Modern history


The Crucible of Deviancy

George Jr. and Matthew Howland and their Quaker contemporaries who constituted the world’s first oil oligarchy also represented an American aristocracy of the first water. There was no more esteemed or solid organization of merchants in America than these whaling Quakers of New Bedford, no group more venerated for their business acumen and their unswerving religious devotion—two attributes that had dovetailed into an apotheosis of wealth, social station, and worldwide fame.

The position had been hard won: an evolution of two centuries of obdurate adherence, by a once tiny band of societal renegades, to a singular code of living, in the face of persistent, often savage persecution by America’s founding authorities. The hounding and mar ginalization of the early Quakers case-hardened them into the tightly knit, clannish society of mutual reliance and unyielding stubbornness that produced this seemingly impregnable plutocracy.

The New England Puritans who fled to the New World because of religious intolerance in England were aware that history was watching them.

“We must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill,” John Winthrop, the second governor of Massachusetts, told them. “The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we deal falsely with our god in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”

But by crossing an ocean and setting up a new society on its other side, the Puritans metamorphosed from a band of deviants into a state authority more fanatical and uncompromising than the one they had fled. Their heretical beliefs became the new state’s religious orthodoxy, and the new Massachusetts Bay Colony demanded an unyielding conformity to the state religion.

One of their early problems was Anne Hutchinson. The wife of the Bostonian William Hutchinson, she struck Winthrop as “a woman of haughty and fierce carriage, of a nimble wit and active spirit, and a very voluble tongue.” Mrs. Hutchinson enjoyed the company of ministers, the social luminaries of her day, and her parlor was a popular gathering place for discussions of theological scholarship—a religious salon. She had her favorites among Boston’s ministers and wasn’t timid about suggesting that others lacked a sufficient “covenant of grace” to lead their congregations. At first this was simply talk emanating from the Hutchinson home, but it grew into feuding factions that polarized around Anne Hutchinson.

Part of what rankled her opponents was the fact that she was a woman. John Winthrop, like most men—and hence, the authorities—of his time, believed that women could become mentally ill and stray from the proper direction God had set for them in life as a result of reading books. As the strength of her challenge to the colony’s ruling and religious leaders grew, Anne Hutchinson was brought to trial on charges of sedition and blasphemy, and also of lewd conduct, for the mingling of so many men and women in her home at one time. At her trial, her skill at antagonizing her interlocutors, and her belief that her own communion with God was “as true as the Scriptures,” were plainly demonstrated. Court testimony shows that she had no problem or hesitation puncturing the strained arguments laid against her. A historian writing of the trial two centuries later described it as “one more example of the childish excitement over trifles by which people everywhere and at all times are liable to be swept away from the moorings of com mon sense.”

In 1638, Anne Hutchinson was found guilty and banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. “After she was excommunicated,” wrote Winthrop, “her spirits, which seemed before to be somewhat dejected, revived again, and she gloried in her sufferings, saying, that it was the greatest happiness, next to Christ, that ever befell her.” Hutchinson, along with her husband and a group of followers, moved to the more tolerant wilderness of Rhode Island, where they founded the town of Portsmouth. After her husband died, Anne moved to New Netherland, now Pelham Bay, on Long Island, where she was killed in an Indian attack in 1643. (The Hutchinson River Parkway—the “Hutch” to its users—running through Westchester County and the Bronx in New York City, is named after her.)

Between the unmooring of common sense over Anne Hutchinson and the long-brewing hysteria about witches that would culminate in Salem in 1692, Massachusetts Bay Colony discovered another threat to its society, and its reaction was unwise, intemperate, and violent.

In July 1656, an elderly woman, Mary Fisher, and her maid, Ann Austin, arrived in Boston aboard a trading ship, the Swallow, from England via Barbados. The more than one hundred books in their luggage (the seventeenth-century equivalent of a suitcase full of Semtex) raised an immediate alarm. Most of the volumes, upon inspection, were determined to be heretical and, with the stridency that marked every aspect of the authorities’ approach to perceived threats to the status quo, were burned in the public marketplace by the colony’s hangman. The women were meanwhile stripped naked and examined for “evidences of witchcraft.” Such signs could be, most manifestly, “witchmarks”—unusual-looking moles or birthmarks—but also anything out of the ordinary that might raise the hackles of a knowing examiner. (When suspected witch Bridget Bishop was examined in Salem in 1692, her clothing indicated unnatural aberrations: “I always thought there was something questionable about the quality and style of those laces,” noted a witness, observing that some of the laces were so small he could not see any practical use for them.)

No sign of witchery was found on the two women, but when interviewed by magistrates they were discovered “to hold very dangerous, heretical, and blasphemous opinions; and they do also acknowledge that they came here purposely to propagate their said errors and heresies, bringing with them and spreading here sundry books, wherein are contained most corrupt, heretical, and blasphemous doctrines contrary to the truth of the gospel here professed amongst us.”

The two women were Quakers, the first to reach the Massachusetts Bay Colony. One of them had recently been whipped in England for her beliefs, and, like other pilgrims, they had sailed to the New World in the hope of finding greater freedom of religious expression. They were misinformed. After being imprisoned for five weeks, allowed no light, books, or writing materials in their cell, they were shipped back to Barbados. Soon eight more Quakers arrived in Boston on a ship from London. They, too, were imprisoned, put on trial, and eventually shipped back to London. A year later, a group of Quakers landed in Rhode Island, whose government was more tolerant: “As concerning these quakers (so called), which are now among us, we have no law among us, whereby to punish any for only declaring by words, &c., theire mindes and understandings concerning the things and ways of God.”

The Quakers were the mildest of anarchists. George Bishop, at one time an English soldier in Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, and a contemporary of Fisher and Austin, who became a Quaker himself, wrote a scathing denunciation of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s response to these pilgrims: “Why was it that the coming of two women so shook ye, as if a formidable army had invaded your borders?” But the Quakers were formidable in their gentle resolve; and they kept coming. In Rhode Island, where they were tolerated and largely ignored, they wanted only to travel to Massachusetts, where they provoked and were rewarded with hysteria, which they embraced with an appetite for martyrdom. This was keenly understood in Rhode Island, where the authorities had shrewdly taken the measure of the Quakers:

In those places where these people . . . in this colony, are most of all suffered to declare themselves freely, and are only opposed by arguments in discourse, there they least of all desire to come . . . for . . . they are not opposed by the civill authority, but with all patience and meekness are suffered to say over their pretended revelations and admonitions. . . . We find that they delight to be persecuted by civill powers, and when they are soe, they are like to gain more adherents by the [sight] of their patient sufferings, than by consent to their pernicious sayings.

Yet few could articulate what these pernicious, heretical doctrines were. They were poorly understood, if at all, by the bristling paranoiacs in power in Massachusetts. In truth, the Quakers resembled no one so much as the Puritans themselves in their earlier, purer, condition. Like them, the Quakers had resisted the formal doctrines and rituals of the Church of England as a path to God. They sought the divine illumination of Christ in the individual’s heart. “Believe in the Light, that ye may become Children of the Light,” urged George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, as they called themselves. Fox’s words led to their being frequently referred to as the Children of the Light.

Born in Leicestershire, England, in 1624, Fox—like the Mayflower Puritans who predated him—espoused a simpler, more austere, more personal relationship with God, without the muddying mediation of a minister or a church. He got into trouble everywhere and was continually being brought before judges and jailed for blasphemy. One judge, ridiculing Fox’s instruction to his followers to “tremble at the word of the Lord,” called them “quakers.” Mary Fisher, Ann Austin, and the Quakers who followed them were, in fact, almost indistinguishable from the original Puritans who voyaged to America. But they came in small groups, without the municipalizing quorum and financial backing that had launched the Massachusetts Bay Colony. And Quakers exhibited two conspicuous behavioral trademarks that readily enabled the authorities to identify them and brand them as deviants. They held strong egalitarian beliefs, and, following the custom set by George Fox, they doffed their hats to no man, including magistrates. And they peppered their speech with the quaint biblical pronouns, already old-fashioned in the seventeenth century, “thee” and “thou.”

Mary Fisher and Ann Austin were inspected for witchcraft and interviewed for hours, and their books were examined, yet none of the damning proofs (if any) was needed when they were finally brought before Deputy Governor Richard Bellingham. The moment one of the ladies uttered the word “thee,” Bellingham turned to his constable and said, “I need no more, now I see they are Quakers.” When a later Quaker trial bogged down in legal abstruseness (for it proved difficult to both level and defend against poorly defined charges), Boston magistrate Simon Bradstreet cut in: “The court will find an easier way to find out a Quaker than by blasphemy—the not putting off the hat.”

When Quaker convert Edward Wharton was brought before a magistrate, he asked, “Friends, what is the cause and wherefore have I been fetched from my habitation, where I was following my honest calling, and here laid up as an evil-doer?”

The magistrate replied, “Your hair is too long and you are disobedient to that commandment which saith, ‘Honor thy mother and father.’ ” (The “mother” and “father” of the Fifth Commandment were routinely employed by the courts as metaphorical stand-ins for a local authority; the accusation of Anne Hutchinson’s civil disobedience had also been supported by the Fifth Commandment.)

“Wherein?” answered the baffled Wharton.

“In that you will not put off your hat before the magistrates.”

Such disrespect may have been proof of a mild social disobedience, but it didn’t illuminate the nature of Wharton’s, or any other Quaker’s, blasphemy. Nevertheless, it was sufficient for the magistrates, and the public, to indicate guilt of more nebulous evildoing.

In 1656, the General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony passed laws stipulating steep fines for ship captains who brought Quakers into the colony, steeper fines for those who sheltered them, and for “what person or persons soever shall revile the office or persons of magistrates or ministers [i.e., by not removing their hats], as is usual with the Quakers, such persons shall be severely whipped or pay the sum of five pounds.” The Quakers of course refused to pay the fines, embraced the opportunity to make public spectacles of their persecution, and were routinely flogged, eliciting sympathy and often converts. And so, in 1657 the court got tougher:

If any Quaker or Quakers shall presume, after they have once suffered what the law requireth, to come into this jurisdiction, every such male Quaker shall for the first offense have one of his ears cut off, and be kept at work in the house of correction till he can be sent away at his own charge, and for the second offense shall have his other ear cut off, and kept in the house of correction, as aforesaid; and every woman Quaker that hath suffered the law here and shall presume to come into this jurisdiction shall be severly whipped, and kept at the house of correction at work till she be sent away at her own charge, and so for her coming again she shall be alike used as aforesaid; and for every Quaker, he or she, that shall a third time herein again offend, they shall have their tongues bored through with a hot iron, and kept at the house of correction, close to work, till they be sent away at their own charge.

The court now also made provisions aimed at the growing trend of local converts: “And it is further ordered, that all and every Quaker arising from amongst ourselves shall be dealt with and suffer the like punishment as the law provides against foreign Quakers.”

But, as the Rhode Island authorities had well understood, these measures were simply red flags to Quakers. After being punished and banished to Rhode Island, three persistent Quaker offenders, Mary Dyer, William Robinson, and Marmaduke Stevenson, returned to Massachusetts in 1659 and were sentenced to be hanged. When asked for her feelings as she was walking to the gallows, Mary Dyer replied, “It is an hour of the greatest joy I can enjoy in this world. No eye can see, no ear can hear, no tongue can speak, no heart can understand, the sweet incomes and refreshing of the spirit of the Lord which I now enjoy.” On the scaffold, Robinson declared more prosaically, “Mind you, it is for the not putting off the hat that we are put to death.”

Mary Dyer was reprieved after the two men had been hanged, and again sent away to Rhode Island. So profound was her disappointment, and determination, that she returned to Massachusetts and succeeded in getting herself hanged in 1660.

But many Quakers were less fanatical. They wanted more from life than a martyr’s death. In both the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies, groups of Quakers—and others who felt oppressed, if less physically threatened, by these fascist regimes and such interference in their daily lives—began to think of moving away from populated centers: not outside the colonies, for beyond their borders lay an outer space of wilderness, but away from the nosy neighborhoods of towns, toward remoter areas where they might practice religion, dress, and speech to their own tastes and pursue peaceful lives.

In between cannily tolerant Rhode Island and hyperreactionary Massachusetts Bay Colony lay comparatively mild-mannered Plymouth Colony. There, Quakers were dealt with less hysterically, if not actually embraced by the aging Mayflower Pilgrims and their multiplying children. Quakerish delinquency was seen as a cranky misdemeanor rather than a high crime in Plymouth; fines were levied where ears were severed in Massachusetts; there were whippings instead of hangings for persistent offenders. In 1658, one Humphrey Norton behaved “turbulently” when brought before the court in Plymouth as a Quaker, saying to the governor, “Thy clamorous tongue I regard no more than the dust under my feet and thou art like a scolding woman.”This got him fined and whipped, but it would have been worse for him north of Plymouth’s border.

Another fractious Quaker was Arthur Howland, who had been born in Fenstanton, in Huntingdonshire, England. Arthur and his younger brothers, Henry and John, were among the Puritan separatists, also including William Brewster and William Bradford, who had worshipped in secret in Scrooby, Nottinghamshire, on before relocating to Leiden, in Holland, from where some eventually sailed to America on the Mayflower in 1620. John Howland, the first of the brothers to reach the New World, achieved a small measure of lasting fame by sailing with this group as an indentured servant. Plymouth’s governor, William Bradford, described John as a “lusty younge man,” referring to his strength and staying power. He had been washed overboard from the Mayflower’s deck during a storm at sea—a near-certain death sentence—yet managed to grab and retain a tenacious grip on a rope as the ship lurched and plunged in the icy Atlantic until he was pulled aboard. He proved as indomitable during their first winter ashore, when a number of “Saints,” as the Pilgrims called themselves, and their hired crew died of cold and disease. Howland was indentured to John Carver, a deacon who had been elected the colony’s first governor. Both Carver and his wife, Katherine, died in the spring after the colony’s first winter, and John Howland is thought to have inherited much of their property and land. Clearly, he was made for the New World, and he must have sent word of the opportunities there back to his two brothers, Arthur and Henry, for they both followed him to Plymouth in either 1621 or 1623.

John Howland was and remained a Presbyterian Puritan, but Arthur and Henry had, at some point before leaving England, become staunch Quakers. Soon after joining their brother in Plymouth, they found themselves uncomfortable with the religious persecution there. Arthur moved to Marshfield, ten miles to the north, where his house became a headquarters for Quakers and his relationship with the authorities remained difficult for the remainder of his life. There he “entertayned the forraigne Quakers who were goeing too & frow . . . producing great desturbance.” He was repeatedly fined and jailed for holding Quaker services, or Meetings, in his house, and for “resisting the constable of Marshfield in the execution of his office and abusing him in words by threatening speeches.”

Henry, the youngest Howland brother, also an intractable Quaker, was repeatedly brought before the court and fined, but eventually he decided to move farther from Plymouth’s gaze and influence. In November 1652, Henry Howland, along with Ralph Russell from Ponty pool, Monmouthshire, who had worked as an ironsmith in the Plymouth settlements of Taunton and Raynham, were among a group of settlers of various religious groups—Quakers, Baptists, and Puritans who hoped for more tolerance for all Christian persuasions—who purchased from the Wampanoag Indian sachem Massasoit and his son, Wamsutta, a 219-square-mile tract of land in the extreme south of Plymouth Colony, close to Rhode Island—southern Massachusetts today. This parcel stretched inland on both sides of the Cusenagg River (as the Indians called it), where it met the coast of Buzzards Bay—named for the bustard cranes that roosted on its shores. This is a gentle coast, protected from the open sea by Cape Cod to the east and the pretty Elizabeth Islands to the south. The winters along this shoreline are the mildest in New England, and in the summers it is “fanned by breezes salt and cool.”

The land was gently sloped. In its dense woods were trees of a size to produce wide boards, in varieties handy for every kind of construction: cedar, white birch, oak, elm, maple, and pine. There was open grassland for grazing, and barrens covered in season with blueberries and cranberries, elderberries and wild strawberries. There were grapes on vines, and natural orchards of apple trees, pears, cherries, quinces, and trees of hickory nuts, hazelnuts, acorns, and chestnuts. Wild rice was found in the lowland marshes, which were home to geese, swans, and ducks. Clams, quahogs, and mussels clustered in the tidal river mouth and in the offshore shallows, lobsters and crabs skittered below the ledges, and the ocean waters, already famed for their abundance of cod, also teemed with sea bass, mackerel, and bluefish.

The purchasers paid Massasoit and Wamsutta “thirty yards of cloth, eight moose skins, fifteen axes, fifteen hoes, fifteen pairs of breeches, eight blankets, two kettles, one cloth, £22 in wampum, eight pairs of stockings, eight pairs of shoes, one iron pot, and ten shillings in another commodotie.” Both sides were pleased. (Only twenty-six years before, Peter Minuit, a leading official of the Dutch West India Company, bought the far smaller, twenty-three-square-mile Manhattan from local Indians for a similar pile of cloth, metal, goods, and trinkets worth sixty guilders.)

Twelve years later, in 1664, this large and bountiful area of woods, meadow, wetland, river, and shore was incorporated as the township of Dartmouth. It was named after the port town in Devonshire, England, which occupies a similarly favorable site at the sheltered mouth of the deepwater river the Dart. Like that river, the Acushnet—as the purchasers called and transcribed the Indian “Cusenagg”—proved sweetly accommodating of the development of seagoing affairs. It ran straight inland between sheltering arms of good land, wide and deep enough for the maneuvering of large ships.

The settlers of this New World Dartmouth built small houses, farmed, and developed peaceful relations with the local Indians. But elsewhere in Plymouth, the Indian chief Metacom, or “King Philip,” was selling every available scrap of the mainland under his control to Plymouth settlers in an effort to raise cash to buy firearms with which to drive those same purchasers off that land and kill them. When an Indian favorite of Governor Josiah Winslow, who was feeding Winslow information about Philip’s plans, was murdered by Philip’s men, the murderers were quickly caught and hanged, and, in June 1675, war erupted.

As Philip and the Pokanokets launched attacks with the aid of the Narragansetts, other tribes, long bristling under the inevitable breakdown of relations between whites and Indians, took the opportunity to attack settlers in their own neighborhoods of Swansea, Middleborough, Taunton, Rehoboth, and other towns. Unlike most Puritans, who lived in townships, the early settlers of Dartmouth had shown their preference for independence by dispersing themselves over a wide swath of country, separated by streams, rivers, and woods. This scattering of farms and homesteads had the added advantage that it didn’t appear to conform to the sort of recognizable community structure to which the General Court at Plymouth would have insisted on sending a minister of their own Puritan persuasion. But it was too open to allow for any cohesive defense. Early in July 1675, a renegade sachem named Totoson and a group of Wampanoags ran through the woods and meadows of Dartmouth, burning nearly thirty houses and killing many people, “skinning them all over alive . . . cutting off their hands and feet. . . . Any woman they took alive they defiled, afterward putting her to death.” Families were too far apart to group together and fight off attackers. They could only try to defend their homes, and those who weren’t killed escaped to the soldier-enforced garrisons on the Ap ponagansett and Acushnet rivers.

Henry Howland’s forty-year-old son, Zoeth Howland, was killed in an Indian raid. But by the following year the English had prevailed, and the Indian rebellion had been efficiently put down. Most of Philip’s allies had deserted him, and his wife and son had been taken prisoner (according to one account, they were transported as slaves to Spain). On August 12, 1676, fleeing white and Indian pursuers, King Philip was shot through the heart by a Pocasset Indian named Alderman, using an elderly musket.

It was years before Dartmouth recovered. As a result of the war, the Plymouth General Court ruled that all future settlements be built with homes located close together for mutual protection, and slowly Dartmouth was rebuilt as a small village along the river.

One of its first communal buildings, erected in 1699, was a “meeting house for the people of God in Scorn Called Quakers.”

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