Religious Persecutions in Colonial New England Caused Immense Humiliation

Religious Persecutions in Colonial New England Caused Immense Humiliation

Donna Patricia Ward - September 22, 2018

Religious Persecutions in Colonial New England Caused Immense Humiliation
Hanging from an Elm tree for being a witch. Wikipedia.

7. Margaret Jones was Hanged for being a Witch in 1648

Witches posed a serious threat to the “holy commonwealth” of Puritan New England. Most people in the 17th century believed in the supernatural. Astrological charts told a farmer when to plant crops or marry off a daughter. Honoring or praying to a Saint could result in good crops, cured illness, or a happy home. As Puritans sought advisement from the supernatural, some inNew England believed that these superstitions were works of Satan. Witches and wizards, they believed, were the eyes and ears of the devil and had to be eliminated from society.

Margaret Jones was a midwife. In addition to assisting women childbirth, Margaret attended to the sick. She used herbal concoctions to alleviate pain or reduce a fever. Often a patient would make a full recovery and Margaret would be viewed as a gracious healer. But, when patients died in childbirth or succumbed to a disease, many of the devout believed that Margaret had purposely let a person die because Satan told her so. According to the historical record, Margaret would inform those at their end of their life or the gravely ill that “they would never be healed.” She would give remedies to the sick that would later be “taken with deafness, or vomiting, or other violent pains.” Because of this, Margaret was accused of witchcraft.

In June 1648, Margaret Jones stood trial for being a witch. Once accused Margaret was considered guilty and there was little that she could do to prove her innocence. Neighbors and friends, in acts of self-preservation, would tell the judge how they saw Margaret feeding one of Satan’s spawns, an imp, from her third teat that presumably all witches had. Or on how Margaret had let a loved-one die or caused them pain while sick or that she was able to foretell things that “came to pass.”

On 15 June 1648 in the small town of Charleston in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Margaret Jones was hanged until she died. She was the first to be executed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony for being a witch. Over the next three decades, numerous men and women would be accused of witchcraft in the quest by Puritan magistrates and ministers to ensure purity with the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Ironically, a hurricane, called a tempest in the 17th century, hit in nearby Connecticut that “blue down many trees” short after Margaret hanged.

Religious Persecutions in Colonial New England Caused Immense Humiliation
Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Latter. Wikipedia.

8. Ann Hibbins was executed for being a witch and was the inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorn’s Ester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter

Twice widowed, Ann Hibbins was a wealthy and respected woman in Boston. Shortly before the death of her second husband, Ann had hired some carpenters to make some improvements to her home. Believing that the men had overcharged her for their work, Ann filed a lawsuit. The lawsuit was ruled in her favor, but Ann faced wide-spread opposition for hiring carpernters in the first place.

As a woman, Ann was to refer all matters to her husband or son. Her husband was dead and her sons lived in England. Some in the colony felt that her actions in hiring carpenters in the first place was “abrasive.” Church ministers and elders began an inquest into Ann’s behavior. They believed that Ann acted agains the authority of her dead husband and instructed her to apologize to the carpenters for filing a lawsuit against them. Ann refused.

When Ann refused to apologize, Church leaders excommunicated and admonished the widow. When she still refused to apologize, she was accused of being a witch and she was quickly placed on trial. Ann was tried and convicted of being a witch in 1655. For unknown reasons her first conviction was set aside. Later in May 1656, she was tried again for being a witch. Again she was found guilty and sentenced to hang from an elm tree on 19 June 1656.

Aside from the date of her hanging, there are no records that survived of her trial. This has perplexed scholars because Ann Hibbins was a wealthy and respected Puritan woman. Even lacking details, her story did not go unnoticed. In the mid-19th century, Nathaniel Hawthorn used Ann Hibbins as inspiration for Ester Prynne in his The Scarlet Letter. Ester’s first hanging did not happen because she was found to be pregnant. The same might have happened to Ann.

Religious Persecutions in Colonial New England Caused Immense Humiliation
Etching of colonial hangings. Connecticut History.

9. Ann Austin and Mary Fishers Quaker Preachers that were put in jail before they even stepped foot in Boston in 1656

Ann Austin and Mary Fisher were Quakers. They left London in 1656 and sailed to the sugar island of Barbados. While in Barbados, the women were described as being “stricken in years.” In all likelihood the women were beyond their childbearing years. When they arrived in Barbados, they were well received and began professing, or preaching, the theology of Quakerism in hopes of converting many on the island. They were successful in converting island’s Lieutenant Governor.

Ann and Mary left Barbados on the Swallow and sailed to New England. The women were to preach about “the light within” and to convert others to Quakerism. to preach about “the light within.” The Massachusetts Colony was deemed hostile territory. As in England, Quakers were viewed as the worst sort of heretic. Colonial leaders did not tolerate Quakers stepping foot into the Massachusetts Bay Colony. When the women arrived in Boston on 11 July 1656 they were immediately taken to prison.

The first steps that Quakers took in New England were from their ship to prison. Colonial authorities then burned all of the printed literature that the women had with them and the boarded up the window of their jail. Ann and Mary were to remain there without food or water presumably until they died. Nicholas Upsall could not let the women be forgotten about or starve to death. He managed to bribe their prison guard, paying him 5 shillings per week in order to provide the women with food.

After five weeks in jail the women were placed back upon the Swallow and sent back to Barbados. In 1657 Ann Austin and Mary Fisher returned to London. The only Puritan in New England that they had convert to Quakerism was Nicholas Upsall. In London, Ann Austin continued to preach about Quakerism until her death in 1665. Reportedly she died in prison during the Great Plague of London and is buried in a Quaker cemetery. Other reports suggest that she joined Mary Fisher and settled in South Carolina.

Religious Persecutions in Colonial New England Caused Immense Humiliation
New Amsterdam in 1664. Wikipedia.

10. Peter Stuyvesant was the Governor of New Amsterdam and prohibited most people from his colony

At the southern and disputed boundary of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was land controlled by the Dutch. The New Netherland Colony included the eastern areas of present-day New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Connecticut, and small outposts in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. Like New England, the Dutch colonized for economic opportunities associated with the very lucrative North American fur trade. At first settlement was slow, but by the 1650s, Fort Amsterdam had grown into a major port city in the North Atlantic.

Unlike settlement to the north, most residents in Fort Amsterdam were multi-lingual, practiced a multitude of religious worship, and were from all parts of Europe, Native Americans, and African slaves. Most residents labored in some capacity associated with transatlantic trade and commerce. But like most other places under European control, colonial officials wanted to replicate their world using their mother land as a model. For New Netherland and Fort Amsterdam this meant adhering to the Dutch Reform Church.

Peter Stuyvesant was installed as the Director-General of New Amsterdam in 1657. He was a staunch supporter of the Dutch Reform Church and began passing laws and ordinances requiring all residents to attend and pay taxes to the church. He passed a law that prohibited Jews, Roman Catholics, and Quakers from entering into his colony. Stuyvesant also targeted Lutherans and prohibited them from building new churches or worshiping in the privacy of their own homes. Instead, all residents of the colony were forced to attend and pay taxes to the Dutch Reform Church.

For a brief time, Stuyvesant enjoyed the same type of success that the Puritans has displayed in New England. In 1657, he ordered the public torture of a popular Quaker, Robert Hodgson. After the torture, Stuyvesant issued an ordinance that forbade anyone from harboring a Quaker. If caught, they could be fined, imprisoned, banished, or hanged! Residents stood up to Stuyvesant and issued the Flushing Remonstrance that demanded religious tolerance in the rapidly growing port colony.

The controversy concluded when Peter Stuyvesant was forced to surrender the colony to the King of England on 6 September 1664. Fort Amsterdam became New York and Stuyvesant was permitted to live out the rest of his life on his farm. He is buried at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood.

Religious Persecutions in Colonial New England Caused Immense Humiliation
Attempted slap into slavery of Lawrence and Cassandra Southwick’s children. Wikipedia.

11. The Southwicks did not pay their fine and the colonial government took their children to sell them into slavery in 1657

Lawrence and Cassandra Southwick married around 1623 or 1624. Somewhere between 1637 and 1639 they sailed with their surviving children to Salem, Massachusetts. Lawrence was admitted to the First Church of Salem and was the first glassmaker to settle in New England. By 1642 he had focused on animal husbandry and had become an important breeder of livestock in the area. In this capacity, Lawrence and his wife would have been respected members of the community.

The Puritan couple was found out when they hosted two traveling Quakers in 1657 and charged with heresy, sent to prison and required to pay a fine. When authorities found out that Lawrence was a member of the First church of Salem, he was release. Cassandra had in her possession a Quaker pamphlet and remained in jail for seven weeks. She was required to pay 40 shillings upon her release from jail, which either she could not afford or refused. In 1658 she and her son were charged with being Quakers living Salem. Both were jailed for 20 weeks with little to no water, food, or outside contact.

For over a year, the Southwicks were tortured, jailed, and fined for being Quakers. They did not pay the fines and the accrued debt. To pay the debt, Puritan leaders forced the Southwicks to sell two of their children into slavery where they would be shipped to Barbados. The details on why the children were never sold and sent is unknown. By 1660 the family had either been banished or simply fled the Massachusetts Bay Colony and ended up on Shelter Island in New York. Within three days of each other, Cassandra and Lawerence Southwick died. A commemorative plaque states that they were “imprisoned, starved, whipped, banished…and persecuted to death” for being Quakers.

Religious Persecutions in Colonial New England Caused Immense Humiliation
The Quaker Mary Dyer led to Execution 1 June 1660. Wikipedia.

12. Mary Dyer was banished for birthing a stillborn and then hanged for being a Quaker

Mary Dyer and her family left London for the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635. As early arrivals in the colony, the Dyers were influential in shaping the “holy commonwealth.” Common with most women of the era, Mary spent most of her adult life pregnant. Not all births concluded with the birth of a healthy baby. Some were stillborns, deformed, premature, or died soon after being born. Puritan leaders called these “monstrous births” caused by acts committed by the mother that God found to be in defiance of Puritan ideology.

In October 1637, Mary Dyer gave birth to a deformed stillborn. Upon the advice of a minister, Mary buried her dead infant and did her best to forget and move on. While attending the church trial of Anne Hutchinson, Governor Winthrop had been informed of Mary’s monstrous birth. He ordered that the infant be exhumed and examined. He wrote that Mary’s deformed infant, that had been buried for five months, had “three claws” along with “two mouths” that each held “a piece of red flesh.” Mary was banished from the colony for giving birth to a deformed stillborn.

By 1651 Mary had returned to England. There she converted to the Society of Friends and as was the custom, she began traveling to convert others to Quakerism. She returned to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and was quickly arrested. By this time, it was illegal for any Quaker to set foot in the colony. Mary was sentenced to hang for being a Quaker.

In September 1660, Mary made the walk to the Elm tree, climbed the ladder, and had a noose placed around her neck. As she prepared to take her last breath a stay of execution was received delaying her hanging. Mary demanded that she hang for her crime of being a Quaker. On 1 October 1660, Mary once again climbed the ladder under the Elm tree. At 9 am the ladder was removed and Mary hanged until she was dead. When King George II found out about Mary Dyer’s death, he forbade Massachusetts Bay Colony from executing people for being Quakers. This became a turning point in Puritan authority in the colony.

Religious Persecutions in Colonial New England Caused Immense Humiliation
Cart and Tail punishment reenactment. Colonial Williamsburg.

13. Three Women were convicted of being Quakers and were stripped naked, tied to a cart, and whipped in 1662

Ann Coleman, Mary Thompkins, and Alice Ambrose were Quakers. They arrived in Dover, New Hampshire, and preached about the “inner light” and the restrictions placed upon individual conscience by Puritan patriarch, and the tyranny of Puritan New England. Two years after the execution of Mary Dyer for being a Quaker, Ann, Mary, and Alice were arrested for being Quakers. Their fate was worse than death.

In the winter of 1662, the First Church in Dover told residents to find “relief against the spreading & wicked errors of the Quakers among them.” Magistrate Richard Waldren ordered that Ann, Mary, and Alice be stripped of their clothing from the waist up, tied to a cart, driven through town, and whipped a maximum of 10 times each. Their public sentence was to be repeated in 11 towns, Dover, Hampton, Salisbury, Newbury, Rowley, Ipswich, Wenhan, Linn, Boston, Roxbury, and Dedham.

Their firs public punishment took place in Dove where magistrates John and Thomas Roberts “stripped naked” the three women, tied them to a cart, and whipped. Still attached to the cart, the women were paraded through town half naked with their wounds exposed to the winter air. When the magistrates determined that their punishment in Dover was complete, the women were covered, placed into the cart, and taken to the next town of Hampton.

The constable instructed the women to remove their clothing. They refused and demanded that he “set us free.” He stripped the women, tied them to the cart, and with a reported trembling hand, whipped the women 10 times each. The women were carted around town and then returned to the wagon and taken to Salisbury over snow-covered dirt roads as their backs bled from their torn flesh.

When the cart arrived in Salisbury, Sergeant Major Robert Pike halted the whippings. A doctor treated the wounds, dressed them and then took the women into Maine where they recovered. Undeterred by their experience, Ann Coleman, Mary Thompkins, and Alice Ambrose eventually returned to Dover where they began a Quaker Meeting, of which over a third of Dover’s population joined.

Religious Persecutions in Colonial New England Caused Immense Humiliation
Colonial Witch Trial. Google Images.

14. Executing women for Midwifery

Families settled New England beginning in the 1620s. Large families were the norm. Women were expected to marry in their early 20s and begin having babies immediately. It was not uncommon for one woman to give birth every two years for 25 years! In Puritan New England, wives were to obey their husbands and be “helpmates.” Farm wives were responsible for tending to vegetable and herb gardens, churning milk into butter, fermenting malt into beer, spinning thread and yarn, knitting sweaters and making cloth for clothing, preserving meat from slaughtered livestock, and maintaining a home and caring for her children.

The sphere of womanhood was wrought with challenges. Perhaps the most vexing of these to men was pregnancy and childbirth. In Puritan New England, as with cultures throughout the world, childbirth was the only area that women had any semblance of authority. Childbirth was horrifying and many women died. Only the healthiest of newborns made it beyond their first birthday. For the midwife and her attendants, usually older women who were neighbors, it was imperative to care for the laboring woman and prepare her home for the arrival of a new baby.

Midwives administered herbs to alleviate pain and sought guidance from nature and the supernatural in the hopes of having a good birth. Some female attendants provided prayers and spiritual advice to laboring women. This was in direct defiance of the Puritan church, but it was often overlooked if all turned out well. Life got tricky when mothers died in childbirth. Suddenly a well-respected woman was accused of being a witch for her reliance on herbs which made her “addicted to sorcery.” Puritan magistrates sentenced convicted witches to death by hanging. Women were scrutinized for their actions in ways that men in Puritan New England never could be.

Religious Persecutions in Colonial New England Caused Immense Humiliation
Whipping by the Cat O’Nine Tails. Wikimedia.

15. Puritans used corporal punishment to keep residents in line

Puritans in New England used the Bible as a guide for crimes and punishment. In doing so, they believed that they were fulfilling their obligations to God, who created and provided for them. Any non-normative behavior or any criminal act was cause for a trial and punishment. Crimes could include any deviant behavior, speaking against the authority of church figures, working on the Sabbath, not attending church, sodomy and bestiality, sex outside of marriage, swearing, drunkenness, idleness, gambling, flirting, and gossiping.

Trials and punishment were often public affairs. The most intimate details of a person’s life would be fodder for public debate. Neighbors, ministers, and government officials would scrutinize the accused asking person questions such as marital sex, aliments, or private thoughts. No question was off limit and privacy was nonexistent. Some crimes carried more weight than others. Someone who was convicted of committing heresy, expressing an unorthodox religious view, could be sentenced to death. Views that contradicted or challenged Puritan authority were dangerous and simply could not spread.

Other perceived crimes were controlled with fines and imprisonment. Both were detrimental to a farmer. If he was imprisoned, he would not be able to work his fields or tend to his livestock. If he was fined, it was likely that he would not have monetary means with which to pay the fine until his crop was sold at market. People were also sent to the stocks. The stockades were usual in the town’s square. As the criminal was serving their penance, neighbors were encouraged to yell and throw objects, including manurer and rotten fruits and vegetables.

Bodily harm was administered in one way or another in Puritan New England for what a 21st person would view as petty crimes. For Puritans in New England it was imperative to control their colony and to ensure that those who might speak out against their “holy commonwealth” were quickly punished and publicly humiliated. As Puritan leaders attempted to increase their strict control over residents in New England, the more England took notice. Within 75 years of settlement, Puritans were forced to relinquish control of their “City Upon A Hill.”

Religious Persecutions in Colonial New England Caused Immense Humiliation
“The Witch No. 1” by Joseph E. Baker. Wikipedia.

16. Puritans believed that witches were the spawn of Satan and had to be eliminated

Zealous Puritan ministers increasingly became concerned about the increase in migration into New England in the mid-1600s. The arrival of so many non-Puritans posed a serious threat to the Puritan ideal in establishing a “holy commonwealth.” To thwart Satan’s influence they preached from the pulpit that it was the responsibility of their congregants to weed out the “double-tongued” and those that had an “unruly spirit.” Mass hysteria ensued. Neighbors accused neighbors of witchcraft simply for typical neighborly squabbles. A single misstep could result in hanging from an Elm tree.

To prove that one was not a witch or wizard, the accused had to undergo various types of examinations. These examinations could range from being stripped naked while ministers or their representatives search for a third teat. If one was present the accused would have to sit in a room for 24 hours while bystanders waited to see if a small sprite or imp came to feed. This would look a lot like a breastfeeding mother! Others would have to prove that they were not a witch by staying underwater for 30 minutes. If they floated to the surface, they were a witch and would be hanged. If they did not float to the surface they were not considered a witch and therefore innocent. Of course, the innocent drowned.

Puritan judges permitted circumstantial evidence and here-say to prove guilt during witch trials. Between 1647 and 1662 fourteen people had been executed for being a witch in New England. Most of the hanged were older women. During the hysteria of 1692 in Salem, the judge permitted visions seen only by a few young women to be entered as evidence at trial. Of the 175 people put on trial for witchcraft, 19 people were executed.

The quest for Puritans to create their version of a “City upon a Hill” became their undoing. The King of England took notice and enforced policy that prohibited executions for frivolous accusations. Judges were no longer able to sentence people to death for speaking out of turn, disagreeing with ministers, or being witches. Ironically, the King’s control over his growing North American colonies would eventually lead a war of revolution by the end of the 18th century.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Henretta, James A., Rebecca Edwards, and Robert O. Self, eds. America: A Concise History. 2012.

Hollitz, John, Thinking Through the Past: A Critical Thinking Approach to US History Vol. 1: To 1877 5th ed. Cengage Learning, 2015.

The Whipping Of The Quaker Women. Dover Public Library.

Anne Hutchinson. Wikipedia.

Mary Dyer. Wikipedia.

John Endecott. Wikipedia.

Massachusetts Bay Colony. Wikipedia.

John Winthrop. Wikipedia.

Dorothy Talbye Trial. Wikipedia.

Margaret Jones (Puritan Midwife). Wikipedia.

Peter Stuyvesant. Wikipedia.