Women and the Law in Farmington

Author: Kevin Simon

When the founders came to Farmington they looked to create a pious paradise on Earth. With diligence and hard work they created a community in their own image, righteous, and upright.  But not everything was as perfect as the first families intended.  Some dark traits came with them to the new world.  By the turn of the seventeenth century some alarming events took place that would challenge their idyllic world.

A Two Sides of a Coin: What drives a Mother to Kill, and a Wife to Murder?

In the quiet little hamlet of Farmington there were two murders. One was a crime of necessity; the other, an act of passion.  Amy Munn murdered her child on the night of March 11, 1698.  As an unwed mother and a servant in the home of Samuel Wadsworth she was in no position to raise a child.  Beyond the financial responsibility of raising a child Amy knew she would be convicted of fornication, fined and whipped before the community.  Infanticide was a capital crime, but Munn was not executed. She was convicted of notorious negligence.  Her charges were reduced for a lack of witnesses, though the circumstantial evidence was damning.  What pushed a mother to such an extreme?  We will never know, but there were pressures on young people at this time to remain chaste.  Each small New England town had an interest in preventing illegitimate births, concerned that these new children to become a financial burden on the community.

Abigail Thomson was quite another matter. Described by her neighbors as quarrelsome and termagant she berated and abused her husband regularly.  On December 17, 1705, matters came to a head when in a fit of rage she flung a pair of tailoring shears at her husband, piercing his skull.  Poor Thomas clung to life for nearly twenty days, suffering from his wound, before he passed away.

“...Thomson did threaten that she would kill her husband...” Quote from Abigail Thomson's indictment.

“…Thomson did threaten that she would kill her husband…” Quote from Abigail Thomson’s indictment.

During the depositions, Abigail’s harsh nature was exposed. She was known to threaten her husband and say she would be the death of him.  A neighbor, Joseph North, recalled on multiple occasions she chased him from the house and threw rocks at him.  At first Abigail denied throwing the shears in anger, but then when that story was not believed she claimed he had beaten her with a broom, and she struck him in self defense.  Not a single deposition was made in her defense. The court was not moved.

Abigail was sentenced to death, but received a stay when she claimed pregnancy. Hopefully, Abigail named her daughter Mercy delivered in 1706.  Mercy went into the care of her uncle who lived in Wallingford, but Abigail would not get a reprieve.  She was believed to be executed in May of 1708.  These women demonstrated rare instances of violence in a quiet community, but they were actors in their own right, however the final case was a victim of her circumstances.

A Person Before the Law: The Sad Case of Hannah Norton

When Hannah Norton came to court things did not go well for her. Her legal entanglements diminished her standing in her community and before the law.  Hannah Norton married Samuel North and started an uneventful life in Farmington.  Her quiet life unraveled after her husband died in 1683.  The widow North stayed with her neighbors, the Ortons, for several days, then returned home.  A few weeks later Thomas Hancox accused her of unclean acts with John Orton.  Hancox was her jilted suitor.

By North’s account she was assaulted. Orton’s story was different.  He testified that she took his hand and gave him rum.  Even Orton’s wife supported her husband, saying the widow North, “loved his company.”  Both Orton and the North were fined, twenty pounds and seven pounds respectively.  In what must have been an excruciating letter North begged for forgiveness from God and the court for her unclean acts, but did not budge from her claim of assault.

“...I Did not yield my consent and willingness in ye mater...” Quote from Hannah North's deposition.

“…I Did not yield my consent and willingness in ye mater…” Quote from Hannah North’s deposition.

 

But this was not the end of the widow North. Just three years later another controversy arose.  Hannah’s new husband, John Rew, accused Matthew Woodruff of fathering her child.  Woodruff was an associate of her first husband Samuel.  Both Woodruff and Hannah denied this and so did the Court of assistance, dismissing the charges and Rew’s appeal.  One can only imagine how Hannah’s reputation must have suffered having a husband who publicly questioned the paternity of his child.

The new Mrs. Rew was not finished in court, though this final case omitted her name. When John Rew came home one night in October of 1719, he was in for one big surprise. His home had been completely cleared out.  The impressive inventory stolen included warming pans, a dresser, and cookware.  Rew, found his cupboards bare, and exclaimed they left him “not so much as a rag to wipe my fingers”  During the night Roger Orvis and Samuel Warner cleaned out his house, and divvied up the goods hiding them under the floor boards of their homes.

...not so much as a rag to wipe my fingers on...” Quote from John Rew's lengthy deposition.

…not so much as a rag to wipe my fingers on…” Quote from John Rew’s lengthy deposition.

When the men were hauled in front of the judge they claimed Rew’s wife, Hannah, had given them permission to take the items. The argument John Rew made to get back his goods was a final blow to his wife, whom he claimed could not settle his debts, “for she is not a person in law.”  He argued that when bound to a man she did not have to power to dispense with his goods, even those brought as dowry.  The sad case of Hannah Norton, assaulted by her neighbor, disgraced by her husband, whose husband questioned her legal identity, is a story of both women’s oppression and women’s resistance.  One can only hope Hannah’s story had more happiness than the courts revealed.

...for she is not a person in law...” Quote form John Rew's lengthy deposition.

…for she is not a person in law…” Quote form John Rew’s lengthy deposition.

 

Farmington Overlay Map 3

Moving left to right, point 1 is the location of Thomas Thomson’s home where he was killed.  Point 2 is the location of the alleged assault on Hannah North.  The last point is the location of Samuel Wadsworth’s home, where Amy Munn lived.

Recommended Readings about Women and Crime in New England

  • Dayton, Cornelia Hughes. Women Before the Bar: Gender, Law, and Society in Connecticut, 1639-1789. 3rd ed. edition. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
  • Hearn, Daniel Allen. Legal Executions in New England: A Comprehensive Reference, 1623-1960. McFarland, 1999.
  • Hull, N. E. H. Female Felons: Women and Serious Crime in Colonial Massachusetts. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
  • Karlsen, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.
  • Mann, Bruce H. Neighbors and Strangers: Law and Community in Early Connecticut. 1st New edition edition. The University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
  • Roth, Randolph. “Child Murder in New England.” Social Science History 25, no. 1 (2001): 101–47.
  • Salmon, Marylynn. “The Legal Status of Women in Early America: A Reappraisal.” Law and History Review 1, no. 1 (1983): 129–51. doi:10.2307/744005.