Paul Revere’s Inquests Indicts Four Parents Charged with Infanticide. The Superior Court Jurys Acquit All
Paul Revere’s Inquests Indicts Four Parents For Infanticide
The Superior Court Jurys Acquit All
In the early 18th Century Apollo Rivoire’s parents sent him to live with his uncle in Guernsey, England to escape the Huguenot persecution in France that terrorized Protestants for a hundred years. The attacks began during the reign of Louis XIV and trickled down to his son, and grandson. [i] There were one and a half million Huguenots (Calvinists) in France at the beginning of the purges. In near equal increments, a third were killed, left the country or survived. At the age of twenty-one,[ii] Apollo sailed to America to become an apprentice under Boston’s premier goldsmith, John Coney.[iii] At the time, Boston was the largest city in America.
Once in Boston, Apollo anglicized his name to Paul Revere. Apollo served his apprenticeship and became a successful artisan. He had ten children, but the best known was Paul Revere Jr, his apprentice! Paul Revere Junior was nineteen years of age upon Apollo’s death. It would be twenty-one additional years to his “midnight ride,”[iv] at the age of forty.
The Boston that greeted a young Apollo Rivoire was dominated by Puritan principles. The “Godly” as the Puritans referred to themselves, were coincidentally virulent anti-Catholic. Unfortunately, for The Godly, they had been on the defensive since the turn of the century. The witch trials reviled Parliament, and the Quakers defied the Puritans private and exclusive hold on God. Their decline in America was accelerated as the English King revoked the Puritan’s charter to rein in their independence. They could no longer expel or execute heretics. The Colonial juries were moved from judging the accused by the Bible,[v] to rulings tempered by the realities of this growing agrarian nation.
Virulent anti-Catholicism was the bridge between Puritan’s and Huguenots. Artisanship quickly integrated the Huguenots to Boston middles class status. Consequently, the Calvinist Huguenot families of Rivoire, Faneuil, Bowdoin, du Pont and George Washington’s grandmother, found comfort and success among the Puritan majority. [vi] As a result, several groups with different social mores were instrumental in re-shaping the English judicial system exported to Boston.
Such was the social, religious and legal condition in Boston, and many of the Thirteen Colonies, that addressed the issue of infanticide. Up to now, most ministers in New England preached that a woman with an illicit child must have been invested by the devil. The religious leaders were supported in 1696 by the Massachusetts legislature that adopted from England an “Act to prevent the Destroying and Murthering of Bastard Children.”[vii] [viii] The law rationalized, the complicit man was a pawn duped into the seedy devilish affair. For more than one-hundred years, in New England, the all-male jury’s mindset assumed that the woman was guilty of infanticide and had to prove her innocence. Much of this was reinforced by sermons on Sundays. A “not guilty” verdict was near impossible, up to the third decade of the 18th Century. Statistics on women executed for various crimes numbered in the hundreds.[ix] The first confirmed hanging for infanticide took place in 1638: you guessed it, in Salem, Massachusetts. In the few instances that a female was judged innocent of murder, she would subsequently face charges of hiding a pregnancy. Typically, her guilty verdict of this secondary charge immediately led to many lashes, the scarlet letter or banishment.
The political, legal and religious leaders of the 18th Century maintained their biased position blaming the woman while excluding the man from responsibility. Thankfully, the lay community moved more towards center and recognized infanticide as a parental issue. By the end of the Century, the complicit fathers began to face legal action. Morality changed, providing more leniency to the mother. A few lay standards practiced by the Boston juries quietly adjusted the 1696 laws to eliminate any further executions of women for infanticide.
Those were the gradual but broad moral changes that coagulated in the middle of the 18th Century. A woman could successfully defend charges of murder if she appeared to prepare for the difficulties of giving birth. The un-wed mother dramatically increased the probability of her death during birth if she chose to conceal her pregnancy and delivery the child in secret. Let me reiterate that an illegitimate pregnancy and infant death practically led to a presumption of guilt and a charge of murder. For now, we will leave out a discussion of abortion as a preemptive solution.
*Typically, the jury nullified the indictment if any of the following could be presented;
All of the above provided a lay jury with means to find a woman innocent.
We are about to present to you three cases of infanticide forwarded by Paul Revere’s inquest juries to the Suffolk County Superior Court. Click on forty-six inquests to review all hearings conducted by Paul Revere.
There may be some very simple themes in all three cases impacting the legal process. The sheriffs, upon indictment, had difficulty taking the accused women into custody. Several sheriffs returned writs unprocessed claiming the accused was not in their district. Yet Rebecca Skillmore lived on Centre Street. A compass was not needed to find her. The accused women rarely could pay for counsel. Boston was a town of fifteen thousand people confined to nine hundred and fifteen acres entirely facing the waterfront and trailing off to the North End, a narrow peninsula of wharfs, docks and upper-class residents. A sliver of land called the “Neck” was the only land exit from town. Bostons gaol (jail) was terribly overcrowded, had often been set on fire by the inmates and was the last place to house a woman.
We begin with Rebecca Skillmore. Based on Paul Revere’s inquest jury that met on April 2, 1796, she was accused of neglect and the death of Joshua Skillmore, “child.” In contradiction, the Suffolk Court records showed the date of mortality of April 24, 1796. The sheriff returned the writ. The process was repeated in August, and she was finally arrested and tried on December 22, 1796. During the trial, the prosecutor charged that the child was born alive and if Joshua survived, he would be a bastard. No reference is made to the father. No man came forward to share responsibility. She did not incriminate the father. Perhaps, she knew that a denial by the father was typical and a jury would lay the blame on the enticing mother. Fortunately for Rebecca, no witnesses came forward to confirm the child was born alive. She was found not guilty.
Rebecca Wellman was indicted by the Revere inquest on January 20, 1797. A citizen found the body of an infant in a “valut” behind an older gentleman’s house. We believe this refers to a vault used to confine human and animal by-products or combustible material. The vault had value but was also supervised by health department officials, including Paul Revere, the head of America’s first health department. The inquest jury identified Rebecca Wellman as the mother. A writ was presented to the sheriff on May 5, 1797, and by August 29, 1797, the sheriff returned the writ failing to locate Wellman.
The third infanticide involved Jefre[x] and Hannah Porter parents of the six-year-old Porter twins. The jurors wrote, “not having the fear of God, before his eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil,”. . . mixed poison [(opium)] in their food and drink on March 6, 1799. Jefre was indicted. Hannah was exempted from prosecution and judged under the control of Jefre. A jury was immediately impaneled. Jefre was acquitted of both counts of murder without further explanation. The court-appointed counsels were Rufus G. Amory and John Lowell. Someday we hope to find a journal, newspaper or diary that may help us understand this decision. Short of legal logic “the devil made me do it,” may be another case of jury nullification; this time based on the Bible.
Three out of four parents accused of infanticide were acquited. The fourth parent, Hannah Porter, was never indicted by the prosecutor even though Paul Revere’s inquest jury charged her. Paul Revere continued as a Coroner for another year and a half. A new century was upon him. He turned sixty-six years of age. He had now lived ten years longer than the average male Bostonian. Of late his inquest work seemed to lack detail. His resignation letter graciously suggested he no longer could do the job justice. Perhaps, after the four infanticide acquittals justice by itself was a reason to resign.
A future blog will cover “The Speech of Polly Baker.” A treatise anonymously written by Ben Franklin to address the unequal treatment of women in similar legal circumstances.
[i] Louie the XIV trickled down his problems all the way to his grandson Louie XVI. Louie the XVI was a well-intended guy that eased the pressure on the Huguenots but lost his head to other matters.
[ii] Seems to be some dispute of Apollo’s actual age upon sailing to Boston.
[iii] John Coney’s works, today, may be found at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the MET in New York City. Last known private sale in 2002 by Sothebys was let for $324,750. "John Coney (silversmith)". New York: Sotheby's. 18 January 2002. Retrieved 25 February 2011.
[iv] A term coined by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his famous poem of 1861, in the Atlantic Monthly.
[v] The “Capital Law” that required execution for idolatry, witchcraft, blasphemy, murther (murder) and poisoning a devilish practice, and one other we’ll leave out.
Green, Samuel. He General Laws and Liberties of the Massachusets(sic) Colony:. Washington: Library of Congress, 1672. Reprinted. Web. 17 Apr. 2017. <https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/rel01.html>. Originally printed in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
[vi] The Huguenot Society of America, http://huguenotsocietyofamerica.org/?page=Huguenot-History
[Vii] Thorn, Jennifer. Writing British infanticide: child-murder, gender, and print, 1722-1859. Newark: U of Delaware Press, 2003. Print. P.92 numerous contributors.
[viii] Facts provided by Jennifer Thorn IBID.
[ix] Ancestry.com can refine the numbers. https://www.fold3.com/page/821_female_hangings_1632_to_1900#description
[x] Possibly Jesse. A review of our article on the “long s” may help or hinder identification of Mr. Porter.
Below is the three page indictment and verdict on Jefre Porter. In reading this, consult our article on the “long s” to better read the “Old English” format.
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