Tuesday, July 19, 2016

18th Century Justice

Letter concerning Woodworth case
MS-1310, 747217
Sarah Woodworth, wife of Ichabod Woodworth of Lebanon, North Parish, was called to the meeting house for a public admonition on March 17, 1747. She was accused of stealing wool from Esther [Villanee? Wallace?] -- which Esther might have unlawfully taken from her own father -- but Sarah was also accused of "Profane & Sinfull Language" and "impertinence" in the face of the community's "Long Patience" with her. For this, Sarah faced a public admonition. This sentence was given by Eleazar Wheelock, founder of Dartmouth College, during his days as a pastor in Lebanon, Connecticut. This incident reveals a few things about 18th century justice.

Letter concerning Woodworth case
MS-1310, 746368
The saga of Sarah Woodworth began the year before, in June 1746, with a meeting of the Pastor (i.e, Wheelock) and the Council. After a Mrs. Stephen Tilldin plead on Sarah's behalf, "Mrs. Woodworth Comes in and Says She Chuse to have a hearing." The Council decided to see if Mrs. Woodworth had "any new Light to offer." This seems fair enough.

Then comes the public admonition -- not a verdict handed down by the current US judicial system. We don't have any surviving documentation, but we can presume that the accusations in MS-1310, 747217 were read out in the meeting house. (We imagine a deep, ringing voice, with something like thunder in it.)

However, in 1750, Wheelock wrote a letter noting that Sarah had "many Symptoms of a Delirium," she was admonished and the case against her dismissed (MS-1310, 750330). But this admonition should not be so great, Wheelock writes, that it would be "her Ruin."

So, what is this a case of? Was she truly ill (and delirious) in 1747, or in 1750? Was she aging poorly? Was she an outspoken woman in a society that did not approve of such "impertinence"? From these documents, we may never know. Research paper, Dartmouth students?

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