Old Sam Cole beats the rap

I got to know Jim Henderson when he served in the Maine Legislature. Later, he became Secretary of State and then State Archivist (if I remember correctly, Jim had a PhD in history).

As state archivist, Jim would occasionally call me to tell me about some interesting thing they had found while shuffling through old state records. In this case, he called me to tell me about a curious poem that had been found on the back of some papers from the York County Court of General Sessions, dated October 1734.

I love history and I absolutely loved this story. Unfortunately, UPI was on its last legs in the late 1980s and I’m not sure if this story was ever published.


AUGUSTA, Maine (UPI) – It wasn’t much of a crime, not even for the town of Biddeford in 1734. Old Sam Cole got drunk one warm summer’s night and beat up his son, Sam. Jr.

Two days later, Cole was drunk again. And once again, Sam. Jr. was the object of his father’s rage. This time, Old Sam didn’t beat up his son; instead, he just threatened to shoot him dead.

All of this earned the elder Cole a Grand Jury indictment, and a visit to the Court of General Sessions in York.

sam cole paperwork 1

The actual court papers that contained the Sam Cole poem

Just as it wasn’t a big crime, it also wasn’t a big court case. The prosecutor looked over the charges, decided that a lot of people got belligerent when they drank too much, and asked that the charges be dismissed.

The court agreed, and Old Sam was off the hook.

sam cole paperwork 2

The actual court records containing the Sam Cole poem

Normally, the case of Sam Cole wouldn’t have created much interest among researchers at the Maine State Archives, where ancient court records from York County have been under review for the past two years.

What has the researchers wondering is the poem that someone scratched out on the back of Sam Cole’s court papers.

“The jurors of our lords the king
       On oath present, and here they bring
       Into this honorable court,
       This lamentable sad report.”

 If there was a closet poet in York’s Court of General Sessions in the 1730s, he or she apparently only struck once, at least publicly. And no one can figure why the routine assault case of an old, drunken millwright moved the poet to describe the case in verse.

       “That one Sam Cole of Biddeford,
       A vain and graceless wretch (Good Lord!)
       Of whom twas also further said,
       He was a millwright by his trade.
       At Biddeford on the fifth day
       Of August Last, the jurors say
       By force and arms with a high hand,
       He got so drunk he scarce could stand.
       Not only so, but when twas done,
       Did beat and bang poor Sam, his son.
       Threatening to take away his breath
       And send him to the shades of death.
       And by his maker then and there,
       Six oaths he did profanely swear.”

Was the poet Noah Emery, the King’s Attorney who would have prosecuted the case? Possibly. But the poet expresses sympathy for the younger Sam Cole, and speaks harshly of the father. And it was Emery who moved for dismissal of the charges against old Sam Cole.

Perhaps the author was a court clerk who had time to waste in a quiet rural courtroom on a cool October day. Or perhaps it was someone else who worked in the courthouse.

“It had to be someone with access to the records,” said Arthur Dostie, the archivist who stumbled across the poem two years ago while sorting old York County court records.

“And at the place before rehearsed
       On the seventh day of August past,
       The millwright Sam got drunk once more
       In manner as he did before.
       And to dispatch his ‘foresaid son,
       Threatened to kill him with a gun.
       Nay then and there in cruel wrath,
       He did profanely swear an oath
       That could he meet his said son Sam,
       By’s maker he would shoot him Slam.
       And other crimes which men should hate,
       This old Sam Cole did perpetrate.”

Those other crimes were not confined to that summer of 1734, apparently. Dostie has been through page after dusty page of those old court records, and Sam Cole’s name pops up frequently.

“Cole was in court quite often, it looks like,” Dostie said. “He is named here several times.”

But although Cole was a repeat offender, it appears that drunken rowdyism wasn’t considered serious enough to go forward with a trial. The dismissal of the charges is also described by the poet.

       “Our sovereign’s peace contrary to
His crown and dignity also
Of ill example too ‘tis thought
To those offending in like sort.
Emery, attorney for the king,
Who says ‘tis no uncommon thing
For men themselves to intoxicate,
It often times has been his fate.
A thing no man has need to awe,
For ‘tis no breach of any law.
He therefore thinks as others do
This should be quashed, and Sam let go.”

The court papers, on the other side from the poem, show that Cole paid court costs and was released.

“He paid court costs and was acquitted,” Dostie said. “Seven pounds – pretty stiff.”

The unknown poet may have finished that afternoon in October 1734 by dipping his pen and composing his poem. And not far away, Old Sam Cole may well have celebrated his freedom with a drink or two.

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