A Real Puritan Woman: Joan Braybrooke Penny

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Mehitabel’s Evil Stepmother : Joan Braybrooke Penney

Joan Braybrooke, one of the main characters in “The Shadow of Salem: The Redemption of Mehitabel Braybrooke, had every reason to be angry. Her husband, Richard Braybrooke, and their indentured servant were accused of fornication in 1652 by the courts in Ipswich, Massachusetts.  After being whipped and fined, Richard fulfilled the next part of his sentence: he was to raise his infant daughter Mehitabel in the Braybrooke home.

It was also a historical fact that Joan held Mehitabel in contempt throughout her childhood. The Braybrooke’s neighbors attributed their opinions of sixteen-year-old Mehitabel to their conversations with her stepmother Joan. The actual court records quote them to describe Mehitabel as “unchaste and spiteful,” and as “a liar and a thief.”

How tragic that Mehitabel would be the only child in the Braybrooke household. Joan Braybrooke was a barren woman; a situation considered a sign of God’s disfavor in the Puritan culture.

Joan made it into the Ipswich court records for her own offenses on several occasions. In 1653, she was brought into the quarterly court for “wearing a silk scarf,” a crime in Massachusetts if her husband’s property was valued at less than 200 pounds. The Puritans viewed the wearing of lace or silks as a privilege only for the wealthy. She was proven not guilty on that charge. Joan was also charged four years later with “a breach of the Sabbath” for “carrying a half bushel of corn or pease” on her way to church. The Puritans had rather draconian punishments for those who violated the Sabbath rest!

The most dramatic event in Joan’s life came in the year 1692 with an accusation that would be punishable by death if proven true.  Read about Joan Braybrooke Penney in The Shadow of Salem. 

This article is part of a series telling the history of some of the real Puritan women who were part of Mehitabel’s life in the historical novel In the Shadow of Salem. The book is in print and e-book format through Amazon.   Linked here:  https://amzn.to/2GWUHzO

The Tragic Life of A Real Puritan Woman: Rachel Clinton

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The story of Rachel Haffield Clinton’s tragic life lies buried in the early records of Ipswich, Massachusetts. Her family emigrated to New England on the sailing ship named The Planter in the spring of 1635. She grew up in an affluent household when Ipswich was a new village in the colony of Massachusetts, but the Haffield family’s fortune dwindled shortly after their arrival.

The years to come would find Rachel destitute and then accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witchcraft Trials. Rachel is one of  the fascinating characters in the newly released historical novel In the Shadow of Salem.” https://amzn.to/2GWUHzO

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An Interview with Mehitabel Braybrook Downing

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could interview an ancestor from long ago?  Please enjoy my interview with Mehitabel Braybrooke Downing, the main character in my historical novel, In the Shadow of Salem.

DONNA: Thank you for this unique opportunity to interview you, my 8th great grandmother. Would you start out by telling me about your beginnings−your birth?

MEHITABEL: I was born in 1652 in Ipswich, Massachusetts which was a Puritan colony. My birth mother was my father’s indentured servant. She and my father were brought before the Ipswich courts for the sin of fornication, and they were both whipped, and my father was fined.

DONNA: Tell me about your early years in Ipswich.

MEHITABEL:  The courts insisted my father Richard had to take me to his home and raise me as a good Puritan child. Joan, my stepmother, always resented me and didn’t treat me kindly even though she had no children of her own. I was their only child.

DONNA: How did you and your husband, John Downing meet?

MEHITABEL: We were both born and raised in Ipswich. Everyone knew one another as the colony was still so young. He was ten years older than me, so we were not childhood playmates.

DONNA: You married him at quite a young age.

MEHITABEL:  Yes, like you mentioned in the story, most Puritan women didn’t marry until they were about twenty-two, but things were not going well for me after my time in prison for arson. John wanted to marry me, but my father also rewarded his willingness with a very handsome dowry.  My father gave John about half of his lands.

DONNA: So your in-laws really were the illustrious Emanuel and Lucy Downing?

MEHITABEL: Yes, but they had moved back to England and Emanuel had died by the time we married. Lucy was not attentive to her children she left in the colony. I heard that historians have even written about how Lucy foolishly put all her attention on Sir George, her eldest son. He certainly didn’t treat her well when she became elderly and was forced to depend on him.

DONNA: In your opinion, were the book’s details of your arson trial accurate?

MEHITABEL: Oh, yes!  As I read the court reports about the trial, I am deeply embarrassed. The records present me as a fool and pretty evil, but I was only sixteen. The fire was really a horrible mistake, but I was guilty of starting the fire with my pipe. Standing back now, it all seems so surreal.

DONNA: What about the horrible things said about you in the testimony from your neighbors?

MEHITABEL:  You can see where my neighbors got their wrong opinion of me.  My stepmother, Joan’s words were quoted by others in the court records, calling me unchaste and a liar.

DONNA: It must have been horrible living with a stepmother who hated you.

MEHITABEL: Yes, I didn’t have a loving mother to guide and teach me. The goodwives of the village would criticize and gossip about me.

DONNA: Can you talk about the incident with the pigs tearing at your clothes?

MEHITABEL:  That really did happen. Just like my setting the Perkins’ house on fire, I landed in court, and there is an account that exists to this day.

DONNA:  So, was my accounting accurate?

MEHITABEL:  Let’s just say that you were very kind, but you got the basic story correct.

DONNA:  What about John Beare?  Was he your real cousin?

MEHITABEL:  Absolutely. He lived with us for quite a few years, and father gave him some property when John Beare was of age.

DONNA: What were the most difficult times in your life?

MEHITABEL: My two times in prison were horrible experiences. Prisons back then were vile, cold, and filthy. If your family did not bring food for you, you had to pay for it. If shackles were necessary, the prisoner had to pay for them, and we were given a bill for the cost of our time in prison if we were released.

DONNA: Did I spell your name correctly?

MEHITABEL:  I notice my name was spelled differently in various records, but you chose the one I used: Mehitabel. I used that spelling in that letter “The Ten Persons of Ipswich”−the one we wrote in prison in 1692. That was my signature! Your readers should know that spelling wasn’t standardized back then. My maiden name is spelled Brabrook, Braybrooke, Brabrooke and even Brubruck on different records. Whoever was doing the writing decided on the spelling of a person’s name.

DONNA: How do you feel about having a novel written about you?

MEHITABEL: I am thrilled that finally an accurate and complete story of my life has been written. For the past 350 years, the only things known about me came from those Quarterly court records. It has been so hard to accept that my descendants could only read about my youthful foibles and sins, and even some of those were distortions. Can you imagine how hard this injustice has been to endure for over three hundred years?

DONNA: Is there anything else that the readers of your story should know?

MEHITABEL: They might be interested to know I am probably the only Puritan woman of my time who had historical documents from birth to my life’s end. Court and town records have left me with a rather scurrilous reputation, and I am grateful that you made a valiant attempt to see beyond the cold facts.

In the Shadow of Salem can be purchased on Amazon.com:

https://www.amazon.com/Shadow-Salem-Donna-Gawell/dp/1946016500/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1532380324&sr=8-2&keywords=in+the+shadow+of+salem+by+donna+gawell

 

 

In the Shadow of Salem

I am excited to announce the release of “In the Shadow of Salem” (The Redemption of Mehitabel Braybrooke.). After five years of research and writing, my historical novel is now available for pre-order on Amazon.com for a sizeable discount before the official release date of June 18, 2018.

“In the Shadow of Salem” is a historical novel about the life of Mehitabel Braybrooke, a Puritan woman born in 1652 in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Mehitabel was accused of crimes−the first for arson and the second for witchcraft. History has not been kind to Mehitabel, but what was the real story behind her scurrilous reputation? Would she ever be redeemed from her lifelong curse? Or was Mehitabel as wicked as her numerous Essex Court Records imply?

This novel is the first time any author has written about Mehitabel’s amazing life from birth to the end of her life. Mehitabel Braybrooke Downing is one of the 200 people accused of witchcraft during the Salem trials, but she found herself in the courts on more than a few other occasions. I’m grateful that she generated so many Essex Country court and town records and that she happens to be my 9th great-grandmother!

Please visit the pages on my website dedicated to Puritan history, articles about the real people who are characters in the novel, and “The ABC’s of Crime and Punishment in Puritan New England.

Link for ordering:

https://amzn.to/2GWUHzO

 

The Founding Mother of Harvard: Lucy Winthrop Downing, A Puritan Lady of Influence

Lucy Winthrop was a woman who knew how to get things done in the male-dominated world of the English Puritans. She was born into the aristocratic society of her parents, Sir Adam Winthrop, Lord of the manor of Groton and Anne Browne on January 9, 1601. History remembers her colorful letters and strong, sparkling personality, but Lucy’s most important accomplishment might be her influence in the founding of Harvard.

Lucy married Emanuel Downing, a barrister of the Inner Temple in 1622. She was a pious Puritan, but still enjoyed the life of a lady during her years in London. Lucy’s surviving letters and actions made her priorities clear: her eldest son George was her most important child. His education and career reigned supreme in her life, and she probably rivaled the most determined helicopter mom of the 21st century. Unfortunately, Lucy lived to see her folly and learned that with favoritism came its sister ‘Regret’.

Sir George Downing

The serious and staunch Puritans lamented the tarnished moral state of colleges in England during the 1630’s. The well-educated who wished to follow their families and colleagues to the Massachusetts Bay Colony were presented with a dilemma. New England had no college, but the English universities were rife with “raucous behaviors and frivolities.”

There were no suitable institutes of higher learning for the Puritans on either continent, but Lucy was not about to allow this obstacle prevent her family’s immigration to the Americas. Lucy began a campaign to encourage the founding of a college in New England for her most esteemed son George. Her cherished brother, John Winthrop, was the first governor of the colony and surely had significant influence.

Governor John Winthrop

Winthrop had written many letters to the Downings encouraging them to immigrate. Emanuel represented the Massachusetts Bay Colony before the Privy Council in London on behalf of the colony, and so had knowledge about the opportunities and risks concerning a move to America. Lucy wrote to John about the fearful stories she had heard about life in the colonies: “…many good people here and some that understand New England reasonable well, both by sight and relations of friends, that are able to judge, they do much fear the country cannot afford subsistence for many people, and that if you were not supplied of incomes from hence, you lives would be very miserable…” A skilled negotiator such as Lucy Downing knew she should not appear overly optimistic about such a huge endeavor as a move to the Americas.

In the summer of 1636, John Winthrop increased his efforts for the Downings to join him and his family in New England. Lucy had the keen sense that her influential brother could remove the one barrier that kept them from moving. She wrote a letter to John. “George (her son) and his father comply more cordially for New England; but poor boy, I fear that journey would not be so prosperous for him as I could wish in respect that you have no societies…for the education of youths in learning; It would make me go far nimbler to New England if God should call me to it than otherwise I should, and I believe a college would put no small life into the plantation.” Lucy wanted a college for George!

It cannot be a mere coincidence that in late October 1636 the General Court of Massachusetts agreed to allot £400 to establish a school or college in Newtown, which would later be called Cambridge. The legislature and learned Puritans were fearful “to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.” John Winthrop, as the highly esteemed founder and governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, must have exerted significant influence on behalf of the Downings who had already invested in land and livestock in the colony.

Statue of John Harvard

John Harvard considered one of the founders of Harvard, bequeathed the infant seminary £780 and 400 scholarly books from his library upon his death in 1638. The grateful legislature named the new school “Harvard.” Since Harvard had already been founded two years prior to this gift, John Harvard was not truly a founder but a generous benefactor. Lucy persistence and pressure on the importance of a college in the new colony had to be more than a matter of chance. No other individual’s names are attached to the impetuous to build the colony’s first institute of higher learning. The decision came from the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, of which John Winthrop was a member.

With the news of suitable educational opportunities in New England, the Downings set sail on the Thomas and Francis in 1638. As educated Puritans, they were impressed with the learned and pious men already in the Massachusetts Bay Colony but were likely concerned about the deprivations of colonial life. The Downings left behind their stately London home and summer residence filled with maids and the luxuries expected by the elite for the more primitive accommodations and treacheries in the new colony.

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The Downing’s House on Essex Street in New England

The Downing family lived with Lucy’s brother John until they erected a house on three hundred acres of land in what is now Peabody. They called this plantation “Groton” after Lucy’s English manor. In the summer of 1645, the chimney caught fire while the entire family was away, and the entire house was destroyed. The family moved to a house on Essex Street where they lived until the Lucy and Emanuel returned to England in 1656. Emanuel received an appointment as Clerk of Council of State in Scotland, and they remained there until his death in 1660.

George Downing was a member of the first graduating class from Harvard in 1642 and was second in his class. He was offered a position as Harvard’s first tutor, which was then a prestigious honor. In 1645, he went to Barbados as a chaplain to Sir John Okey’s regiment. It appears he forgot most of his spiritual training after that assignment.

Lucy moved to London after her husband’s death, likely assured she would reap the benefits as the mother of Sir George Downing who was enjoying the protection and privileges from the royal court. Sadly, George treated his mother no better than he did many others. Lucy lived out the rest of her years under the alleged neglect of her most esteemed son. Desperate, she wrote letters to relatives to ask their assistance in petitioning George to increase her allowance as she “suffered in her old age for the necessities of life.”

“I am now at £10 a year for my chamber and for my servant’s wages and have to extend the other £10 to accommodate for our meat and drink, and for my clothing and all other necessaries I am much to seek, and more your brother George will not hear of for me, and he says that it is only covetousness that makes me ask more.”

Lucy’s nephew John Winthrop Jr., Governor of Connecticut, heard of her distress and begged George to “help Aunt Lucy in her time of age and infirmity.” George dismissed the letter insisting he could do no more, although he had already become a very wealthy and influential man. He was Sir George Downing, 1st Baronet and known as a statesman, diplomat, turncoat, and spy.  Downing Street in London and New York City are named in his honor.

Two centuries after Lucy’s death, her story came to the attention of Harriet Hanson Robinson, a 19th-century author and suffragette. HHR pitied Lucy’s situation during her old age but commented on this familiar scenario. “Lucy Downing established the unwise precedent of educating one member of her family at the expense of the rest- a precedent followed by too many women of her time.” HHR’s observations were accurate as no other Downing sons were educated at Harvard and her daughters were sent out to service in the colonies. One of these daughters was forced to marry against her wishes, although most of her children married quite well. Lucy died April 9, 1679 in London.

Lucy’s colorful writing lives on and shows her sense of humor and unique choice of words. The lack of spelling and grammar conventions back then make her letters sometimes difficult to read, but they provide a rare insight into the life and concerns of this educated and well to do Puritan woman who lived on both continents. Although she was a mother to nine children and three stepchildren, her letters to family rarely mention any except George. This omission seems noteworthy considering she left seven of them in the colonies when she moved back to England.

Why didn’t Harvard pay more tribute to any member of the Downing family for its very existence? Lucy, although educated and cunning was still a female and had little authority or observable power. Not only could women not vote, but they were not allowed control over their own money or inheritances. It was a man’s world. Also, Lucy abandoned any influence she may have enjoyed in the colony when she had her husband returned to England.

The most likely reason for Harvard forgetting the Downing’s influence is that Sir George Downing, one of its first graduates and its first tutor, was held in very low esteem by the colonists after he returned to England. First siding with Cromwell, George switched his allegiance back to the king when the crown was restored. This was remarkable since George gave his full allegiance to Cromwell, but showed the skill of currying favor with those in power throughout his political career, even if it meant traitorous behavior.

George blamed his time with Cromwell on his teachers at Harvard and the elite back in the colonies for their ill conceived ideas and teachings. Word of this traitorous and disloyal behavior reached the colonies and George was forevermore held in disdain. It became a proverbial expression in New England to refer to a false man who betrayed his trust as “an errant George Downing.”  Harvard had little reason or incentive to honor Sir George Downing or his mother, Lucy Winthrop Downing.

Lucy’s father, Sir Adam Winthrop

My Corrupt Political Ancestor: Sir George Downing

In honor of our presidential candidates, I would like to present my 9th great uncle, brother-in-law to Mehitabel Braybrooke Downing

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Sir George Downing is high on my list of “ancestors of whom I am not proud to claim.” Downing was a man of considerable political, diplomatic, and financial ability, but his character has often been brought into question by his enemies because of his willingness to make the most of changing political circumstances and to viciously betray former comrades to win favor from those in power.

   Downing Street, the residence of the British Prime Ministers, was named after him and Downing College in London was named after his grandson, Sir George Downing III. Sir George Downing, 1st Baronet, led an intriguing life and was in the first graduating class at Harvard.

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