Annibale Carracci, attrib.,
Portrait of an African Slave Woman, ca. 1580s.
(fragment of a larger painting). Wikimedia.
Zipporah, a free African servant in Boston, was the daughter of Grace and Richard Done, slaves of Boston's richest man, Robert Keayne.
As a young woman, and servant (by choice, not bond) of Richard Parker, Zipporah had lain with an African bondservant named Jeffere at the beginning of March 1663, and appeared to be pregnant in early September, at which time two African women told Parker's housekeeper that Zipporah must report her fornication and pregnancy and name the father, so she could claim child support. One of the women who counseled Zipporah was Elizabeth or Bess, the freed African bondservant of Abigail and Edward Hutchinson, eldest son of Anne Marbury Hutchinson.
Zipporah declared that she was only fat, not pregnant, since she had "ye custom of women upon her" (a regular menstrual cycle). But three weeks later, she went into a quick labor and miscarried a seven-months’ fetus on Sept. 23, 1663. Her mistress, Mrs. Parker, pinned the fetus in a “ragge” and told Zipporah to bury it in a field the next day, but the young mother instead buried it in a tidal marsh with sandy mud, from which the infant's body washed away, never to be found.
Upon learning of the miscarriage and burial, authorities ordered an inquiry. Searchers never found her dark-skinned, black-haired fetus, but they did find the headless body of a larger, fully-formed, fairer-skinned newborn not far away.
She was charged with murder of the lighter-skinned child, but the jury of inquest would not say the body was her child because it didn't match the description of the miscarried fetus that the white women had seen born to Zipporah.
You are to take into yor costody Zippoer a negro woman for comittinge fornication wth Jeffere a negro man and haveing a bastard it was in a seccret way buryed by the sd Zippoer as shee confesseth but the child where she saith it was buryed is not yet found
Dat 1-8-1663 [1 October 1663]
To the keep of the Prison
Ri. Bellingham Dept Govr
To the honord County Courte now sitting at Boston
The humble petition of Zipporah a negro woman priso'r
humble beseecheth this Courte to take her and her miserable Condition
into yor pious Consideration, for that she hath most justly deserved
gods displeasure and yors for her sinn in being so wicked as to committ
that sinn of fornication with that Jeffere the negro man, and is therfore
justly imprisoned, but in reguard he is bound to appeare before this
Courte, to answer it, and she not bound over, to appeare anywhere doe
therfore humbly beseech this honored Court, to call her before you,
and to deal with her, as to yor wisedomes and mercy shall see meet,
that she may not lye where she is to perrish
And yor pour petticionr and prisoner shall dayly pray
WO the mark of Zippora
It's unclear if Zipporah stayed in Boston prison over the winter. A grand jury refused to indict her and the case was dropped March 1, 1664. Zipporah may have had the first case of habeus corpus in America.
Whose baby was the one found murdered and buried about 10 days later? Was that baby also illegitimate? Did its mother kill it? Was that baby the product of Judge Parker’s son Jonathan assaulting an African slave? (Jonathan Parker fled to England after his alleged assaults.) Why was the murdered baby beheaded--was it to mask the identity of the mother or father, or because it was of mixed race, or was it a "monster" with birth defects, like Mary Dyer's third pregnancy?
The second generation of New England colonists, now coming to maturity in the 1650s and 1660s, were no angels. Governor John Endecott’s son Zerubbabel assaulted an English bondservant ten years earlier, and Zerubbabel went to England for a medical apprenticeship while the scandal died down (for him). The girl was flogged 30 stripes after giving birth and (a worse crime) naming Zerubbabel as the father, but she was given the remainder of her bond time, she was married off to a fellow servant, and they disappeared from records.
Who was the man who composed Zipporah’s request for release from prison? Could it have been Elizabeth's former master, attorney Edward Hutchinson? Or Richard Parker, on whose land the missing fetus was supposed to have been buried (whose grandchild the headless baby may have been)?
You can read the original research on the case at this link: Did Interracial Sex in the Massachusetts Bay Colony Lead to
THE CASE OF THE HEADLESS BABY: DID INTERRACIAL SEX IN THE MASSACHUSETTS BAY COLONY LEAD TO INFANTICIDE AND THE EARLIEST HABEAS CORPUS PETITION IN AMERICA?
A 2009 paper by Melinde Lutz Sanborn, Program Director, Boston University, Center for Professional Education. Life election as one of the fifty Fellows of the American Society of Genealogists, selected for the quality and quantity of published work, 1993. Donald Lines Jacobus Award winner. Vice-President of ASG. Co-editor of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, a peer-reviewed scholarly journal. This paper was presented at a workshop at Hofstra University School of Law on November 2, 2009.