Saturday, May 21, 2011

Samuel Sewall on Mourning Executed Criminals

On Thursday, we saw the family of convicted pirate John Lambert successfully lobby Judge Sewall for permission to bury Lambert in King's Chapel burying ground. Today, I would like to highlight another example of a Boston family going into public mourning after an execution.

On November 13, word reached Boston that Lady Alice Beckenshaw Lisle had been beheaded in Winchester, England. Lady Alice (age 68) had given shelter to fugitives from the Battle of Sedgemoor, the last battle in the Protestant Duke of Monmouth's campaign to depose his Catholic uncle, James II. Lady Alice claimed that she did not know that the fugitives had been involved in the Monmouth Rebellion. Nevertheless, she was tried and convicted at the Bloody Assizes on August 25, 1685 and sentenced to be burned to death. King James II commuted her sentence to death by beheading, an order that was carried out on September 2.

Most Puritan Bostonians had been horrified by the ascension of a Catholic king and were in sympathy with Monmouth's Rebellion. The same ship that brought news of Lady Alice's execution also brought "a Rumor that the Government [of New England] will be Changed, this Fall or Winter, by some Person sent over, or a Commission to some here." This rumor proved true with the establishment of the Dominion of New England a few months later.

None in Boston mourned Lady Alice's death more deeply than did her daughter, Bridget Lisle Usher, widow of late Harvard president Leonard Hoar and wife of Boston merchant Hezekiah Usher. The week after the news arrived, Sewall noticed that "Madam Usher, her Daughter and Husband" attended Rev. Cotton Mather's Thursday lecture "in Mourning." I don't know whether their presence in the audience influenced Mather's choice of material at all, but Sewall's notes indicate that the content of the lecture would have called attention to Lady Alice's case and the plight of Protestant New England more broadly:
Mr. Mather Preaches from Numb. 25. 11. Shewed that Love was an ingredient to make one zealous; those that received good People received Christ, Mat. 25. Said that if the Government of N.E. were zealous might yet save this People. 2d Part of 79th Ps. sung. Madam Usher, her Daughter and Husband in Mourning.
Imagine Bridget Usher and her family dressed in mourning as the congregation around them sang the 79th Psalm, which begins with,
O god, the heathen are come into thine inheritance; thy holy temple have they defiled; they have laid Jerusalem on heaps.
If they sang the second half, they sang,
 Let the sighing of the prisoner come before thee; according to the greatness of thy power preserve thou those that are appointed to die;
Mather's other texts were similarly on-point. Numbers 25:11 concerns the actions of Phineas, a grandson of Moses' brother Aaron, who saved the Israelites from God's wrath by proving his zealousness. Matthew 25 is the famous parable of the wise virgins and the foolish virgins, which contains well-known passages on preparedness and hospitality:
For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
I am not a scholar of Puritan worship practices, so I don't want to jump to the easy conclusion that Mather chose this passage to comment on Lady Alice's righteousness. Yet, it seems to me that all this talk of extending hospitality to those in need had to have focused the congregation's attention on her case, especially with her family sitting there in mourning.

In any case, this is an instance where Boston's religious and political loyalties allowed the family of someone executed for treason to mourn that death brazenly in public.

1 comment:

Aaron said...

Love the blog! I studied Puritan Manhood in Grad school and share your obsession with Boston Puritans Wigglesworth being a favorite. Email me and lets trade stories, are you studying anywhere?