On this date in 1735, a truculent indentured servant with a name like a primetime drama was hanged in York, Maine (at that time part of the Massachusetts colony), for killing her master’s grandson.
Patience Boston had cut a hard-partying, hard-drinking swath from her teen years to her execution at age 23, leading a succession of masters to dump her contract on whomever would take it. Early American Crime tracks her rowdy career, “mad and furious in my Drink, speaking dreadful Words, and wishing bad Wishes to my self and others” through a succession of fights, adulteries, dead infants (which she didn’t kill), a nonexistent infant (which she claimed to have killed).
All this draws upon a lengthy “Faithful Narrative of the Wicked Life and Remarkable Conversion of Patience Boston alias Samson” published three years after the woman’s death by her ministers Samuel and Joseph Moody (more on them in a bit). In it, “Patience” relates in a first-person voice* the real murder she finally did commit.
From some groundless Prejudice which I had taken against my Master, to whom I was sold by Mr. Bailey, I did last Fall bind my self by a wicked Oath that I would kill that Child, though I seem’d to love him, and he me; which is an Aggravation of my bloody Cruelty to him. Having solemnly sworn that I would be the Death of the Child, I was so far from repenting of it, that I thought I was obliged to fulfil it. And I often renewed my Resolution when I had been in Drink, and made my Master angry, that to be revenged on him, I might Murder his Grand-Child, of which I thought he was very fond, having bro’t him up from his Infancy. I would have killed my Master himself, if I could have done it; and had Thoughts of putting Poison into his Victuals, if I could have got any. But when the Time came for me to be left under the prevailing Power of Satan’s Temptations; I took the Opportunity of my Master and Mistress being from Home, and both his Sons also abroad; that the Child and I were left alone. The Evening before I had been contriving to burn the Barn, but was prevented: I had also once before drawn the Child into the Woods with me, designing to knock him on the Head, and got a great Stick for the same Purpose; but as I was going to lift it up, I fell a trembling, from a sense of God’s Eye upon me; so that I had not Power to strike. — But now, as I was going to say, when the Time was come to fill up the Measure of my Iniquity; I went to the Well and threw the Pole in, that I might have an Excuse to draw the Boy to the Well, which having done, I asked his Help to get up the Pole, that I might push him in, which having done, I took a longer Pole, and thrust him down under the Water, till he was drowned. When I saw he was dead, I lifted up my Hands with my Eyes towards Heaven, speaking after this Manner, Now am I guilty of Murder indeed; though formerly I accused my self falsly, yet now has God left me &c. And it seemed as if the Ground where I went was cursed for my sake, and I thought God would not suffer me to escape his righteous Vengeance. I went forthwith, and informed the Authority, and when the jury sat on the Body, I was ordered to touch it: This terrified me, lest the Blood should come forth, to be a Witness against me; and I then resolved in my Heart, that I would be a Witness against my self, and never deny my Guilt; so I tho’t God would not suffer the Child to bleed; then I laid my Hand on it’s Face, but no Blood appeared. Yet after this, I would fain have covered my Sin in Part, as if the Child had of himself fallen into the Well, and I was tempted to thrust him down under the Water. After the Jury had bro’t in wilful Murder, I was sent to Prison, but got Drunk by the Way, having little Sense of my dreadful Case; yet my Temptation in Part was to drink that I might forget my Sorrow.
Patience would need her namesake virtue, since she had the best part of a year to wait before the Supreme Court could gavel in a session to hear her case — a case where she would plead guilty and embrace the certain sentence.
In the meantime, we get to the real meat of the Moody pamphlet: our murderess’ conversion.
Allowing even for the interlocution of her reverend ministers, it presents a moving portrait of a genuine spiritual experience during the “Great Awakening” of religious revival. The narrative’s latter half tracks the doomed woman’s refinements of conscience, of fear, of religious comfort and joy in God — all as she grapples with her conduct and her fate.** “How are we condemned by the Covenant of Works,” Patience remarks, “and relieved by the Covenant of Grace.”
Now … as for this clan Moody that supplies our day’s post.
Samuel Moody, the father, had nudged young Joseph into the ministry business in York. Both men appear to have ministered to Patience Boston.
In 1738, the same time they were readying all this text about “rejoyc[ing], though with trembling” the younger Moody began a bizarre practice: he took to shrouding his face with a handkerchief.
In boring reality, this seems to have been occasioned by a breakdown caused by the sudden death of his wife in childbirth, a breakdown from which Moody recovered over the succeeding months.
In the much spicier legendary embellishment that developed, however, Moody was thought to have kept this veil for the balance of his life: he would present himself in this state, it is said, to his own congregation, turning his back on the multitude so that he could lift the veil to read a sermon, and likewise sitting face to corner when he should eat in public.
In this version, Moody is supposed to have confessed on his deathbed to having shrunk from men in his own spiritual torment over having accidentally killed a childhood friend while hunting, a killing that had been popularly ascribed to Indians and therefore unpunished save by the scourge of conscience. Nathaniel Hawthorne mined this irresistible New England folklore for his short story “The Minister’s Veil”.
“Tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? What, but the mystery which it obscurely typifies, has made this piece of crape so awful? When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend; the lover to his best beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin; then deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die! I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!”
-Hawthorne’s “Reverend Hooper”
* “It must be confessed,” the Moodies gamely preface their text, “that it could not be exactly taken in her own Way of expressing her self” so long after her death. But they gave it their best shot, and “here is nothing false or feigned.”
** The Faithful Narrative takes special note of the impression made on our subject by “the Case of the Prisoners at Boston, especially when the Day came for their Execution”. Although the text here refers to “three Malefactors”, there’s no 1734-1735 triple execution recorded in the Espy files; I believe the event intended here is the October 1734 double hanging of Matthew Cushing and John Ormsby.