[1681 September] 22. There were 3 persons executed in Boston[.] An Englishman for a Rape. A negro man for burning a house at Northampton & a negro woman who burnt 2 houses at Roxbury July 12 — in one of wch a child was burnt to death.* The negro woman was burned to death — the 1st yt has suffered such a death in N.E.
These three unfortunates were all three perpetrators of separate crimes, united by the logistical convenience of a joint execution date.
Maria’s claim on the horrible distinction of having been burned alive has been doubted by some,** but if Mather’s diary is correct it was undoubtedly done to mirror a crime so frightful to the masters: the firing of their own domiciles by their own domestics. The record in the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s court records assuredly elides a fathomless depth of human passion.
Maria, a negro servant to Joshua Lambe of Roxbury, in the county of Suffoike in New England, being presented by the Grand Jury was indicted by the name of Maria Negro for not having the feare of God before hir eyes and being instigated by the devil at or upon the eleventh of July last in the night did wittingly, willingly and feloniously set on fire the dwelling house of Thomas Swann of said Roxbury by taking a Coale from under a still and carried it into another roome and laide it on the floore neere the doore and presently went and crept into a hole at a back doore of thy Masters Lambs house and set it on fier also taking a live coale betweene two chips and carried it into the chamber by which also it was consumed. As by uour Confession will appeare contrary to the peace of our Souevaigne Lord the King his croune.
The prisoner at the bar pleaded and acknowledged herself to be guilty of said fact. And accordingly the next day being again brought to the bar and sentenced of death pronounced against her by the honorable Governor, yet she should go from the bar to the prison from whence she came and thence to the place of execution and there be burnt.
Thy Lord be merciful to thy soul.
Three days later a fugitive slave named Jack — “Run away from Mr. Samuell Wolcot because he always beates him sometimes with 100 blows so that he hath told his master that he would sometime or other hang himself” — torched a house in Northampton, seemingly by accident while foraging by torchlight. There can’t have been a connection between these two slaves and their seemingly very different acts of resistance, but where once is coincidence, twice is a trend: Jack was convicted of arson and taken from Northampton to Boston at some inconvenience to the colony (the trip took 15 days and cost £2) for exhibition at the same pyre as Maria. Jack was certainly burned only posthumously.
As for the white gentleman, we will give the word to Increase Mather’s chip off the old block, Rev. Cotton Mather:
On September 22, 1681, one W.C. [William Cheney] was executed at Boston for a rape committed by him on a girl that liv’d with him; though he had then a wife with child by him, of a nineteenth or twentieth child.
This man had been “wicked overmuch.” His parents were godly persons; but he was a “child of Belial.” He began early to shake off his obedience unto them; and early had fornication laid unto his charge; after which, he fled unto a dissolute corner of the land, a place whereof it might be said, “Surely the fear of God is not in this place.”
He being a youth under the inspection of the church at Roxbury, they, to win him, invited him to return unto his friends, with such expressions of lenity towards him, that the reverend old man their pastor, in a sermon on the day when this man was executed, with tears bewail’d it.
After this, he liv’d very dissolutely in the town of Dorchester; where, in a fit of sickness, he vow’d that, if God would spare his life, he would live as a new man; but he horribly forgot his vows. The instances of his impiety grew so numerous and prodigious, that the wrath of God could bear no longer with him; he was ripen’d for the gallows.
After his condemnation, he vehemently protested his innocency of the fact for which he was condemn’d; but he confess’d “that God was righteous, thus to bring destruction upon him for secret adulteries.”
A reprieve would have been obtain’d for him, if his foolish and froward refusing to hear a sermon on the day appointed for his execution had not hardened the heart of the judge against him. He who had been a great scoffer at the ordinances of God, now exposed himself by being left unto such a sottish action!
He had horribly slighted all calls to repentance, and now, through some wretches over-perswading [sic] of him that he should not die according to sentence and order of the court, he hardened himself still in his unrepentant frame of mind.
When he came to the gallows, and saw death (and a picture of hell, too, in a negro then burnt to death at the stake, for burning her master’s house, with some that were in it,) before his face, never was a cry for “Time! time! a world for a little time! the inexpressible worth of time!” uttered with a most unutterable anguish.
He then declared, that “the greatest burden then lying upon his miserable soul, was his having lived so unprofitably under the preaching of the gospel.”
* It is flatly incorrect that Maria’s arson killed anyone. She was indicted for arson, and there is no reference to an associated murder in the trial record or non-Mather accounts.
** Notice that the court order does not direct that Maria be burned to death. This letter, as an example of a possible rival interpretation, indicates that “two were this day Executed heer and Exposed to the flames for those Crimes,” implying an equivalence between the punishments of the two slaves: hanged to death, then their bodies burned.