Friday, November 18, 2011

The tragedy of John Winthrop’s widow

John Winthrop’s fourth wife, Martha Rainsborough

© 2011 Christy K Robinson

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John Winthrop, 1588-1649
 Why would I steal time from writing my historical novel on Mary and William Dyer, to write an article about the fourth wife of Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts? She had no connection to the Dyers that I’ve ever seen. But in clearing up a (gasp!) mistake I found in a biography of Winthrop, I found a window into New England in 1650s Boston that sheds some light on the environment and culture in which Mary Dyer moved, her last three years of life.

John Winthrop was married four times and had a tribe of children, though more died as infants than lived to procreate. His first wife, Mary Forth, produced most of the surviving Winthrops, but she died in childbirth. His second wife, Thomasine Clopton, died from childbirth complications one year after he married her. His third wife, Margaret Tyndall, was the love of John Winthrop’s life, and though she had a number of pregnancies, only one or two grew to adulthood. John emigrated to Massachusetts in 1630, and Margaret followed about 18 months later. Her last pregnancy miscarried in October 1637 on the eve of Anne Hutchinson’s heresy trial—and Anne, a midwife, attended her! In fact, when Anne collapsed in exhaustion after standing all day at her trial, it was probably because she’d been up the night before, attending Margaret. Margaret was very much loved by her step-children, who were young when she took over their care.

In 1643, John Winthrop’s and Margaret Tyndall’s son, Stephen Winthrop, married Englishwoman Judith Rainsborough (remember that surname) and moved from Boston back to England to eventually attain the rank of colonel in the Parliamentary forces in their Civil War.

Martha Rainsborough (seven years older than her sister Judith) and her husband, Captain Thomas Coytmore, had married in 1635 in England, and emigrated to Boston in 1636. They settled in Charlestown, where Thomas was both a miller—and apparently a sea captain for his father, who was part of the East India Trading Company. In case of his death, Thomas made a trust for his son, which was arranged by Rev. Increase Nowell. In 1644, Captain Coytmore was lost at sea off Cadiz, Spain, in his 200-ton ship, the Trial. The trust, then, provided an inheritance for the Coytmore boy: lands in Charlestown/Marden area, as far as I could determine.

[Winthrop’s biography author had identified Winthop’s widow as Martha Nowell Cotymore, the “sister of Increase Nowell.” I could only find a couple of references tying those names together, and that from highly-suspect, amateur genealogy pages. Besides, I thought, why would her parents and many siblings be surnamed Rainsborough, but she would be surnamed Nowell? That's not logical. So I looked up the scant info on Coytmore and learned from a nineteenth-century Google Books volume that Thomas’s mother had had two children from a first marriage, and his half-sister Parnell married the moderately-famous Rev. Increase Nowell, who was treasurer of Massachusetts Bay Colony. This made Mr. Nowell the half-brother-in-law of Thomas Coytmore, and no blood relation at all to Martha Rainsborough Coytmore, so give her back her true name! Also: the author spelled it Cotymore, which is incorrect.] 
An unknown 17th-century
widow of high status.

Back to Martha. After she was widowed, she moved to Boston, to a house on Cornhill Road. (From 1635-1638, William and Mary Dyer lived on the east of Cornhill Road.) Because the Rainsboroughs were well-known puritans in England, her younger sister had married John Winthrop’s son, and because Cornhill was a major thoroughfare in the small town of Boston, the Winthrops and Martha probably were acquainted.

Margaret Tyndall Winthrop fell victim to the yellow fever epidemic in New England (carried by African slaves via Barbados), and died June 14, 1647. She and John had been married for 29 years, and she was tenderly, devotedly loved.

Six months after Margaret Winthrop’s death, after December 20, 1647, John married, as his fourth wife, Martha Rainsborough Coytmore, a widow with a young son. John was 59, she was 30. At this time, and in their cultural beliefs, Martha became the mother-in-law of her own sister Judith! (Seems creepy today, doesn’t it?!) The Winthrop honeymoon must have lasted at least three months: Martha became pregnant in March.

John Winthrop apparently had several bouts of an unexplained illness in 1648, and he was weak for more than a month in the autumn. His and Martha’s baby son Joshua was christened in Boston’s First Church in December. John succumbed to illness on March 26, 1649, leaving 31-year-old Martha a widow again. John’s properties had already been deeded to his adult sons, but as widow of the high-status Winthrop, and mother of his baby, she would have been treated with respect, and had some sort of settlement.
Col. Thomas Rainsborough,
Martha's eldest brother

Martha’s oldest brother, Col. Thomas Rainsborough, was killed at Pontefract Castle in October 1648; she would not have heard of it until at least February 1649, if a ship braved the winter storms with the news. More likely, the news would have come at about the time of Winthrop’s death in late March.

At some point, Martha’s Coytmore son died, and the Coytmore trust became her property. In 1651, Joshua Winthrop died at about two and a half years old. On March 10, 1652, Martha married John Coggan of Boston, a miller who had known her first husband, and they moved to Malden, Massachusetts. Governor John Endecott presided at the Coggan wedding.

“Among Mr. Coggan's donations to Harvard College was 175 acres of land in Chelsea. He was very wealthy for the times he lived in. Among his property was one farm in Chelsea, valued at £450, beside other parcels in that locality. He had mills in Charlestown and in Maiden, also 500 acres of land in Woburn, and two stores in Boston, with other property beside his residence. All in all, he was one of Boston's chief pillars, both in Church and State. He died in Boston, April 27, 1658.”  --The Story of the Irish in Boston
Coggan left Martha a widow for the third time with no children, at age 41. (Being married and having children was a core belief of puritans, and now Martha was bereaved and alone, and her siblings were home in England.)

The next record I found of Martha was an account from Rev. John Davenport. The woman who had been the sister of military officers, and the widow of two prosperous millers and a famous governor,
was “discontented that she had no suitors, and that she encouraged her farmer [either her farm manager, or a tenant on her lands], a mean man, to make a motion to her for marriage, which accordingly he propounded, prosecuted, and proceeded in it so far that afterwards, when she reflected upon what she had done, and what a change of her outward condition she was bringing herself into, she was discontented, despaired, and took a great quantity of rats bane, and so died. Fides sit penes auctorem (Faith is the responsibility of the author)" [author meaning the sinner].
Rats bane, native to New England

On October 24, 1660, aged 43, Martha Rainsborough Coytmore Winthrop Coggan committed suicide. Rats bane is arsenic trioxide, and its use in homicide or suicide was primarily a woman’s preferred, nonconfrontational method. It might have been available to Martha through patent medicines (which John Winthrop and his son John Winthrop Jr. were known to concoct and sell), or as a common treatment for syphilis. Or, most obviously, as a rat poison, to keep the vermin out of their stored food supplies.

An article on The Chirugeon's Apprentice site describes the agonizing death from ingesting arsenic.

One author called poisoning “the mark of lethal and treacherous intimacy, the most extreme violation of domestic order.” Poor Martha. She couldn’t stand living alone, but she wouldn’t suffer such a fall as to be the childless, aging wife of a lowly farmer of poor regard, who only wanted her for her property.

Lastly, we hear another word about Martha, a mere footnote in 8-point type in the Massachusetts Archives.
"Petition of Margaret Sheaffe to the General Court, in 1662, for a title to the house and land of Martha, widow of John Coggan (we suppose the Albion lot, on the corner of Tremont and Beacon streets), for which Mrs. Sheaffe had paid the purchase money to Mrs. Coggan before the latter, having been left by the Lord to Sathan’s temptations, which was too strong for her, made away with herself.”

That’s the final judgment of the General Court under Governor John Endecott, then: Martha Rainsborough Coytmore Winthrop Coggan was unworthy to be called the widow of the great Governor John Winthrop; and she was not of the Elect who would be saved in the kingdom of God, it being obvious to the Church members that the Lord had left her to Satan.

I don't know the disposition of Martha's fortune, which was certainly considerable. She died intestate, by the looks of the petition above. The Massachusetts Bay Colony's general court was probably the executor, and they were known to distribute properties amongst themselves as rewards for service.

 Like this article? Check out my non-fiction book on 17th-century life and times, The Dyers of London, Boston, & Newport, by Christy K Robinson.
Nonfiction, illustrated. The research and recent discoveries behind the novels. The Dyers is a lively nonfiction account of background color, culture, short stories, personality sketches, food, medicine, interests, recreation, cosmic events, and all the "stuff" that made up the world of William and Mary Dyer in the 1600s. More than 70 chapters, and all-new, exclusive content found nowhere else!

Christy K Robinson is author of these sites:  

and of these books:

·          We Shall Be Changed (2010)
·          Mary Dyer Illuminated (2013)
·          Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This (2014)
·          The Dyers of London, Boston, & Newport (2014)
·          Effigy Hunter (2015)
·          Anne Marbury Hutchinson: American Founding Mother (2018)


  1. It's no surprise that the final account of poor Martha did not say she was the widow of the godly John Winthrop. By taking her life, Martha had condemned herself to Hell. Endecott's Puritans weren't going to taint Winthrop's memory by reminding themselves that their revered governor had chosen such a weak vessel for his spouse, even though the act which revealed her weakness did not occur until decades later.

  2. Jo Ann, Knowing what we do about Governor Endecott and his penchant for heavy fines on civil offenders, property and stock seizures, etc., we can guess what happened to the accumulated properties of Martha's dower, Coytmore's remaining trust, the Winthrop settlement for her and Joshua, and the Coggan properties and share in the mill. I smell a hefty estate tax and then fees for a trustee.

  3. Very well written and enjoyable to a degree, esp. regarding poor, dear Martha. Carry on Author.


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