In Episode 116, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger hang around an unassuming Westborough, Massachusetts, street corner in search of Tom Cook, an 18th-century man who once out-smarted the devil, and just may be the real-life inspiration for the British Robin Hood you know from centuries of books and movies.
Read the episode transcript.
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Produced and hosted by: Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger
Edited by: Ray Auger
Additional Voice Talent: Wendy Lynn Staats, Jack Auger, Sophie Belanger, Lorna Nogueira and Michael Legge.
Theme Music by: John Judd
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*A note on the text: Please forgive punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes. Like us, the transcripts ain’t perfect.
[SFX CARS DRIVING BY]
RAY: This is a pretty busy intersection here in Westborough, Massachusetts, Jeff. What are we looking for?
JEFF: In this case we’re looking for a who, not a what here by the intersection of East Main and Lyman Streets.
RAY: Okay, then WHO are we looking for?
JEFF: You’ve heard about the story of Robin Hood, right?
RAY: Of course! He stole from the rich to give to the poor. But Robin Hood is a story from OLD England. Not NEW England.
JEFF: I get that, but this guy may have a lot to do with the British character you know and love. Today we’re in search of a man named Tom Cook who was once considered the Robin Hood of Massachusetts, and they say, he once made a deal with the devil.
JEFF: Hello, I’m Jeff Belanger, and welcome to Episode 116 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about ten minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Thanks for joining us on our mission to Chronicle every legend in New England one week and one story at a time. And we couldn’t do what we do without the help of our patreon patrons. This show has been growing. Our costs continue to rise, and it’s our patrons who keep us going. If you’d like to give back, plus get access to new episodes and hear bonus episodes that no one else gets to hear, head over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends, and for $3 bucks per month, you can join the team. That’s the price of a coffee each month.
JEFF: We also appreciate it when you post a review of our show on iTunes or wherever you listen to us. Those reviews help others find us in a crowded sea of podcasts.
RAY: So Jeff, we’re looking for Tom Cook, a Robin Hood-type of character, here by the corner of Lyman and East Main Street?
JEFF: That’s right. Though there are some Robin Hood scholars in the United Kingdom who will tell you that maybe it was actually Tom Cook who played a significant role in the reputation of Robin Hood.
RAY: Really? Not the other way around?
JEFF: Mr. Cook isn’t someone we’ll run into now, but he was born in a house that once stood right about here. To set this up, let’s head back to 1738.
[SFX BABY CRYING]
JEFF: It’s October 6, 1738, and little Tom Cook has just come into the world. Tom is the son of Cornelius Cook, a blacksmith here in Westborough, and his wife Eunice. Some say maybe he was born under a bad sign. Others say time will tell.
RAY: When little Tom is only three years old, he falls gravely ill. The doctors aren’t quite sure what’s wrong with him, but Cornelius and Eunice fear they may lose him. The town Parson, Dr. Parkman and his deacons pray over the young child.
DEACONS: Lord, hear our prayer!
RAY: They pray that the Lord’s will be done. But that’s not good enough for mother Eunice… she’s desperate.
EUNICE: Only spare his life! I care not what he becomes.
JEFF: And that little statement alarms the deacons.
DEACONS: (SHOCKED GASP)
JEFF: To the deacons, that sounds a lot like offering little Tom’s soul to the devil in exchange for health. Soon, Parson Parkman and his deacons grow even more concerned when young Tom makes a speedy and complete recovery.
RAY: (SARCASTIC) Right. That sounds awful.
JEFF: They’re a superstitious bunch.
RAY: Maybe they have good reason to be superstitious because as Tom grows up, he’s becoming quite the terror. We’re talking beyond normal boy mischief. Soon friends and neighbors think maybe there really is some sinister pact with the devil.
[SFX SLOW FOOTSTEPS ON WOODEN FLOOR]
JEFF: When Tom turns 13 years old, the devil comes calling one morning while Tom is getting dressed. Old Scratch is tired of Tom living in Westborough, he figures it’s time to take him down below.
[SFX SLOW FOOTSTEPS ON WOODEN FLOOR]
JEFF: Tom is petrified at the sight of the devil in his house, but he keeps his head. You see, Tom is pretty clever. The devil reaches out his blackened hand offering it to Tom who is still pulling on his shirt. That’s when Tom thinks quick.
TOM: Awww come on. Can you at least wait until I get my suspenders on?
JEFF: The devil sighs. Then nods. (PAUSE) And that’s when Tom picks up his suspenders and tosses them into the nearby fireplace.
[SFX FIRE BURNING]
JEFF: The suspenders burn up, and Tom vows never to wear them again.
RAY: They devil is furious at being outsmarted by a kid.
[SFX STOMPING AWAY ON WOOD]
RAY: With no suspenders, there’s no way to take Tom below. So in a sense, Tom is free from the devil’s grip so long as he doesn’t wear suspenders.
JEFF: Which seems like a small price to pay. And having already faced down the devil at a young age, Tom is pretty much free from religious dogmas as well.
RAY: It’s not long after this incident, that Tom Cook begins his life of crime.
[SFX STRING MUSIC]
JEFF: But Tom isn’t some ordinary thief. He’s not just lining his pockets, he seems to have a more noble calling. Alice Morse Earle writes a book called Stage-Coach and Tavern Days where she describes the way Tom was perceived.
ALICE: He steals from the rich and well-to-do with the greatest boldness and dexterity, equaled by the kindness and delicacy of feeling shown in the bestowal of booty upon the poor and needy. He steals the dinner from the wealthy farmer’s kitchen and drops it into the kettle or on the spit in a poor man’s house. He steals meal and grain from passing wagons and gives it away before the drivers’ eyes.
RAY: The thing is, Tom Cook is getting known all over New England. The kids love him because he always seems to have toys, food, or money to give them, and apparently he’s a pretty fetching man. Alice Earle describes him.
ALICE: Tom Cook is most attractive in personal appearance; agile, well formed, well featured, with eyes of deepest blue, most piercing yet most kindly in expression.
RAY: He does sound dreamy.
JEFF: But the older folks didn’t like him much.
RAY: Why’s that?
JEFF: For one, he charges the wealthy area farmers a fee for… you know… protection.
RAY: Protection, I’m guessing from himself.
JEFF: Exactly. Tom Cook isn’t just a thief, he’s also committed arson at a few properties if he needs to send a louder message.
RAY: I believe the term for this is extortion.
JEFF: I believe you’re right. But then something happens to Tom Cook. And it’s something that happens to many career criminals…
RAY: He gets caught?
JEFF: He gets caught. For the crimes of arson, extortion, and repeated theft, the judge shows no mercy.
JUDGE: I therefore sentence you to be hanged by the neck ‘till you are dead, dead, dead.
JEFF: Tom Cook is quick to offer the judge a cheerful reply.
TOM_COOK_ADULT: I shall not be there on that day, day, day!
JEFF: And true to his word, when execution day arrives, his prison cell is empty.
RAY: I’m sure he had plenty of help along the way. When you steal from the rich and give to the poor, I imagine that tends to win you a lot of fans.
JEFF: That it does. Tom Cook’s biggest trouble, though, is yet to come.
RAY: That day arrives when Tom swipes a goose from a farmer’s wagon as he was making his way to the market. Tom slips into an abandoned school house near Brookline, and lights a small fire in the stove to cook his goose. (PAUSE) Where there’s fire… there’s smoke. Some nearby farmers see smoke rising from the chimney of the abandoned school house, so they investigate. When they find Tom Cook inside, it’s his goose who is now cooked.
JEFF: The farmers bring Tom to a nearby tavern just filled with wealthy farmers who had been robbed by Cook. They give Tom a choice. He can either face a judge again for his crimes, or face the gauntlet of the assembled men who are ready with whips and fists to settle the score. Tom chooses the gauntlet.
[SFX FIGHT AND WHIPS]
JEFF: After that, we don’t hear too much more about Tom Cook. He drifts into legend. And that brings us back to today.
RAY: Okay, Tom Cook’s story does sound a lot like pretty much every version of Robin Hood that I’ve ever encountered.
JEFF: I get that, he’s only missing the band of merry men. But it turns out we know a lot more about the historical Tom Cook than we do about Robin Hood.
RAY: Okay, when we researched Robin Hood, I learned A LOT. First, I always assumed he was a real historic figure in England.
JEFF: Well, he may have been, but it’s cloudy at best. The character of Robin Hood begins to show up around the 15th century in ballads and poems as part of May Day celebrations. The idea of Robin Hood was actually born about a century earlier during a time of great discontent in England. The feudal system was falling apart. The gap between the haves and the have-nots was huge, and the have-nots were getting tired and desperate. The earliest stories of this Robin Hood figure are that of a rebel from Sherwood Forest, a man hell-bent on destroying the establishment, so he murders agents of the government and wealthy landowners.
RAY: Centuries later the story softens to that of a man who himself is an aristocrat, who sees the wrong in the system, so he goes about trying to change things. He redistributes his wealth, and encourages others to do the same. Even later versions would add a love interest in Maid Marian, then the merry men, and the story changed from murdering aristocrats, to stealing from the wealthy to give to the poor.
JEFF: Various scholars believe the version of Robin Hood we know so well, the guy who steals from the rich to give to the poor, is from American influence on the centuries-old story and legend. In 1795, Joseph Ritson, a British antiquarian, published a collection of Robin Hood stories called: Robin Hood: A collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads. The work propels Robin Hood back into the mainstream.
RAY: 1795 is not that long after Tom Cook’s time… it makes sense that the Cook story would mix and blend with the Robin Hood story when you look at it from an American perspective. It’s kind of amazing to think this thief from Massachusetts, who once tricked the devil, is the real inspiration behind the Robin Hood we’ve seen in so many books, movies, and even cartoons.
JEFF: And it all began from this street corner in Westborough, Massachusetts.
RAY: I wonder how many people drive by this intersection and have no idea just how significant this place is… really globally. I mean, wow, maybe Robin Hood was really born in Westborough, Massachusetts, not Sherwood Forest.
JEFF: I know what you mean, Ray. I love it when huge legends hide in plain sight.
RAY: And we love it when you legendary listeners don’t hide at all. We love hearing your feedback on the episodes. You can get in touch with us by calling or texting our legend line anytime at 617-444-9683 – you can also leave our show closing on there for us as a voicemail, or connect with us on our Web site at ournewenglandlegends.com, join our super-secret Facebook page, or find Jeff and I on social media like Twitter and Instagram.
JEFF: We’d like to thank our voice actors this week: Wendy Lynn Staats from the band Sunspot – they’re awesome, Jack Auger…
RAY: He’s awesome.
JEFF: Of course, he’s your kid. Thank you Sophie Belanger…
RAY: That’s your kid. She’s awesome.
JEFF: Plus Lorna Nogueira and Michael Legge, who are both awesome and have helped us many times before. And of course our theme music is by John Judd.
VOICEMAIL: Hi, this is Isaac McDonald from Nova Scotia, Canada, until next time remember the bizarre is closer than you think.