"They Die in Youth And Their Life is Among the Unclean"

The Life and Death of Elizabeth Emerson

By Peg Goggin Kearney

May 6, 1994

University of Southern Maine

 

 


 

On June 8, 1693 The Reverend Cotton Mather delivered a sermon before a large crowd in Boston. Mather exhorted the crowd, delivering what he unabashedly referred to as one of his greatest sermons ever. 1 In the crowd sat Elizabeth Emerson, singlewoman of Haverhill. Whether she sat penintently looking downwards or definantly staring into Mather's eyes we can only imagine. That the sermon was delivered for her benefit is undoubted. The lecture was based upon Job 36:14, "They die in youth and their life is among the unclean." 2

The life of Elizabeth Emerson would have been wholly unremarkable were it not for three related events: The first was a severe beating she suffered at the hands of her father when she was a child; the second, the birth of her illegitimate daughter Dorothy; and the third event, the reason for her presence in the meeting hall that June day three hundred years ago, her death by hanging for the crime of infanticide. 3

Elizabeth had been born in the town of Haverhill in what was then the Massachusetts Bay Colony on January 26, 1664/65. She was the sixth of fifteen children of Michael and Hannah Webster Emerson, and one of only nine to survive infancy. Of her siblings who did not survive infancy only one died before she was born, the remainder were born and died during her lifetime.4 The tragedy of frequent death in the Emerson household may have predisposed Elizabeth to the crime for which she ultimately hanged. Death of children was assuredly a part of life in early New England, and attitudes toward infants would strike many twentieth century readers as callous. But a certain distancing or lack of affection may well have allowed women, such as Elizabeth's mother, to bear the burden of the frequent death of their offspring.5 In fact, colonists frequently referred to their infants and toddlers as "it" rather than he or she.

Michael and Hannah Emerson were among the early settlers of Haverhill, though not founding members of the town. He was variously employed as a contable, a Grand Juryman, a cordwainer, a sealer of leather, and a tax collector.6 Despite the impressive sound of this list, they were positions which those of greater estate would endeavor to avoid. Michael Emerson's life, too, would have been wholly unremarkable were it not for the fame of one daughter and the infamy of another.

In 1666, when Elizabeth was but a year old, Michael Emerson chose to move his family closer to town. He decided to settle on Mill Street which was then in the heart of Haverhill. One of his new neighbors, a Mr. White, evidently disliked either Michael, his family, or perhaps both. It was decided by the town that if the Emersons would "go back to the woods," they would grant him an additional tract of land. Michael seeminly obliged the town and moved two miles from the center, which at the time would indeed have been in "the woods."7 This incident seems innocuous enough and is certainly a unique and expedient way of resolving a neighborly difficulty in an area rich in land. One wonders, though, what it was about the family that so angered Mr. White. Undoubtedly, removal that far from town was not only inconvenient but dangerous. The reason for the removal, unfortunately, is not described by the record, but it certainly must have been compelling.

Michael's first child, Hannah Emerson Dustin, was born on December 23, 1657. She was destined to become famous in the annals of New England history as the only female Indian captive ever to have slain her captors and escaped, not only with her scalp but with theirs as well.8 Hannah slew her captors with the help of Mary Neff, another captive, and a young boy, Samuel Lennardson. Upon her escape from her captors she realized she had forgotten to take trophies of her exploit. She returned to the scene and took scalps from the ten dead Indians; six children, two women and two men. She and her little party managed to find their way down the Merrimac River, from near present day Concord, New Hampshire, to their home in Haverhill. She became a heroine to white New Englanders frustrated with the long Indian wars.9

Violence was inescabable in the lives of early New Englanders. Certain types of violence were unacceptable to community standards, whereas other types were not only accepted but also condoned. Among the types of condoned violence were not only violence toward Indians, but also corporal punishment of children, servants and in some cases wives.10 Children were often singled out as victims of violence. The poetess Anne Bradstreet once wrote "some children (like sowre land) are of so tough and morose a dispo[si]tion, that the plough of correction must make long furrows upon their back."11 Surely if so gentle a personage as Anne Bradstreet advocated corporal punishment in the raising of children, then it must have been both widespread and condoned. This very approval on a community-wide basis serves as a counterpoint to the case that was brought before the Quarterly Court of Essex County Massachusetts in May of 1676.

Michael Emerson was brought to court that May day "for cruel and excessive beating of his daughter with a flail swingle and for kicking her, was fined and bound to good behavior."12 The daughter in question was Elizabeth.13 In November of the same year the back due portion of his fine was abated because of Emerson's status as a grand juryman, and he was freed from his bond for good behavior.14 Corporal punishment in and of itself was not considered a crime, but the excessive beating of a child did deserve punishment. Although Michael's status as a grand juryman did help to get his fine abated and perhaps influenced his release from the bond for good behavior, it did not prevent his fellow grand jurymen from censuring him for the cruelty of his act. What Elizabeth did to deserve such a beating is unknown. Also, whether this beating was an isolated incident or a pattern of violence in the family can only be guessed, but a court case involving another family member may shed further light.

The case involved Elizabeth's younger brother Samuel who was apprenticed to a John Simmons. Simmons was brought to court by another of his servants, Thomas Bettis, in March of 1681. Bettis claimed in his deposition that his "master haith this mani yeares beaten me upon small and frivelouse ocasion." Bettis claimed that Simmons had "brocke my hed twice, strucke me on the hed with a great stick...tied me to a beds foott [and] a table foott" and a long list of other injuries and insults suffered at his master's hand. He begged the court to be allowed to leave his master. A number of community members deposed that Bettis had, indeed, been beaten excessively and had not been clothed properly. But Samuel Emerson took his masters side in the suit saying, "that he had lived with his master Simmons about four years and Bettis was very rude in the family whenever the master was away, etc."15

Perhaps Samuel's deposition was a form of self defence. After all, he still had to live with Simmons after the suit was over. But maybe Samuel really did think that Bettis deserved the beatings and that they were not excessive given the situation. If the latter is true, it could indicate that this type of violence was by no means foreign to Samuel Emerson's upbringing. In any event, Bettis was told to return to his master's house, and there the record ends.

On April 10, 1686 Elizabeth Emerson gave birth to her first child, an illegitimate daugher named Dorothy. There is some controversy surrounding the father of her first child. Charles Henry Pope in his book The Haverhill Emersons stated unequivocally that the father of little Dorothy was Samuel Ladd of Haverhill. This is the same Samuel Ladd who would later be named as the father of the dead twins. Pope, in what can only be viewed as a noble attempt to salvage the reputation of his ancestress, writes that "whatever else Elizabeth might have been, she was certainly not promiscuous."16 But the Records And Files Of The Ipswitch Quarterly Court reflect something quite different.

Michael Emerson accused a neighbor, Timothy Swan, of being the father of Elizabeth's daughter Dorothy.17 Timothy Swan's father, Robert Swan, Sr., vehemently denied the charge. Robert Swan went on record as saying that it was unlikely that Timothy was the father as he "...had charged him not to go into that wicked house and his son had obeyed and furthermore his son could not abide the jade."18

The phrase "that wicked house" rings down through the centuries. Why was Michael Emerson's house referred to as "wicked" and why was Timothy forbidden to enter the house? Not that Timothy Swan would have necessarily have had to enter the house in order to be the father of Dorothy. It is possible and even likely that Elizabeth contrived to get pregnant elsewhere. But why the phrase "wicked house"?

Presumably Robert Swan and Michael Emerson were well acquainted with one another. Robert Swan had even sold Michael and his brother Robert Emerson "twenty or thirty acres of land."19 They had also voted on the same side in a dispute about moving the meeting house to a different location. The breakdown of the meeting house case is rather interesting as Nathaniel Saltonstall, a very wealthy and respected member of the Haverhill community as well as a member of the Court of Assists, and Robert Emerson, brother to Michael but much wealthier and a member of the church in question,20 both came down on the opposite side of the argument, favoring building the new meetinghouse on the site of the old one.21 This would indicate that the proposed location of the new meetinghouse was more convenient to both Michael Emerson's and ?Robert Swan's households, i.e. they must have been "neighbors."

Neighbors or otherwise, Robert Swan threatened to "carry the case to Boston" if his son Timothy was formally accused of being Dorothy Emerson's father.22 Nothing ever came of the charges against Timothy and little Dorothy came into the world fatherless.

Elizabeth was 23 years old at the time of Dorothy's birth. She still resided at her father's house. Three years previous to Dorothy's birth Elizabeth had witnessed her sister Mary's successful marriage to Hugh Matthews of Newbury on August 28, 1683. Hugh and Mary were both sentenced by the Essex County Court in September of 1683 to be "fined or severly whipped" for the crime of fornication before marriage.23 No offspring of this alleged fornication is mentioned in the records but that they did the deed and subsequently had a successful marriage could not have gone unnoticed by Elizabeth. Perhaps Elizabeth expected the same thing to happen to her upon getting pregnant. And why not? The colonial court records are literally strewn with cases involving fornication before marriage where the parties did, indeed, get married and became respectable members of the community. As we know, for Elizabeth, this would not be her fate.

Elizabeth next appeared in the court records in May of 1691, five years after the birth of Dorothy, when she was arrested and charged with the murder of two bastard infants. On May 7, 1691 Elizabeth gave birth to twins sometime during the night in a trundle bed at the foot of her parents bed. She managed to somehow hide the birth from her parents, conceal the infants for three days in a trunk, sew them up in a bag and bury them in the backyard of the Emerson house.24

The Sunday following the birth, while her parents were at church, some concerned citizens of Haverhill who suspected that Elizabeth was pregnant went to the Emerson house to find her. When they arrived at the Emerson home they inquired after Elizabeth's health which she descibed to them as "not well." She was read a warrant and told that the women who were present were appointed to examine her.25 Elizabeth submitted to this examination without protest. Meanwhile, the men went into the backyard and found the bodies of the two infants sewn up in a bag and buried in a shallow grave.

The discovery of the bodies led to statements being taken by Nathaniel Saltonstall. The depositions of the parties involved were similar. They suspected Elizabeth of being with child and therefore sought her out that Sunday morning with the intent of making inquiry. Elizabeth denied any wrongdoing, stating that she "never murdered any child in my life." She also said "I never committed a murther that I know of...." But the evidence against her in the form of the infant bodies and the physical examination by the women present, where they discovered Elizabeth to be post partum, was overwhelming.

The following day, May 11th, Elizabeth, Michael and Hannah Emerson were all questioned and a transcript of that exchange is still extant. Elizabeth was asked her husband's name to which she replied, "I have never [had] one." She confessed that she did give birth to twins. When asked where they were born she replied, "On the bed at my father's beds feet...." She stated that she did not call for help during her travail because, "there was nobody near but my Father and Mother and I was afraid to call my mother for fear of killing her." When asked if she told her father or mother afterwards, she replied, "No, not a word; I was afraid." Elizabeth was then questioned as to whether either of her parents knew of her pregnancy to which she replied that they did not know of the pregnancy, birth or burial of them.

How could Elizabeth have given birth to twins in the same room her parents were sleeping and kept it a secret from them? The record indicates that her mother did suspect Elizabeth of being pregnant but was told "no" every time she inquired of Elizabeth. Elizabeth's fear of "killing" her mother denotes a certain amount of love and respect, but what of her statement, "No, not a word; I was afraid"? Elizabeth had, after all, been in this position before. She already had one illegitimate child which her father had unsuccessfully tried to pin on Timothy Swan. Could it be that the treatment she had received from ther father after the incident with Robert Swan, Sr. made her loathe to reveal to him her latest indiscretion? After all, Michael was known to have beaten her severely at least once; perhaps she was afraid of similar treatment if the truth was made known to him. Whatever her reason, it must have been compelling for her to have given birth to twins in complete silence while her parents slept mere inches away.

Michael was also questioned on May 11th regarding his daughter's crime. According to the transcript, he did not even suspect that Elizabeth was with child, nor did he know of the birth or burial of them. When asked if he knew who the father was, he stated for the first time on the record, that the father of the children was Samuel Ladd.

Samuel Ladd was a resident of Haverhill. He was considerably older than Elizabeth, for he was married to his wife on December 1, 1674 when Elizabeth was 9 years old. At the time of the twins birth Pope gives his age as 42 and Elizabeth's as 28. Although Samuel Ladd was named as the father of the children a number of times in the court records, he was even said to be the one person who knew of Elizabeth's pregnancy, he was never questioned about the matter.

Samuel Ladd's father, Daniel Ladd was on the list of the first settlers of Haverhill in 1640.26 As a first settler he would have received a considerable estate from the normal course of land distribution. Samuel was referred to as Lieutenant Ladd,27 a high rank in the Colonial militia, and he was paid more than twice the amount of any of the other soldiers who formed the militia company during King Philips War.28 Thus Samuel Ladd was not only the son of a wealthy founder of the community but an important member of it in his own right. As to the character of Samuel Ladd, a court case in which he was involved may be instructive.

On June 9, 1677 Samuel Ladd "was fined for misdemeanors." "Frances Thurla, aged about forty-five years, and Ane Thurla, his wife, testified that in the evening after Mr. Longfelow's vessel was launched, about nine or ten o'clock, and after he and his family were in bed, having shut the door and bolted it, Sameull Lad of Haverhill and Thomas Thurla's man, Edward Baghott, came to their house. One or both of them went into the leanto where their daughter Sarah lay, and having awakened her urged her to rise and go to her aunt's, telling her that she was very sick. Whereupon deponent arose and seeing one at the door reproved him for being there, and mistrusting that there was one with his daughter, as he went to light a candle, Samuell Lad leaped out of the house. Sworn in court."29

For this Samuel Ladd was found guilty of a misdemeanor. What was he doing at Frances Thurla's house after all had retired to bed? Why had he tried to get Sarah to leave the house and go to her aunt's? And if her aunt were, in fact, sick, why did he not tell Sarah's parents, as the aunt presumably would have been sister to one of them? Was Samuel Ladd bent upon the seduction of young Sarah Thurla? At the time of the incident Samuel had been married for three years.

This was the man accused of being the father of the dead twins. Why he was never questioned regarding his involvement is unknown. Perhaps it was his relative standing in the community that saved him. He was, after all, the son of a founder and somewhat wealthy himself based upon his position in the community. The Emersons were undoubtedly much poorer. And certainly, the fact that Elizabeth already had one bastard child made her testimony as to the patrimony of the twins suspect.

Samuel Ladd did eventually reap some kind of poetic justice for his part in Elizabeth's demise. On February 22, 1697/98 he was killed during an Indian raid.30 He left a wife and five (legitimate) children.

Elizabeth's mother Hannah was the next to be questioned regarding her daughter's crime. She stated for the record that she suspected her daughter was pregnant but as she was big, she could not tell and Elizabeth would not confess to it. She was then accused of being the one to sew them up in a bag but again she denied any knowledge of it. She too named Samuel Ladd as the father of the children.

The women who were sent to the house to examine Elizabeth also gave testimony at the same time as the Emersons. They testified that one of the children had its navel string twisted about its neck. There was apparently no sign of violence to either of the children but in their opinion one or both of them died "for want or caer att the time of travell."31

With these statements went another intriguing document. In it, Elizabeth confessed that Samuel Ladd was the father of the children and that the "place of his begetting...was at Rob't Clements inn house."32 Elizabeth also states for the record that Samuel is the only man with whom she had slept, indicating by this that he was not only the father of the dead twins but the father of Dorothy as well, contrary to her father's assertion that Timothy Swan was the father of Dorothy.

There is no record of Robert Clements running an inn or tavern, though he is listed as one of the founders of the town.33 It is entirely possible that he was running an unlicensed ordinary as this was not an uncommon practice at the time. Evidently Samuel Ladd and Robert Clements were well acquainted with one another as they were close neighbors. Nathaniel Saltonstall was later to write of the perfidy of tavern houses 34 and could well have been thinking of this case when he wrote it.

Elizabeth was remanded to the custody of the Boston prison on May 13, 1691, accompanied by a letter from Nathaniel Saltonstall. In this letter he writes that he had Elizabeth before him on May 11th and 13th..."upon examination for whore-dom." He then reiterated the facts of the case as they were known and commanded the prison keeper to safely keep her in prison until she "shal be thence delivered by due order of Law."35

Elizabeth was kept in prison until September 1691 when she was sentenced to hang for her crime. Previous to this case it was a crime in England to conceal the death of a bastard child. This law, though repealed in England by the time of the Emerson case, was still on the books in the Massachusetts Bay.36 Therefore, while it was never sufficiently proven that she intentionally killed her children, such proof was unnecessary as their very concealment was considered to be a crime. She did maintain her innocence of the charge throughout the proceedings but that was of little consequence, even though by 1691 convictions on the charge of concealment of the death of a bastard were waning. Nathaniel Saltonstall's comment that she had been examined for "whore-dom" was, perhaps, more to the point. It could be that the good people of Haverhill had tired of the antics of Elizabeth and had determined that being a whore, she could just as easily be a murderess. The society at large may have wanted to point to her as a warning to their own children. At the time, fewer and fewer of the children of the first settlers were owning the covenant and that was certainly a cause for great concern among the "saints."

Although convicted in September 1691 Elizabeth was not hanged until June 8, 1693. In the interim she came under the care and guidance of the Reverend Cotton Mather. How he found time to minister to Elizabeth while at the same time actively pursuing the Salem Witch Trials is unknown. Perhaps it was purely convenience, as Elizabeth was incarcerated in Boston, presumably with the unfortunate victims of the witchcraft hysteria. He did, however, get her to do something which nobody else could, to "confess." During his sermon on Job 36:14 he read to the congregation what he claimed was a confession given him by Elizabeth. He writes that she confessed that "when they were born, I was not unsensible, that at least, One of them was alive; but such a Wretch was I, as to use a Murderous Carriage towards them, in the place where I lay, on purpose to dispatch them out of the World." What did she mean by "murderous carriage?" Did she lay upon them or did she merely neglected them? Or were they, as per her initial assertion, truly stillborn?

According to Mather, she claimed that she should have listened to her parents, that she was "always of an Haughty and Stubborn Spirit." and that "Bad Company" was what led to her downfall. Although her confession is very moving and seemingly sincere, Cotton Mather was not moved. He claimed that she "has more to confess, I fear..." and held little hope for her salvation. According to Mather "there never was Prisoner more Hard-Hearted, and more Unfruitful than you have been..."37

It is a little puzzling that Mather was so disappointed with his prisoner. She did, after all, confess her crime and exhort the rising generation not to follow in her footsteps. Perhaps she did not confess readily enough to suit him. She was in prison for a little over two years and under those circumstances would surely have been broken into a confession at the hands of a less expert confessor than Mather. She may have continued to protest her innocence until very near the end, disappointing Mather who would have wanted to use her for his own ends.

Elizabeth was executed in Boston on that June day in 1693 and there her story ends. Dorothy, her daughter, also diseappeared from the record, and one can't help but wonder at her fate. Michael, in his last will dated 1709, left distributions of a few shillings to at least some of his grandchildren, but Dorothy was noticeably absent.38

Elizabeth may be seen in a number of different ways, as either victim or murderer, as evil or misguided. Her concealment of the birth seems unintellibible to many but in the context of a 17th century Puritan home it may be understandable, particularly in light of Michael Emerson's known temper. That Samuel Ladd certianly bore responsiblity is undeniable. That he was not even questioned can only be seen as a result of his class and standing in the community. Was she coerced into sexual relations, and when the result was made known to him did he exhort her to silence? Perhaps, but by her own admission she had slept with Ladd many times. If he was the father of Dorothy as well as the twins they must have had a relationship lasting over five years. Such a relationship would not be seen as adulterous, as adultery was defined by the marital status of the woman.

But what of Michael Emerson's charge in court that Timothy Swan was Dorothy's father? The Swans and the Emersons were from the same social strata of Haverhill society. It may have been easier to try to claim paternity of his grandchild was the responsibility of an unmarried young neighbor than that of a high ranking, older married man. Perhaps Elizabeth herself, weighing the options, chose to lie to her father regarding Dorothy's paternity, hoping that Timothy would marry her or seeking to protect Samuel from scandal. Eventually the truth must have come out as both of Elizabeth's parents name Samuel Ladd without hesitation as the father of the twins. One thinks they may have known of their relationship prior to the discovery of the dead girls.

If Elizabeth had lived in the 20th century her life would have been very different. Rarely is the charge of whore-dom meted out today. In today's society it would be her sister, Hannah Dustin, seen as the murderess, and Elizabeth as only an unfortunate girl, a victim of circumstance. But in the context of the 17th century Elizabeth was seen as the result of a moral degeneration that was very real and very frightening to Puritans of the first generation. A vast falling away from godliness in New England, not to be rectified until the next century's Great Awakening. With nowhere to turn in her society, she sought to hide her pregnancy as long as possible, and when the twins were either born dead or died shortly thereafter, she took what steps she thought necessary to conceal her sin from her parents and from the community. How many others who did likewise were not caught?

 


 

Footnotes:

1. Charles Henry Pope, The Haverhill Emersons (Boston: Murray and Emery, 1913-1916, p. 27.

2. Cotton Mather, "Warnings From the Dead", Boston 1693 (Early American Works #665), pp. 35-67.

3. She was convicted of murdering twin female infants.

4. Pope, The Haverhill Emerson's, p. 25.

5. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wifes, Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England 1650-1750 (New York: Oxford University Press) pp. 157-158.

6. Pope, The Haverhill Emersons, p. 11.

7. Ibid, p. 12.

8. This event is cited in a number of different sources. Among these are Good Wives, pp. 167-170; The Haverhill Emersons, pp21-23; and Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana, (Boston, 1702, reprinted New Haven, 1820) Book VII, pp. 550-551.

9. Hannah may have felt she had just cause to slay her captors. During the raid in which she was captured the Indians dashed her days old infant's brains out against a tree. This was a common practice among Native Americans involved in capturing white New Englanders for eventual ransom as an infant would have slowed down the raiding party.

10. Good Wives, pp. 187-188.

11. Anne Bradstreet, "Meditations," in The Works of Anne Bradstreet, ed. John Harvard Ellis (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1962) p. 65.

12. Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County Massachusetts, (Salem, Mass.: Essex Institute, 1917), VI, p. 141. Herafter referred to as ECR.

13. There is some discrepency as to the age of Elizabeth at the time of this beatin. Charles Henry Pope in The Haverhill Emersons, p. 12, gives her age as nine. At the time of the court hearing Elizabeth would have been eleven.

14. ECR, VI, p. 212-213.

15. ECR, VIII, p. 91-92.

16. Pope, The Haverhill Emersons, p. 25.

17. ECR, IX, p. 603.

18. Ibid.

19. Pope, The Haverhill Emersons, p. 11.

20. Pope, The Haverhill Emersons, pp. 15-16.

21. Charles Wingate Chase, History of Haverhill Massachusetts (Somersworth, NH: New England History Press, 1861; reprint 1983), pp. 138-139.

22. ECR, IX, p. 603.

23. ECR, IX, p. 93.

24. The following is from Suffolk Court, Early Files, 2636.

25. One of the women, Mary Neff, was the same woman who later accompanied Hannah (Emerson) Dustin into captivity and helped to slay their Indian captors.

26. Pope, The Haverhill Emersons, p. 38.

27. Ibid, p. 48.

28. Ibid, p. 128. In fact, Samuel Ladd was paid 3.17.00 while the man nearest him on the payroll was paid only 1.17.00. Ironically, that man was Robert Swan. No Emersons are listed on the militial roll.

29. ECR, IX, p. 344.

30. Pope, The Haverhill Emersons, p. 26.

31. Suffolk Court, Early Files, 2636.

32. Ibid.

33. Pope, The Haverhill Emersons, p. 47.

34. Ibid, p. 157.

35. Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. May 1691, p. 203.

36. N.E.H. Full, Female Felons (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), p. 34. For the primary source documents on crimes punishable by death in the Massachusetts Bay see Acts and Resolves, Public and Private, of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, 21 vols. (Boston, 1869-1922), 1, p. 55-56 (1692).

37. Early American Works, #655.

38. Pope, The Haverhill Emersons, pp. 13-14.