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
Ancestry from the Great Migration Period in America is one that many family researchers seek to claim. This period includes the time between the Pilgrim’s landing in Plymouth to about 1640. In reality, about 80% of the total immigration from Great Britain and the continent prior to the Revolutionary War were indentured servants.
Indentured servants could be sold during their indenture and were in about the same situation as a slave except they would be released after the agreed upon time, usually 5-7 years. Even this could be extended if the servant violated a term of their contract. For example, if a woman became pregnant, extra time would be added to her contract. Criminal behavior or running away had the same consequence.
Puritan sentences for crimes were harsh indeed! Branding with a hot iron might be considered unthinkable to the modern American, but it certainly presented a visible warning to all the colonists. It was another part of life considered normal for the Puritans. Everyone knew what each branded letter represented, and the bearer was treated accordingly.
Branding was considered legal in England and all of her colonies and often took place in the courtroom right after the magistrate rendered the verdict. A group of spectators could always be counted on to witness the event.
My new series of blog posts will go through the alphabet as I describe the interesting crimes and punishments that took place in the early colonial period in Essex County, Massachusetts. The blogs will also be a permanent page under the title “The ABC’s of Crime and Punishment in Puritan New England.
“A for Adultery”
Hester Prynne made the Scarlet Letter of “A for Adultery” well known in Early American history. This fictional single woman was forced to sew a scarlet colored “A” on her bodice as punishment for her adulterous affair with a married man.
The Essex County Court Records from the early colonial period contain numerous accusations of fornication. The records sometimes use euphemisms such as “insinuating or wanton dalliance”, “unlawful familiarity” and “committing folly.”
Mehitabel’s status of a “bastard child”
Mehitabel’s life began poorly with the distinction of being a “bastard child”. There are a number of legal terms that refer to this situation more delicately: bar sinister, illegitimate, or “nullius filius”, which means “child of no one”, but Mehitabel was one of the more fortunate children born into this slanderous status. Puritan laws in the new American colonies forced men to take more responsibility for the sin of fornication. Continue reading