Monday, May 21, 2012

Manslaughter!

Proper genealogical research aims at uncovering the truth about our ancestors, however unsavory that truth may be.  One such example of moral failings was in 1655 when my distant ancestors Robert and Susannah Latham were responsible for the death of their 14-year old servant.

In 1655, Robert and Susannah Latham were a young couple living in the town of Plymouth in Plymouth Colony, in what is now Massachusetts.  They had been married for about six years and had about four or five young children. Both Robert and Susannah came from Puritan families that were among the original settlers of the Plymouth Colony. Susannah's mother, Mary Chilton, was a passenger on the Mayflower, and said to be the first white woman to set foot on Plymouth Rock.

Robert and Susannah were not wealthy, but by the winter of 1654-1655 they did have a servant named John Walker.  John Walker was at the time about 14 years old and was perhaps an indentured servant.  On January 15, 1654/1655, John Walker died while in the custody of his "master", Robert Latham.  His body was subsequently brought before a coroner's jury.  The inspection found that John's body was covered with bruises, slashes and open sores and showed evidence of being frozen.  When questioned, Robert admitted to whipping the boy, including the day he died.  A witness also testified that at one time John was made to carry a log that was much heavier than him and when it fell on top of him, he was whipped by his master until he got up. The investigation revealed that John was also not given sufficient food, clothing or lodgings.  John was "put forth in the extremity of cold", and thus died.  The inference then is that poor John literally froze to death, his death being exacerbated by starvation, mistreatment and physical injuries.

Upon these findings, Robert Latham was arrested and was indicted for "fellonious cruelty."  At the next meeting of the court, Robert was found guilty of "manslaughter by chaunc medley." ("chance-medley" was an old legal term used to describe unintentional killing, but usually in terms of self defense) During the proceedings, Robert asked for mercy in his punishment. He was sentenced to be "burned in the hand" and all of his goods were to be confiscated by the court.  This was a rather light sentence given that the punishment for murder was execution.  The wording of his guilty verdict though implied that the jury did not believe that Robert intended for John to die, thus he was not deserving of the full punishment for murder.

Although Robert was convicted and sentenced for John's death, it became clear that his wife Susannah was also indirectly responsible for John's death.  The inference is that although Susannah might not have physically harmed John, both Robert and Susannah had colluded with each other about the treatment, and that Susannah did nothing to help him.  On June 6, 1655, Susannah was brought before the court and arraigned for cruelty.  She was never prosecuted for the crime and eventually the matter was dropped entirely in 1658, leaving her a free woman.

Robert and Susannah's oldest daughter Mercy Latham was my ancestor.  During the murder and subsequent trial of her father, Mercy was just 4-years old.  It must have been made on a strange impression on young Mercy to possibly be witness to a murder and to have known that her own parents were responsible for the death of an innocent person.

My descent from Robert and Susannah:

Robert Latham md. Susannah Winslow
- Mercy Latham md. Isaac Harris
--- Desire Harris md. John Kingman
---- Deliverance Kingman md. Ebenezer Orcutt
----- Samuel Orcutt md. Susanna Bates
------ Keziah Orcutt md. Jesse Worrick
------- Hannah Worrick md. Thaddeus Bixby
-------- Henry A. Bixby md. Mary Palfrey
--------- Henry W. Bixby md. Julia M. Thurston
---------- Neil F. Bixby md. Bertha Hoffman
----------- Patricia J. Bixby md. Ben T. Plymale
------------ Barbara Plymale md. Randy Wadleigh
------------- Ryan Wadleigh

Sources:
1. Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England. Court Orders. Vol. III. 1651-1661. Boston, William White Printer, 1855.
2. Walker, J.B.R. Memorial of the Walkers of the Old Plymouth Colony.  Northampton, Metcalfe & Co., 1861.
3. Savage, James. A Genealogical Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England. Boston, Little, Brown & Co., 1860.
4. Stratton, Eugene A. Plymouth Colony. Its History & People. 1620-1691. Salt Lake City, 1986.

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