Archive for June 8th, 2012

1693: Elizabeth Emerson

Add comment June 8th, 2012 Robert Wilhelm

(Thanks for the guest post to Robert Wilhelm of the Murder By Gaslight historic crime blog, and author of the book Murder And Mayhem in Essex County. Executed Today readers are sure to enjoy Wilhelm’s detailed investigations into long-lost historic crime. -ed.)

The Emersons of Haverhill, Massachusetts, were the kind of family that just could not stay out of trouble. Death was a common feature in the Emerson household; only nine of their fifteen children survived infancy. Michael Emerson’s first child, Hannah, would marry Thomas Duston and, become famous for escaping Indian captivity by murdering and scalping ten of her captors.

The sixth child was a daughter named Elizabeth, born in 1664. Twelve years later, Michael was brought to court “for cruel and excessive beating of his daughter with a flail swingle and for kicking her, and was fined and bound to good behavior.” Corporal punishment was not considered wrong in and of itself, but Michael’s beating of Elizabeth was criminally excessive. There is no way to know why Elizabeth was being punished, but the impression is, that she was a rambunctious, strong-willed child living in a violent household.

Another of Elizabeth’s sisters, Mary Emerson, was married in 1683 to Hugh Mathews of Newbury. Though there is no record of premature offspring, Hugh and Mary were both brought to court and found guilty of fornication before marriage. They were sentenced to be “fined or severely whipped.”

Perhaps with her sister as an example, Elizabeth also engaged in premarital sex. In 1686, Elizabeth Emerson gave birth to an illegitimate daughter she named Dorothy. It is not clear whether Elizabeth was ever punished for this, but court records indicate that Michael Emerson accused a neighbor, Timothy Swan, of being the father. Timothy’s father, Robert Swan, vehemently denied that Timothy was the father because he “… had charged him not to go into that wicked house and his son had obeyed and furthermore his son could not abide the jade.” He further threatened to “carry the case to Boston” if Timothy was formally accused. Michael did not pursue the charges and little Dorothy remained fatherless.

Five years later, with Elizabeth and her daughter still living at her parents’ house, Elizabeth became pregnant again. She somehow managed to keep this a secret from her parents, but the neighbors were suspicious. Sometime during the night of May 7, 1691, Elizabeth, who slept at the foot of the bed where her mother and father slept, gave birth to twins without waking her parents. The twins were either stillborn or murdered by their mother. She hid the bodies in a trunk for three days then sewed them into a sack and buried them in the backyard.

The following Sunday, while her parents were at church, the neighbors who had suspected Elizabeth’s pregnancy, came to the house with a warrant from the magistrates of Haverhill. While the women examined Elizabeth, the men went to the backyard and found the bodies buried in a shallow grave. Elizabeth was arrested for murdering her bastard infants.

Elizabeth maintained that she had kept the pregnancy and birth a secret out of fear. Her mother had been suspicious, but whenever asked about it, Elizabeth denied she was pregnant. Michael claimed he had no idea that Elizabeth was pregnant but this time put the blame on Samuel Ladd, age 42, a married man, nine years older than Elizabeth. Elizabeth also named Samuel Ladd as the father, saying that the “begetting” had taken place at an inn house. She also stated that Ladd was the only man with whom she had ever slept, implying that Dorothy was Ladd’s daughter as well.

Although Samuel Ladd had been previously found guilty of a misdemeanor and fined for an earlier episode involving sexual advances on a younger woman, Ladd was never questioned in Elizabeth Emerson’s case. Elizabeth was already the mother of a bastard child, and Samuel Ladd was the son of an early settler — her story was not believed.

Elizabeth Emerson was sentenced to hang and remanded to the custody of the Boston prison on May 13, 1691. An accompanying letter explained the facts and said that she had been examined for “whore-dom.” By English law, concealment of the death of a bastard child had been punishable by execution. Though this law had been repealed in England, it was still on the books in Massachusetts. It did not matter whether Elizabeth Emerson had murdered her babies or merely concealed their death — she would be hanged.

The hanging was scheduled for 1693. Elizabeth was imprisoned during the height of the Salem witch trials, and though he played an active role in the trials, Reverend Cotton Mather found time to take an interest in her case. Mather worked on her soul and before her execution Elizabeth confessed that “when they were born, I was not unsensible, that at least one of them was alive; but such a Wretch was I, as to use a Murderous Carriage towards them, in the place where I lay, on purpose to dispatch them out of the World.” But Mather believed she had more to confess and held little hope for her salvation.

Elizabeth Emerson was hanged in Boston on June 8, 1693, along with a black indentured servant named Grace. Before the execution Cotton Mather preached a sermon during which he read the following declaration written by Elizabeth:

I am a Miserable Sinner; and I have Justly Provoked the Holy God to leave me unto that Folly of my own Heart, for which I am now Condemned to Dy … I believe, the chief thing that hath, brought me, into my present Condition, is my Disobedience to my Parents: I despised all their Godly Counsils and Reproofs; and I was always an Haughty and Stubborn Spirit. So that now I am become a dreadful Instance of the Curs of God belonging to Disobedient Children.

Get Murder and Mayhem in Essex County here.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Murder,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,USA,Women

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