Guest Post: Law and Sexual Misconduct in New England, 1650-1750

Abby Chandler is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. She received her PhD from the University of Maine at Orono. Her first book, Law and Sexual Misconduct in New England, 1650-1750: Steering Towards England is due to be released by Ashgate in November.

Chandler CoverMy forthcoming book, Law and Sexual Misconduct in New England, 1650-1750: Steering Toward England, uses sexual misconduct trials to examine the ways in which the growing Anglicization of the New England colonies played a role in the daily lives of ordinary colonists. Such trials may seem an unusual source base for studying broader political change, but their frequency and consistency allowed me to track the often subtle shifts toward more Anglicized legal systems. Likewise, both men and women were routinely charged with sexual misconduct, which allowed me to examine these shifts from male and female perspectives. This is the story of two widows in Essex County, Massachusetts, and their very different experiences with the Puritan dominated legal system of the seventeenth century and the Anglicized legal system of the eighteenth century.

One of the core tenets of the original Massachusetts legal system was its prohibition on the use of paid legal counsel. Massachusetts colonists were encouraged instead to seek out their local Justices of the Peace for advice when needed. These men were active members in their communities and the court records indicate that many colonists availed themselves of their services. When Ipswich widow Debora Proctor needed help charging Thomas Choat with fathering her daughter Martha’s illegitimate child in 1705, she spoke with Justice Francis Wainwright, who was related by marriage to her brother-in-law.[1] And when Choat needed legal counsel to help confront Proctor’s accusations, he spoke with family friend Justice Stephen Sewall. Proctor’s efforts ultimately failed and Choat was acquitted on the charges that he had impregnated her daughter. Nevertheless, the court records make clear that both she and Choat took full advantage of the legal resources and connections available to them while making their respective cases for, and against, Choat’s innocence.[2]

Some thirty years later, a very different Essex County widow also found herself with a daughter pregnant out of wedlock. Both Debora Proctor and Thomas Choat had approached specific local justices with whom they had pre-existing relationships. Martha Lynch was the widow of an Irish born colonist, and the Lynch family appear only in the records to give birth, marry or die, and sometimes not even that. The Salem Court record book makes no mention of the man who fathered Elisabeth Lynch’s child in 1734. However, a further legal document named “Jonathan Gillbard of Gloucester or Cape Ann” as the father of Elisabeth’s child. Martha Lynch employed attorney Jonathan Dodge of Beverly to negotiate a settlement with Gillbard. The document states that Lynch had “received of Jonathan Gillbard fower Pounds and of Mr. Jonathan Dodge Said Atturney thee summ of two pounds likewise said Dodge hath given me a bound for fowerteen pounds” and that these were “in Relation of the said Child above named to Discharge said Gillbard from any trouble or charges that may come after.”[3] In exchange for this settlement, the Lynch women were henceforth prevented by law from ever troubling Gillbard again.

Martha and Elisabeth Lynch received a total of twenty pounds from Jonathan Gillbard. The going rate for weekly child support fees in the early 1730s was four shillings which makes twenty pounds approximately the equivalent of two years of child support. Very few paternity convictions in Massachusetts specify the length of time that child support payments had to be paid. However, there are petitions submitted from convicted fathers asking to stop making payments after one year. Since most of these petitions were granted, two years’ worth of payments was generous by the standards of the time and this may explain Martha Lynch’s motives in hiring Jonathan Dodge to negotiate the financial settlement. If she was going to raise her illegitimate grandchild, she wanted the best terms possible.

Martha Lynch’s actions suggest that she was as comfortable with using the legal options available to her as Debora Proctor had been some thirty years earlier. While a signature is not absolute proof of literacy, Martha and Elisabeth Lynch and Debora Proctor all signed their documents with their names rather than using the mark which usually denotes illiteracy. Lynch’s ultimate success (as opposed to Proctor’s failure) stems largely from two core differences between the Lynch/Gilbert trial and the Proctor/Choat trial: the presence of verifiable dates and a putative father’s confession. There are no verifiable dates mentioned anywhere in the trial records for the Proctor/Choat trial, Thomas Choat flatly denied paternity and Martha Proctor refused to name a father during childbirth, the standard procedure for identifying putative fathers in a period before DNA testing.[4] Elisabeth Lynch was convicted on fornication and bastardy charges on July 9, 1734. The settlement promising Lynch twenty pounds for raising her grandchild was signed on September 20, 1734. Elisabeth gave birth on December 29, 1734 to a son named Jonathan, presumably for his father. In order for the financial settlement to be made two months before the child was born, Jonathan Gilbert had to have willingly acknowledged his guilt even before Elisabeth was questioned by her midwife during labor.

There was also another core difference between the Proctor/Choat trial and the Lynch/Gillbard trial, which speaks to broader changes in Massachusetts during the 1730s and 1740s. By that time, paid legal counsel had been legalized in Massachusetts for decades. For all that Lynch lived on the edges of Essex County society, she appears to have had no qualms about employing an attorney from a well-established Beverly family. Increasingly, attorneys like Jonathan Dodge were replacing justices as the conduits between the Massachusetts legal system and its colonists. Male members of the Dodge family routinely served as justices and jurors throughout the seventeenth century. The services of Jonathan Dodge, attorney, were available to whomever could pay his fee, and it seems unlikely that his earlier family members would have been as helpful to the widow Lynch as Justice Francis Wainwright was to the Widow Proctor. From the perspective of long-standing Massachusetts Bay officials, this was further evidence that “the rise of the bar was the secular counterpart for the decline of the New England way.”[5] Martha Lynch, however, probably saw the new system as an improvement on the old one.

The Anglicization of the British North American colonies has long been viewed through the eyes of political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The Lynch/Gillbard trial, and others like it, demonstrate that ordinary colonists across New England were highly aware of the ways in which the Anglicization process could benefit, and, in other cases, challenge their daily lives.


[1] Debora Proctor’s husband Benjamin was John Proctor’s brother. Both Debora and Thomas Choat and their families lived on Hog Island where The Crucible was filmed in 1996.

[2] On the Proctor/Choat trial, see Abby Chandler, “‘And the author of wickedness Surely is most to be blamed’: The Deposition of Debora Proctor,” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers 28, no. 2 (2011): 312-27. 

[3] All quotes from the Essex County Court of General Sessions trial for Elisabeth Lynch in 1734, File Papers Box 12. Judicial Archives, Massachusetts State Archives, Boston.

[4] For more information about this practice, see Abby Chandler, “From Birthing Chamber to Court Room: The Medical and Legal Communities of the Colonial Essex County Midwife,” Early Modern Women: An Interdisciplinary Journal 10, no. 1 (2015): 109-37.

[5] John M. Murrin, “The Legal Transformation: The Bench and Bar of Eighteenth-Century Massachusetts,” in Colonial America: Essays in Politics and Social Developments, eds. Stanley N. Katz and John M. Murrin, 3rd ed. (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1983), 551.

One response

  1. Pingback: Revisiting New England’s Legal Development: Review of Chandler, Law and Sexual Misconduct « The Junto


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