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“This I will seale with my blood”: The Execution of William Leddra

Lost, missing, or nonexistent papers have a meaningful impact on the way we understand our histories. We mourn the absence of manuscripts that may have provided us with a more nuanced picture of life in and about the Americas. Many examples come to mind, but one significant loss to history is the first record book of the Massachusetts Bay Court of Assistants, dating from its establishment in 1630 through 1673. This volume contained documentation of the proceedings of the colony’s supreme judicial jurisdiction for civil and criminal cases. According to the Massachusetts Archives, the book remains missing and may well have been destroyed along with other early Massachusetts records during the American Revolution. In a best attempt to piece together this essential record, Clerks of the Massachusetts Supreme Court John Noble (1829-1909) and John Cronin (b. 1872) sought out and compiled original and copied manuscripts (from various other public and private papers) bearing on the activities of the Court of Assistants during these formative years. They were published in Records of the Court of Assistants of the Colony of the Massachusetts Bay, volumes II (1904) and III (1928). While not a continuous record of the pre-1673 court, the labors of these clerks are a lasting contribution to the source materials of the colony.

Within the missing record book were court documents produced as part of the state-sanctioned murder of Quakers William Robinson, Marmaduke Stevenson, Mary Dyer, and William Leddra/Ledra between 1659 and 1661. The Clements Library is privileged to hold the only known official manuscript copy of the court proceedings and judgment of any of these Quakers: William Leddra, who was executed in 1661. Part of the Quaker Collection, the document, dating from 1660/1661, was copied for a yet unknown official purpose by court secretary Elisha Cooke circa 1716. The provenance of this manuscript is opaque, except that it was owned in 1924 by William Oliver of Sharon, Massachusetts, who had inherited it from his father. It disappeared once again, only to reappear in a circa 1967-1970 mimeograph listing by a Texas rare bookseller as a generic 17th-century New England document. Future Clements Library Director John C. Dann, then a graduate student at the College of William and Mary, purchased the manuscript before discovering its staggering import. Dr. Dann generously donated it to the Clements Library in 1986.

This March 5, 1660/1 legal record was copied around 1716 by Massachusetts Superior Court of Judicature clerk Elisha Cooke (1678-1737). It provides scholars with the only primary source trial and sentencing document known to exist for the Quakers executed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony between 1659 and 1661.The vermin-eaten edge is a pre-20th century modification.

The story behind this document and these events lies in the push-pull between conservative and radical visions of the English Reformation. In the early 1600s under King Charles I, English Puritans found themselves in increasing opposition to what they perceived to be a resurgent Catholicism within the Church of England. The conservative Anglican Church, they believed, incorporated various religious ceremonies and practices not found within the Hebrew Bible or Christian Testament that came perilously close to Roman Catholicism. The Puritans were not separatists who sought to break away from the Anglican Church, but instead wished to purify the established church to conform to Hebrew and Christian holy writ. Especially after Charles I took the throne in 1625, hostility toward the sect blossomed, prompting many Puritans to leave the country for the freedom to practice their religion elsewhere.

In 1629, the joint-stock Massachusetts Bay Company secured a charter from Charles I to establish an economically productive colony in New England. This decree allowed shareholder colonists to elect their own executives and judiciary, provided that Massachusetts Bay laws conformed to English law; by 1631 the company became the de facto government. The fleeing Puritans were the primary settlers in the new colony and by the early 1640s, the population swelled to over 20,000. While John Winthop (1588-1649), the first governor, described it as the “City upon a Hill” (in an allusion to Matthew 5:14), the new colony did enjoy a certain level of theological freedom, allowing interpretive challenges and discussions in which alternate views might be deliberated for pursuing the Puritanical Truth.

The colony flirted with theocracy, but provided a glimmer of religious liberty to dissenters by balancing laxity and orthodoxy. Although they believed in the separation of ecclesiastical and governmental roles in the community, the Massachusetts Puritans believed the State itself was a religious body, in which their God was the ultimate lawmaker, and his laws were clearly stated in the Hebrew and Christian scripture. Their legislative and judicial mandate then, was to establish and interpret laws bestowed on the Israelites by Moses (selectively stripping out laws related to ceremony and methods of worship), and with guidance from Jesus’ words and example. Heterodox religious views that magistrates believed were disruptive to the Puritan colony were considered a critical threat to both Church and State. Religious freedom extended only to a set of acceptable, malleable boundaries established by the community leaders. And any persons whose beliefs fell outside these squishy parameters had the freedom to leave the colony.

The English colonies in America, especially Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Maryland, had statutes to prosecute religious crimes such as heresy, blasphemy, profanity, slander, the breaking of the Sabbath, and other acts. Punishments included physical, psychological, and symbolic violence. Convicted persons might be publicly shamed in the stocks, beaten, whipped, mutilated, branded, dismembered, exiled, executed, or otherwise injured. These castigations were indeed carried out. However, contrasted with the devastation of contemporary religious wars and executions of Europe, the English American colonies appear to have been more reserved in meting out punishments for these crimes.

The Quakers entered into this environment in 1656. Formed in England in the earliest years of the 1650s, the Quakers followed and follow the teaching of George Fox (1624-1691), who preached that individual persons have the spirit of their God within them—an Inward or Inner Light—and that God can speak through them without clergy as intermediaries. In the beginning, they were also an apocalyptic sect, believing that the return of Jesus Christ and the final judgment were imminent. Desperately seeking to save as many persons as possible before the end of the world, Quaker evangelists reached America with a message that they would carry quickly, loudly, and publicly to the colonies. This first generation of Quaker immigrants and missionaries were not the quietist pacifists that would form later in the 18th century. They were instead aggressively disruptive, storming into Puritan courts and churches during service, and advocating recusancy. They refused to pay legally obligated tithes, published intensely critical texts against the colony’s leadership, and proclaimed the future of the state officials in perdition. The invasion of Quakers into the colony during its formative years was met with horror. This threat was deemed a satanic effort to deceive and to undermine the religious authority that Puritans believed was vital to keeping their recently established colony intact.

In an effort to quell the influx, Puritan administrators passed laws in 1658 forbidding the heretics from landing ships in the colony and demanding that Quakers already present be taken into abusive custody and leave the jurisdiction on threat of death. Those who refused could even be enslaved. Many Quakers departed, but some, armed with their faith, returned to the colony to declare their religious message and a rejection of their persecution. William Robinson, an Englishman who was a “public witness” or missionary in Barbados, traveled to the American colonies to protest these oppressive laws. He met likeminded Londoner Marmaduke Stevenson in Rhode Island and the two traveled to Massachusetts Bay in the late spring of 1659. They were arrested and banished, but they then returned to the colony from exile and found themselves in jail once again. Meanwhile, Rhode Islander and Quaker prophet Mary Dyer, herself having been imprisoned previously in Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay, traveled to Boston to support the imprisoned Robinson and Stevenson. She, too, was arrested and banished, but also returned to minister. The three were sentenced to death on October 27, 1659. On that day, the men were executed and Mary Dyer, after standing at the hanging tree, bound, face covered, with a noose around her neck, received clemency on the condition of another banishment. While in the ensuing months other Quakers tread onto Massachusetts Bay soil, magistrates opted not to implement capital punishment. In the spring of 1660, however, Mary Dyer again followed her conscience to Boston, again received a death sentence, again stood to hang at the tree, and died there on June 1, 1660. To the Puritans, these dissenters were committing suicide by willfully defying the law. To the Quakers, they were listening to their God and pursuing their religious convictions according to their faith, even to death as martyrs.

The last person to be executed for Quaker beliefs in what is now the United States was a Cornish man named William Leddra. Like William Robinson, he followed his convictions to Barbados before sailing for Rhode Island, where he arrived in March 1658. His missionary work and meeting attendance took him to Connecticut, where he was arrested, abused, and banished. Leddra traveled to Salem, Massachusetts, where, according to Essex County Court Records, he was held on June 29, 1658, for being a stranger at “a disorderly meeting of certeyne suspected psons” on the Sabbath. He was imprisoned, starved, beaten, banished, and moved to Providence, Rhode Island. Persistent in his efforts to proselytize and to support other Massachusetts Bay Quakers, Leddra immediately returned to Boston, where he yet again found himself in jail, harmed, and banished. Then, in October 1659, the Plymouth Colony detained him for being a foreign Quaker. He remained there, fighting the “vnjust and Illegall” detention until he departed Plymouth on April 17, 1660. During this detention, he wrote a public letter to “ye Rulers: & others of ye People,” decrying the banishment/execution laws. Acting under “Necessity of conscience,” Leddra again returned to Massachusetts Bay. Magistrates promptly arrested him, locked him in chains, and fastened him to a log of wood “in an open Prison, during a very cold winter.” Finally, he was brought before Governor John Endicott and secretary Edward Rawson at the Court of Assistants in March 1661, “with his Chains and Log at his Heels.”

The Clements Library’s Massachusetts Court of Assistants document provides an account of the ensuing trial and death sentence. The court proclaimed that Leddra, “for not having the fear of God before his Eyes” despite being banished on pain of death, returned to the jurisdiction “in a Rebellious and Seditious Manner contrary to the wholesome Laws” of the colony. The court also noted the purpose of the laws, which were “made for the Preservation of the Peace & wellfare of the same.” Leddra was then challenged to find English laws in opposition to the colonies’ legislation against the Quakers. He countered by expostulating that he would neither accept the Governor as his Judge nor submit to the “wicked Laws of this Jurisdiction.” The Governor asked Leddra about his intrusion on the colonies’ “Concience.” Leddra replied that the court had no knowledge of what constitutes conscience, that those whom the court had put to death were the “Servants of God” and not, as the Puritans claimed, worshippers with a spirit “callest the Divell.” Drawing on scripture to defend himself, Leddra compared the Quakers’ resistance of the Puritans’ laws to Daniel’s (and other Israelites’) resistance to Nebuchadnezzar II—and the King’s ultimate acceptance of the Hebrew God as the highest authority. In a harsh rebuke, Leddra added that the Puritan “Ministers are deluders & yourselves Murderers”, and that he would never turn from his God in order to gain favor from murderers. With unwavering conviction, Leddra assured the court that this promise he would “seale with [his] blood.” The court gave him another opportunity to leave the colony. He refused, saying that he was “willing to dy for it, Saying he spake the truth.” Frustrated, the court (drawing on Titus 3:1) demanded to know why, if he believed scripture to be the word of their God, did he “revile Magistrates & Ministers”? Leddra declared that speaking the truth is not the same as reviling them, and he compared the Quakers’ plight with that of Stephen, who was stoned to death for preaching that Jesus was the Christ, in the Book of Acts. With no further questioning, the indictment was read, the jury convened, and the guilty verdict reached. “The Governour in the Name of the Court Pronounced Sentence agt. him That Is You William Ledra are to goe from hence to the place from when you came & from thence be carried to the place of Execution and there hang till you be dead.”

Later the same year, after William Leddra’s execution, the Massachusetts Puritans recognized the changing tides in English leadership and opinion, and revised their laws to include new tortures (in the “Whip and Cart Act”) and the continued banishment of Quakers, but to remove the death penalty as an option. Sure enough, after the restoration of Charles II as King of England, Scotland, and Ireland, he formally forbade executions for Quakerism as the capital punishment did not adhere to English Law. By 1665, King Charles also forbade the torture of Quakers. The ensuing decades saw a decrease in corporal punishment and banishment, marking an end to the legal persecution of Quakers in Massachusetts Bay.

During and after the state-sanctioned murder of Quakers for their religious beliefs, Puritans and Quakers published differing explanations and meanings for the persecutions. Writers like Cotton Mather retold the events downplaying the religious aspect and rewriting the history to focus on purely civil motivations for the hangings. Quaker writers focused on the barbarity of Massachusetts laws, the calm martyrdom of those executed, and the hypocrisy of the growing myth that New England was founded with a spirit of religious liberty. Each publication played a hand in creating narratives best suited to the contemporary needs of their religions and societies. The Clements Library holds many of the original 17th-18th century printings of these works.

The missing record book of the Massachusetts Court of Assistants would have provided historians with much-desired data and case studies on the implementation of law in the colony in a court setting. The Clements Library’s document provides details about arguments made in court, the use of specific biblical scripture in the prosecution and defense of William Leddra’s case, and the weight given in court for the combined religious and civil disruption caused by Leddra. What have we lost with the absence of court records for William Robinson, Marmaduke Stevenson, and Mary Dyer? We lost comparative examples of similar trials and sentencing, which would have enlightened us on the similarities and variances of legal argumentation used in the Quaker executions. We certainly lost the words of the first three Quaker martyrs, used for their defense and for criticisms of the legality of the persecutions. We also lost a vital female voice to counterbalance the chorus of male voices in the archives.

William Robinson, Marmaduke Stevenson, Mary Dyer, and William Leddra were not the models of quietism and peaceful martyrdom often portrayed, but they were certainly the victims of a mid-17th-century legal codification of a borderline theocratic state. In current times, the nature of religious freedom continues to foster division. Factions still argue that this freedom should only apply to believers of the same faith or to non-believers who practice in a non-disruptive and quiet manner. Religious authority and the power dynamics it seeks to perpetuate strike figuratively, legally, and violently at those who vocally argue against it. As we continue to champion diversity, equity, and inclusion, strive toward genuine religious freedom, and seek to better understand and support one another, the tragedy of William Leddra’s story can be instructive. We might remember where the legal codification of a dominant set of religious beliefs may lead us if we are not ever attentive.

Cheney J. Schopieray
Curator of Manuscripts