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Mayflower Scandals


Editor's Note: Though the court records presented here show a few severe penalties for the "sin," even a cursory glance at early church records shows that pre-marital "lapses" were reasonably common among the colonists.  Over time church officials appeared to recognize the inevitability of the matter and of the necessity to presevere their "flock," thus confession was often utilized as means to redemption.  Alcohol abuse was seemingly almost endemic. Church records constantly record offences of men and women alike (see Church News)

Elizabeth Soule, daughter of Mayflower passenger George Soule, and Nathaniel Church, grandson of Mayflower passenger Richard Warren, were fined on 3 March 1662/63 £5 for fornication, and on 5 October 1663 Elizabeth Soule sued Nathaniel Church for £200 for failing to marry her, with the court awarding her £10. On 2 July 1667 Elizabeth was in court again "for comitting fornication the second time," and this time she was sentenced to suffer corporal punishment by being whipped at the post.

wpe77.jpg (5480 bytes)Peregrine White Cradle

On 6 March 1648/49 Peregrine White, born on the Mayflower, and his wife Sarah, both of Marshfield, were fined for fornication before marriage.

Thomas Delano was fined for "haveing carnall coppulation" with his wife before marriage, his wife being Rebecca, the daughter of Mayflower passenger John Alden. The Delano Genealogy has the child of that relationship born on the same day his father was being sentenced (official records show that this son died on 5 April 1738 in his seventy-first year, and so would have been born circa 1667). The parents obviously felt the shame of their situation, for they named him Benoni, a Hebrew name meaning "child of sorrow," more commonly used by New England colonists for a son whose mother died at his birth.

That no one was above the law can be seen in the 1636 conviction of Stephen Hopkins, who was at the time an Assistant and magistrate himself, but still was fined £5 for battery against John Tisdale, the court observing that Hopkins should have especially been one to observe the king's peace.

Other Plymouth Families Not Immune To Scandal

wpe6E.jpg (2847 bytes)Cotton Mather was a highly respected minister, known for his sermons, and described by Nathaniel Morton as "a man of strong prtes and Good Abillities to preach the word of Godfrom whom wee have Received many very proffitable truthes." Yet it must have been known by the Plymouth fathers that in 1664 Cotton had been excommunicated from the Boston Church for "immoral conduct," being restored a month later after making penitential acknowledgment.

After twenty-eight years of service in Plymouth, Cotton resigned his ministry in 1697, ostensibly over a difference within the church about Isaac Cushman preaching in the area later called Plympton before being designated a ruling elder.

However, Judge Sewall in his Diary gives as one of the reasons for Cotton's resignation "his notorious Breaches of the Seventh Comandmt." Thou shalt not commit adultery! Sewall also played a role in the resolution of the matter, for when he came to Plymouth on 10 March 1697/98, he had a long discourse with Cotton, and told him "a free confession was the best way." After tarrying more than a year at Plymouth, Cotton became minister at Charleston, South Carolina, where he died in 1699 of yellow fever.

Christopher Winter:
In Scituate on 3 September 1639 Christopher Winter was sentenced to be whipped at the post at the governor's discretion for committing uncleaness with Jane Cooper, whom he later married. For her part, Jane was sentenced to be whipped at a cart's tail, but Jane was apparently a woman with a past.

In 1638 Winter had been fined ten shillings for engaging to marry Jane Cooper "contrary to order & custome of this govment." He was also excommunicated from Mr. Lothrop's church "for marrying of one Mrs Cooper a woman of scandalous carriage, beeing vaine, light, proud, much given to scoffing." He had been warned not to marry her and part of his crime was to have broken his promise that he would not do so. Interestingly, William Vassall and Timothy Hatherly, known for their liberal sentiments, and "Goodman Raylings" (probably Thomas Rawlings, but possibly Henry Rowley), disagreed with the decision to excommunicate.

Very strangely, on 4 October 1648 Christopher Winter "and his wife haveing been presented, the 8th of June, 1648, for haveing knowlidg each of other before publicke mariage," paid a fine to the treasurer, Captain Standish, and were cleared. To be punished again ten years later for the same offence for which he had previously paid the penalty by being whipped, seems highly unusual. Could Jane have died, and Christopher have married another wife after having previous sexual relations with her, or could this be his nephew Christopher following in his uncle's footsteps? Unfortunately, not much is known about this Winter family.

It would be easy to think of Catherine Winter of Scituate, who was presented for fornication with her "father-in-law" James Turner (actually her stepfather) on 2 March 1651/52 as Christopher's daughter; but she was in fact the daughter of John Winter of Scituate, thought by some to have been the brother of Christopher.

Christopher Winter will appear again. Though in some cases it appears that the records confuse the meanings of fornication and adultery, most of the time the courts made a careful distinction between the terms

Nicholas Wade:
Bigamy, too, was found in Plymouth Colony. Nicholas Wade of Scituate in 1680 complained his daughter Elizabeth had married Thomas Stevens not knowing of his earlier marriages. It appeared that at the time Stevens married her, he already had a wife at Boston, a wife and children in England, and another wife in Barbadoes. The court agreed that this was sufficient reason to dismiss Elizabeth from the aforesaid marriage bond, and it dissolved the covenant of marriage between them. Elizabeth was granted the liberty of marrying again, while Stevens was sentenced to be severely whipped at the post.

Stratton, Eugene Aubrey, FASG. Plymouth Colony: Its History and People 1620-1691.