Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Endecott’s memento mori death's-head


© 2014 Christy K Robinson

Gov. John Endecott, with signet ring
on his right little finger.
 John Endecott, first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, was a hot-headed, zealous Puritan who had a long history acting first and dealing with consequences later. His extreme religious beliefs led him to cut the cross out of the British flag (treason), to chop down a festive Maypole where some not-so-Puritan English settlers were observing centuries-old celebrations, to require Taliban-like sumptuary laws of Massachusetts women (clothing, jewelry, embroidery and lace, head coverings, and—if he could have—requiring face veils), and he’s particularly infamous for his intense hatred for and persecution of the Quakers. He was the governor who pronounced Mary Dyer’s death sentence.

Endecott wore a ring on his right pinkie finger, which he used as a signet to impress in the soft wax of a seal on letters or documents proving it was his own signature. Endecott’s ring had the image of a skull and crossbones, known as a memento mori, a reminder that all men must die.
Nazi SS death's-head ring from World War II

Today, everyone associates the skull and crossbones with pirate flags, and death by toxin. Latin cultures celebrate a Day of the Dead on November 1 and use a skull motif. Some remember that the death’s head was the emblem of the Nazi SS. Heinrich Himmler, who oversaw the systematic extermination of untold millions of Jews and Slavs, wore a death’s head on his belt buckle that said, “God with us.” The Nazi death-camp guards wore buttons with the death’s head.
Heinrich Himmler's belt buckle.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the memento mori became popular as mementoes of the dead, containing a lock of hair, a picture of an urn or skeleton, in a ring or pendant. The rings took several forms, sometimes a skull mounted on a slim gold ring, sometimes a circle with enamel over gold, or an inside inscription, and sometimes a disk that could be pressed as a seal. Endecott seems to have had the latter.

John Endecott’s letter to John Winthrop in 1643 was sealed with the death’s head in wax. This is a snippet from a “Memoir” written by his descendant, Charles Endicott, in 1847.
The letter is transcribed on page 68 of the book at  https://archive.org/stream/memoirjohnendec00endigoog/memoirjohnendec00endigoog_djvu.txt   
The letter ends with this salutation: 
“…The Lord our good God uphold and continue you amongest us to do yet further service to whose grace I committ you,
Yours ever trulie to serve,
Salem, 26th 6th mo., '43. [26 August 1643]
Jo: Endecott.”

The biographer, a seventh-generation descendant of Governor Endecott, wrote,
“The foregoing letter is transcribed from the original, now found among the papers of Gov. Endecott, in a very good state of preservation. The chirography is handsome, but difficult to read, the characters being those used at the beginning of the 17th century. Notwithstanding the lapse of two hundred years [1643-1847], the sealing wax still bears the perfect impression of the flesh of his thumb, where he pressed it down on account of its thickness. Its subscription is
To the right worshipfulle John Winthroppe, Esq., Governr. at Boston, Dl [deliver]."

He continued, “The seal is a death's head and cross bones, an apt emblem of the gloomy minds, and tastes of our Puritan fore-fathers. On the outer circle is the name of ‘John Garrad.’ This was an impression from a signet ring which he wore upon the little finger of his right hand.”  

John Garrad had been sheriff of Hertfordshire for about three years. He died in 1625; possibly, the ring belonged to Garrad and was given to Endecott at the funeral. This seems likely because Endecott would have had his own name or initials on a ring if he’d commissioned it for himself. Endecott sailed for Massachusetts in 1628, a recent convert to the Puritan beliefs, and a married man for the first time at age 40.

Footnote from 1847 biography of John Endecott
Endecott didn’t start his bloody reign of terror when the Quakers arrived in New England in 1656. He was one of the militia captains who slaughtered or enslaved hundreds of Pequot Indians (men, women, and children) in 1636-37. He was one of the magistrates who prosecuted Anne Hutchinson, inspected the deformed, stillborn fetus of Mary Dyer’s, hanged women as witches, and in 1651, was responsible for the near-fatal beating of the Baptist minister of Newport, Rhode Island, Obadiah Holmes, when he and two other Baptists went to Salem to encourage an elderly Baptist in his own home.

That prompted a letter exchange with Rev. Roger Williams, who lived at Providence, but had been friendly with Endecott in the early 1630s when he preached at Salem. Rev. Williams was not a man who was short on words, nor was he hesitant to use all the sharp, pointy arrows in his quiver! He said that those who sent a letter with the death’s-head seal were flying to the hole or pit of rottenness (a.k.a. hell). His letter was very long, and I’ve selected some excerpts for you.


The copy of a letter of Roger Williams, of Providence, in New England, to Major Endicott, Governor of the Massachusetts, upon occasion of the late persecution against Mr. Clarke and Obadiah Holmes, and others, at Boston, the chief town of the Massachusetts in New England.

August, 1651.

Sir,—Having done with our transitory earthly affairs (as touching the English and the Indians) which in companion of heavenly and eternal, you will say are but as dung and dross, &c. Let me now be humbly bold to remember that humanity and piety, which I and others have formerly observed in you, and in that hopeful remembrance to crave your gentle audience with patience and mildness, with ingenuity, equanimity and candor, to him that ever truly and deeply loved you and yours, and as in the awful presence of His holy eye, whose dreadful hand hath formed us to the praise of His mercy or justice to all eternity. 
--- 
Sir, while something of this nature I muse over your Death's head, I meet (in the entrance of your letter) with this passage, "Were I as free in my spirit as formerly I have been to write unto you, you should have received another manner of Salutation then now with a good Conscience I can Express; However God knoweth who are his, and what he is pleased to hide from sinful man in this life, shall in that great Day be manifested to All." 

Sir, it hath pleased the Father of Spirits at this present to smite my heart in the very breaking up of your letter, This Death's Head, tells that loving hand that sealed it, and mine that opens your letter, that our eyes, our hands, our tongues, our brains are flying hence to the hole or pit of rottenness : Why mould not therefore such our letters, such our speeches, such our actings be, as may become our last: minutes, our death-beds, &c. If so, how meek and humble, how plain and serious, how faithful and zealous, and yet how tender and loving mould the spirits and speeches be of dying and departing men? 
[In modern terms, Live as if each day is your last, and be tender and loving in spirit and in speech.]

Sir, will my honored and beloved friend not know me for fear of being disowned by his conscience? Shall the goodness and integrity of his conscience to God cause him to forget me? Oh how comes it then that I have heard so often, and heard it lately, and heard so much, that he that speaks so tenderly for his own, hath yet so little respect, mercy or pity to the like conscientious persuasions of other men? Are all the thousands of millions of millions of consciences, at home and abroad, fuel only for a prison, for a whip, for a stake, for a gallows? Are no consciences to breathe the air, but such as suit and sample his? May not the most High be pleased to hide from his as well as from the eyes of his fellow-servants, fellow-mankind, fellow-English? And if God hide from his, from any, who can discover? Who can shut when he will open? and who can open when he that hath the key of David will shut? All this and more (honored Sir) your words will warrant me to say, without any just offence or straining. 

Object. But what makes this to Heretics, Blasphemers, Seducers, to make them that sin against their conscience (as Mr. Cotton sayeth) after conviction? What makes this to stabbers of Kings and Princes, to blowers up of Parliaments out of conscience?

--- 
Oh Sir, you cannot forget what language and dialect this is, whether not the same unsavored, and ungodly, blasphemous and bloody, which the Gardiner's and Bonner's [Catholic bishops who tortured and killed Protestants in Bloody Mary’s reign] both former and latter used to all that bowed not to the State golden Image of what Conscience soever they were. And indeed, Sir, if the most High be pleased to awaken you to render unto his holy Majesty his due praises, in your truly broken-hearted Confessions and Supplications, you will then proclaim to all the world, that what profession soever you made of the Lamb, yet these expressions could not proceed from the Dragon's mouth. 
--- 
Sir, I must be humbly bold to say, that 'tis impossible for any man or men to maintain their Christ by their sword, and to worship a true Christ! to fight against all Consciences opposite to theirs, and not to fight against God in some of them, and to hunt after the precious life of the true Lord Jesus Christ. Oh remember whether your Principles and Consciences must in time and opportunity force you. 'Tis but worldly policy and compliance with men and times (God's mercy overruling) that holds your hands from murdering of thousands and ten thousands were your power and command as great as once the bloody Roman Emperors was. 
--- 
It hath been his way and course in all countries, in Germany, France and England, (especially) whatever their pretences have been against Heretics, Rebels, Schismatics, Blasphemers, Seducers, &c. How hath he left them to be their own Accusers, Judges, Executioners, some by hanging, some by stabbing, some by drowning and poisoning themselves, some by running mad, and some by drinking in the very same cup which they had filled to others?

Some may say, “Such persecutors hunted God and Christ, but I, but we, &c.” –

I answer, the Lord Jesus Christ foretold how wonderfully the wisest of the world, would be mistaken in the things of Christ, and a true visible Christ Jesus! When did we see thee naked, hungry, thirsty, sick, in prison, &c. 
--- 
Oh remember it is a dangerous combat for the potsherds of the earth to fight with their dreadful Potter. It is a dismal battle for poor naked feet to kick against the pricks; it is a dreadful voice from the King of kings, and Lord of lords, “Endecott, Endecott, why huntest thou me? why imprisonest thou me? why finest, why so bloodily whippest, why wouldest thou (did not I hold thy bloody hands) hang and burn me? 
---
First, On a moderation towards the Spirits and Consciences of all mankind, merely differing from or opposing yours with only Religious and Spiritual opposition.

Secondly, A deep and cordial resolution (in these wonderful searching, disputing and dissenting times) to search, to listen, to pray, to sail, and more fearfully, more tremblingly to enquire what the holy pleasure, and the holy mysteries of the most Holy are; in whom I humbly desire to be

Your poor fellow-servant, unfeignedly, respective and faithful,

Roger Williams.

I’ve found no response from Endecott to Williams. Perhaps the governor’s response was to ignore the sermon.
Memento mori ring of the same period as Endecott's,
from Norwich, England

Endecott served as governor or deputy governor for 14 more terms before he died in 1665. His descendant and biographer, writing in 1847, believed that he died peacefully at age 77. Some historians say that Endecott was ill or gangrenous and stank so terribly that servants refused to enter the room. Another writer says that Endecott was known to have a painful back condition, and her theory is that he had syphilis from his youth (when he fathered a bastard son), and the disease had affected his sanity and erupted as a sore, which would explain the foul odor. 

I mentioned Endecott's memento mori in both of my novels, Mary Dyer Illuminated, and Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This.  The first mention was when William Dyer was discussing Roger Williams' letter. The ring shows up again at Mary Dyer's death sentence. Tiny details like this require 20 or more hours of research, but they bring an authenticity to the scene.

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