The Plymouth Colony Archive Project

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Coroner's Inquests

© 1998-2000 Copyright and All Rights Reserved
by Jeff Norcross
Anth 509, Historical Ethnography
University of Virginia
May 4, 1998 Revision

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Plymouth Colony is a place that is firmly affixed in the mass American psyche. I clearly remember Thanksgiving in second grade when we decked the halls with posters of people in black outfits, replete with many buckles and their Native American buddies. The poster of the first Thanksgiving was a cartoonish imitation of da Vinci's The Last Supper, with a turkey in the spot normally reserved for Jesus. While that is amusing, we search for depth beyond those paper mache turkeys.

This search leads us to Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England. These transcriptions of the actual records allow us a glimpse at a people who have been swallowed up by history. We shall delve into the records, and focus particularly on the coroner's inquests. These proceedings describe investigations into mysterious deaths in the colony. Here we explore a people's mortality, one of the integral issues in the lifeways of a culture. Quite obviously, every individual is assured a death, making this one of the important matter that must be addressed by their everyday life. In exploring their deaths, it is my hope that we can get closer to understanding their life.

The inquests will not provide a clear image of the ultimate demise of the Plymouth residents. As a survey of death this study is inherently flawed. It only includes the most dramatic forms of dying, leaving out some of the more common means of death, like succumbing to illness. Looking at the various causes of death presented in the records, we can tell that this isn't what ordinarily transpires. However, that isn't to say that the deaths are normal. They are just a little bit rarer than what usually happens. This isn't an attempt to give a summary of the mortality of the colonists, but rather an account of a section of these deaths, and how it reflects on what they were doing.

The Plymouth Colony Records isn't only prejudiced in what it records, but it is flawed in how it records it. The results of these inquests are based on the suppositions of the colonists themselves. They are not forensic detectives and lack medical training. It is a commission of ordinary people that convenes to check into the deaths where questions may arise. Obviously, they won't be taking fingerprints or performing ballistics tests. The findings are simply their assumptions on the death scene. Imagine if our ANTH 509 class had to convene to rule the cause of death of people around Charlottlesville. I imagine that we would come to the correct conclusion often, but we would be wrong quite a bit as well. Certainly there are mistakes in the records.

Despite this horribly skewed reporting, we still stand to gain a great deal from this study. For these Plymouth residents, we have a snapshot of the last stop in the journey of life, albeit a rather blurry snapshot. From these deaths, we should be able draw conclusions about the daily of the colonists.

Causes of Death

Surveying the coroner's inquests, and we are presented with some of the varying causes of death in Plymouth. Figure 1 illustrates the results of these inquests. The sixty-five people who died account for the seventy-two manners of death in the chart. This disparity arises since there are some individuals who suffered from multiple causes to their death.

View Figure 1, Manner of Death

One specific attribute of Figure 1 leaps off the page: the sheer number of deaths by drowning. A full forty-three percent of these deaths were some form of drowning. This overwhelming prevalence illustrates the danger of water in the daily lives of the colonists. Standing water abounds, and the populace may not have been very well versed in swimming skills. This may sound like an overly simplistic way of explaining a rather odd fact, but it does hold some virtues. There weren't exactly many YMCAs around Plymouth in the seventeenth century, and these colonist are coming from areas where there is no need know how to swim. The real danger here is that children seem particularly susceptible to drowning. The records are full of accounts like the daughter of Richard Lake who "came to its end by falling into a brooke of water" (PCR 5:95), William England, age 10 (PCR 2:175), and Peter Trebey (PCR 5:101), age 3. This is a new environment, and the threat of water was something new that they had to deal with. The drowning of youths also represent times where these children went without supervision.

Often, other factors combine with drowning to add another tombstone to the cemeteries of Plymouth. Boating accidents lead to the aquatic asphyxiation of several colonists. James Glasse was sailing in a storm with large surges of the ocean when "hee was beaten of the fore cuddey of the said boate into the water" (PCR 3:16). Jeremiah Burroughs fell from his canoe, perishing in the water. Mister Burroughs's end prompted some townspeople to inquire about boat safety, and in particular the "naughty cannoos" (PCR 3:209) like the one which eased Jeremiah into the great oblivion. They requested "that some course be thought on and ordered about smale and naughty cannoos." (PCR 3:208-9) This recognizes the danger of the sea, and the realization that safety can be improved. As ridiculous as the "naughty cannoos" sound,(1) this does show that the community is taking proactive steps to eliminate unnecessary dangers to the common welfare. Think of it was a primitive FAA.

Boats do not provide the only other type of water deaths. Sawmills, alcohol, and suicide each make their little contribution to the death toll. Micaell Walker was unfortunate enough to be traipsing around a sawmill, where he fell and tumbled upon the water wheel. This immediately pushed him under water and into the river. Any hope for recovery from this spill was dashed due to the fact that the river was frozen, thus his resurfacing was effectively prevented (PCR 5:209). Beyond this unique tragedy, Robert Wille and Samuell Drew each combined strong drink and boating with deadly results. The multi-faceted threat of the aquatic environment is further evidenced by John Fallowell and Bethyah Howard, who each took their own lives by plunging themselves into the local waters.

Plunging into the great outdoors created another problem for the denizens of Plymouth. After drowning, exposure provided the most successful single cause of death. The term exposure covers the various effects of severe weather and hypothermia, a threat in these parts. Eleven percent of the departed examined by a coroner's inquest fell victim to some sort of exposure related incident. The strong winters of the region provided a tough challenge to overcome for survival. They had to combat this year after year, and had to take appropriate steps to protect themselves. If the winters proved strong enough to kill people, then the average resident certainly had to labor to prevent this fate from befalling them.

One of the most fascinating deaths in the court records is that of John Slocume, a boy of nine years of age who is thought to have succumbed to exposure. The inquest occurs in Taunton on June 10, 1651. On "the 25t of Febreuary last" (PCR 2:174) the boy and some others went to gather cranberries at a pond. After leaving, he never returned home. The next account of his whereabouts is on January 5th, when part of his skull turned up "having the brains not wholly consumed." The records seem confusing here, since this means that a gap of about eleven months transpired between his disappearance and the recovery of the skull fragment. It is highly unlikely that a body left above ground will have flesh left after 11 months, especially when that gap includes summer. With the presence of his flesh, we can safely say this boy did not sit out exposed to the elements for eleven months. In theorizing what could have happened in this intervening period, we cane come up with some truly gruesome thoughts. Could this boy have been kidnapped, and finally killed one year later?

That conclusion seems a bit ridiculous when confronted with a far simpler explanation. Most certainly, the records got jumbled here, and the body was found weeks later, rather than months. This makes the whole proposition far easier to swallow, yet we shouldn't leap to conclusions. After all, is a wolf really a likely aggressor in this case? Wolves were definitely around Plymouth, for the objection "The countrie is anoyed with foxes and woules" (Bradford 1:366) is raised in 1624. This is answered with "So are many other good cuntries too; but poyson, taps, and other shuch means will help destroy them," and with this a bounty was levied upon the animals (Bradford 1:366)(2). These animals were certainly threats for such a measure to be taken, but can we really trust this account of John Slocume's demise?

The real fascinating bit about the Slocume's death is his dismemberment. Four days after his skull fragments were found, they "found som other parts of the corpse, with prt of his clothes scattered in small peeces" (PCR 2:174-5) two miles from where his head had been. Would a wolf do this? It is completely conceivable that wolves killed this child, especially if he was weakened by hypothermia like they posited. However, it is the fact that parts of him were littered across the landscape that makes this questionable. A basic overview of some literature on wolves (Turbak, Oosenbrug) reveals that wolves kill there prey and eat it there. "Temporary satiated, the predator often wanders off a short distance to rest… and in just a few hours pack members may begin drifting back for a second huge helping." (Turbak 1987:21) Another source informs us that in a particular instance, "the pack spent and average of 2.5 days at the kill site before moving on" (Oosenbrug 1982:49). Revisits to the kill sites occurred, but were infrequent. In no case was there any record of the wolves dragging their prey anyway. The meals were taken at the kill site, and additional helping necessitated a return to the site. The concept of doggie bags is foreign to wolves, making it unlikely that part of John Slocume was dispersed over two miles by wolves.

This idea that wolves got this child is unlikely, but not impossible. One account may be that he was killed by wolves, and the dispersal was brought about by another scavenger, such as a raccoon. The problem is that this whole case doesn't sit right with me. Perhaps looking to the wild kingdom is incorrect for this case. This could very well be a grisly murder. The answer cannot be gained from this one account in the records, but it makes us think about this society. Is violence a serious issue? How hard would it be to fool a coroner's inquest? How many of these deaths are really unsolved murders?

Murder is not an issue that I would immediately associate with Plymouth Colony, yet violence is a fact that does not escape this society. There were a total of ten executions in the colony, nine of them for murder.(3) (Goodwin 1970:401) In the coroner's inquests, we have accounts of two cases which are at the very least manslaughter. John Walker, a servant to Robert Latham was found dead and investigated in 1655. His body was:

blackish blew, and the skine broken in divers places from the middle to the hair of his head…his backe with stripes given him by his master…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 finger frozen, and alsoe both his heeles frozen, and one of the heelse of the flesh was much broken, and alsoe one of his little toes frozen and very much perished, and one of his great toes frozen, and alsoe the side of his foot frozen; and alsoe, upon reviewing the body, we found three gavles like holesin the hames, which wee formerly, the body being frozen, thought they had been holes; and alsoe wee find that the said John was forced to carry a logg upon which was beyond his strength, which he indeavoring to do, the logg fell upon him . . . . (PCR 3:71)

The passage continues, with additional egregious acts against the fourteen-year-old boy. The brutality of the beating is quite evident.

This vicious beating would be punished, and Robert Latham was found guilty of manslaughter. His sentence was to be burned in the hand and to have all his goods confiscated. Apparently Robert Latham was able to bounce back from this, since in 1672 he found himself the Constable of Bridgwater. It would be fascinating to know what other Plymouth residents thought of this case. How did this town who put someone to death for buggery allow an act such as this to go unpunished except for a hand burning and the confiscation of private property? How did this man rise again to become a constable? The answer that I can arrive upon is that this case was forgotten since the boy was a servant. Latham certainly went too far, but he may have been well within his rights for brutal discipline. In Plymouth a hand burning was sure to be s serious punishment, but we still can't escape the fact that Walker was dead and Latham was free to continue living.

Daniell Standlake is another individual who fell victim to violence. Robert Trayes,(4) "fire(d) a gun att the dore of Richare Standlake, thereby wounding and shattering the legg of Daniell Standlake." (PCR 6:141) The situation isn't explained any further, but when it goes to court, he is found to be "an instrument of the death of Daniell Standlake by misadvanture." (PCR 6:142) This verdict results in Trayes receiving a fine and getting whipped. The particulars of the case are lacking, but this one seems likely to be manslaughter, rather than murder.

After reading about these two cases, one must wonder about the others. Could there be murders were the killer got away since it was possible to fool the inquest? How hard would it be to hold someone underwater and then say that person drowned? It is unlikely, but certainly possible. There are some deaths which seem to be more than they appear. In addition to John Slocume, there is the Hatches child who suffocated in circumstances that are far from kosher (PCR 6:45).

The priorities of the society are another thing worth considering. With two people dead in their wake, Trayes and Latham seem to get off relatively easily. This is especially intriguing when observing the harsh punishments for infractions that don't appear severe from my 20th century American perspective.

Beyond violence upon others, there is always violence towards one's lover to acknowledge. While the topic of alcohol will be explored far more in depth by a later paper, it is of note that seven percent of the deaths could be linked to drinking. Usually this fact combines with something else, like the aforementioned boating, or exposure. The case of Titus Waymouth has the citizenry attribute his passing to the combination of alcohol and "stoppings" (PCR 3:109). The Unabridged Oxford English Dictionary reveals that stopping is none other than constipation. It appears as if Mr. Waymouth had some bad intestines, and after a bout with the bottle, he found himself defeated by the particular combination.

There are various other manners of death that don't necessarily need further exploration. A couple of individuals were struck by lightening, and another person had a seizure. These are the run of the mill accidents that one would expect to find in the records. They are interesting side cases, but don't account for significant dangers to the populace.


Another issue worth of attention is gender. The overwhelming majority of those subjected to coroner's inquests were men. Eighty-three percent of those investigations laid their verdict upon dead males, compared to only fourteen percent of females. The remaining three percent was comprised of two children whose gender was not identified in the records. It is of note that they did not see fit to ascribe a gender to these children. Could this be indicative of how children as a whole were viewed? They may have been seen as sexless in this society, and may not take on a sex until later. Other children, however, are assigned gender throughout the record. Nine year old John Slocume was identified as a male, as were other children. The commonality to these two children that were referred to as "it" is that they lack a name in the records. Perhaps they were not named at this point, and this hadn't earned a gender. However, Thankful Pakes was named and still referred to as an "it." On the whole, it seems that younger children didn't have a gender rigidly assigned to them.

View Figure 2, Deaths by Gender

Returning to the matter of defined genders, it is of interest that the men are more likely to have their deaths investigated by an inquest. Perhaps the men are more in danger, and thus die more often, or they just get the attention of the coroners more often. The coroners were mostly men, so they may have been prejudiced to investigate other men. I'm going to proceed with the reason that men are more prominently featured in the inquests, is that they are more likely to have an accidental death which requires investigation. This suggests that men and women occupy slightly separate spheres, and a sexual division of labor exists. If men have a greater chance of getting killed, then it means that they are doing something different than the women on a regular basis.

Looking at the women, one died of natural causes, and one death which falls in general accidents. This demise is of Mary Totman who "gathered, dressed, and did eat a root,… but the root being of a poisonous nature." (PCR 4:130) This accident occurred in the domestic sphere, as opposed to the men who passed on due to such cause as being run over by a card, running into tree, or being gored by a bull.

Women did have a significant presence in two modes of death, drowning and suicde. One fifth of all the drownings were women. Water was certainly a danger to bother sexes, and it is encountered by everybody fairly often in their everyday life. As for suicides, a full one third were committed by women. Whatever cause these people to take their lives, women are as exposed to these stresses as men.

Calendar Analysis

The court records provide us with dates for the inquests. Often, the dates were omitted, leaving us with only the court date of their entry into the records. These records leave us unsure of the date of death, but once these are culled out, we can have an account of the deaths by each month. Figure 3 illustrates this nicely. While this observation suffers from a small sample size, a pattern does seem fairly obvious. Accidental death is evenly distributed throughout the year, but the dead of winder and summer witness rises in the frequency of death.

View Figure 3, Deaths by Months

The severity of the season is a perfectly logical explanation for this phenomenon. Analyzing the individual deaths informs us that all the deaths by exposure occurred from December to February. This factor would add to the ordinary dangers of everyday life, thus explaining the rise in deaths in winter. The rise of deaths in the summer can't be attributed to any one factor. In this season, it can be expected that people are more active and would be outdoors more often. In this climate, they would be more apt to get in accidents, drown, or do some other dangerous thing to themselves.

Just as we looked at the distribution of the deaths over the months of the year, we can look at the spread of inquests over entire era covered by the records. The sixty-five deaths are spread over a forty-eight year period. This spread can be seen in Figure 4 below.

View Figure 4, Deaths by Year

In the early years, there are not that many deaths. For clarification, it should be restated that there were not that many inquests. In these years, the population is probably smaller, translating into less deaths. A logical explanation is that the citizenry may not readily think of holding an inquest. It's unnatural in a way, conventional logic states that if somebody dies, a burial will ensue. There are only two inquests held from the beginning of the records until 1650. At this point something occurs that the coroner's inquest becomes a regular fixture of the records.

After twelve years without an inquest, one is held in 1650 for Thomas Cooke. His body was found lying in a river, prompting an investigation. It was determined that he drowned. (PCR 2:151) The second death after the long gap is of particular interest. This is the inquest of John Slocume, the boy who may have been eaten by wolves. This boy died what must have been a sensational death. Imagine the effect of news that the remains of a boy were spread across two miles of open land upon a community. Surely this was utterly shocking, and was something that people did not soon forget. The previous three investigations only dealt with drowning and hypothermia, but now there is this hideous event burned in their memories. At this point, their ideas of someone's passing away are sullied. This marks the point where they find it necessary to regularly investigate deaths. After John Slocume, the inquests become a common event.

Looking around the years, no strong patterns emerge. 1667 does have far twice as many deaths the next closest year, but that isn't unreasonable. The number eight isn't so large, especially three of those people were the subject of the same investigation. The distribution of deaths looks fairly regular for such an irregular occurrence. These deaths are mostly accidental and unpredictable, so the lack of a pattern is totally reasonable.


Plymouth Colony wasn't a completely safe place to live. There were many dangers around, yet this is true of all societies. The dangers weren't necessarily that prevalent, especially since over forty-eight years, only sixty-five deaths were worth investigating. That isn't too shabby. However, this account of deaths has nothing to do with mortality or life expectancy of the colonists, but rather the manners of death sheds a little light on how they lived from day to day.

Little tidbits about their life are gained from this. For example, who would have thought that drowning would be the number one danger? This is a fact that one could never discover archaeologically. What we see is some ordinary people, and their dates with destiny. Dangers abound in the community, and we can see what they are. Over the years, the threat from these dangers is fairly constant. The demographic implications of these deaths show that women occupied a different sphere than the men. The use of the inquest is rather limited, and doesn't allow many broad-based conclusions about Plymouth. What it provides is a glimpse at some specifics of community life. There is a thick glaze of myth surrounding these people. Peering through that, we observe that the folks in the Thanksgiving posters were real people who met their end in very real ways.

Appendix: Listing of Inquests

Victim's name Last name Month Year
PCR Vol. PCR Page Gender Cause #1 Cause #2
John Deacon February 1636 1 39 M exposure
John England June 1638* 1 88 M drown
Thomas Cooke May 1650 2 151 M drown
John Slocume February 1651 2 174 M exposure wolves
William England September 1651 2 175 M drown
Robert Wille July 1652* 3 15 M drown drunk
James Glasse September 1652* 3 16 M drown in boat during storm
John Barker December 1652 3 28 M drown
Victim's name Last name Month Year
PCR Vol. PCR Page Gender Cause #1 Cause #2
John Browning December 1652 3 28 M drown
Thomas Bradly July 1653 3 39 M seizure?
Henery Draiton December 1654 3 70 M exposure
John Walker January 1655 3 71 M beaten by master
Thankfull Pakes November 1655 3 92 F drown in well
Richard Man February 1656* 3 92 M drown fall through ice
Titus Waymouth October 1656* 3 109 M alcohol constipation
John Phillipes July 1658 3 148 M lightning
Victim's name Last name Month Year
PCR Vol. PCR Page Gender Cause #1 Cause #2
Nathaneel West March 1659* 3 158 M drown fall through ice
an englishman March 1659 3 159 M drown
Mary Chase October 1659 3 172 F natural causes
James Peirse June 1660 3 195 M lightning
Jeremiah Burroughs February 1661 3 208 M drown "naughty cannoo"
William Day April 1661 3 213 M suicide
Robert Allin 3 221
John Bard July 1661 3 223 M run over by cart
Thiston Clark Sr. May 1662* 4 12 M drown fall through ice
Victim's name Last name Month Year
PCR Vol. PCR Page Gender Cause #1 Cause #2
Robert Allin April 1662* 4 13 M suicide
James Wyatt July 1664 4 71 M natural causes
Rebeckah Sale July 1664 4 83 F suicide
Elizabeth Walker August 1664 4 84 F drown
Mary Totman April 1666 4 130 F poison accident
Daniell Dones September 1667 4 169 M drown
Nicholas Nicarson October 1667 4 170 M choking
Timothy Poole November 1667 4 170 M drown
Victim's name Last name Month Year
PCR Vol. PCR Page Gender Cause #1 Cause #2
Robert Chapell December 1667 4 176 M exposure alcohol
James Nicolls December 1667 4 176 M exposure alcohol
William Pidell December 1667 4 176 M exposure previous sickness
a child January 1668 4 177 M exposure
an indian June 1668 5 6 M fall
Isacke Robinson October 1668* 5 7 M drown
John Paybody November 1669 5 29 M tree
John Barnes March 1672* 5 88 M bull goring
Victim's name Last name Month Year
PCR Vol. PCR Page Gender Cause #1 Cause #2
daughter Lake April 1672 5 94 F drown
Peter Trebey August 1672 5 101 M drown
John Richmond J, September 1672 5 101 M run over by cart
Experienc Leichfeld August 1673 5 121 M tripped head crushed by log
daughter Phelpps December 1673 5 122 F drown
wife Tayler December 1673 5 123 F drown
John Fallowell October 1675 5 182 M drown suicide
Bethyah Howland Jr. February 1677 5 208 F drown suicide
Victim's name Last name Month Year
PCR Vol. PCR Page Gender Cause #1 Cause #2
Micaell Walker February 1677 5 209 M drown saw mill
Joseph Ellis July 1676 5 225 M drown
John Rose February 1677 5 226 M exposure
Robinson Feb-March 1667* 5 226 M tree
John Merritt March 1667 5 227 M fall
child Batson March 1678 5 261 ? ?
Thomas Totman May 1678 5 262 M fasting
Samuell Drew May 1678 5 262 M drown drunk
Victim's name Last name Month Year
PCR Vol. PCR Page Gender Cause #1 Cause #2
Thomas Lucase January 1679 6 7 M fall
James Colbey May 1679 6 8 M drown
child Hatches July 1680 6 45 ? suffocated
John During July 1680* 6 46 M natural causes
William Makepeace August 1681 6 75 M drown
George May August 1681 6 76 M drown
Timothy Venor August 1681 6 76 M drown
Daniell Standlake March 1684 6 141 M killed Robert Trayes
John Miller June 1684 6 142 M suicide

Works Cited

  • Bradford, William. History of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647, Volume 1 and 2. New York: Russell & Russell. 1968.

  • Goodwin, John A. The Pilgrim Republic: An Historical Review of the Colony of New Plymouth. New York: Kraus Reprint Co. 1970.

  • Oosenbrug, Sebastian M. and Ludwig N. Carbyn. "Winter Predation on Bison and Activity Patterns of a Wolf Pack in Wood Buffalo National Park" in Fred H. Harrington and Paul C. Paquet. Wolves of the World: Perspectives of Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation. Park Ridge, New Jersey: Noyes Publications. 1982

  • Oxford English Dictionary, World Wide Web edition. Oxford University Press.

  • Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England. Ed. Nathaniel B. Shurtleff and Davis Pulsifer (Boston: William White, 1855-61; New York: AMS Press, 1968). 12 v. in 6.

  • Turbak, Gary. Twilight Hunters: Wolves, Coyotes, & Foxes. United States: Northland Press. 1987

1. Of course, "naughty" only sounds funny in this context to us. The OED has one definition as follows: "4. a. Bad, inferior, not up to the proper or usual standard or quality. Obs. (common c 1540-1650, in various applications.)" This definition makes perfect sense and falls right in the proper dates for usage. Here we can see the colonists regulating just the inferior canoes.

2. In Twilight Hunters, we learn that "in 1630, the first bounty went on the wolf's head." (Turbak p24) It appears as if Mr. Turbak should be introduced to Bradford.

3. The tenth was our friend, Thomas Granger, for "unnatural crimes." (Goodwin p601)

4. The accused is named as Robert Trayes in "the bill of inditment" but is called John Trayes in the trial records.

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