"And the author of wickedness surely is most to be blamed": the Declaration of Debora Proctor.
The legal process by which a community provided for a child conceived out of wedlock followed a strictly gendered formula in the early modern period. Men dominated the first stage of the process: Heads of households whose sons had been accused of fathering illegitimate children or whose daughters became pregnant out of wedlock provided the courts with either alibis for their sons or proofs of the honorable intentions of their daughters' suitors. Women became central to the second stage of the process, when, at the birth, the mother-to-be would name the putative father of her child before her midwife. The midwife's testimony was the only evidence nearly guaranteed to carry a courtroom conviction. When it came time for the inevitable trial to determine who had fathered Martha Proctor's child, Thomas Choat, a wealthy member of the Ipswich community, found it a relatively easy process to produce deponents who were willing to vouch for his upstanding character. By contrast, Debora Proctor, a widowed head of household, had limited legal options. Unlike a male head of household, she could not prosecute the putative father of her daughter's child. Nor did she have the authority to force her daughter to name a father during the birth, something Martha had firmly refused to do. Consequently, Debora Proctor devised a third method to address the challenges facing her and her family. Before her daughter's trial in September 1705, she sent a lengthy statement to the Essex County court justices describing her interpretation of the events leading to Martha's pregnancy.
Debora Proctors Declaration of the Case concerning Thomas Choat survives today as the most extensive description of a sexual crime in colonial Essex County. Well-documented paternity trials from this area usually produced depositions and warrants, subpoenas and bills, together totaling approximately 750 to 1,000 words. Proctor's Declaration, by contrast, measures 12 by 24 inches in size and contains approximately 2,000 words. In addition to detailing the pregnancy, Proctor describes her attempts to mitigate the extensive persecution her family had suffered since Martha had become pregnant. Without birth testimony from Martha, Choat was unlikely to be convicted of impregnating her. Instead, Proctor gambled that a careful documentation of Choat's "wickedness" would encourage the Essex County justices to take a second look at the evidence relating to the case.
Today, sexual crime is usually defined as forced or non-consensual sex; in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, all sexual acts occurring outside of the marriage bed were considered to be crimes. Hence, sexual misconduct trials were a frequent occurrence in most colonial courtrooms, and Essex County, Massachusetts, was no exception. (1) Between 1636 and 1718 some 818 charges concerning sexual crimes were filed in its courtrooms. (2) Most of those charges were for fornication, usually committed before marriage. Bastardy and paternity charges comprise only a fraction of these trials: Some 162 women were charged with conceiving illegitimate children in this period, and 142 men were charged with fathering those same children. However, of the seventy-three cases that contain documentation (beyond the usual data of names, convictions, and punishments), fifty-two are bastardy and paternity cases.
The Essex County bastardy and paternity trials are unique in the annals of colonial New England for a number of reasons. First, most New England colonies lacked the necessary legal infrastructure to issue warrants, collect depositions, and provide an array of justices to oversee the legal proceedings. As a result, whether acquitted or not, trial defendants were required to pay for all costs, including those incurred in providing deponents. Second, most colonists lacked the financial resources and persona] connections necessary to defend a son accused of fathering an illegitimate child or to gain child support for a daughter who was pregnant out of wedlock. A well-documented bastardy and paternity trial was, therefore, an expensive luxury rather than a necessity. If a conviction were certain, there was no need to add to court fees by paying for deponents to prove the point. Thus, colonists who paid for fully documented trials gambled that either truth or deponents willing to perjure themselves would save their honor and, eventually, their purses.
These trials thus provide a valuable dual perspective on the roles women played in the courtrooms and communities of colonial New England, for the records of Essex County, unlike those of most other jurisdictions in the region, contain a wealth of depositions from both the female defendants and the midwives who played crucial, and often overlooked, roles by providing key evidence. According to both the law and the customs of the period, an unwed mother was repeatedly questioned by her midwife during the birth regarding the identity of her child's father, a ritual reinforced by reminders that she would answer on the Day of Judgment were she to lie. High mortality rates during childbirth added a certain edge to the ritual: A woman who faced her potential death within the next twenty-four hours was deemed to be less likely to lie under oath. An unwed mother who named a father then had the satisfaction of a court conviction and child support for a specified amount of time; if she refused to identify the presumptive father, she faced stricter penalties in the courtroom and her family remained financially responsible for her child. This was the fate facing Martha Proctor when her mother composed her Declaration (Hambleton no).
Relying on the testimony of midwives to determine paternity charges was common practice on both sides of the Atlantic during the early modern period. Historian Merry E. Weisner notes, "[European] cities and rulers took as great care with the regulation of midwives as they did with the regulation of physicians and surgeons. They did this because the midwife had an extremely important role, ... [including] giving testimony in legal cases" (95). Although the colonies could not offer the infrastructure necessary to license midwives, colonial midwives were viewed in much the same manner as their British counterparts: They were considered to be above earthly interests and thus to be vehicles of truth. Their spoken and written words carried enormous power. Testimony from women in labor and their midwives usually carried a conviction in Essex County. Of the 142 men charged with fathering illegitimate children between 1636 and 1718, 135 were convicted and ordered to pay child support. Surviving documentation from thirteen of these trials includes testimony from midwives stating that the mother had named the convicted father at birth. By contrast, the Proctor/Choat trial was one of only eight Essex County bastardy and paternity trials to acquit the putative father. It also is one of the few such trials with no surviving depositions from the unwed mother and with no concrete childbirth testimony whatsoever.
In the discussion that follows I will briefly compare two Essex County bastardy trials--those of Elizabeth Sessions in 1691 and of Martha Proctor in 1705--to bring into focus the unusual circumstances surrounding Debora Proctor's Declaration. Both cases began in much the same fashion: A fatherless daughter was pregnant out of wedlock. Both Sessions and Proctor were unmarried and in their mid-twenties. Both were from families who had suffered financial and social upheavals in the years preceding their bastardy trials. Neither had a father to support her case. Massachusetts Bay law required women who were pregnant out of wedlock to make a statement before a justice and to swear surety that they would return for trial after giving birth. The young women could not be represented legally by their mothers, Elizabeth Spofford Sessions and Debora Proctor, at these initial hearings. Instead, the pregnant women had to rely on their uncles, Richard Kemballs and Joseph Proctor, to swear surety on their behalf. Both of the men eventually accused as the putative fathers of the newborn children came from wealthy, well-connected families. Both Sessions and Proctor had been threatened by the men who had allegedly fathered their children. Joseph Chandler was reputed to have observed of Sessions, "1 cold as frely Kill hur If I cold meet with hur alone as freely as I cold kill a dog: and should make no scripull about it." (3) Proctor's Declaration describes death threats issued against her daughter by both Choat and his wife. Still, because Sessions lived as a servant in the Osgood household, it was unlikely that Chandler would have "[met] with hur alone" The Proctor family, by contrast, lived on an island, with the Choats as their only neighbors. Thus, it was far more likely that Martha might have been found dead in a swamp early some morning.
Sessions's parents, Alexander Sessions and Elizabeth Spofford, were married in the early 1670s and lived in Andover, Massachusetts. When Alexander Sessions died in 1689, he left a widow, a daughter, eight underage sons, and over a hundred pounds in debt. The house and lands were sold to pay his debts and support his widow and youngest children. Of the remaining monies, two pounds, fourteen shillings, and five pence went to his twenty-three-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. Consequently, she was reduced to working as a servant in any household that would take her, with little in the way of respectability or family name to serve as protection. By the time of her trial she was working in the Christopher Osgood household, although she had been employed by Hannah Chandler Bixby the previous winter.
Martha Proctor's economic position was only marginally better than Elizabeth Sessions's. Her parents, Benjamin Proctor and Debora Hart, had married in the i66os and by the early 1690s had moved to Hog Island off the Massachusetts coast, where they had purchased land from Thomas Choat. The island offered land for houses and fields and relatively easy access to the town of Ipswich by canoe or boat. In fair weather, with a good tide, the journey could be made in fifteen minutes or so. (4) For the next decade, both the Proctors and the Choats lived on Hog Island, deriving their income from a combination of farming and fishing. Because the island community was very small, Mary Choat was probably grateful for her aunt's presence during her many pregnancies. Benjamin Proctor's sudden death in 1704 posed new challenges lor Debora, particularly as her three oldest children were still unmarried, despite being in their late twenties or early thirties. Since Proctor's estate had left debts totaling two hundred pounds, it is possible that the family was unable to provide the necessary financial resources that would attract marital partners. They may also have suffered from the social stigma of sharing close family ties with several Salem witch trial suspects, including Benjamin's brother and Debora's mother. (5) Regardless, the settling of the estate left just enough money to allow Debora to remain in her home on the island and one of the sons to rent a mainland farm on neighboring Castle Neck in Ipswich. (6)
At this point, however, the similarities between Sessions's and Proctor's cases cease. Sessions named Joseph Chandler, the younger brother of her former employer, Hannah Bixby, as the father of her child throughout every stage of her trial, first confessing on 6 October 1690; then to her midwife, Mary Barker, at the birth of her child some four months later; and at her final hearing in March 1691. Sessions's consistency in naming Chandler as the father of her child ultimately led to his conviction, which required him to pay child support in the amount of two shillings a week. Proctor, by contrast, hedged, hinting that Choat was the father of her child but never naming him outright. Her uncle, Joseph Proctor, named Choat as the father, but the accusation was not enough to stand up in court. In order for testimony regarding a putative father to carry weight at the trial, the statements had to include a name given by the mother at the height of her birth pains. At the final hearing in September of 1705, Proctor was convicted on charges of fornication and bastardy; Choat was acquitted of all charges.
Beyond the verdicts, the core difference between the Sessions/Chandler trial and the Proctor/Choat trial is the role played by the respective unwed mothers. Sessions's voice is clear throughout the trial documents: She explains her situation, names Chandler as the father, and, above all else, sticks to her story. By contrast, Proctor remains a shadowy and silenced figure. Although she is quoted by deponents ranging from her mother, to her midwife, to various neighbors, she never speaks in her own voice. The explanation for her silence comes not from Martha but from her mother's Declaration, the most dynamic of the court documents associated with the Proctor/Choat trial, a document whose words outnumber the other depositions by an almost ten-to-one ratio. Vivid as Debora Proctor's voice remains three centuries later, her words also speak to the sheer desperation motivating her course of action.
Paternity cases usually centered as much on the heads of households as on the trial participants themselves. The Proctor/Choat trial was no exception. Debora Proctor needed to prove that she was fully capable of maintaining the moral propriety of her household, particularly if she wanted her adult children to marry. Depositions traditionally played a central role in paternity trials by providing courts with the necessary details. Unfortunately, Debora Proctor's ability to provide depositions was limited by her finances and her status as a widow. Even had Proctor had the money to pay for deponents, it is doubtful she could have exerted much pressure on them. As Proctor could not generate testimony from others, she used her Declaration to provide the court with her own interpretation of the events leading to her daughter's pregnancy.
Thomas Choat, the man charged with fathering Proctor's child, entered the legal proceedings on a very different footing. His morality may have been called into question by the paternity accusation, but his legal and financial position as a head of household remained intact. Choat filed a preemptive complaint with Justice Stephen Sewall against Martha Proctor on 12 July 1705; her uncle, Joseph Proctor, did not name Choat as the father of her child until the next day. In addition, Choat guaranteed the court fees necessary to provide ten depositions supporting his claim of innocence. Four of his deponents were directly related to Choat, and others may have been linked through no-longer-traceable social or economic ties. Most of the gravestones surrounding Choat's grave in Essex, Massachusetts, contain the family names of deponents who testified in his favor during this trial
The depositions given in early-eighteenth-century paternity trials often read like the accusations made in the board game of Clue: So and so did it, in the orchard, at midnight. (7) The Proctor/Choat depositions are, by contrast, extremely vague. Rather than describe the details of Martha Proctor's sexual activities, they document conversations with her regarding the father's identity. For example, Elizabeth Knowlton and Lida Forde testified that Proctor believed "a yung man was the father of her child and that he was a great way off from this place." (8) Josiah Burnham added that "she never said so in her life nor never thought that [Choat] was the father of her child for he was not she would clear him before a hundred men," a statement that gestures toward the male-dominated courtroom community. The most crucial, and most cryptic, testimony came from midwife Low, who stated that Proctor had initially said the father was "the married man that hath fetcht you on to the Island severall times before" Low had likely attended Proctor's cousin Mary at the births of one or more of the seven children that she had borne by this time. Proctor thus may have been hinting that Choat was the father. However, according to Low, her patient did not mention "any mans name and this she held to before all that were thare present thoe I told her often it was her duty to tell yet this she said to the very last."
Another oddity about the Proctor/Choat depositions is that they lack dates, unlike those proffered in other Essex County bastardy trials, which sometimes went so far as to discuss the length of the unwed woman's pregnancy. Low testified on 19 July 1705 but did not say when Proctor's child was born, nor did any of the other depositions mention possible conception dates. The first instinct may be to blame the vagueness on Hog Island's isolation, but a close study of the depositions suggests otherwise. Contact between the island and the mainland appears to have been frequent. Deponent Burnham mentions being at work on Hog Island. A deposition given by Choat's son Joseph details his travel by boat to the island along with the Proctors and other members of the Ipswich community. The Proctor and Choat families attended church on Sundays in neighboring Essex.
In contrast to these vague depositions, Proctor's Declaration of the Case concerning Thomas Choat provides concrete details, although Proctor is equally imprecise in dating the events. According to Proctor, "Choat ... one time a little before day came to [Martha's) bed when she was at her brothers hired house on Cassel Neck," warning that a hundred cattle were loose in the cornfield. After her brother had gone outside, "the said Choat came to [Martha's] bed and insinuated as to ly with her and having done his will he rose up [and left]." While the Declaration stops short of calling Choat's actions rape, it does imply that Proctor did not welcome his sexual advances. Realizing that no cattle were loose, the brother returned to the house just as Choat departed. No doubt hoping she would not become pregnant, Proctor did not tell her brother she had had intercourse with Choat. At some later point, she realized she was with child. When she informed Choat of the pregnancy, he offered to strike a bargain with her. If she remained silent, he would give her money to pay the fine and support the child. He would also find a midwife who would not question Martha during the birth regarding the father of her child. This particular piece of information was potentially the most damning for Choat, as midwives were required by law to question unwed mothers. Since testimony from Low clearly demonstrates that she did question Proctor during the birth, it is impossible to know whether Choat were unable to find a midwife willing to break the law for him or whether the mother were making false allegations, hoping that something would persuade the justices to investigate Choat more fully. Finally, Choat also threatened both Proctor's and the unborn child's lives if she were to name him, a threat made more potent by their residence on isolated Hog Island.
Proctor's Declaration raises a number of questions. A woman in her fifties by the time of her daughter's trial in 1705, she would most likely have been familiar enough with the ritualized process of the early modern bastardy and paternity trial to know that the Proctor family stood no chance of having Choat convicted without sworn testimony from Proctor's midwife verifying Choat as the father. To produce her Declaration, Debora would have had to expend considerable time and means: She would have needed to acquire paper arid ink, to take the time to write it out, or to arrange to have it written for her, and then to deliver it--or have it delivered--to a justice on the Massachusetts mainland. The text of the Declaration itself provides some clues as to its origins, one of which will be discussed here, the other below. In the penultimate paragraph, Proctor notes that "the forsaid threatnings made me for my safety to complain to Justice Wainwright." Francis Wainwright was the official to whom Joseph and Martha Proctor made their statements on 13 July 1705. Wainwright was also Joseph Proctor's brother-in-law (Joseph had married Wainwright's sister, Martha, in the early 1670s). Given this connection, it seems likely that Wainwright provided Proctor with legal advice regarding the composition of the Declaration. Nevertheless, both Wainwright and Proctor probably knew that it would fail, lacking the midwife's crucial testimony. So why did she go to so much effort? The events surrounding her daughter's pregnancy as described in the Declaration hint at a number of possible interpretations of Proctor's motivations.
The first is that the Declaration may represent a mother's desperate attempt to provide a voice for her daughter, who could not, or would not, speak. Proctor's silence during childbirth, despite exhortations from her mother and her midwife, suggests that she had reason to be afraid. Recall that both Choat and his wife had threatened her. Her silence, then, may have been agreed upon by the Proctor family in order to protect her life and the livelihood of this now fatherless family, for the Proctors lived on Hog Island because Choat had invited them to join his family there. If Choat ever decided he wanted them gone, they stood a good chance of losing their home. Proctor's Declaration may be her means of speaking on behalf of a daughter whose own speech threatened to leave them homeless.
While this may well have been the case, in overall tone the Declaration seems to be a document more about Debora Proctor than about her daughter. Her Declaration opens by setting the scene and characterizing the players with a skill that would be the envy of many a playwright. The protagonist(s) and antagonist live on Hog Island, "a place surrounded by water and Passable there to and from but at Sometimes." Thomas Choat is the villain, Martha Proctor his victim. Debora Proctors sons and brother-in-law are largely innocent bystanders. Mary Choat is misguided but well meaning in her role as Choat's wife. All of them pale in contrast with Debora Proctor, the self-cast heroine of the piece.
The most dramatic scene in the Declaration involves not Martha Proctor and Thomas Choat, but Debora Proctor and Thomas Choat. One blustery Sunday morning before the trial, the two set out by canoe to attend church on the mainland. En route, he informs her, "[I]f you will be Ingenious to me, I will be Ingenious to you ... but ... if I find you otherwise, You shall find me worse to you then the very Devil." The wind was blowing fiercely, and Proctor feared Choat would capsize the canoe and drown her. Despite her fear, she held her ground and retorted, "How can you be worse than the Devil, to which he made no Answer for by that time we were come neer the Meeting House." The description of the canoe trip is the only paragraph in the entire Declaration in which the words are illegible. Proctor's continued unease with her memory of the voyage hovers around those ink blots, suggesting that she may have been the person struggling to set down the right words to make her case.
The Declaration plays with verbal and written forms of communication, reinforcing historian Jane Kamensky's argument that "[e]arly New Englanders conceived of speech and script as interdependent, overlapping, virtually contiguous" (14). Proctor quotes both herself and the other players in her tale, particularly Thomas and Mary Choat. The written descriptions of these exchanges hint that she may have manipulated them for her own purposes. Upon receiving the unwelcome news of her daughter's pregnancy, Proctor describes herself as having been "in Such a terror that I was hardly my self for the present," a response that invokes the weak female of seventeenth-century rhetoric. She is a widow, a woman without defenses or support since the death of her husband the year before. "These Troubles," Proctor observes, "together with the strangeness of my husband's death, hath almost brought me to the Door of Death." However, for a woman much affrighted and hovering near her deathbed, she rallies very quickly. By the time the two returned from their dangerous canoe trip, she had recovered her senses fully enough to "[ask] said Choat, How he thought we could conceal his being the childs father for at one time or another it would come out." The dramatic flair of these scenes implies Proctor enjoyed telling her story. Even so, the drama never quite overtakes the voice telling the tale. If Choat ever decided to evict the Proctors from Hog Island, it would be crucial that Proctor be able to present herself as an unassailable head of household.
These particular concerns surface in Proctor's claim that she realized Martha was with child only ten days before the birth. Following her daughter's confession, Proctor witnessed Choat leaving money for her daughter; discussed Choat with her brother-in-law, Joseph Proctor; heard Mary Choat tell Martha that Choat would kill her if she named him as father; and traveled to the mainland by canoe with Choat. It is possible--although unlikely--that all of this happened in ten days; the range of events may have occurred over a longer span of time. Explaining that she was unaware of her daughter's pregnancy until ten days before the birth absolved Proctor from the responsibility of not naming her daughter's partner sooner. If Martha had concealed her pregnancy from her mother, it was not Proctor's fault. Her role as the head of the household remained above reproach, at least in her own opinion.
The underlying emphasis on Debora as head of the Proctor household provides another clue to the motivations behind the writing of her Declaration. It may also explain why the document's true energy lies with Debora Proctor and Thomas Choat rather than with Martha and Thomas. Because the usual channels for convicting a man of impregnating a woman out of wedlock had been foreclosed, Proctor needed other methods to persuade the Essex County justices to consider her story with the seriousness she felt it deserved. The initial paternity accusation had come as a direct challenge to Choat, and he met it with a barrage of depositions swearing that he had not fathered Martha's child. Historian Anne S. Lombard argues that early New Englanders believed "[m]anliness ... implied not only moral qualities but also ... sexual potency, [and] required that a man be able to ... maintain control over his dependents" (68). Now Proctor needed to provide further evidence that Choat's inability to control himself was potentially damaging to the communities of Ipswich and Essex as a whole. Hence, she implies that Choat was willing to work outside Massachusetts law to find a midwife who would not question her daughter while she was giving birth, and she describes him as a man willing to kill his cousin and aunt by marriage. In short, Proctor portrays Choat as a man willing to upset the Puritan bonds of family and household to cover his own misdeeds. If the Essex County justices were concerned about Debora Proctor's ability to run a household, the Declaration implicitly argues that perhaps they should First examine her neighbor.
Further context for Proctor's concern with the behaviors appropriate to a Puritan head of household is provided by a third, and somewhat earlier, bastardy and paternity case from nearby Salisbury, Massachusetts, in 1686. Like Elizabeth Sessions and Martha Proctor, Mary Osgood was fatherless and pregnant out of wedlock. She lived with her grandfather William Osgood. On realizing that his granddaughter was pregnant with an illegitimate child, Osgood took immediate action. His neighbor and friend, Samuel Gatchell, brought a formal complaint against Joseph Barnard, stating that "he hath several times seene them two together at all tiems in the night." (9) Osgood's wife, Elizabeth, a midwife, testified that Mary had named Barnard at the birth. Unfortunately, the final verdict for this trial is missing (as are other Salem records from the same period). It seems unlikely, however, that Barnard could have escaped conviction, given the range of evidence against him. At first glance, the effort of a full-blown trial for Osgood and Barnard seems a bit excessive. Osgood's pregnancy made it impossible for her not to be declared guilty of fornication. The Osgood family probably spent almost as much money on the trial as they could have expected to receive in a year's worth of child support. As Barnard did not contest the paternity charges, he could have been convicted even without the six depositions, which included the birth witnesses. The answer to this quandary again revolves around the central role of the head of household in colonial New England.
William Osgood was responsible for the sexual morality of his household. Like his neighbor and deponent, Samuel Gatchell, Osgood stated that Barnard had kept his granddaughter company through the night and that when he had questioned Barnard about his presence, Barnard had answered "that he was a suitor to her & had bin a great while." By making it clear that he had asked Barnard to state his intentions, Osgood presented himself as an upstanding member of the community. It was unfortunate that Barnard had fathered his granddaughter's child, and he probably should have been paying closer attention, but he had done his duty as Mary's closest male relative. Fortunately, Osgood's efforts succeeded. Within two years, Mary Osgood was married to Philip Favor, and their first child was born on 31 March 1690. The marriage appears to have been successful, for subsequent mentions of her in the historical record document only the births of children conceived within her marriage bed.
Depositions for the Osgood/Barnard trial were collected to convict, rather than to exonerate, the accused father. Nevertheless, in both the Osgood/Barnard case and in the Proctor/Choat case, the heads of households--William Osgood, Debora Proctor, and Thomas Choat--played similar roles. Both Osgood and Choat called upon a close network of family and friends to build their cases. Osgood's motivation for paying for extra trial expenses was the same as Choat's: to preserve the good name of the family and the man representing it. As Proctor could not devote similar financial resources to restoring her family's name and gaining financial support for her illegitimate grandchild, making a written Declaration was the best option available to her.
Debora Proctor's willingness to take this course of action places her in the tradition of the colonial-era "deputy husband" described by historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: "Under the right conditions any wife not only could double as a husband, she had the responsibility to do so" (38). Proctor's husband was dead; therefore, she needed to speak for her daughter and for her household as a whole. The Declaration also serves as a reminder of the caveats placed by Ulrich on the role of the deputy husband, namely, that actions matter more to their participants than to their observers. If Proctor saw herself as possessing the same ability as Osgood and Choat to represent her household legally, the Essex County court system clearly did not. Proctor's experiences demonstrate a further limit to the role of the deputy husband: Women could stand in their husband's places for economic reasons, but not necessarily for legal ones.
Debora Proctor's Declaration failed. Martha Proctor was convicted of fornication and bastardy, while Thomas Choat received a full acquittal. The Essex County court records contain dozens of examples of women whose sexual partners were convicted and forced to pay child support, but of these trials, those whose documentation survives share a common thread: Male convictions stemmed directly from childbirth testimony. The contrast between the weight of testimony from a midwife and the failure of Proctor's Declaration limns the very different powers given to men's and women's voices in colonial Essex County. If men protected the good names of their families, only midwives could name the members of those families who may have been involved in criminal activities. Proctor's Declaration was a failed necessity because her daughter would not, or could not, name her child's father.
APPENDIX: DECLARATION OF THE CASE CONCERNING THOMAS CHOAT
To the Honoured Court I Debora Proctor do make the following Declaration of the Case concerning Thomas Choat, and my daughter Martha Proctor in Humble manner Truly Shewing.
That the time in that which my said daughter was with Child, she often Complaiend of Illness and Sometimes so ill that we for her health did make use of Doctors, not then in the least Mistrusting that she was with Child, And the first knowledge that I had thereof, was about Ten daies before the birth of her Child, which discovery to me was thus, the Wife of Thomas Coat [sic] being at our house (for our house and said Choats house are all that persons live on Hog Island, a place surrounded by water and Passable there to and from but at Sometimes) when my Said daughter was complaining of Illness, did so take a view of her as (it seems) she thought she was with Child, for saies she, Martha are you not with Child, which word struck me in Such a terror that I was hardly my self for the present, But Comeing to a Consideration, Asked her whether she was with Child, but she made now Answer But the said Thomas Choats Wife, then tearing off her clothes to view her Breast, which when I saw I was satisfied, she was with Child, and so both said Choats wife and myself did urge her to acknowledge it and to tell who was the father, But for all the urging she would not tell us who the father was.
Now after this, by one or other of our family continually urging her and pressing her to tell, did at last tell us, that she was with Child by Thomas Choat, who one time a little before day came to her bed when she was at her brothers hired house on Cassel Neck for then the said Choat came to the door and called up her brother telling him that there was a hundred cattle in his corn field which brother then rose up from his bed immediately not staying to put on his clothes save only a waistcoat and ran to the cornfield looked all over but found no cattle there as Choat had said.
Said Martha then being in bed and no body in the house but a boy that being in the other bed fast asleep, the said Choat came to her bed and insinuated her as to ly with her and having done his will he rose up and my son that went to the field coming home saw him coming out of the said chamber but he went he his way that it was so my son aforesaid is witness and sometime after when my said daughter told Choat she was by him with Child, the said Choat told her that it would do her no good to tell him that he was the father, for that he was a married man and noen could force her to tell who was the father, for all that could be required was some money to pay the fine.
And if she would promise him that she would never tel he was the father, he would let her have money enough, both to pay her fine and for what she would need, then she did promise him that she would not tel and he gave her nine pieces of eight Appointed her a time to come to such a place where he would be at worke and he would let her have three pounds, my Daughter telling me this made me as secretly as 1 might be, watch to see if said Choat did so do at said time, I testifie that that I did see my daughter aforesaid go to the appointed place and take up money which was laid upon his waistcoat spread upon the ground, which but just before I saw said Choat Lay on said wastecoat, which money my said Daughter brought to our house and in sum it was three pounds.
Now the next thing that said Choat would have my Daughter doc was to let him provide the midwife, that it might not be Examined at the Travail who the child's father was to which my Daughter did Consent. And when the Time came that she was in Travail said Choat was sent for to fetch the Midwife and he readily went and brought her who was the wife of John Low, And what Examination she made it is like she will testifie.
Now all this while my Daughter kept her promise and told nott said Choat was her child's father, but only told it to our family. But as the Sequel proved the said Choat subtly or Secretly did Contrive to use of Instruments to Ensnare my Daughter by urging if she might be made to Lay her Child to Somebody else, that he might be quited, But before he had Attained as he thought sufficient for his purpose, he would try whether I would be Assisting to my Daughter for to keep Concealed his being said Childs father.
And therefore it was, that when said Thomas Choat and I (and only we two that day of the Sabbath) of said families of Hogs Island, did go to our usual meeting at Chebacco, then I say when we both were in the canoe the wind then blowing high, saies (said Choat) to me, Cousen, I have Something to say to you, but that the wind is too high, But as soon as we Landed and the Cannoe fastened that along we went together said Chaot [sic] began his Discourse thus, Ant, saises he, there is a Discourse goes about that I am the father of your daughters child. Now (saies he), if you will be Ingenious to me, I will be Ingenious to you, and will perform fully whatsoever I promsied [sic] your Daughter but (saies he) if I find you otherwise, You shall find me worse to you then the very Devil, the sound of which words did much Affright me for the present that it was before I could speak and then I said, How can you be worse than the Devil, to which he made no Answer for by that time we were come neer the Meeting House and so we parted.
But at night, when we together were to go to our home at said Island in said Cannoo, I was between hope and fear, my hope was that said Cheat spoke out of Jealousy but not [word unclear] knowing that we had told, that he was the childs father, and so I ventured to go home with him but my fear was such that my heart did beat at every shake of the Cannoo, in so much that once I cried out, pray Couseu don't drown me, but I had no hurt, But when we landed on Said Island, and 1 came near our house, I asked said Choat, How he thought we could conceal his being the childs lather for at one time or another it would come out. He said we could keep it private and it would do us no good to tell it.
Sometime after this said Choates wife came to our house (as she did often) and queried my daughter who was her child's father, hinting as if she had heard it was her husband. But (sales she) to my Daughter, if you do lei that my husband is your childs father, my husband will kill you and there should go more than one or two lives for it, and other like words she spoke in the hearing of my two sons, which they are witnesses of, and my daughter did tell me that said Choat did often threaten her that tho he let her have money to keep privately, yet if she did tel, he would surely kill her, which was the main thing (as 1 did understand) from all Discourse with my daughter, that made her to keep it private.
But said Choat still had his instruments to Insnare my Daughter which none of us of our family were aware of.
Sometime after this, my brother Joseph Proctor happened to be in Company where 1 was who told me that Thomas Choat told him that there was a Sad Accidence fallen out in our family and that was my daughter Martha was with child and said Choat further to him that it was feared it was by one of her Brothers, which saying my sons then having heard took on exceeding and resolved that it she did not tell the right father they would turn her out of the house for they would be scandalized for her.
Than I saw the thing must come out, and I told that my daughter did constantly afirm that no man was the lather of her Child but said Choat, which said Choat comeing to hear, made use of his prepared Instruments, and mid his Complaint to Justice Appleton that my Daughter had falesely accused him and I believe what his witnesses did testifie of her laying her child to others. That at the Day of Genearl Judgment (I am well assured of it) shall appear to be but fraudulent doings.
And I do repeat that I was so overcome by the Temptations viz that said Choat being a Married man having a wife so that if My daughter had told, she could not have him for husband. And if it were neibors, and but only us two families on Hog Island a place remote from Neibours and where Passing to and from was Difficult and so us to be loveing together and helpful to one another, which if on the contrary how uncomfortable it would be me and my children, my husband being by Death taken from me and I left a poor widdow, and the opportunietes for that said Choat had to accomplish his designes and what Satan might tempt him to do to destroy us where in our streights help could but hardly be brought to us on said Island so remote and Difficult to come to, I say I repeat that if ever I was overcome by said Temptations, to be concealing the childs father from the knowledge of them who should know timely, as I ought to have done but now being involved in Troubles, so needless together with the strangeness of my husband's death, hath almost brought me to the Door of Death.
And now I find (since Thomas Choat is made known to be the right father of my daughters child) nothing of neighborhood from him, but Threatnings and Damage done to my Cattle and things dayly, I do not say from him, because I cannot prove it but the forsaid threatnings made me for my safety to complain to Justice Wainwright, that he said Choat might be bound to the Peace and so Accordingly he was. But whatsoever Advantage the said Choat has against us by his Instruments and his witnesses testifying what my daughter hath told him as they say of said child's father, yet I can say in Truth, as all said our family, that my Daughter never said to us or any of us that any person was her childs father but Thomas Choat and no other person to Authority has she Told, to be said child's father.
And the above written is the True Case concerning said Thomas Choat and my said Daughter as neer as I can relate which I humbly present to the Honoured Court who 1 hope will consider me, and take notice that the original of all is said Choat's begetting my Daughter with Child, And now to Destroy her. And the author of wickedness Surely is most to be blamed, so I rest praying that God would Direct for the Best, and Subscribe myself,
Your Humble Servant Debora Proctor
(1.) Although Massachusetts Bay was not the first colony planted in New England, it was the first to establish a formal legal system. The colony's "create and General] Court" held its first session on 23 August 1630, a few weeks after John Winthrop and the other early Massachusetts Bay colonists arrived in North America. Five years later the colony was divided into three counties--Suffolk, Middlesex, and Essex--each with its own court system. The first Essex County court was established in Salem in 1636 and was later followed by courts in the coastal towns of Ipswich and Newbury.
(2.) In my research I have examined the records of sexual crime trials in Essex County, the Provinces of Maine and New Hampshire, and Plymouth and Rhode Island colonies.
(3.) All quotations from the Sessions/Chandler trial are taken from the transcripts of the "Works Project Administration Essex County Trial Transcriptions," Vol. 50: 62-63.
(4.) Today, Hog Island has been renamed Choat Island and is owned by the Trustees of the Reservations in Massachusetts.
(5.) John Proctor, Benjamin Proctor's brother, had been hanged for witchcraft in the summer of 1692. Elizabeth Hutchins Hart, Debora Hart Proctor's mother, was arrested for witchcraft on 14 May 1692 after she allegedly confronted Ann Putnam and charged her with helping to instigate the witch trials. She was imprisoned in Boston and was released without trial in December 1692 after her son, Thomas, petitioned for her release.
(6.) Benjamin Proctor's two-hundred-pound debt in 1705 seems odd, given that Proctor had inherited and sold a two-hundred-acre farm in the 1670s and purchased a farm on Hog Island in the 1690s. One possible explanation is that he had provided extensive financial support for John Proctor's family following Proctor's execution for witchcraft.
(7.) The orchard at midnight reference is to the events cited in the Sessions/Chandler trial.
(8.) All quotations from the Proctor/Choat trial are taken from records of the Essex County Court of General Sessions, File Papers, Box 3.
(9.) All quotations from the Osgood/Barnard trial are taken from the Essex County Court of General Sessions, File Papers, Box 2.
Proctor, Debora Hart. Declaration of the Case concerning Thomas Choat. Undated, c. 1705. Trial for Martha Proctor and Thomas Choat, 1705. Essex Sitting Court of General Sessions of the Peace. File Papers, Box 3. Judicial Archives, Massachusetts State Archives, Boston.
Trial for Elizabeth Sessions and Joseph Chandler, 1691. Essex County Quarterly Court at Ipswich. Works Project Administration Essex County Trial Transcriptions, Vol. 50: 62-63. Judicial Archives, Massachusetts State Archives, Boston.
Trial for Martha Proctor and Thomas Choat, 1705. Essex County Court of General Sessions. File Papers, Box 3. Judicial Archives, Massachusetts State Archives, Boston.
Trial for Mary Osgood and Joseph Barnard, 1686. Essex County Court of General Sessions. File Papers, Box 2. Judicial Archives, Massachusetts State Archives, Boston.
Related References and Sources
Chandler, Abby. "At the Magistrate's Discretion: Sexual Crime and New England Law, 1636-1718." Diss. U of Maine, 2008.
Hambleton, Else L. Daughters of Eve: Pregnant Brides and Unwed Mothers in Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts. New York: Routiedge, 2004.
Hart, James. Genealogical history of Samuell Hart from London, England, to Lynn, Mass., 1640 and descendants, to 1903, Nicholas Hart, from London to Taunton, Mass., 1642, at Boston, Mass., 1643, and Warwick, R.I., 1648, and descendants, Isaac Hart from Scratby, England, to Watertown, Mass., 1636, later of Reading, Mass., and several short lines and their descendants up to 1903. Concord: Rumford, 1903.
Kamensky, Jane. Governing the Tongue: The Politics of Speech in Early New England. New York: Oxford UP, 1997.
Lombard, Anne S. Making Manhood: Growing up Male in Colonial New England. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2003.
Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750. New York: Knopf, 1980.
Weisner, Merry E. "Early Modern Midwifery: A Case Study." Women and Work in Preindustrial Europe. Ed. Barbara A. Hanawalt. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986. 94-113.
LEGACY, VOL. 28, NO. 2, 2011. PP. 312-329. COPYRIGHT [c] 2011 THE UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS
ABBY CHANDLER University of Massachusetts Lowell
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||FROM THE ARCHIVES|
|Publication:||Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2011|
|Previous Article:||Hard-hearted women: sentiment and the scaffold.|
|Next Article:||An Extensive Republic: Print, Culture, and Society in the New Nation, 1790-1840.|