Thursday, May 19, 2011

Samuel Sewall on Burying Executed Criminals

We have already seen what Samuel Sewall thought about commemorating executed criminals. In the case of the executed Quakers, he argued that people who died on the gallows should have no monuments erected to their memory. This is of interest to me because you would think that you would want to drag out the example as long as possible, so Sewall's opposition to any marker shows that marking a grave was considered a sign of respect.

The executed Quakers were not buried in a graveyard — they were buried near the gallows on Boston Common. Presumably, burial within the graveyard was also a sign of respect, though Puritan graveyards were not formally consecrated. This also comes up in the case of burials for people who committed suicide. In 1688, an Indian servant named Thomas hanged himself, and the Boston coroner "ordered his burial by the highway with a Stake through his Grave." Earlier the same year, the wife of Samuel Marion had hanged herself, but she was given a graveyard burial after three witnesses testified that she had been insane for some time preceding her death.

From the evidence I have gathered, it seems that executed criminals were not generally buried in graveyards, but there are some exceptions. In 1704, for example, Sewall allowed the family of John Lambert, a convicted pirate, to claim and bury his body in the Kings Chapel burying ground. 
By my Order, the diggers of Mm Paiges Tomb Dugg a Grave for Lambert, where he was laid in the Old burying place Friday night about midnight near some of his Relations: Body was given to his Widow. Son and others made suit to me.
Even if he was willing to let the family bury the body with some sort of dignity, Sewall did not want them to flaunt their actions. Most funerals took place in the late afternoon, but John Lambert was buried at midnight.

This makes me wonder: was Samuel Sewall — who is famous for repenting his involvement in the Salem witch trials — involved with the burial of Rebecca Nurse? Family legend says that the Nurse family exhumed and re-buried Rebecca's body under cover of night after she was executed for witchcraft in 1692. The circumstances seem similar. Might Sewall have given his blessing to the Nurses as well as the Lamberts? Or might the mercy he showed to the Lamberts have been inspired by his guilt over doing nothing for Rebecca Nurse?

1 comment:

Robert J. said...

I think gravestones of people who committed suicide would be a worthy topic for a separate post. In early New England was this cause of death ever mentioned on the stone? Were there hints?

Stephen Thurston died by suicide in 1805 in Fitchburg. His traditional slate stone does not mention the cause of death specifically, but the verse is a sudden-death verse that perhaps was understood to be appropriate:

A sprightly branch, one moment stood,
Next, summon’d to the bar of God!
Think reader! can thy heart endure,
A summons to a bar so pure?