A Mary Miles Classic
The notorious island woman Kezia Coffin gained a huge fortune during the Revolutionary War at the expense of her fellow Nantucketers, pulling more than one fast one on both British and Americans. She later lost everything she gained by her questionable practices. She didn’t lose her spunkiness, though; she was said to have died on her energetic and feisty way to yet another court appearance in which she was stubbornly attempting to recoup her fortunes.
While reading some fascinating diary entries, we came upon yet another reference to this intriguing woman. The journal was “Account #252” in the many diaries of Eliza W. Mitchell (1808-1896). She wrote about events she remembered, and those that had been told to her in her youth by B. Franklin Folger…in her words, “to furnish amusement” to future readers.
The reminiscence in question is a story about Coffin’s “Smuggling Hole.” It was widely accepted as fact that Kezia (a known Tory sympathizer) hoodwinked both Americans and British, who she had persuaded to protect passage of her ships to and from Nantucket—by carrying on a lucrative smuggling operation out of her home in Quaise. Eliza Mitchell wrote:
“Persons who read of Kezia Coffin…are curious to know if her country House at Quaise did really have a private passage partially concealed, that led to the water, where she frequently had contraband Dry goods, conveyed in Small Boats late in the Evening, when all was quiet, but two or more men who were pledged to secrecy, and I will tell the Story just as B. Franklin Folger, who is good authority, of much that took place during his day and time, told me.
“[Note: The following comprise a quote by Folger.] I was very anxious, as well as curious to find out about there being any thing of the kind. One day, I went out a [sic] Berry Picking alone, as was my usual custom, I managed not to be seen, and I went where I often had been told, the entrance might be found, and while I was scrambling away grass, & wild rubbish, there came along an old
farmer man, and sad, well, perhaps, there is no such Hole as you call it. Yes there is, he replied, & I have been in it. So I then said well, am I on the right track.
Well, he said, there is some work to be done, but I found stones and all kinds of rubbish, and that was several years ago. Well, I said very indifferently, and after he went about his business, I went to work, and soon came to an opening.
And in a few days after the air had pass’d through, I crawled in and found just as had been told me quite a storage place, and in the center I could stand nearly straight. All was timeworn and, very much decay’d but I saw all that I needed to convince me of all that had been told of the crafty business she had that provate room arranged for. No doubt she was a very capable woman, But lacking very much in principle.
“[EWM’s words again]-The present Owner, Mr. William Starbuck the Tax Collector, owns the place, his wifes fathers, Simon Macy, Great Grandson to Zacheus Macy owned & lived with his family in the house as [Kezia] built it. “After his death, Mr. & Mrs. Starbuck came in possession of the place, and
had the old mansion removed and a more modern one erected in it’s [sic] place, so that all traces of the former fixtures of [Kezia] have pass’d away. Mrs. Starbuck told me, she only wished all stood as formerly—So many persons had been out to find the out of town dwelling of the famous [Kezia], & she really believes it would have been in a pecuniary way quite advantageous to have been kept as a resort, as so many had offered to recompense her for just a shingle or little trifle of what had used to be [Kezia’s] .
“—Franklin told me of her remarkable death, and I intend, if my life & memory continue, after the Summer is over, to add considerable more of some facts connected with the famous woman, because soon only what is written, will be left of the many ancients who have left any history behind them.” [Since Eliza Mitchell died in 1896, it’s unlikely she recorded further research into the story of Kezia Mitchell—but we wish she had!]
There—even 100 years ago, there were all kinds of people living on Nantucket: those who used others and those who were used; those who got even; and those who finally got their just reward, however ironically; those ready to tear down historical places to satisfy their own needs and whims…and those who recognized the benefits that might come from exhibiting sites of interest…And, I might add, there were also those who were bent upon finding out, first-hand, if possible, about events that shaped this island and writing them down for others to learn from, cogitate upon, and enjoy—in Eliza Mitchell’s words, written “to furnish amusement.”