 1790.

* * *

Note: In 2016, Jillian Hensley published In This Strange Soil, a novel about the capture of the Rice brothers. The book is available at the Westborough Public Library both in the Local Author collection and in the Westborough Center for History and Culture.


Click here to read more Westborough Folktales!

Note that various versions of the same folk tale will be published so as to compare how each are told.

Folktale Friday: “The Story of Hugh Henderson” by Glenn R. Parker

Introduction to Chauncy Village

When Chauncy Village was established as Westborough, the 100th town of Colonial Massachusetts, in 1717, there were fewer than 100 residents living in the area west of Marlborough, which included the north precinct (now Northborough). In 1720, the first meetinghouse was built on Powder Hill, and in 1724 Reverend Ebenezer Parkman became Westborough’s first ordained minister. But Reverend Parkman was more than the inspirational leader of the community. He also provided guidance and was the intellectual leader for the residents of the fledgling town.

Throughout his ministry, Reverend Parkman kept two diaries, a daily diary of family and town activities and a church diary. The daily diary became a significant work and a historical treasure that recorded the events of town matters, birth, deaths, baptisms, fires, barn raisings, and even the weather. Although there are months and years missing, the diary remains the foremost reference for historians and research into the life situations of Puritan Massachusetts.

By 1737, Westborough was experiencing a growing population, and a movement of the northern precinct to separate from the southern precinct was underway. The area was primarily wilderness, with farms and taverns offering food and lodging for travelers and serving as gathering places for residents. This historical nonfiction takes place at the Blue Anchor Tavern in 1737 and is about Hugh Henderson, the first person to be executed in Worcester County.

Revered Parkman’s diary entries were transcribed, researched, and clarified regarding the people, places, and events that he experienced during this time.  This extremely important work was accomplished by Harriet M. Forbes. Forbes was a historian, author, and a member of the Westborough Historical Society.

The following piece contains a number of direct quotes in italics, many of which are taken directly from Reverend Parkman’s Diary. The names of those mentioned and the locations are factual and accurate; however I have taken liberties with the remaining story line.

Glenn R. Parker

The Story of Hugh Henderson, alias John Hamilton

This is the unfortunate story of the untimely demise of one Hugh Henderson, alias John Hamilton, who was the first person to be hanged in Worcester County. He was born in Armagh, the ancient capitol of Ulster, Northern Ireland, in 1709, where he was baptized in the manner of the Presbyterian Church. As a teenager, Henderson was sent to live with his uncle when his parents died. Under the less than watchful eye of the uncle, Henderson became a petty thief, a night walker, and was generally uncontrollable. At age 20, he left his uncle’s home as an experienced thief.  

He came to America as a stowaway around 1729 during the great migration. Because his name was not on the ship’s manifest as a paid passenger, when he was discovered, he was flogged, and instead of being put ashore in Bermuda, he was kept on board and put to work as a ship’s hand doing the worst imaginable jobs as compensation for his passage.

Upon landing in Newport, RI, Henderson wasted no time in going ashore and continuing his criminal pursuit. As he wandered about the seaport town in search of a job, he was quickly discovered and immediately chased away when caught by a store owner with a loaf of stolen bread and some cheese from a barrel. He slowly began his vagabond’s trek north, then west following the King’s Highway into Sudbury, where he paused long enough to work for a few days as a farmhand and harvest firewood for the winter season at the Howe Tavern. Howe Tavern was a very busy inn located on the Post Road, the middle road leading west from Boston to Worcester.

Henderson had learned his trade well, never staying long enough to be detected or held to accountability, always staying one step ahead of the only means of communication of the day, the spoken word. Henderson wandered into Westborough in early September 1737, not knowing it would be the last town he would victimize. He first stopped at the Gale Tavern near the Southborough line for a few days where he found food and shelter in return for a day’s work harvesting firewood. The next day he was discovered sleeping in the big horse barn across the road from the Forbush Tavern and was chased off. He made his way up the hill, past the meetinghouse and parsonage of Reverend Parkman, before heading south to another populated area of town.

He made his way to a part of town where years prior there were a number of homes in the area built by the first settlers of Chauncy Village, one being the home and tavern of Abner Newton, formerly the Thomas Rice garrison. It later became known as the Blue Anchor Tavern.

The Abner Newton Tavern ~ Blue Anchor Tavern

By now, Henderson was running out of opportunities to find day work and keep his belly from grumbling from lack of sustenance. It was getting late in the year, the nights were getting cold, and he was becoming weary of his situation. So he again resorted to his old ways of taking that to which he was not entitled. The Newton Tavern, being easily accessible and appearing to be better off than most, seemed a likely target. Henderson watched the tavern from across the road, out of sight behind a large stone wall. When the time seemed right, after the residents and travelers had gone to bed, he forced the latch on the back door and entered the tavern. By the glow of the embers in the large fireplace that served to heat the room and cook the tavern meals, Henderson scrounged for food but took only enough to satisfy his immediate need and yet not enough to be noticed missing. He was a shrewd thief, only taking food so as not to be caught with personal property.

The following day, after the noon meal and when no one was about, he again entered the tavern and once again took only what he would immediately eat. But this time he never got across the road to his hideout. This time Newton caught him before he could consume the evidence. As he had done so many times before, Henderson pleaded for forgiveness and promised to work off the debt. But Newton was unwilling to barter with the crook. Henderson, still not admitting to the previous night’s theft, was brought back into the tavern. But this time, rather than agree to a severe lashing, a customary punishment dealt by the aggrieved victim, he thought to himself about the impending winter.

He would rather spend the winter months in goal rather than receive another flogging. The jailer would feed him and keep him warm for the winter months, and if he tried to escape, his sentence may be further extended into the early spring. This plan, he thought, would get him through the winter months ahead.

Newton then called for his neighbor Jonas Rice, the town constable, to take charge of the crook and bring him to justice. Rice then questioned the thief about his activities in Westborough and was given a full confession to the crimes at the tavern. Henderson then showed Rice the chicken carcasses from the night before. However, unbeknownst to Henderson, the General Court of Massachusetts in 1715 imposed the death penalty for burglary of a dwelling house at night.

Because the alleged housebreaker was considered a pauper and had no known address or means by which to support himself, he was unceremoniously detained by Constable Rice. As there was no lockup and the stocks built by Daniel Warren years before at the meetinghouse had fallen into disrepair from lack of use, the only alternative was to walk Henderson to the town pound, a stone enclosure 30-foot square and four-feet high with a wooden gate designed to keep stray cattle until the owner could claim such. The area had been donated by David Maynard, on land just south of the meetinghouse on Powder Hill.

Henderson languished here for days tethered hand and foot to a hitching post while under the watchful eyes of the town elders. But this time he did not have to work or steal his next meal. For the brief time of his incarceration, he was brought fine noontime meals better than he had ever had. Nor did he know these meals would be the finest of his remaining time of life.

Finally, an indictment for the crimes committed at the tavern was handed down from the September session of the Court being held at the new courthouse in Worcester. When Sheriff Daniel Gookin, the first Sheriff of Worcester County, got the orders to bring Henderson in to answer the indictment, he rode to Westborough to serve the process. Gookin met Constable Rice at the meetinghouse, and together they traveled the short distance to the pound to take Henderson into custody.

Henderson was then taken to the Worcester Goal some 10 miles west. Henderson ran alongside the lawmen, his hands bound to hinder a possible escape. They traveled the road toward the north precinct past the Broader and Cobb houses, crossed the Assabet River, then headed westerly along the lilac road to Shrewsbury while stopping briefly at the Pease Taver (later a scheduled stop for stagecoaches and the post riders from Boston to Hartford). Although Henderson began to complain about the pace, Constable Rice would not hear it. He was in no mood to give the house breaker rest. It was harvest time, and Rice was losing a full day in the field. Besides, Henderson had just spent the last several years making his way to Westborough in similar conditions. But Henderson would soon get his rest as the three approached the great pond and now had to wait for the ferry to take them across Quinsigamond before heading up Wigwam Hill on the other side.

The Worcester Court House, 1732

The goal where Hugh Henderson was confined stood on the west side of the new courthouse. It was a building forty one by eighteen feet. The prison part was eighteen square feet, made of white oak timber set with studs, four inches thick and five inches broad. The floor, roof, and ceiling were two-inch planks spiked together. A stone dungeon was underneath. The door was three planks of heavy oak bound together with iron braces, with a metal grate as a window and a wrought-iron latch lock.  The north end of the structure, finished as a dwelling, became the residence of the jailer (Luke Brown, History of Worcester).

Rev. Ebenezer Parkman’s Diary Entries

Reverend Parkman did not make any entries in his diary from April 2 to September 24 well after the actual event at Abner Newton’s Tavern. However, it is highly unlikely that Reverend Parkman did not know about the events that occurred at Newton’s Tavern, the arrest of Henderson, or the indictments that were handed down by the Court.

 Sept. 24, “Message from John Hamilton under condemnation for Burglary requesting that I would visit him.”

Sept. 26, “ I rode to Mr. Burr’s.  I hastened to the prisoner.” [Reverend Isacc Burr of Worcester]

 Oct. 12, “I went to Worcester to see Hugh Henderson, found him in much ye same distressed state yet I left him in, but I hope more knowing and acquainted with his condition and with his duty. Mr. Burr at ye Goal with me. I prayed with him a multitude attending. He earnestly desired me to see him again and wishes over and over yet I would preach to him.”

Oct.17, “Mr. Wheeler distressed in conscience for Hugh Henderson.” [Mr. Joseph Wheeler of the North Precinct]

Oct. 21, “I proceeded to Worcester and stopped at ye Goal at the grates to speak with  the Prisoner and to put him in mind of ye preparations needful for him to make in order to his keeping his Last Sabbath. I lodged at Mr. Burr’s.”

 Oct. 23, “Early in the morning began to write my address to the Prisoner. A.M. on Eccl. 11, 9, a crowded assembly, poor Hugh Henderson present. P.M. on Job 3, 36. A great congregation, it being in their apprehension the last Sabbath Sermon the poor Criminal is to hear. At evening called at Mr. Eaton’s and at the Sheriff’s, who went with me to the Prison. I interrogated the Prisoner what was the occasion of his coming to this country-whether he had discovered and acknowledged all that was fit and proper for him to reveal? Whether he had any confederates? A great number flocked in the Goal when at his request I prayed with him. I left him between 8 and 9.”

Oct 27, “The Governor has Reprieve Hugh Henderson for a month at the request of Mr. Burr and Mr. Prentice.”

Nov 21, “I rode up to Worcester to see Hugh Henderson again. Was sorry to hear he had tried to make his escape by filing the goal door. We talked more of other matters and kept longer off y main point of his case y heretofore. I’m more put to it to judge of his fame.”

 Nov 23, “I rode up to Worcester at the Request of the Criminal and others to Preach to him. There were so many at the Goal we were obliged to go to the Meeting House. He spoke of making a solemn vow warning taken from his mouth but chose to have it deferred to ye morning, but prayed that I would be early.”   

Nov 24, “I went to the Prisoner when I could, and Mr. Burr was with me to assist in penning down what ye prisoner had to deliver by way of a Confession and Warning and strict as I could be in inserting his own words as near as I could and when any others were used.”

The confession and dying warning of Hugh Henderson who was executed at Worcester in the county of Worcester. November 24, 1737. Signed by him in the presence of four of the ministers the morning of the day of his execution.  

“I, Hugh Henderson, otherwise through my wickedness called John Hamilton of about 28 or 29 years of age, was born in Armagh in the kingdom of Ireland, received baptism in the manner of the Presbyterians and was brought up by my uncle, who was obliged to give me suitable learning but did not: which neglect, together with my own neglect of God afterward of learning the word of God afterwards, was a great reason of my taking to such wicked courses as have brought me to my unhappy, untimely End.”

“I began with smaller sins, while I was young, with but stealing Pins, against which I received warnings oftentimes, but persisted in it, and was very disobedient, till I increased further in Sin.”

“Having given this Warning, I desire to commend myself to the Charity and Prayers of all Gods People for me, and that you would lift up your Hearts to God for me, for the Pardon of my Sins, an interest in Christ, and that I maybe Sanctified by the Sprit of God; But above all I Commend myself to the Infinite Mercy of God, in my Dear Redeemer, Begging and beseeching that through the merits of His Blood, I may this day be with him in Paradise.”  XX … Hugh Henderson, signed with his mark

Four indictments were found against Henderson, two for burglary and two for larceny, and he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to be hanged on one for burglary. The court was the Superior Court of Judicature sitting in Worcester in the September Session, with the following named Judges on the bench: Benjamin Lynde, Paul Dudley, Edmund Quincy, Jonathan Remington, and Richard Saltonstall.

Shortly after the final verdict was read, the word quickly went out far and wide to all of the impending execution. Men, women, and children were invited to witness the event. It would be the first execution witnessed by the citizens of Worcester County. The Reverend Parkman and a number of Westborough citizens had traveled to Worcester to witness the solemn event.

On November 24, the convicted housebreaker was prepared to meet his fate. But there was no special last meal or final statement presented. Henderson had already made his amends with Reverend Parkman in the days previous to the trial and his confession to his waywardness the night before. He had nothing more to say, but Reverend Parkman would spend several hours with the condemned felon in prayer and reflection.

“On the day of the Execution the Reverend Campbell of Oxford preached to the Prisoner and a great assembly, a very suitable sermon on I Peter 4-5. The prisoner was exceedingly moved and in such Anguish of soul that the expressions of in the face of the congregation, in crying and moans, in prayers and tears and passionate gesture there were even to disturbance.” –The N. E. Weekly Journal, Dec. 6, 1737

From behind the Goal a wagon appeared driven by a hooded man, with Henderson sitting on the end of the wagon, followed by Sheriff Gookin. The convicted felon was bareheaded with his hands tied in front so that all could see. The hangman was wearing a hood, and his face was blackened to hide his features from the large crowd that had gathered to witness the event. Because this was the first hanging to take place in Worcester County, a hastily built gallows was waiting the hangman’s noose.

The wagon was now brought into place beneath the gallows, and Henderson was brought to his feet and stood at the edge of the wagon. But the hangman, not having prior experience in the proper placement of the noose, only delayed the event and added suspense while merely prolonging the agony for Henderson.

“At the place of execution, after the Reverend Mr. Hall of Sutton had prayed, the prisoner with great earnestness desired all that were present to harken well to what was going to be read to them, and to mind to take the warning contained in it, after which he put up a most importunate and pathetical prayer himself which manifested more of knowledge of religion, sense of his own state and humble faith and hope in God, then anything that has been received from him before.”

As the Reverend Hall of Sutton finished the final prayer, the gathering bowed their heads in solemn respect. The time had finally arrived. The large gathering fell silent while small children fidgeted.

Now the noose was thrown over the head of the six-footer and laid on his broad shoulders. A burlap bag was then placed over his head to cover his face from the crowd. The time had finally arrived. The hangman slapped the horse so it would be startled forwards, but rather than the horse bolting quickly away, it only reared causing Henderson to fall off the end of the wagon, and instead of a quick snap of the neck ending his agony, he hung from the rope dangling, legs flailing, choking but certainly not dying as expected. At every gasp, crying out a profanity at the hangman then begging for forgiveness, the crowd was aghast.

The execution had not succeeded, so the wagon was retrieved and Henderson was again placed at the wagon’s edge. Now sobbing, Henderson stood bent over still gagging from the botched execution, his hands still tied. This time the hangman would not fail. Re-positioning the noose and resting the knot on Henderson’s left shoulder, he tightened the knot with sufficient slack in the rope. The horse was again given a good slap on the rear only to jerk backwards, with Henderson merely losing his balance. But after yet another slap, the horse jumped forward, pulling the wagon from under Henderson’s feet, and sending him in the opposite direction. This time, his neck broke with a sickening sound that was heard by the entire crowd. As the body flopped back and forth, his end came quickly. The crowd stood motionless. Some wept, some covered their children’s eyes, some cried out for mercy, while most just stood in awe at the sight. A lifetime of petty thievery and blasphemy had ended.

Not for some time after the body had ceased convulsing and the horrified onlookers had seen enough was the lifeless body taken down so as not to damage the rope for future use. The deceased was then laid out in the wagon. He was covered with a shroud and taken behind the goal until such time as a suitable grave could be dug in the street, a customary practice afforded to those who died from their own hand, convicted felons, slaves, or non-believers.

There was no graveside ceremony, no minister’s prayers, nor tearful goodbye. At dusk, the wagon carrying Henderson’s remains was brought from behind the goal to the hastily-dug grave site. Henderson’s body was then unceremoniously rolled into the open pit dug at the side of the road and quickly covered over. No stone adornment or remembrance of the remains would be found. The event was only memorialized in this broadside some days later.

Part of the Broadside of Hugh Henderson

“A Poem occasioned by the Untimely Death of Hugh Henderson alias John Hamilton who was hanged at Worcester for House Breaking, Nov. 24, 1737” reads:

“The scene we did but lately view ~ Too well evinces this is true ~ A man with healthful Vigour bless’d ~ The morn of life but hardly past ~ Compelled to leave the pleasing Light ~ And stretch away to endless Night ~ Because regardless of his Peace ~ He choose the flowery Path of Vice.” –The New England Weekly Journal, December 6, 1737.

The uncle also receives his desserts in the poem as follows:

“But when he met with no Restraint, and found his uncle was no Saint, in Vice’s pleasing Steps he ran.

“O Henderson! Unhappy Man! How did’st thou feel, When in Thy Ken, the best was Horror, like Despair, amazing doubt or anxious fear, what pangs, what extasys of smart convuls’d, thy poor, thy Bleeding Hear, When in that state, were bro’t to mind the unnumber’d crimes of life behind? He died the Death of the accused tree, that from the sting of death you might be free.” –Author Unknown

This ends the tragic story of Hugh Henderson and the notoriety that Westborough attained as being the first community to have the first person to be executed in Worcester County. The former tavern remains at 108 West Main St.


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Folktale Friday: Jack Straw

Jack Straw Monument, at the corner of Bowman Lane and Olde Coach Road. The inscription reads:

Atop a nearby hill in the early 17th century was the wigwam of Jack Straw, a friend of Sir Walter Raleigh. He accompanied him to England and remained for several years as his servant. Returning to the colonies, he was the first Christian Indian granted land. It was in the vicinity of the reservoir and schoolhouse no. 5 in the area which later became Westborough. Schoolhouse no. 5 was located about 700′ east of this site. 

Coversant in English, he served the colonists and the government as interpreter with the Indians. His name has endured in Jack Straw Brook, Jack Straw Pasture, Jack Straw Hill all to the northwest of this place. 

Near this spot was also the Rev. Thomas Hooker Trail (Bay Path) which became part of the old Indian trail to the Quonektacut River now known as the Connecticut River.

From The Hundredth Town by Harriette Merrifield Forbes, 1889, pp. 27-30.

After the white man became somewhat established in the land, the Indians themselves were often called by English names. A few places still bear these adopted names of their Indian owners. The most interesting in Westborough is Jackstraw hill.

In his day, Jack Straw was a famous man, — the first Indian baptized in the English colonies, taken to England from Virginia, in ”Sir Walter Raleigh’s service,” proving himself a faithful friend of the white man, always ready to help him by strength or stratagem; but after all, finding that his Indian nature was the strongest part of him, he returned to this country, according to Governor Winthrop, and “turned Indian again.” (Winthrop’s Journal, I., 52.) Accepting the name he so little deserved, of Jack Straw, after one of “the greatest rebyls that ever was in England,” he continued occasionally to serve the English as servant and interpreter, and probably ended his days within the limits of this town.

So much we learn from the histories; from tradition, only that an old Indian named Jackstraw once owned all the land in the vicinity of the reservoir and No. 5 school-house, and that he had his wigwam on the summit of the hill, more than a quarter of a mile west of the school-house. He was soon forgotten, but Jackstraw hill is his monument; and so it happens that his name is spoken in town every day. His land was granted, in the latter part of the seventeenth century, to the widow of Richard Beers, who fell, bravely defending Deerfield against the savages. This grant of land, described as being “at a place called Jack Straw’s Hill,” embraced the present town reservoir and District No. 5 school, and farms in that vicinity. (Hist. of Worc. Co., II., 1336.) There were three hundred acres in the farm.

In 1675 a party of eleven Indians attacked the house of Mr. Thomas Eames, of Framingham, he being absent, killed his wife and some of his children, and carried the rest away. In this company there were three — father and two sons — bearing the name of Jackstraw. They lived in Hopkinton. They were probably son and grandsons of the Westborough Jack Straw. They were tried, convicted, and executed, in spite of the pathetic petition which they addressed to the Court of Assistants, in which they said: “You were pleased (of your own benignity), not for any desert of ours, to give forth your declaration, dated the 19th of June, wherein you were pleased to promise life and liberty unto such of your enemies as did come in and submit themselves to your mercy, and order, and disposal;” and they further claimed that they took no active part in the massacre.

Sewall, in his Journal, thus makes record of their death: “September 21, 1776, Stephen Goble, of Concord, was executed for the murder of Indians. Three Indians for firing Eames, his house, and murder. The weather was cloudy and rawly cold, though little or no rain. Mr. Mighil prayed; four others sat on the gallows, — two men and two impudent women, one of which, at least, laughed on the gallows, as several testifieth.” (Temple’s Hist. of Framingham, p. 78.)

This seems to have been the last mention of the Jackstraws in this vicinity. About 1845, a young Indian from Maine came to Hopkinton, and worked for Elbridge G. Rice. He was savage and ugly, and bore the name of Enoch Straw.

In the northern part of Northborough there is a sheet of water, ninety by seventy-five rods, called “Solomon’s pond,” “from the circumstance,” says Peter Whitney, in his “History of Worcester County,” published in 1793, “of an Indian of that name being drowned therein, by falling through a raft on which he was fishing.” In the early part of this century an Indian’s canoe was found sunk in the pond. It was supposed to have belonged to this Solomon.

An Indian has been said to be responsible for the old name of the pretty rounded hill on the left-hand side of the Northborough road, just before reaching the village. It was called, in deed and grants, “Licor hill,” before 1662. In 1836 it was rechristened Mount Assabet. The story about the Indian and his bottle is here given, copied from a small paper published at that time by the boys of Dr. Allen’s school.

“There was formerly, at the foot of this hill, a tavern where an Indian stopped. On his return home he passed over the hill, and sat down under a tree to take another refreshing draught, not being able to resist the temptation any longer. When he had drunk until he was entirely disabled from proceeding any farther, his bottle (one of the ancient form, in the shape of an old keg), by some unhappy accident, slipped from his grasp and rolled down the hill. The Indian eyed it wistfully on its rapid course, and, hearing the peculiar sound of the liquor issuing from its mouth, called after it, ‘Ay, good, good, good! I hear you, but I can’t get at you.’”

There were, as early as this, a few Indians in this vicinity who spoke English, but probably no tavern was built on the “cow commons” of Marlborough. The Indian, doubtless, had brought his bottle farther than the above historian supposes.

Besides these few names, there are no traces of the early Indians, except arrow-heads and spear-points turned up by the farmer’s plough, or found on the shore of North pond in Hopkinton, in the fall, when the water is low.


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Folktale Friday: The Legend of Hockomocko (Written for a high school play, ca. 1930)

The Fairbanks cows grazing nearby Hoccomocco Pond. ca. 1930.

Near the shore of Hockomocko,

Where the limpid, deep blue water

Shows no ripple on its surface,

Can be seen a pile of pebbles,

Worn and smoothed by many a winter.

Countless storms have moaned above them,

Since the red men mutely dropped them

One by one upon the bottom.

When the waters murmur softly

In the early evening shadows,

If you listen, you will gather

From the plaintive half-heard whispers,

Fragments of an old tradition,

Of a simple Indian legend.

Long ago by Hockomocko

In the wigwam of her father

Lived a maid, the fair Iano,

Loved by many a youthful warrior,

Loved by Sassacus, the chieftain,

Loved and hated by Wequoash.

For the maiden, heedless ever,

Favor showed to bold Wequoash,

Wore the wreath his hand had woven

And the furs his bow had captured,

Roused in him a mighty passion,

Left him lightly for another,

Sassacus, the young men’s idol,

Sassacus, the whole tribe’s hero.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Nearer crept the marriage evening,

Then the gay, the fair Iano,

Like the wild folks of the forest,

Fled from out the dusky wigwam,

Playing truant to her lover

To the shore of Hockomocko,

Laughing ran the fair Iano;

Searched for a moment in the bushes

For her light canoe of birch bark,

Pushed it gaily to the water,

Darted from the shore like lightning.

O’er the tranquil surface skimming,

Flew the boat and flew the maiden,

Towards that spot by Hockomocko

Where a willow, huge and aged.

Mantled by a drooping grapevine,

Formed an arbor cool and quiet,

Called by all “Iano’s bower.”

When the shore lay far behind her,

Lo! The harvest moon in glory

Rose above the dusky pine boughs,

Silver light upon her rested

As she glided o’er the water.

From the shore, the bold Wequoash,

Hastening homeward from his hunting,

Saw the light canoe of birch bark,

Watched it skimming o’er the surface,

Watched the moonlight on the paddle,

Listened to the stroked so even,

Spoke with vengeance in his bosom:

“‘Tis Iano, the false hearted.

She alone can dip her paddles

With the lightness of the sea-gull,

She alone can bend so lightly,

She alone would gleam so brightly,

In the silver of the moonbeam.”

Silently, he dropped his weapon,

Silently, his robe discarded,

Softly swam beneath the surface,

Till he neared the fair Iano,

As she paddled towards the willow.

Close above the gleaming water,

Of a swift pursuer fearful,

Bent Iano, listening breathless,

At her folly laughing softly,

Wondering if her friends had missed her,

Wondering how upon the morrow,

Sassacus, the brave would greet her.

Suddenly, the bold Wequoash,

Seized her gleaming tresses lightly,

Drew her down beneath the water,

Hushed her shrieks an quelled her struggles,

Then his hold upon her loosened

Till she sank like lead beneath him,

All her charms and sweetness vanished.

Months slipped by: the bold Wequoash,

Still unsatisfied in spirit,

Still with vengeance in his bosom,

Poisoned Sassacus, the chieftain,

Ruled the tribe himself with glory,

But the harvest moon returning,

Brought him memories of Iano,

He would leave his loyal warriors,

And upon the shore would wander,

Or would crouch upon a tree stump,

Pondering o’er his deeds of darkness,

Then a flame would rise before him

Streaming from the dark blue water,

Twice this happened; then a whisper –

“Once again, O bold Wequash.”

When the year once more had waned,

All his warriors came before him,

Summoned at their chieftain’s bidding,

Then he told the sad, dark story:

How that Sassacus, the mighty,

And the lovely maid, Iano,

Both had perished through his hatred.

Awed they sat and watched their chieftain,

While he paddled o’er the water

To the spot where fair Iano

On that dreadful night had vanished.

Straightway rose a form to greet him.

Sassacus, in robes of blackness,

Had returned to bid Wequoash

Leave the haunts of men behind him,

On the spirit road to wander.

Lightnings flashed and thunders pealed,

Darkness fell o’er all the water,

Hushed the hardy warriors waited

Till the fearful storm was over;

Then made promise that thereafter

When they passed the spot of terror,

Each a stone should drop in mourning,

Each should sigh for fair Iano,

Should lament for bold Wequoash

And for Sassacus, the mighty.

Thus we see by Hockomocko,

When the limpid, dark blue water

Shows no ripple on its surface,

Still the pile of shiny pebbles,

Worn and smoothed by many a winter,

Witness of the old tradition,

Of that simple Indian legend.


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Folktale Friday: “The Baby Doll Murder Case” by Glenn R. Parker

40 South St.

In 1919, Dwight Chapman inherited a house located at 40 South St. that originally served as a rooming house on the Blake Estate. The 74 year-old Chapman was a veteran of the Civil War and described as a cranky old eccentric with a foul mouth and a roving eye for young woman. He lived alone in an unattached building behind the rooming house on the bottom floor. It wasn’t a big space, just enough for an old single man. The outside area in front of Chapman’s place was an open area used as a vegetable garden, along with a trellised grape vine and stacks of wood used for heating. Chapman kept chickens and pigs, and he fed them with scraps from area eateries. The property was on a corner lot at Cottage St., opposite the Central House where Chapman spent much of his time.

Chapman’s Place

In 1919 a young couple got off the train at the Westborough station and went to the Central House to find lodging but were directed to Chapman’s place. The man was Harry Baker and the attractive young woman with him was his wife Eleanor Baker, so he said. The couple walked across the street and found Chapman tending his garden. Immediately Chapman took a liking to the young woman and was more than happy to rent the couple a room.

As was customary in Westborough, newcomers received nicknames after a few days in town. From that time on Harry became “Sneaks” Baker and his pretty little wife was known as “Baby Doll” Baker. For the next several days the couple got around the downtown and even applied for jobs at the Westborough State Hospital.

The Bakers were only in town for a couple weeks before they quickly disappeared without anyone knowing. This situation in itself was not unusual as downtown Westborough was a center for transients, salesmen, job searchers, and tourists.

Then, Westborough Police Chief Robert Johnson was notified by the keepers of the Central House that they hadn’t seen Chapman for several days. Although not out of the ordinary, the locals began to think that the coincidence of Chapman’s absence from his daily routine and the Baker’s sudden disappearance was suspicious. It seems as though Baby Doll had made it known that the old man was making sexual innuendos and advances towards her that made her feel uneasy. It was also observed that Chapman was suddenly flashing a wad of dough.

Chapman Kitchen, with safe on the right

Although Chapman’s absence was not a total surprise, the chief went to his place and saw the curtains pulled. There being no response at the door, he broke the lock and entered.  When the chief entered the kitchen, he was first met with an odor of rotting food and observed the usual squalor. But when the chief saw a large safe with the dial-lock knocked off and damage to the top of the safe, his curiosity became elevated.

As the chief opened the door to Chapman’s bedroom he observed what appeared to be a body under a blanket and was taken aback by the odor of death. He pulled down the blanket and found a naked Chapman lying lifeless with his head covered with blood. The discovery of the body was immediately deemed a murder.

Chapman Death Bed

The chief notified State Detective Robert Molt and asked for help in the murder investigation. A crime scene was established, and a subsequent search for evidence was conducted. During this time, the chief discovered a bloody claw hammer, a pry bar, and a hand drill near the safe. Although the safe had been badly damaged, the door remained closed and locked. The intent to rob was clearly obvious. Also discovered was that Chapman had taken a $1,500 mortgage on the property, which gave a strong indication as to motive. There was no money or other valuables found. The chief then ordered to have the safe opened and found it totally empty.

The Open Safe

Dr. C. S. Knight, state medical examiner, arrived to examine the deceased and declared Chapman dead of a skull fracture by multiply blows to the head with a sharp-edged weapon. As rigor mortis had set in and decomposition had begun, the doctor estimated the time of death between 24 and 36 hours from discovery. 

As the chief began his investigation beyond the crime scene he questioned a number of people who had contact with Chapman. Word quickly spread through the community that Chapman was bludgeoned to death while he slept. It didn’t take long before the chief had his prime suspects, the Bakers, and after a search of their room he was convinced. The Bakers had left town in a hurry leaving behind a small travel bag, some cloths and a couple of notes of paper. But where were they now?

The chief then got a break when he talked with a railroad clerk who remembered Baker at the station buying two tickets for the 7:20 a.m. train to Boston but arrived late and waited for the 8:03 a.m. train instead. He remembered Baker and his pretty female companion who had one travel bag. Ironically, there were two of Baker’s trunks on the platform but only one got on the train, the other accidentally left behind. This trunk was opened and contained men’s clothing and more documents revealing the Bakers names and some of their history.

Another bit of luck came to the chief when a tracer put on Baker’s trunk revealed that the trunk went to North Station and was then loaded on the Boston and Maine Railroad to Portland, Maine.

When Chief Johnson learned that the Bakers were headed north to Portland, he immediately notified the authorities there to be on the look-out for the Bakers. However, by the time the message trickled down to the Portland beat cops, the hapless Bakers had accidentally boarded a ferry to Peaks Island thinking it was a transcontinental ship to Europe. When the Portland detectives tracked the couple to Peaks Island, they found the Bakers were gone, but they collected evidence indicating that the pair had left for Bangor. Upon notification, the Bangor Police alerted the entire force to be on the look-out for the suspected murderers. At the same time, Chief Johnson and Detective Molt were alerted of the new evidence and immediately boarded the next train to Bangor.  

Union Station at Bangor, Maine

Days later, Bangor Detective Golden having difficulty locating the Bakers and frustrated by the conventional method of interviewing people by knocking on doors decided on a hunch to stake out the train station in the hope of coming across Baker. In possession of a good description of the tall 25 year-old with a slender build, wearing a cap and a pinch back jacket, he saw a man of that description. He let him walk by without saying a word and noticed that the man avoided eye contact with him by staring straight ahead towards the Bangor House. But this man had a mustache. Could this be Baker? The detective decided to call out Baker’s name.

When the young man stopped and turned to the detective, a surprised Golden asked, “Are you Harry Baker?” Bakers face went pale and his head dropped as he replied, “Yes.” Then Detective Golden identified himself as a Bangor Police Officer and informed him of the Fugitive from Justice Warrant against him. Baker had easily given up. He was tired of running and living a lie. Golden then asked, “Where is your wife?”

Baker momentarily paused and looked at the hotel. “She is a chamber maid at the Bangor Hotel,” he replied. This was too easy, Golden thought to himself. He called for back-up and went to the hotel where Baker pointed out Baby Doll. As the detective approached her she made a lunge for her purse, but she was intercepted by a second officer, who opened her purse to find a small caliber handgun.  The chase was over, and now they were both in custody.

Chief Johnson and Detective Holt had arrived the day before and now took charge of the suspected murderers. They took them before a Maine Magistrate where the Bakers waived extradition and denied any knowledge of Chapman’s death. However, upon returning to Westborough Harry Baker admitted to killing Chapman in defense of his wife’s honor. In a surprise plea deal, Baker admitted in court to second degree murder and was sentenced to life in jail. Harry took the rap for Baby Doll Baby, who was given a one-year sentence as an accessory to the crime.

Detective Holt with Harry Baker, age 25, while Westborough Chief William Johnson escorted Eleanor “Baby Doll” Baker, age 20, into the Worcester County Courthouse.

The Rest of the Story . . .

After returning to Westborough, Chief Johnson and Detective Holt interviewed the Bakers while they were incarcerated at the Worcester Jail awaiting trial. It turns out that Baby Doll had a criminal past before coming to Westborough, while Baker had no record and was from Reading, Pennsylvania. How the couple met and why they came to Westborough was not known. It turns out that Baker named her “Baby Doll,” while she called him “Daddy.” 

The interview revealed that Baby Doll was never married to Baker. Her name was actually Eleanor Reise. She was married and originally lived in Wisconsin.  But after an incident of marital discord with her husband, Eleanor was arrested for throwing vitriol on him and was sentenced to six months in jail. When released, she never reunited with her husband or bothered to get a divorce.

Although Baker freely admitted to killing Chapman, investigators were not totally convinced that he was the murderer. The autopsy revealed that Chapman was not only struck numerous times on the head with a sharp instrument (a claw hammer), but he also suffered blunt trauma (a hammer head) to his lower belly and arms. The wounds, they concluded, were not consistent with Baker’s admission. They surmised that the act was a rage killing by a disturbed person, not Baker.

The unexpected plea to guilty of second degree murder by Baker was believed to deflect any suspicion or wrong-doing away from Baby Doll, both to keep her from a murder charge and keep her off the witness stand. The fact that she was not married to Baker would have made her eligible to testify, and that would not have bode well for her. In the end, there was no trial.

Baby Doll and Harry Baker pose for this courthouse photo.

Baby Doll Goes to Jail

In December 1919, Baby Doll was sentenced to the Worcester Jail for a one-year term but was paroled after serving six months. Upon her release, Eleanor changed her name to Hazel Manning and dyed her hair red. She got a job as an elevator operator in Worcester, then worked at the Wrentham and Foxboro State Hospitals. While living in Worcester, she kept her promise to wait for Baker and visited him often at the Charlestown Jail. However, her loyalty to Baker was short lived. As soon as Baker had given her all his money, she ceased all contact with him.

Not long after Baby Doll was paroled, she hooked up with a Boston cop who tried to help her after she was robbed of $200. The cop became enamored with Baby Doll, and he abandoned his wife and four children and quit the police force to be with her. He called her “Tiger Kitten,” and the two were seen at various Boston hotels portraying themselves as married. Shortly after, they were arrested on morals charges, found guilty, and given a six-month jail sentence. But the lovers fled the area pending an appeal. Shortly after, Tiger Kitten was admitted to a Providence hospital as a result of a suicide attempt and an admission of being depressed. The couple then fled to Texas, where they took jobs in a night club.

Baker Recants

After a year in jail, Harry Baker became increasingly enraged with Baby Doll abandoning him. He recanted his confession and stated that Chapman’s murderer was actually Baby Doll. She admitted to Baker that after a drinking binge at the Central House, she went to Chapman’s place with the express intent of taking revenge and stealing the old man’s money. But the encounter did not go well, and to escape Chapman’s advances she bludgeoned his head with a claw hammer numerous times.

When she told Baker what happened, he told her that he loved her and vowed to take responsibility for the act. The next morning the pair returned to the scene of the crime and found a pry bar and drill to break into the safe, but they were unsuccessful.  After covering Chapman’s body, they attempted to clean up the crime scene and locked the door from the outside. That evening they packed their travel trunks in preparation for a speedy escape and the next morning boarded a train for Boston.

In 1933, the former-cop-turned-lover of Tiger Kitten returned to Boston to make amends with his deserted wife and kids. He had been thrown out, and Tiger Kitten was again on the prowl.  Once back in Boston, he was apprehended by a bail bondsman on the default warrant for jumping bail for the old morals charges. He was held without bail and sent to jail for six months.

Meanwhile, Eleanor Reise, alias Baby Doll Baker, alias Hazel Manning, alias Tiger Kitten, was last seen heading to Mexico, never to be heard of again.

After serving 15 years of a life sentence in jail along with years of pleading his innocence, Harry Baker received a Governor’s Pardon and was placed on parole. However, it wasn’t long before he disappeared. He was later convicted by a Texas court of an armed robbery charge and sentenced to 25 years in jail.        

The Baby Doll Murder in historical records

The Racine Journal News: Monday, May 8, 1916

The most troublesome woman ever arrested is the title given Mrs. Ellen Reise 23 years old, by the Milwaukee police. She is the woman who was captured in this city last week by Detective Johns, and who, after being placed in charge of police woman Webers, broke fro her and ran away but Detective Johns afterward having a race in a taxicab captured her.

Her husband, Robert Reise testified that she had shot him, attacked him with a pair of scissors, attempted to burn down his parents’ house, and finally poured acid on him.

When taken to the detention rooms she made two or three attempts to get away and had matches which she probably intended to eat and poison herself. The charge against the woman was that she threw carbolic acid on her husband when he was asleep, severely burning him. This was on April 17.

Previous to this she had masqueraded as a man at Kenosha, This deception she carried out for ten days. Her husband, Robert Reise, declares that while he slept she threw the acid on his legs and body and when he was awakened by the burning she stood by the bed with an empty bottle. ‘He came here and met her on the street and induced her to accompany him to a hotel and then notified the police and her arrest followed.

At Milwaukee she was taken before Judge Pago and he expressed a belief “that she was not mentally sound. and said that she had attempted to set fire to the house of her father-in- law and tried to shoot her husband with a shotgun and that she should be examined when her case is called in the municipal court. The charges which she made against her husband while here are said to have been the result of her imagination.

The Racine Journal News: Saturday, May 20, 1916

Ellen Reise, 23, the woman who, when arrested here some days ago by Detective Johns attempted to escape from Miss Rose Webbers policewoman then tried to jump out of a window of the detention rooms in city hall and who was discovery to have a quantity of matches in her possession with which undoubtedly, intended to poison herself, broke away from three deputy sheriffs in Milwaukee yesterday, and attempted to leap from the eighth story of the municipal court building.

The sheriffs managed to catch her after a desperate struggle she was overpowered. The charge against the woman is assault with intent to do great bodily harm on the person of her husband by throwing carbolic acid on him while he slept. She said that she committed the assault because she loved her husband and was afraid some other woman, would get him away and she desired to mar his beauty. She was sentenced to two years in prison. When the judge pronounced sentence, the woman exclaimed: “O Lord: only two years, I thought I was going to get fifteen.”

Mr. Reise testified that the woman shot him on one occasion, attacked him with a pair of scissors, poured water on him when he was in bed, attempted to burn the home of his parents and finally poured acid on him.

The Milwaukee Journal, May 19, 1916

The front page of the Milwaukee Journal headline reads: “Furious Woman Startles Court- -Raves, Stamps her feet, Defies Judge and Sheriff- -Dashes Out, but Is Overtaken, Handcuffed and Taken to Jail- Accused of Pouring Carbonic Acid on Sleeping Husband.”

Quivering with rage, Mrs Ellen Reise, 23, charged with pouring carbonic acid upon her husband, Robert, stamped her small foot in municipal court Friday, defied the Judge, district attorney, and sheriff, and then darted through the courtroom door and made for the banister in the corridor. Deputies seized her, handcuffed her and let her to the jail.

Mrs. Reise weighs about ninety pounds. She has been in the jail two weeks and has kept the institution in a turmoil. Firemen in Engine 1 declared they have scarcely slept for ten days. The woman sings, shouts and raves throughout the night, according to the sheriff and prisoners complain they cannot sleep. She has attacked the matron and sheriffs several times, the court was informed.

 She Poured Acid on Him. –

The woman’s husband took the stand and said that, while he was asleep in his home on American Ave, she poured carbonic acid over his body. He asserted that she is extremely jealous, and that she shot at him once, put fire to his home, and attempted to cut his throat with a razor. He said they quarreled day and night.

After pouring acid upon him, Reise told the court, she went to the shop where he was employed and told the foreman that he had committed suicide. She got his pay, he said, and his tools and clothing, and left the city.

“I did that to my husband, but I did it because of love,” Mrs. Reise told the court. “I never did anything to anybody else. Send me to Waupun, but don’t send me to the insane asylum, I am not crazy.”

Judge Backus called her attention to the record showing that she has been arrested several times for being drunk and disorderly. He declined to sentence her, but appointed Doctors Studley and Bradley to examine her mental condition.

Mentally Deficient or Mean?

“I don’t believe she is right mentally,” said the court. “If she is sound mentally, then she has the meanest disposition of any woman who ever came into this court.”

During the time she was before the court, Mrs. Reise kept up a running fire of comment, informing the district attorney and attaches what she thought of the proceedings and of them personally.

When the court warned deputies to be careful that the woman did not escape when being taken to the jail, she said: “You think you’re cute, don’t you?” Another time she informed the district attorney she was “No rummy,” and that she did not have her ears stuffed with cotton.G


Boston Daily Record, Westborough Chronotype, and crime scene photos contributed by David Kaprelian.

Dwight Chapman deed,  2168-152.

1874-538 Emily Blake deed.

1646-532 Ellen R. Woods deed.

1924…2330-5 Don C. Parker bought estate for $3,000

Susan Doyle provided news articles


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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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.”

* * *

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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