The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin

BOOK: The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin
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The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin

For Linda

The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin

a mystery

Robert J. Begiebing

University Press of New England
Hanover and London

University Press of New England
© 1991 Robert J. Begiebing
All rights reserved

ISBN 978-1-61168-339-4 (e-book)

For permission to reproduce any of the material in this book, contact Permissions, University Press of New England, One Court Street, Suite 250, Lebanon NH 03766; or visit

This book was first published in 1996 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

I would like to thank four good friends whose encouragement and advice helped me to change the direction of my life and write this novel: Bob Hoddeson, Loftus Jestin, Lawrence Kinsman, and Wesley McNair.

The wife of one Willi[x] of Exeter was found in the river dead, her neck broken, her tongue black and swollen out of her mouth, and the blood settled in her, the privy parts swollen, etc., as if she had been much abused . . .

—The Journal of Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts, 1648

The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin


, E
at the Sign of the Red Pony,


It was a most signal pleasure to regain the acquaintance of so able a young man who proposes to venture among us in this New England, a wilderness of riches sufficient to enable you to restore that portion of your patrimony which agents of your late father have so lamentably squandered. And though it was a great sorrow to learn of the death of my old friend and distinguished associate, yet I came away in the firm hope that his son might choose to cast his lot with us. Upon certain inquiries into the especial advantages just now of our Pascataqua region for the forest trade, I can report not only abundant opportunities for a young man of parts, but an occasion of some urgency that doubtless shall be the foundation of your engagement with our plantation, of the settlement upon you of such lands as those we discussed, and of your credible entrance into the forest trade. In brief, you shall have the occasion to mark your distinction among us. Just as I saw upon our meeting in Salem on the twelfth day of last month that you, like your father, have grown into manhood with a quick and compassionative mind, so do I hold in high confidence your uncommon
capacity and your occupation in the Inns of Court; for your familiarity with instruments and courtesies of the law equips you for such an errand as I have in mind and promises such welcome and excellent assistance as that which, I do freely confess, I just now stand so in need.

I refer to an incident that came to pass last spring, but the effects of which still linger among us, viz., the strange death of a local woman, Mistress Coffin, whose body was found after long search in the waters of our great inland bay. She had been stripped of every shred of clothing and tormented in a most unspeakable manner. We have been unable to gain an exact view of what occurred or who was the instrument of such violence. Our desire for resolution to this outrage has met with bitter disappointment. The dead woman's husband, you see, mysteriously withdrew his action against the man deemed likely to be responsible, directly or indirectly, for the poor creature's demise, one Jared Higgins. More, there was a certain lack of demonstration and thereupon the Courts and magistrates became otherwise occupied. Hence it is that litigation has insufficiently advanced, nay has entirely vanished. As a magistrate, however, my personal interest in justice concerning these events has rejuvenated, particularly in consideration of certain late occurrences. Jared Higgins has disappeared, his wife lives in a dark web of afflictions from causes unknown, and some are roused to fear and anger as much by the incapacity of the Court to assign guilt as by lingering circumstances that issue from the woman's death.

Our foremost concern will be the afflicted woman, Elizabeth Higgins. We must uncover the source of her torments and assuage them, and throw light upon the strange disappearance of her husband. Then perchance we may search the death of Mistress Coffin to its truest source.

It would seem but dark ambage were I to belabor the myriad
details in this epistle. I shall tell you what we have uncovered when we next meet, and Goody Higgins shall relate her trials and situation to you herself. Can you lay down your affairs and come away directly?

Now as to the merits of life in our plantation, several of which I touched upon when we met, I doubt not that you have discovered by your sojourn in the Bay Colony even unto this day the wealth that awaits those who would labor in this wilderness, far removed from the amenity of Mother England. If more bereft of comfort even than certain of those settlements through which you have passed since your landing at Boston, our small plantation, I assure you, is most excellently situated, well above the mouth of the Merrimac, upon the fish-laden river at Robinson's Falls which contributes to our great inland bay and, ultimately, the fine harbor at Strawberry Banke. We are merely a journey of a day or two, first by ship out of Boston or Salem and then by boat up into the bay and river. You need but hire your passage upon your arrival at the Banke and the boatmen will deliver you to us.

We boast the advantages of the most flourishing plantation of the Pascataqua, a region if remote yet furnished with good woods, springs, rivers, fish, fowl, game, fruit, the nearby multitudinous seas and commodious bays, harbors, and islands. The seaport, hardly a half-day's journey by water, thrives and cannot but continue to prosper in future Atlantic trade. The great pine dominates our forest, yet are there plentiful maple, ash, oak and other choice woods to increase the gathering trade in lumber, staves, and naval stores. To the rising prosperity of our plantation at the Falls let me recommend to you likewise the orderliness of our community itself—founded as it was by learned men of God who established laws, magistrates, and church from the outset—that might well serve as exemplar to less fortunate settlements in our region. Found to be within the
patent and choosing to become allied with so prosperous and successful a benefactor, we, moreover, have lately come under the additional protection and regulation of Massachusetts Bay.

I shall not adventure to make this epistle any longer than to say how much I enjoyed all your news of England and have related these same to Mistress Cole, who even now remains struck by wonder. She sends you most affectionate greetings and lives in high anticipation of your likely arrival. She craves to speak further of news from Mother England, and to see again the son of one so cherished, a son now in the flower of his manhood but who, upon our last seeing him, was barely more than a child. Do say you will come to assist us.

Awaiting your reply, I remain, Sir, your affectionate servant,

Robinson's Falls, October 10 1648
Part I



Stay not among the wicked

Lest that with them you perish,

But let us to New England go,

And the Pagan People cherish.

—Song, “Invitation to
New Plantation,” 1638


“There is a man in town,” Elizabeth Higgins said. She was watching Richard Browne carefully. “I do not think an Englishman by birth. Mr. Coffin, or so he is called. Last May, he hired my husband to convey Mistress Coffin in his canoe to Dover market.”

“I do not know that settlement well,” Richard Browne said.

“There's a large market there in early summer, by Third River. Some dozen miles from where we sit. She had been trading cattle, and other things. When her affairs were settled, she returned to the landing, or so it was said by one, and could not find my husband, Jared. Although he had said
looked for her! The hour grew late; he finally returned home.”

“Was your husband not alarmed?”

“Of course! He went to Mr. Coffin. The man grew distracted, made accusations, raised a search party. It was later he finally laid charges. As a first step against my husband's breaking contract. Victory would have brought more serious accusations to the higher court. If she were forced overland, there were those who knew she carried on her some Indian wheat seed and other currency.”

A four-foot back log settled in the fire. Elizabeth Higgins rose, moved farther to one side and opposite certain trivets and skillets and braziers standing on their spindling legs, and then
adjusted the logs with a hay fork that had been leaning in the corner.

“And she never returned home,” Browne stated.

“That's so. They finally found her ill-used body in the water. Whoever it was took more than her kernels and coin.” She paused. The fire boomed from its adjustment and the wind at the chimney. “Pray spare me describing,” she said. “Thus do our first parents bring calamities upon us.”

He nodded, then said: “And thus we add unto them by cruelty in our own persons.”

She looked narrowly at him. “Her husband was, I say, outraged. In all the back and forth, Jared made it clear that here was a woman to find her own trouble—I don't know just what he told them. Then Mr. Coffin added ‘raising an evil report' to his list of charges.” Elizabeth Higgins stopped and looked down.

“She was, in truth, a high-spirited woman,” she finally continued. “Clever, more fond than her husband of trade and town affairs. And loose-tongued, Mr. Browne.”

“I don't see why the unfortunate man would not pursue the satisfaction of saving his murdered wife's name, at least,” Browne said, as if to himself.

“Perhaps he received satisfaction otherwise. Jared had done nothing. This man has powers others do not. Who can say where they end? He is respected for much learning.” He saw hatred in her eyes. “The Devil will pick his bones!”

“Do you charge him, Goody Higgins, with

“I am tormented, Sir.”


She paused to test Browne's eyes again, then added: “And signs. You might think me crazed if I speak everything.”

He waited.

“Here's one then.” She seemed suddenly defiant. “One night a strange animal—one I had not seen before but
a rat—got into the house and woke me. Its movement was sluggish. But
its eyes shone hideous by the fire, and it had rows of terrible little sharp teeth. I dared not go near but woke young Jared, who after much effort drove it out. Since that night we have sweet bays by the door stoop.”

“Your torments are by this man's hand or word?”

“Can you not see it, Sir?”

“You believe his ways darker than the Court. By what do you justify this belief?”

“The loss of my husband! Illness of children! Blasted fields! Do not such things justify?” She nearly spat out her list of injuries.

BOOK: The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin
11.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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