The Price of Adultery in
Puritan Massachusetts, 1641
This is the story of Mary Latham an eighteen-year-old girl who strayed from the moral path of her Puritan community and paid for her transgression with her life. Mary suffered from unrequited love. Spurned by the object of her affection, she resolved to wed the first man who came along. She carried out her threat by marrying a much older man for whom she could muster no fondness.
Mary was what we today would call a "Party Girl." She apparently liked a good time and it wasn't long after her wedding that she was seduced by the overtures of several young men (married and unmarried) to join in drinking parties that often led to sex. One of her companions was James Britton, a recently arrived professor from England. After the act (and the onset of an illness he presumed was a punishment) Britton's conscience persuaded him to confess his action. This was the start of Mary's misfortunes, for the Massachusetts colony had that very year constructed its first code of laws and among these was the penalty of death for the crime of adultery.
John Winthrop was the first Governor of Massachusetts Colony. He describes the plight of Mary Latham in his diaries:
"At this court of assistants one James Britton, a man ill affected both to our church discipline and civil government, and one Mary Latham, a proper young woman about 18 years of age, whose father was a godly man and had brought her up well, were condemned to die for adultery...
This woman, being rejected by a young man whom she had an affection unto, vowed she would marry the next that came to her, and accordingly, against her friends' minds, she matched with an ancient man who had neither honesty nor ability, and one whom she had no affection unto.
Whereupon, soon after she was married, several young men solicited her chastity, and drawing her into bad company, and giving her wine and other gifts, easily prevailed with her, and among others this Britton. But God smiting him with a deadly palsy and a fearful horror of conscience, he could not keep secret...
The woman dwelt now in Plimouth patent, and one of the magistrates there, hearing she was (wanted by us), sent her to us. Upon her
examination, she confessed he did attempt the fact, but did not commit it, and witness was produced that testified (which they both confessed) that in the evening of a day of humiliation through the country for England, etc., a company met at Britton's and there continued drinking sack, etc., till late in the night, and then Britton and the woman were seen upon the ground together, a little from the house.
It was reported also that she did frequently abuse her husband, setting a knife to his breast and threatening to kill him, calling him old rogue and cuckold, and said she would make him wear horns as big as a bull.
And yet some of the magistrates thought the evidence not sufficient against her, because there were not two direct witnesses; but the jury cast her, and then she confessed the fact, and accused twelve others, whereof two were married men. Five of these were apprehended and committed, (the rest were gone,) but denying it, and there being no other witness against them than the testimony of a condemned person, there could be no proceeding against them.
The woman proved very penitent, and had deep apprehension of the foulness of her sin, and at length attained to hope of pardon by the blood of Christ, and was willing to die in satisfaction to justice. The man also was very much cast down for his sins, but was loath to die, and petitioned the general court for his life, but they would not grant it...
They were both executed, they both died very penitently, especially the woman, who had some comfortable hope of pardon of her sin, and gave good exhortation to all young maids to be obedient to their parents, and to take heed of evil company."
This eyewitness account appears in: Winthrop, John, The History of New England 1630 to 1649 James Kendall Hosmer (ed.) (1908); Erikson, Kai T. Wayward Puritans (1966).
How To Cite This Article:
"The Price of Adultery in Puritan Massachusetts, 1641," EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2005).