Notes by Jeanne Carley
Did you know that Quaker women were taking off their clothes in protest against the rules of the Puritans in early New England? Diane Rapaport, a lawyer, award-winning author and genealogy speaker, has found this historical tale among a "treasure trove of stories within the records in the Massachusetts Archives". Her amusing and poignant talk brought history to life and showed that human nature doesn't change much with the centuries.
Ms. Rapaport, who is a regular columnist on Scottish genealogy for New England Ancestors, the magazine of Historic and Genealogical Society of New England, told the CCGS members a series of fascinating tales she had found while researching records. One might conjure up images of Puritans as dour people in stocks dressed in drab clothes and wearing scarlet letters, etc., but she says the court records reveal a more unruly, irreverent picture than known. Sometimes they wore red and were not as prudish as thought. Besides, there were so many religious laws and so many ways to get into trouble.
Unlike her first book, New England Court Records: A Research Guide for Genealogists and Historians, which tells how to research court records, her latest work is quite different. In The Naked Quaker: True Crimes & Controversies from the Courts of Colonial New England, she writes a collection of surprising and shocking stories about New England people from records. The former trial lawyer describes disorderly Sundays, witches, rebellious sons, tavern tales, (usually alcohol - related) coupling and neighbor versus neighbor. Ms. Rapaport provides names of the offenders and occasionally, after her talks, members of her audiences come up to claim their ancestors.
She gives an account of how some Quaker women reacted to the penalties imposed upon them by Gov. Endicott. (It was against the law for Quakers to meet or teach their beliefs, and they were expected to attend Puritan church services or be banished or executed.) Forced against her will to attend church services, Lydia Wardell from New Hampshire expressed her contempt for the law by taking off her clothes in the chilly meeting-house one cold spring day in 1663. Deborah B. Wilson also protested the law by strolling naked along the streets of Salem. Both women were arrested, and ironically, stripped to the waist and severely whipped. Finally, the king stopped the executions in the colony, but still expected everyone to attend church services or be punished.
But it was not only Quakers who were punished for their actions. Church services were held for six or seven hours with a break for lunch, and ministers, though highly educated, were not always interesting or great orators. Sometimes, people shouted out remarks and were then forced to make a public penance. One woman, who said she would rather hear a cat meow than listen to her minister, was publicly humiliated and given a "cleft stick" on the tongue punishment for her "blasphemous" comments. (Editor's note: This form of punishment followed the English custom of iron "branks" (metal cages with spikes to cut or split the tongue), but in the Colony, a wooden stick to hold the tongue was commonly used to silence female "scolds", gossips and blasphemers).
Long before the 1692 Salem witch trials, there were numerous incidents in which women were thought to be bewitched, sometimes simply because they may have been eccentric. The first execution of a "witch", Alice Young in Hartford, was held in 1647. It was common to throw the female suspect into a pond and decide her innocence or guilt depending on whether she floated or drowned. One such well-off woman, known as the "witch at the top of the stairs", was suspected because she muttered, wandered the streets and was somewhat eccentric. She was moved into the deputy mayor's home because unmarried women weren't allowed to live alone. Bad things happened after she visited people and so teen-age girls spied on her and spread rumors. Being feisty, she walked across the street to the governor's house and sued the deputy mayor's family. She eventually died of natural causes, but others were not so lucky.
In Cambridge, the Halman sisters were well-known healers and mid-wives. Since they occasionally walked "in the woods" where it was "fit only for Indians and devils", they were accused of witchcraft. A woman across the street with hysterical fits claimed they were caused by the sisters. Judge Thomas Danforth, an admirable man for his times, according to Ms. Rapaport, often dealt with such cases, and his views on witchcraft evolved through time.
Women were not the only ones affected by Puritanical laws prevalent at the time. "A stubborn or rebellious son who did not obey his father or mother shall be put to death." One such fellow in Salem Village, John Porter, who seemed to have "anger management problems", got into trouble for having tantrums and saying crude and vulgar things to his parents. His father called the constable and a trial was held. He was not killed because his mother begged for mercy, but he had to spend time in hard labor and received other punishments. However, he escaped and fled to Rhode Island where laws were more lenient.
Alcohol accounted for many problems as hard cider and beer were daily drinks; they usually occurred in taverns except for Boston. Salem had many taverns and sometimes refreshments were too readily available. In one case, the suspected drunk threw up on a judge. Ms Rapaport cited a well-known trial, "Cider and Cakes", about romantic cavalier highwaymen, where the dialogue is provided in court records. There was a series of robberies with the law eventually catching up with the bandits. Their reprieve is told in her book.
Another case involved divinity students at Harvard College where an un-chaperoned party spread from house to house -- sort of a food and "bring your own bottle affair" until it got out of hand. There were women included and one free black student and they broke many laws. Most confessed to "dissolute behavior", but since two of the college president's own sons were partying, Judge Danforth did not punish them.
There are tales of "rogues" who tried to seduce women including a Patrick Moran, a Scottish ironworker and storekeeper who followed a young woman and promised her gloves if she would "lie with him". Lurid testimony followed. Finally she did came to his room, supposedly, to borrow a cup of sugar and he offered her a shilling. He claimed he wasn't guilty of her accusation, but insisted that several women were trying to take goods from the company store without payment. When he tried to prevent them, one woman went after him with an axe. The judge warned him not to be alone with such women again. Later he went to Massachusetts and appeared in similar cases.
"A woman of enthusiastical power" is the story of Mary Rosse of Boston who took up with Jonathan Dunham of Haverill (ancestor of Barack Obama), a married man who left his family. He broke into the governor's house and became a freelance preacher. He also raided a house in Little Compton, RI., whipped the occupants and was forced to apologize. He claimed he couldn't help himself because he was under Mary's "enthusiastical power" Mary, un-contrite, was whipped with cattails, banished from the colony and finally moved to New York.
Her final example of colonial justice was the case of the "purloined pigs" in which Michael Bacon took some hogs belonging to his neighbor, William Monroe in a 1671 dispute in Lexington. After Monroe came back to retrieve his missing hogs, they went back to Bacon's home again and were never returned. Monroe was upset as some of his valuable pregnant sows were "big with pig." Monroe got a constable and went to Danforth's home and filed a complaint. Bacon hired a lawyer, a direct ancestor of President Bush, and the first lawyer to become disbarred. She did not disclose the conclusion of the story, but revealed that Mr. Bacon had a secret love affair with a teen-aged servant who became pregnant while his wife was also expecting so sent her off to Rhode Island.
In response to a question, Mr. Rapaport told her audience that court records are wonderful sources to find ancestors as well as their stories. They can now be found in libraries, published online and other genealogical repositories.
[Diane Rapaport's excellent court record book, New England Court Records: A Research Guide for Genealogists and Historians, is available at the CCGS Genealogy Room Library.]
See the Presentation Notes Index for summaries of other presentations given at the Society's monthly meetings.