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1693: Elizabeth Emerson

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.

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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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5 thoughts on “1693: Elizabeth Emerson”

  1. Rachel Scheel says:

    Elizabeth and Hannah are my 6th grand aunts. Their brother Jonathan is my 6th great grandfather. I feel so sorry for what Elizabeth went through. From what I’ve read, the Boston prison living conditions were horrible and she spent 2 years in there knowing she’d be hanged. I wish there was information about what happened to her daughter Dorothy after her mother’s death. She just vanished from any written history on the family.

  2. Dale Milne says:

    I discovered my family connection to Elizabeth and Hannah recently while researching my grandfather’s roots. I am descended from their sister Sarah, and obviously, their parents. The same grandfather is also descended from one of Cotton Mather’s grandfathers, Richard Mather. His wife, my grandmother, was descended from Hannah Bassett of Lynn, who was jailed for witchcraft because she concocted a salve for a Salem woman. Now I can see why no one in our family mentioned certain connections. History’s true stories are shocking, especially when the not-so-heroic perpetrators are your own ancestors! Thank-you for this site and its discussion board.

  3. Kevin Labore says:

    Hannah was my 8th Great Aunt. Sad story, and I am sure the real story is much sadder,

  4. Suzan Atkinson-Haverty says:

    It is so sad what happened to Elizabeth Emerson back in 1693 in Boston, MA. Everything in the world was against her. She was a woman, she was unmarried, she had a brutal abusive father and distant mother. There was nothing wrong with Elizabeth Emerson. If she had been born today, she would be known as a healthy young girl or woman that was an extrovert with a great personality. During that time frame in American history women were not allowed to almost breathe, never mind talk. To think her own parents did not go to her hanging is just unbelievable! Only her older sister Hannah (Emerson) Duston was there for her. How alone and scared she must have been! Her life was taken for nothing! Having those two babies under those conditions, I believe they were born dead. Food was not abundant during those times. These people were living constantly everyday under Indian attacks. The story on record about the man Samuel Ladd who she states is the father of her first daughter Dorothy, and then the twin sons that had been delivered. In that story, it states he tried with a friend late at night a ruse to get a young woman to come out of her home from her parents. Samuel, sounds to me like he was a rapist or sexually out of control for that time frame. You just did not do that back then. What was this guy Sam thinking or not thinking….but he wanted AT this girl in that house!!!! He was married, and he did whatver he wanted to Elizabeth Emerson….I bet he conned her constantly, and she believed all his lies. He was evil! He was killed five years later in an Indian raid on Haverill, MA. Well, it was at least good to hear that he was killed and got his in the end! He never cared that he got her pregnant, and she was treated like a whore in front of the entire town, but it did not matter about the man involved. That makes me sick! KARMA got him in the end! If Elizabeth Emerson lived in our modern society of the last 40 years, she would have never been put through any of what she lived through. Also, there was mention that the father Michael molested his daughters…Elizabeth could have been the one who tried to fight him off each time, and he beat her bad for it! This father sounded like an animal all the way round about everything! Elizabeth Emerson… modern society does not judge you the way you were judged back in 1693. We know you were a decent young woman, and you were a victim of your time frame of which you lived! My heart goes out to all you went through and you will never be forgotten!

    1. Mike Barrett says:

      I am a direct descendant of her sister Hannah Duston. I find it interesting that Elizabeth’s sister was treated as a hero for killing her Indian captives (even Cotton Mather commended Hannah) but Elizabeth (who was a victim of consequence) was treated as a villain, in society. Clearly, the ultimate manifestation of patriarchy in colonial America. Hannah epitomized the idealized “good wife,” whereas, Elizabeth was viewed as the “harlot.”

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