Murder and Mayhem in Essex County

Murder and Mayhem in Essex County

by Robert Wilhelm


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The idea of a criminal record originated in the early seventeenth century when the magistrates of the Massachusetts Bay Colony began recording dates, places, victims and criminals. Despite, or perhaps because of, the strict code of the Puritans, some early settlers earned quite the rap sheet that landed them either in the stocks or at the end of a noose. With biting wit and an eye for the macabre, local author Robert Wilhelm traces the first documented cases of murder and mayhem in Essex County, Massachusetts. Discover the story of Hannah Duston's revenge on her Abenaki Indian captors, why the witchcraft hysteria hung over Salem and Andover and how Rachel Wall made her living as a pirate. Decide for yourself whether the accused are guilty or if history lends itself to something else entirely.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609494001
Publisher: History Press, The
Publication date: 11/30/2011
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 1,183,584
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Robert Wilhelm writes about historical true crime for the blogs Murder by Gaslight"? ( and the "National Night Stick"? ( His interest in historic murders began with the research of traditional American murder ballads, and among the hundred or so murder tales at "Murder by Gaslight"? are the true stories behind two dozen murderous folk songs. Together with his wife, Anne, Robert founded, and for fifteen years hosted, the Essex Music Festival, an annual festival of folk and acoustic music on the banks of Chebacco Lake in Essex, Massachusetts."

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In the autumn of 1636, an Agawam Indian walking through the Winnacunnet woods, north of the town of Newbury, found the body of a young white woman lying in a thick swamp about three miles north of the Merrimack River. From the condition of the body, he could tell that the woman had been dead for several months. She lay naked, with her clothing still in a pile not far from the body. The Indian took the news to Newbury and led the Englishmen to the spot so they could see for themselves.

The woman's name was Mary Sholy. She was identified more by the circumstance than by appearance, since the flesh had begun to rot. Mary had left Newbury several months earlier, traveling north to her home at the English settlement at Pascataquack. The people of Newbury were also fairly certain who had killed her; they believed she had been ravished and murdered by the man she had hired to guide her journey home, an outsider named William Schooler.

Newbury had been a town for just over a year, but it was rapidly growing. In 1633, John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, charged his son John to begin Puritan settlements in Agawam, the land north of Salem, "least an enemy finding it void should possess and take it from us." Within a year, Agawam (renamed Ipswich) became part of the colony, and in 1635, the town of Newbury, formerly known as Quascacunquen, was officially incorporated.

Land was granted to colonists in England who began to settle in Ipswich and Newbury. By law, no one was allowed to inhabit a town without the express consent of its freemen. A man could be made a freeman by the general court if he was a church member, was not in debt and was not idle. Only freemen could vote for magistrates or hold office. All freemen were required to take the Freemen's Oath:

I, _ _, being by God's providence an inhabitant and freeman within the jurisdiction of this Commonwealth, do freely acknowledge myself to be subject to the government thereof, and therefore do swear by the great and dreadful name of the everlasting God, that I will be true and faithful to the same, and will accordingly yield assistance and support thereunto, with my person and estate, as in equity I am bound; and I will also truly endeavour to maintain and preserve all the liberties and privileges thereof, submitting myself to the wholesome laws and orders, made and established by the same. And further, that I will not plot nor practice any evil against it, nor consent to any, that shall so do, but will truly discover and reveal the same to lawful authority now here established, for the speedy preventing thereof. Moreover, I do solemnly bind myself in the sight of God, that when I shall be called to give my voice and suffrage, as I shall judge in mine own conscience may best conduce and tend to public weal of the body, without respect of persons or favor of any man; so help me God in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Residents who were not freemen remained in town only with the permission of the freemen and, after six months, were required to swear a Residents' Oath, requiring them to be "obedient and conformable" to the authority of the town and governor. They would receive the protection of the laws but not the rights of freemen. But not everyone arriving from England lived up to the Christian standards demanded by the Puritans. Those who were not freemen or formal residents of the town were encouraged to stay away.

William Schooler was exactly the kind of person whom the law intended to keep out of Newbury. In London, England, Schooler had been a vintner with intemperate habits. Though he had been married to "a handsome, neat woman," Schooler was, by his own admission, a common adulterer. After wounding a man in a duel, he fled to Holland to escape the law. Then, leaving his wife behind, he traveled to New England. In 1636, he was living in a shack by the Merrimack River within the limits of Newbury but outside the boundaries of sanctioned Christian behavior.

Mary Sholy, a servant girl, was looking for someone to guide her to Pascataquack to return to her master. Pascataquack (or Pascataqua) — now Portsmouth, New Hampshire — was a small settlement about twenty-three miles north of Newbury. It is not known why Mary Sholy had come to Newbury. She may have been visiting friends or relatives; it is unlikely that her master would have sent her there without providing a guide back. The journey from Newbury to Pascataquack would have been too perilous for a young woman to take alone, first crossing the Merrimack River in a canoe and then following the route to Pascataquack, which was described as little more than a path through the woods. In 1636, even the well-traveled path between Ipswich and Newbury was too narrow for a horse cart. In addition to the possibility of losing her way and becoming hopelessly lost in the woods between the two settlements, there was a very real danger of being attacked by wild animals or hostile Indians.

Seeing an opportunity to make a little money, William Schooler sought out Mary and offered to guide her home for fifteen shillings. He did not tell her that he himself had never made the trip to Pascataquack before. Two days after their departure, William Schooler was back in Newbury alone. When asked why he had returned so soon, Schooler replied that he had guided Mary to within two or three miles of Pascataquack, where she stopped, saying she would go no farther. Schooler left her there and returned to Newbury.

The people of Newbury remained suspicious, and Schooler was questioned by the magistrates in Ipswich. When he returned from the trip, he had blood on his hat and a scratch on his nose the "breadth of a small nail." He explained that the blood was from a pigeon he had killed and the scratch on his nose was from walking into some brambles. He was released, as there was no evidence then that a crime had been committed.

The following year, the Pequod tribe took up arms against the English colonists, and Schooler was drafted to serve in the militia. He deemed this service to be an oppression and publicly spoke out against it. His outspoken opposition was considered "mutinous and disorderly," and the governor issued a warrant against him. Schooler did not know about the warrant, and when he was arrested, he assumed he would be questioned again about Mary Sholy. He began to vehemently defend himself against the charge of her murder. Schooler's behavior made the magistrates suspicious, and since they now knew Mary Sholy had been murdered, they decided to reopen the case.

Newbury residents who knew him came forward to volunteer information on Schooler's character. In a Puritan court, the character of the accused was as important as the physical evidence against him. Here is the evidence against John Schooler as outlined by Governor John Winthrop in his book The History of New England from 1630 to 1649:

1. He had lived a vicious life, and now lived like an atheist.

2. He had sought out the maid, and undertook to carry her to a place, where he had never been.

3. When he crossed Merrimack, he landed in a place three miles from the usual path from whence it was scarce possible she should get onto the path.

4. He said he went by the Winicowett house, which he said stood on the contrary side of the way.

5. Being, as he said, within two or three miles of Swamscote, where he left her, he went not thither to tell them of her, nor staid by her that night, nor, at his return home, did tell any body of her till he was demanded of her.

6. When he came back, he had above ten shillings in his purse, and yet he said she would give him but seven shillings, and he carried no money with him.

7. At his return he had some blood upon his hat, and on his skirts before, which he said was with a pigeon, which he killed.

8. He had a scratch on the left side of his nose, and, being asked by a neighbor how it came, he said it was with a bramble, which it could not be, it being of the breadth of a small nail; and being asked after by the magistrate, he said it was with his piece, but that could not be on the left side.

9. The body of the maid was found by an Indian, about half a year after, in the midst of a thick swamp, ten miles abort of the place he said he left her in, and about three mile from the place where he landed by Merrimack, (and it was after seen by the English,) the flesh being rotted of it, and the clothes laid all on a heap by the body.

10. He said that, soon after he left her, he met with a bear, and he thought that bear might kill her, yet he would not go back to save her.

11. He brake prison, and fled as far as Powder Horn Hill and there hid himself out of the way, for fear of pursuit and after, when he arose to go forward, he could not, but (as himself confessed) was force to return back to prison again.

Schooler denied that he had murdered Mary Sholy, but the jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to hang. The court and the clergy tried desperately to persuade Schooler to confess, but he would not. Schooler was contrite at his execution, saying he had told many lies to excuse himself, but he vehemently denied that he had killed or ravished Mary Sholy. Some ministers and others argued that the evidence against him was not sufficient to take away his life, but Governor Winthrop disagreed and denied Schooler a reprieve, saying: "But the court held him worthy of death, in undertaking the charge of a shiftless maid, and leaving her (when he might have done otherwise) in such a place, as he knew she must needs parish, if not preserved by means unknown."

William Schooler was sentenced to hang on September 28, 1637.




The Scarlet Letter, by Salem author Nathaniel Hawthorne, was set in a Puritan Massachusetts village in 1642. In the book, young Hester Prynne is forced to wear the letter "A" on her breast as a badge of shame for her sin of adultery. This type of punishment — shaming the convicted criminal — was common in the towns of Essex County in the seventeenth century. While punishment might also include whipping, branding or imprisoning the sinner, public humiliation was always as important as physical pain.

On September 3, 1633, an inhabitant of Ipswich was sentenced to pay twenty pounds and stand with "a white sheet of paper on his back whereon 'Drunkard' is written in great letters" for "abusing himself shamefully with drink and enticing his neighbor's wife to incontinency and other misdemeanors."

On March 5, 1639, a person was severely whipped in Boston and Ipswich and forced to wear the letter "V" on his outer garment for the crime of "lewd attempts."

On April 15, 1684, a Salem man, convicted twice before of theft, was convicted of burglary in Ipswich and sentenced to be branded with a "B," to pay treble damages and to be whipped fifteen lashes in Salem on the next lecture day.

Other common modes of punishment used in Ipswich were:

• Stocks: Where the prisoner's feet are immobilized between two boards in a public place to be taunted by those who pass by.

• Pillory: Similar to stocks, the prisoner — usually someone who had "made haste to be rich by fraudulent practices" — must stand with his head and hands locked between two boards. Sometimes one or both ears would be clipped to mark the offense.

• Cage: A cage, about ten feet by sixteen feet, to hold Sabbath- breakers and other transgressors on lecture days so they would be exposed to the whole congregation.

• Cleft stick: To confine the tongue of convicted slanderers.

• Ducking and gagging: For the crime of "exorbitancy of the tongue in railing and scolding," it was ordered that "railers and scolds be gagged or set in a ducking-stool, and dipped in water, over head and ears three times."

Punishments were administered in the community where the criminal lived to maximize the humiliation. The exception to this rule was the punishment of capital crimes. No matter where the crimes were committed, executions took place publicly, on Boston Common, for the edification of the entire colony. Executions were solemn occasions, used by the clergy as an opportunity for moral instruction. They were always accompanied by a stern sermon.

On September 28, 1637, two men convicted in Essex County on separate counts of murder were executed in Boston at the same time, on the same gallows. The first was William Schooler, convicted a year earlier of killing Mary Sholy on the path to Pascataquack; the second was John Williams, convicted of killing John Hoddy near Great Pond in Wenham.

John Williams was a ship carpenter who had recently come to America from England. In 1637, he was in prison in Boston for theft. Williams and another prisoner, John Hoddy, escaped from the jail and traveled north. They had gone beyond Salem and were on the road to Ipswich, on the east end of the Wenham Great Pond — now called Wenham Lake — when they had a falling out. The two men had a fight that ended with the death of John Hoddy.

There are two versions of what happened next. In one story, John Hoddy's dog held Williams at bay until the noise drew the attention of enough residents of Wenham to apprehend Williams and take him to jail in Ipswich. The more likely story says that Williams took everything belonging to Hoddy, including his clothes, and buried his body under a pile of stones. Williams proceeded to Ipswich, where he was apprehended after being recognized as a criminal. Though his clothes were bloody when arrested, he would confess to nothing until a week later, when the body of John Hoddy was found. Cows at a farm near Great Pond smelled the blood and made such a "roaring" that they got the attention of the cow keeper, who, on investigation, found Hoddy's naked body under a heap of stones.

Around the same time, the justice of the peace in Ipswich learned that both Williams and Hoddy were escaped prisoners. Williams was indicted for the murder of John Hoddy and tried by the court of assistants in Boston. Though he confessed to the murder, the court insisted on enforcing Williams's right to due process and tried the case before a jury. Williams was, of course, found guilty and sentenced to death.

The double hanging in Boston of William Schooler and John Williams was an event significant enough to be immortalized in John Winthrop's History of New England 1630 to 1649 and has been retold in numerous Essex County town histories.



ESSEX COUNTY, 1638–1725

In Puritan Massachusetts, a married woman was addressed as "goodwife," often shortened to "goody"; an unmarried woman was a "singlewoman." While the moral laws of the Puritans could sometimes seem complex, a woman's role in society can be very simply expressed: the duty of a goodwife is to bear children; the duty of a singlewoman is to not bear children.

As simple as this rule seemed, it was not always easy to follow. In addition to the hardships of the American wilderness and the austerity of the church, married women sometimes buckled under the demands of tyrannical husbands, the rigors of almost constant pregnancy and the trials of raising good Puritan children. Singlewomen, unable to suppress natural urges, would succumb to seduction, and if the outcome was pregnancy, the consequences could be devastating for all involved. In both cases, the desperate women sometimes turned to murdering their own children. Given how unnatural this crime is in any culture, it was surprisingly common in the rigidly moral society of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Dorothy Talbye (also spelled Talbie) was a goodwife of Salem, noted for her esteem and Godliness. She lived with her husband, John Talbye, and their four children on a farm so small it could barely support them. Around the time of the birth of her fourth child, Dorothy became depressed and despondent. This condition manifested itself in the name she gave her new daughter. It was common among Puritans to name babies, particularly girls, after virtuous traits, such as Constant, Gracious, Hopeful. Dorothy named her little girl Difficult.

Her condition worsened, and Dorothy began to quarrel with her husband, her neighbors and clergymen. Believing that she could hear the word of God directly, Dorothy stopped attending church. God told her to stop eating meat and to stop feeding her family. Then she turned violent, assaulting her husband and on one occasion attempting to murder him. In 1637, she was brought before the magistrates in Salem, who ordered:

Whereas Dorothy the wyfe of John Talbie hath not only broak that peace & Love which ought to have beene both betwixte them, but also hath violentlie broke the kings peace, by frequent Laying hands upon hir husband to the danger of his Life, & Contemned Authority, not coming before them upon command, It is therefore ordered that for hir misdemeanor passed & for prevention of future evills that are feared will be committed by hir if shee be Lefte att hir Libertie. That she shall be bound & chained to some post where shee shall be restrained of hir libertye to goe abroad or comminge to hir husband till shee manifest some change of hir course.


Excerpted from "Murder & Mayhem in Essex County"
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Copyright © 2011 Robert Wilhelm.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements 7

Introduction 9

Her Final Journey: Newbury, 1636 15

Crime and Punishment: Wenham/Ipswich, 1637 20

Goodwives and Singlewomen: Essex County, 1638-1725 24

The Devil in Essex County: 1692 30

The Vengeance of Hannah Duston: Haverhill, 1697 39

John Adams for the Defense: Boxford, 1769 47

Pirates of Essex County: 1657-4789 54

Pomp: Andover, 1795 64

Vengeful Fire: Newburyport, 1820 69

"A Most Extraordinary Case": Salem, 1830 74

Circumstantial Evidence: Rockport, 1877, and Lynnfield, 1897 85

Driven by Delusion: Lawrence, 1885 95

The Beautiful Carrie Andrews: Essex, 1894 106

Breakheart Hill: Saugus, 1900 112

Bibliography 121

About the Author 127

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