Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Grandparents-in-law: the Quaker connection

© 2012 Christy K. Robinson
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Petition of imprisoned Quakers to be released from Boston's House of Correction, 24 Dec 1660.
From the center placement of Robert Harper's name, and the formation of letters,
I believe the petition was written in Robert's hand.
Photocopy of a holograph in Massachusetts Archives.
(transcript follows)
**** general court where as it is reported yt ye prison doors are set open
***** that wee may have our liberty of this is spoken both in towen
and country in so much yt one of our relations which came to see us questioned
****** shee should find us at the prison: as touching our liberties it is yt wee
***** thing if it be granted wee are ready to be one cop* if yt wee may get to our
**** children from whch Margaret Smith hath been detained about ten monthes
and her husband three monthes Mary Traske about 8 monthes Robert Harper
and his wif now about two monthes
and whether yeat will [hurt? hand?] may our libertys wee desire to have an answer
from you
                    from ye house of correction in boston ye 24 of ye 10th mo 1660 [24 Dec. 1660]
                                                     Robert Harper                   John Smith
                                                     Deborah Harper                 Margaret Smith
[possibly Wenlock Christison]    

[carried by?] William Salter [jailer]
Ben Gillam

In the late 1650s, Robert Harper of Sandwich in Plymouth Colony, had been heavily fined as much as £44 over time, for attending Quaker meetings and repeatedly refusing to take the fidelity oath (taking an oath was contrary to Jesus’ command in Matthew 5:33-35 not to swear at all.); he was whipped 15 stripes with a 3-knot gut scourge (that's at least 45 wounds); he and his wife Deborah Perry Harper were set in Boston prison with no food unless an outsider paid for it, hard labor, and with no heat during winter in the Little Ice Age. 

Their fellow members in the Friends, and co-signers of the document above, were John and Margaret (Thompson) Smith of Salem, Massachusetts, parents of several children, at least three of whom grew up to marry and have families of their own. In a letter to Governor John Endecott, their former neighbor, in spring 1660, John Smith wrote: "O governour, governour, do not think that my love to my wife is at all abated, because I sit still silent, and do not seek her ... freedom, which if I did would not avail.... Upon examination of her, there being nothing justly laid to her charge, yet to fulfil your wills, it was determined, that she must have ten stripes in the open market place [where her clothes were torn off before her whipping], it being very cold, the snow lying by the walls, and the wind blowing cold ... it being snowy, wet weather, not fit for a woman to travel in, putting her into the prison again, all wet with the cold snow, a most cruel thing, and there kept her in the winter season, not regarding her if she had been frozen to death. ... My love is much more increased to her, because I see your cruelty so much enlarged to her."

It's highly likely that the other women of this group were also stripped in public and whipped. In Salem, several Quaker women were whipped nearly to death, after which they were supposed to be dragged over stumps and rocks 15 miles through the frozen forest to be left to die and be torn by animals. Apparently the carters had some measure of mercy, for somehow the women survived. Perhaps they were left with farmers or Indians, or the carters sneaked the women back to people who would help.

What earned  prison for the people in this petition? In October 1660, they went to Salem to visit other Quakers under persecution—the same thing that Mary Dyer had done several times and was hanged for the previous June 1, 1660. One of their number, Mary Southwick Trask, had Quaker family in Salem who had suffered banishment, fines, prison, and an attempt to sell her brother and sister as slaves. The entire group knew exactly what might happen to them, and they purposely set out to defy “the bloody law.” They committed civil disobedience in the cause of religious freedom.

The Harpers were no strangers to heavy fines (which seemed to be repeated several times a year, probably as a lucrative business for the magistrates) or arrests. Though they were subject to Plymouth Colony courts, they were incarcerated at Boston, in Massachusetts Bay Colony, probably for trespassing in the Bay to preach or visit other Quakers.  

The Boston laws passed by Governor John Endecott and his assistants stated that Quakers were to be whipped at their entrance to the prison. It was later amended to whipping them several times a week. The jailer was sometimes told to whip the prisoners harder, while Deputy Governor Bellingham stood by to be sure the scourge was properly applied. The following points are some of the incidences of fines, whippings, and incarcerations of Robert Harper:

·         1 June 1658 – Robert was fined £10 at Plymouth for failure to take the “oath of fidelitie.” (Ten pounds could purchase a calf or colt, so it was a considerable penalty in that economy.)
·         July 1658Robert's property seized: Two oxen, al he had fit to work, one heifer, one bull  £14; five cows, all the cattle he had, and his house and land, £30. The marshal left him with one cow "so poor that she was ready to die, and that was all they left him for the relief of himself and family."
·         2 Oct 1658 – Robert was fined £5 for refusing to take the “oath of fidelitie,” along with twelve others of Sandwich.
·         7 Jun 1659 – Robert and other Quakers appeared before the Plymouth court for failure to take the “oath of fidelitie,” and fined £5.
·         6 Oct 1659 – Robert appeared before the court for failure to take the “oath of fidelitie,” and fined £5 at Plymouth. A month later, Mary Dyer visited Sandwich.
·         8 or 13 June 1660- Robert was fined £5 for refusing to take the “oath of fidelitie.”
·         2 Oct 1660 – Robert was convicted for refusing to take the “oath of fidelitie,” at the General Court in Plymouth; fined £6 at Plymouth.
·         2 Oct 1660 – Robert and Deborah Harper were fined £4, “for being att Quakers meetings.”
·         13 Oct 1660 – Robert and Deborah Harper and others visit Quaker friends in Salem’s jail, arrested and committed to Boston’s House of Correction. They petitioned for release on 24 Dec 1660, but no record is noted of their disposition at that time.
·         24 Mar 1661 – Robert, who must have been recently released from Boston prison, “stood under the scaffold and caught in his arms the body of his friend William Leddra, the martyr preacher,” when Leddra’s hanging rope was cut. For this, he and his wife were banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony (different jurisdiction from Plymouth Colony). In late June/early July 1661, an order from King Charles II arrived in Massachusetts that stopped executions for religion's sake. It also had the effect of reducing (though not stopping) persecution of the Quakers.
       1663 – Robert was sentenced to be "publickly whipt for his intollerable insolent disturbance, both for the congregation of Barnstable and Sandwich."  
·         1670 – Again the same sentence was passed upon Robert Harper "for reviling Mr. Walley," minister of Barnstable.

Mary Dyer was reprieved from hanging in October 1659, and taken away to Newport. But a week to ten days later, in November, she showed up in Sandwich, Plymouth Colony, for a Thomas Greenfield was sentenced to pay for her lodging in prison and her transportation back to Rhode Island. Surely she would have met with the Sandwich Quakers, of which Robert and Deborah Harper were pioneer members. Mary purposely returned to Boston in May 1660, was retried and condemned for disobeying her banishment, and hanged on June 1, 1660. 

Bishop, in New England Judged by the Spirit of the Lord, wrote: “Several of Salem friends ye committed, and have continued them long prisoners at Boston, as Mary [Southwick] Trask, John Smith, Margaret Smith, Edward Wharton, and others. Robert Harper, of Sandwich, and Deborah ye committed likewise, and these were in your prison, the 13th of the 10th month [13 Dec], 1660. Several ye banished upon pain of death, as Wenlock Christison, and William King of Salem, and Martha Standley, a maid belonging to England, and Mary Write [Wright], of Oyster Bay, in Rhode Island, who gave her testimony against you for your cruelty in putting Mary Dyer to death, whose blood ye also thirst after because of it.”

When were the Quakers of the petition released from Boston’s House of Correction? Wharton was kept in the freezing cold prison all winter. Leddra likewise, and he was hanged on March 24, 1661. It seems that the group were released sometime between Christmas, when they made their petition, and early March; that they went home briefly, and came back to Boston to defy Governor Endecott and Deputy Governor Bellingham at Leddra's execution. Wenlock Christison was granted release on March 11 if he would leave forever, but he turned down his clemency. He was sentenced to hang in a few months, but the royal order to cease religious executions came just before his day, and he was reprieved and released.

Robert and Deborah Harper had two young children at the time of their Quaker activism and persecution. Mary Harper was born 25 Dec 1655, and Experience was born Nov 1657. Possibly the little girls were kept by their Perry grandparents. They grew up to marry and bear a tribe of Quakers. Deborah Perry Harper, their mother, died shortly after giving birth to a baby in December 1665. Robert married six months later, in 1666, and had more children by Prudence Butler.
A Quaker meeting, undated art

Experience Harper married Joseph Hull in 1676 (the year before William Dyer died in Newport). Their first son, born 1677, was Tristram Hull, who married William and Mary Dyer’s granddaughter (through son Charles Dyer), Elizabeth Dyer in 1699. Thus we see that 39 years after Mary Dyer’s death in Boston, which Robert and Deborah Harper probably attended and certainly protested, the Dyers and Harpers united their family lines. They became grandparents-in-law. Robert Harper, age 74, was still alive in 1704. So he alone of the grandparents was still alive, and intimately knew the deep connection between the families. Elizabeth and Tristram’s first four children had been born by 1704, and the firstborn was named Mary. While Mary was a common name and it was Elizabeth's mother's name (Elizabeth was raised by her stepmother Martha), it could be that great-grandfather Robert Harper suggested the name to honor Mary Dyer.

Other than an interesting historical factoid, perhaps the lesson we can take away, 300 years later, is to be kind and supportive of the people in our circles. We never know who our grandchildren will “hook up” with in 40 years, and combine genes!

William & Mary (Barrett) Dyer                                                  Robert & Deborah (Perry) Harper
Charles and Mary (Lippett) Dyer                                               Joseph & Experience (Harper) Hull
                                   Elizabeth Dyer.................................Tristram Hull 

 More great anecdotes about mid-17th century England and New England, supported by research, can be found in the nonfiction paperback and ebook The DYERS of London, Boston, & Newport, by Christy K Robinson. It's the third in a series about Mary Dyer, Anne Hutchinson, Sir Henry Vane, Roger Williams, and John Winthrop. 

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. Christy, can you tell me more about the scourge? I had trouble finding information on flogging in the early colonial period. Also, I'm sure you've read Sally Gunning's novels set in Sandwich. Like you, she is interested in the plight of non-conformist women.

    1. Rufus Jones, in "The Quakers in the American Colonies," shows quotes from Humphrey Norton, George Bishop, etc. On p. 93, he mentions a "pitched rope" (Norton said it was 4 inches circumference, and wielded against a Quaker named Hodgeson in New Amsterdam); and a "whip of three cords with knots at the ends."

  2. Patricia, offhand it's difficult to remember where I learned about the scourge. Several books mention the three knots. One fairly modern book said it was not made of rope, but of gut, which was supposedly more cruel.

    Recently, I was reading the Ecclesiastical History of Massachusetts. Books by Quakers Edward Burroughs, William Sewell, or George Bishop were probably my source, but it could have been the Annals of Salem, or Norton's Ensign. I have those in PDF, but they're also in Google Books. I think I read another letter by the Sandwich Quakers, that logically pointed out how they were illegally held, but I can't find it: if I do find it, I'll edit it into the post above.

    For the frequency of whippings, the above books discuss the escalation of violence.

  3. Ben Gillam! He made a cameo appearance in my "Rebel Puritan"

    Jo Ann Butler


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