Domestic violence was a rather frequent occurrence among the peoples of Plymouth Colony. But in order to study this topic, the definition of domestic violence, that which will be included under that heading, must be laid down. In this paper, domestic violence will refer to any violent action occurring within a household or having to do with the members of a particular household. This includes servants, immediate family members, and any other violent action occurring within or about the home. Often, the location where the events described take place is not mentioned, but in many instances, it can be inferred whether or not the encounter was within the home.
There were many different types of domestic violence in Plymouth Colony, and the majority can be categorized under specific headings. There was child abuse, abuse of parents by children, spousal abuse of both males and females, sexually aggressive behavior such as rape, abuse of servants, situations which span more than one category, and a few other instances that do not seem to fit into any of the above categories either because the relationship between the people involved or the circumstances surrounding the incident were not presented. Regardless, through studying and analyzing all of the instances of domestic violence in Plymouth Colony recorded in the Plymouth Colony Records, a clearer picture can be seen of when people were punished for violent behavior, which types of behavior merited the most punishment, and a number of other factors, including the differences between the punishment of violent actions of men versus those of women. Before going any further into actual instances of violence, however, the laws set out in reference to violence should be discussed.
Plymouth Colony Laws Concerning Violence
Two of the most important laws referring to violence are mentioned near the very beginning of the Plymouth Colony Records in the volume on laws. These two, "Willful Murder" and "rapes" are both listed under the category of "Capitall offences lyable to death" (PCR 11: 12). The fact that the word "Willful" is alongside "Murder" is of great importance upon the analysis of murder cases. More than once, the fact that the word "Willful" is used prevents the death sentence from being carried out. This will be discussed in further detail later on. Equally, rape is never punished in Plymouth Colony by means of the death sentence, though it explicitly states in the laws of the colony that it is to be punished by death. The reasons behind this lack of enforcement vary from case to case and they will be discussed in further detail as those cases are discussed.
The rest of the laws concerning the punishment of violence are set out in two very short, very broad passages. The first states that "concerning misdemeanors as any shall be convicted in Court of any pticular to be Censured by the bench according to the nature of the offence as God shall direct them" (PCR 11: 13). Thus, the punishment was to be handed out by the Court as they saw fit, giving the Court an immense amount of power concerning behavior in the colony. The next passage states:
This passage in the laws basically gives the Grand Enquest the right to investigate any case in which any harm is done to any person so that justice may be fairly carried out.That all such misdemeanors of any pson or psons as tend to the hurt & detriment of society Civility peace & neighbourhood be enquired into by the grand Enquest & the psons presented to the Court that so the disturbers thereof may be punished & the peace & welfare of the subject comfortably preserved. (PCR 11: 18).
Other than those crimes for which the penalty of death was to be carried out, violent crimes in Plymouth Colony were to be punished as the court saw fit. Through the analysis of the actual records of the colony, the variation of punishment allowed by these vague laws will be shown, as will the reluctance to carry out the death penalty for rape cases and in some instances, murder.
Abuse of Servants
The abuse of servants in Plymouth Colony, for the most part, was not severely punished. A common reaction to the abuse of servants was for another person in Plymouth Colony to buy out the rest of the abused servant's time from their current master. This was the case in three of the six instances of servant abuse not ending in death mentioned in the records. An excellent example of this being carried out is the case of the abuse of Roger Glasse, servant to John Crocker:
This was a very typical reaction to servant abuse. The servant is paid for by the person receiving him, and the servant is forced to serve out his time. Note that although it was known that John Crocker did indeed abuse his servant, he was not fined or punished in any way, and he was reimbursed for the loss of his servant. Though he was not given much for his servant, it is notable that he was not truly punished in any way for the abuse.Forasmuch as John Crocker, of Scituate, is proued to have corrected his servant boy, Roger Glasse, in a most extreame & barbarous manner, the Court vpon due consideracon hath taken the said Roger Glasse from the said John Crocker, and placed him wth John Whetcombe, of Scituate, to serue out his tyme wth the said John Whetcombe, wch is six yeares from the fourteenth of June next; the said John Whetcombe paying the said John Crocker three pounds, deducting fiue shilllings for his charges, & the said Crocker to deliuer vp his cloathes to the said Whetcombe. (PCR 1: 141-142).
Another case very similar to that of John Crocker was that of the abuse of servant Robert Ransom by Thomas Dexter, Junior. In this case, it could not be proved that Thomas Dexter had indeed abused Robert Ransom, but the result was the same. Thomas Clarke bought out Robert Ransom's remaining time and Thomas Dexter was admonished "to carry himselfe better then hee had formerly, and incase hee should behaue himself as formerly, hee should not escape corporall *corporall punishment" (PCR 3: 64). Thus, the threat of punishment was there, but Thomas Dexter was not punished in any way, but that his servant was purchased from him. Likewise, in the case of the abuse of Samuel Hall by Francis Baker, the result was that John Hall, the father of Samuel, paid eight pounds to Francis Baker for the remainder of his son's time (PCR 3: 83, 88).
Another way of dealing with servant abuse was to separate the master and the servant for a period of time. Though the abuse carried out upon the servant of Thomas Gilbert is not revealed in the court records, the result was that the servant was sent to live with another family, and that he was not to return "vntill his cause bee heard and further order taken in the same" (PCR 3: 46).
Though separation of the servant and the master was one method of dealing with servant abuse, in the case of Thomas Huckens' abusing of his servant, separation was not carried out. In that case, the Court:
In this case, a very small fine of only four shillings plus the money spent by the servant is Thomas Huckens' only punishment, as he is still allowed to keep his servant.admonished the said Huckens to carry better towards his seruant, and to pay 4s to the under marshall for goeing to Sandwidg homward with his seruant again when hee came to Plymouth to complain; and also hee is to defray what other charges his said seruant hath spent att Coles att Plymouth. (PCR 3: 51).
From analyzing these instances of servant abuse, a rather clear picture of the status of servants in Plymouth Colony can be seen. Not once in these cases was corporal punishment involved, and in all but one instance, the masters were not even fined. Thus, it appears that in Plymouth Colony, servants held a very low status in society. Though they were usually protected by the courts by being transferred to another family or master, of those cases mentioned, the masters were never physically punished for their actions.
The Case of Robert and Susanna Latham
Though for general abuse of servants, masters were not usually punished in any way other than through fines, the murder of a servant was an entirely different matter. In the case of the abuse of John Walker by Robert and Susanna Latham, death was the result. The first mention of the abuse of John Walker is when he is found to be dead, brought to court on February 6, 1654-5, at a Court of Assistants. The description of the dead body of John Walker is quite gruesome:
These disturbing facts about the death of John Walker along with the fact that Robert Latham admitted to striking his servant left no doubt in the mind of the court as to his guilt, and he was "comitted to the custidy of the chiefe marshall" until the next meeting of the General Court (PCR 3: 72). At the next meeting of the court, Robert Latham was put on trial before the grand jury, who found him "guilty of manslaughter by chaunc medley" (PCR 3: 73). After pleading for the mercy of the court, Robert Latham was sentenced to be burned in the hand and to have all of his goods confiscated.Wee, vpon due serch and examination, doe find that the body of John Walker was blackish and blew, and the skine broken in divers places form the middle to the haire of his head, viz, all his backe with stripes giuen him by his master, Robert Latham, as Robert himselfe did testify; and alsoe wee found a bruise of his left arme, and one of his left hipp, and one great bruise of his brest; and there was the knuckles of one hand and one of his fingers frozen, and alsoe both his heeles frozen, and one of his great toes frozen, and alsoe the side of his foot frozen; and alsoe, vpon the reviewing the body, wee found three gaules like holes in the hames...; and alsoe wee find that the said John was forced to carry a logg which was beyond his strength, which hee indeauoring to doe, the logg fell vpon him, and hee, being downe, had a stripe or two, as Josepth Beedle doth testify ; (PCR 3: 71).
The punishment of Robert Latham for his crime is quite interesting. The punishment for murder in Plymouth colony laid out in the laws was death. However, Robert Latham was not executed for his actions. Thus, attention must be focused on the semantics of the accusation against Robert Latham. The jury found him guilty of "manslaughter by chaunc medley", not, as the law states, willful murder (PCR 3: 73). Therefore, Robert Latham is not subject to the death penalty, since he was not seen as purposefully murdering John Walker. However, his punishment, burning of the hands and confiscation of all of his goods, was not a light one. Burning of the body was a very harsh punishment in Plymouth Colony, and Robert was left with very little to live on. Still, his punishment did not match that laid out in the laws.
Possibly more interesting than Robert Latham's punishment is its relationship to the punishment given to others for abusing their servants. Since the abuse of servants in the majority of other cases ended in either a fine, or no punishment at all, it seems that the reason Robert Latham's punishment was so great was that his crime was so gruesome. Another interesting part of this case that points to the low status held by servants in Plymouth is the fact that Josepth Beedle was present as Robert Latham abused John Walker. Yet, the matter was not brought before the court until John Walker was found dead. Abuse of servants in Plymouth Colony was probably not an unusual occurrence, and it is possible that most abuse received by servants went unreported.
Robert Latham was not the only person brought before the court in reference to the abuse of John Walker, however. On the 6th of June, 1655, Robert's wife, Susanna Latham was brought before the General Court for cruelty to their servant (PCR 3: 82). Again, three years later, on June 1, 1658, Susanna Latham was brought before the court, this time to settle the matter completely. Her presentment before the court was to be erased from the records if no one accused her at the next meeting of the court in October of 1658. No one did come to prosecute her in the matter, and thus the presentment was erased from the court records.
There were few instances of sexually aggressive behavior in the domestic realm in the records of Plymouth Colony. One of these was John Pecke, who was fined fifty shillings for "attempting the chastitie of his fathers maide seruant", to which he confessed (PCR 3: 75). Another case similar to this is that of John Bundy, who behaved improperly toward Elizabeth Haybell. Upon being brought to court, he was sentenced to be severely whipped (PCR 1: 65). Again, in March of 1685-6, Mathew Boomer was brought up on charges of "attempting by force to lye" with Mary Brandon, for which he was found guilty and fined four pounds and "the charges of the prosecution" (PCR 6: 178). Thus, the punishment for sexually threatening behavior varied from fines to being whipped, and it appears that these punishments were consistently carried out upon the sexual offenders.
There were two cases of rape in the Plymouth Colony Records that fall under the category of domestic violence. The first of these is the accusation of Thomas Atkins by his daughter Mary, that he had multiple times committed incest with her. Upon examination in the court in August of 1660, he was placed in jail, to be tried at the next meeting of the court in October. On October 2, 1660, the jury found Thomas Atkins not guilty of the incestuous rape of his daughter. However, what is interesting is that he was still punished for his actions, though they found him not guilty:
This passage is very interesting in that the guilt of Thomas Atkins is admitted, yet the jury chooses to believe that while he did attempt to have sex with his daughter, he did not actually do it, and thus he is freed, and merely whipped for what was most likely rape, which according to the law of the colony, merits the death sentence.And wheras, in the examination of the said Thomas Atkins, it appeered that on a time hee being in drinke in the night season in his owne house, hee offered some vnclean, insestious attempts to his owne daughter, Mary Attkins, abouesaid, in his chimney corner, as hee himself, in pte, confessed. Hee was sentanced to suffer corporall punishment by whiping, which accordingly was executed, and soe the said Atkins cleared and sett att libertie to returne to his owne home. (PCR 3: 200).
Another similar case is that of the rape of Lydia Fish by Ambrose Fish. Ambrose is brought up on charges, presented to the court on October 30, 1677. From the court records of births, deaths, and marriages and other court proceedings, the relationship between Ambrose and Lydia Fish was not apparent. However, they were probably related in some way, and he may have been her uncle, though that is not certain. A very interesting aspect of this case is the way in which the grand jury went about deciding his guilt, which stated that "if one euidence with concurring cercomstances be good in law, wee find him guilty. But if one euidence with concurring cercomstances, be not good in law, wee find him not guilty" (PCR 5: 245). This method of determining guilt is very interesting in that the case was one of rape, and therefore, since it did take place in the home, there were probably no witnesses to the crime, and thus guilt could not be proven. For his crime, Ambrose Fish was sentenced to be publicly whipped, as was Thomas Atkins. The fact that he was punished reveals that he was found in some manner guilty, but, as in all other rape cases held in Plymouth Colony, the rapist was not executed. The reason behind this may be very simple, that a jury of twelve men sympathizes with the male rapist, or possibly that while the law holds such a harsh punishment for rape, the jury considers execution to be too severe for a crime that rarely has witnesses, and thus cannot be proven. Regardless, the fact that rape is very infrequently mentioned in the court records and when it is, is not punished to the full extent of the law, demonstrates male domination and power in Plymouth Colony. This, however, is already obvious from the setup of their government, that women were not allowed in positions of authority.
Due to the lack of many reports of child abuse in the court records, it could be theorized that child abuse was not a problem in seventeenth century Plymouth. However, what is more likely is that the distinction between discipline and abuse had not yet been drawn in that time, and most child abuse probably went unreported and thus unpunished. Even when it was reported, however, it was still unpunished. This could be attributed to the idea of family units in Plymouth Colony, with the male as the head of that unit. Under this idea, it was the male household head's responsibility to keep the entire family unit in line. Thus, punishment of children, of wives, and of servants could all be viewed as acceptable due to that responsibility. When Thomas Lucas was presented to the court for abusing his wife and children, he promised to behave better in the future, and upon testimony at the court later on that he had ceased abusing his family, he was admonished once again to behave properly, cleared, and released (PCR 5: 16).
Similarly, in the case of the abuse of Benjamine Foster by his mother Mary Morey, Mary "promised reformation" and was sent home with her son on faith that she would behave properly as well (PCR 5: 16). Certainly, there were not merely two instances of child abuse in Plymouth Colony in the many years of its existence. Probably, child abuse was usually not seen as a crime, but as a disciplinary measure, and thus it was not viewed as a crime. Also, it appears that those mentioned in the court records are only the most extreme. In the case of Mary Morey, it states in the records that her neighbors "feared murder would be in the issue of it" (PCR 5: 16). Though murder was feared, however, Mary Morey was not punished and she was sent home with her son, supporting the theory that child abuse was for the most part not considered to be a crime in Plymouth Colony.
Murder was an issue, however, in the case of Allice Bishop. On July 22, 1648, an investigation into the death of Martha Clark, the daughter of Allice Bishop, was undertaken. The details of the death were gruesome, the four year old child dead "with her throat cut with diuers gashes crose wayes, the wind pipe cut and stuke into the throat downward, and a bloody knife lying by the side of the child" (PCR 2: 132). Allice Bishop confessed to the murder of the child, though the motivation behind it was not obvious from the court records. After confessing to her guilt and admitting her sorrow, Allice was convicted, in October of 1648, of the "felonious murther by her comitted" and she was hanged, which, for once, conforms to the original laws set out in Plymouth Colony.
Abuse of Parents
As opposed to the abuse of children by their parents, there is one case in the records of Plymouth of the abuse of parents by their own child. This is the case of Edward Bumpas, who was brought to court for "stricking and abusing his parents" for which he was whipped at the post (PCR 6: 20). However, it states in the record that "hee was crasey brained, otherwise hee had bine put to death or otherwise sharply punished" (PCR 6: 20). Abusing one's parents was a very serious crime in Plymouth Colony according to this statement. Had the child not been "crasey brained" as it is stated in the records, though he may not have been executed for his actions, he may have been burned for his disrespectful behavior. This one instance shows the importance of respect for parents in Plymouth Colony, that upon physical disrespect, execution was a possible punishment.
Anna, Mary, and Dorcas Bessey
Spousal abuse, in comparison to other types of domestic violence in Plymouth Colony, was a very big problem. Out of the ten instances found in the court records of actual violence toward a spouse not ending in murder, eight charges were brought up against men and two against women. There most likely were more instances of husband's abusing their wives, but as with child abuse, much of it probably went unreported due to the acceptance of male dominance in the colony. Correction of the spouse was probably expected from time to time and thus not reported. Likewise, there may have been more than two instances of wives abusing their husbands in Plymouth Colony, but due to the ideal of male dominance, reporting such behavior may have been embarrassing for the abused husband. Regardless, the cases that are mentioned in the court records are very interesting and shed much light on the relationship between spouses in the colony.
Husbands Abusing Their Wives
What is interesting to look at in respect to spousal abuse is the punishment received by the offender. Since there was no specific punishment laid out in the colony laws, the punishment was up to the court to decide. In the case of Charles Thurstone's abusing of his wife, he was sentenced to be whipped, but "Vppon a peticon exhibited by the yeong men of Plym, it was remitted vpon tryall of his good carryage vntill the next Court" (PCR 2: 73). Both Thomas Butler and Dorithy Butler were fined forty shillings in June of 1660 for "turbulent carriages" in their home (PCR 3: 191).
Another interesting case is that of Ralph Earle, fined twenty shillings for "drawing his wife in an vnciuell manor on the snow" (PCR 4: 47). The reason that this man was dragging his wife through the snow is unknown, but it is a very interesting description nonetheless. John Dunham was brought to court not only for beating his wife, but also for frightening her by "drawing a sword and pretending therwith to offer violence to his life" (PCR 4: 104). For this he was sentenced to be severely whipped, but his wife intervened, and that punishment was revoked. However, the court still required a security for good behavior of twenty pounds, which would be returned to him at the next court as long as he ceased to beat his wife. Another quite violent case was that of Richard Marshall, presented to the court for "abusing his wife by kiking her of from a stoole into the fier" (PCR 5: 61). For his actions, he was sentenced to sit in the stocks.
The punishments for spousal abuse vary from fines to whipping or sitting in the stocks for more violent abuse, and this variation is due to the lack of set standards in the Plymouth Colony laws. It is interesting that petitions by people uninvolved in the case of Charles Thurstone would be taken into account in preventing the carrying out of his punishment, but this once again shows male power in Plymouth Colony.
The Case of John and Elizabeth Williams
Finally, in June of 1666, John Williams was put on trial and found guilty for defamation and abuse of his wife. Thus, he was ordered to supply her with a bed and other necessities, ten pounds a year for her living expenses, and one third of his estate was to be secured for her. He was also fined twenty pounds for the use of the government, since the case took up so much of the courts time, and he also was ordered to "stand in the street or markett place by the post with an inscription ouer him that may declare to the world his vnworthy carriages toward his wife" (PCR 4: 126). However, this last punishment was remitted, as Elizabeth requested.
Thus, in this case the woman won in the end, receiving ten pounds a year for living expenses as well as one third of the estate, which was secured for her. It is interesting that, though his claims of Elizabeth's infidelity could not be proved, they were completely ignored by the court, and even proclaimed to be false. From reading the records of the court, it appears that John Williams was attempting the entire time to escape the relationship with his wife, and the jury realized this. Since their separation was desired on his part and she, according to the court, was doing nothing wrong, he was forced to continue paying for her livelihood and to give her one third of his estate, although they were no longer to be together.
Wives Abusing Their Husbands
There are two cases mentioned in the court records of women physically abusing their husbands. They are both revealing, the first, in its punishment. Joane Miller was brought to court in March of 1654-5, for "beating and reviling her husband, and egging her children to healp her, biding them knock him in the head, and wishing his victuals might coake him" (PCR 3: 75). The scene brought to mind by this description is amusing, but the punishment received is more interesting still. For her abuse, she is, as the record states, "Punished at home" (PCR 3: 75). This case is possibly the most indicative of male dominance in Plymouth Colony, since the punishment was carried out by the husband. Under this type of punishment, great abuse could be carried out, though in the records it does not state how she was punished. Yet, the prospect of the abused being given the right to hand out punishment is a frightening one.
The Case of Jane and Samuel Hallowey
This case shows the importance of the vows of marriage and of the maintenance of the family unit in Plymouth Colony. Jane Hallowey was obviously abusive to her husband, and she showed her abusive nature in front of the court through violent actions during the proceedings. But after hearing all of this, and hearing Jane testify that she did indeed commit adultery, the court refused to allow the divorce of Samuel and Jane Hallowey.
The Case of Betty
Though she was not convicted of murder, it is also not very probable that the jury believed Betty's excuse for killing her husband, so there must be another reason that she was not executed. A possible reason is that the Plymouth Colonists were reluctant to punish Indians in such a harsh way. But Indians were executed more than once in the colony for murder, so that argument does not hold. A more likely reason, which has nothing to do with the fact that Betty was an Indian, is that in general if there was not absolute certainty of guilt, those guilty of homicide were not executed. In the case of Allice Bishop, she was executed since she actually admitted to the murder. Intent was therefore involved. In other murder cases, such as that of Robert Trayes, misadventure was again used, thus preventing execution.
The Case of Robert Trayes
It seems that in cases of murder, if the intent could not be absolutely proven, execution was not carried out, regardless of the race or gender of the offender. The word "willful" mentioned in the original laws combined with "misadventure" upon sentencing, is a combination which prevented many executions in Plymouth Colony.
Though men were more frequently accused of domestic violence in Plymouth Colony, both men and women exhibited this type of behavior. This paper has attempted to give a broad overview of the types of abuse occurring within or about the homes of Plymouth Colony, and to show that while men held the power in Plymouth Colony, women were not entirely complacent with the structure of power. Through analysis of the more interesting cases of domestic violence in Plymouth Colony, light can be shed on the treatment of people by gender, race, age, and what these factors have to do with an individual's social status, which is very important to the study and analysis of Plymouth Colony. However, one can only speculate as to the various aspects of Plymouth's social structure in reality. Though the court records give a glimpse of life in Plymouth Colony and theories can be drawn from these records, the exact nature of Plymouth can never truly be known.