Search This Blog

Monday, September 24, 2012

"I Acknowledge That I Have Been More Hard-Hearted Than The Sea Monsters": Samuel Ladd and Elizabeth Emerson

The story of Samuel Ladd is an uncomfortable one.  If you read the previous post, you'll recognize him as the Ladd who was killed by Natives during a raid, the Natives afterwards commenting on his sour countenance.  To me, his story illustrates how patriarchal (and I mean that in its worst sense) society was during the time of the founding of the United States.  Most of the information I used to piece together his story comes from these sources:  The Ancestry of Betsey Emerson Wright by Jeffrey Rehm (1996),  "'They Die in Youth And Their Life is Among the Unclean':  The Life and Death of Elizabeth Emerson" by Peg Goggin Kearney (1994, published online), "The Haverhill Emersons:  Revised and Extended" by Jane Emerson James, 1983, and the websites ("1693:  Elizabeth Emerson, article by Robert Wilhelm, author of Murder and Mayhem in Essex County) and ("Colonial Massachusetts and Elizabeth Emerson"). 

My husband's forebear Samuel Ladd was born on November 1, 1649 in Haverhill, Massachusetts, USA.  (Haverhill went back and forth between Mass. and New Hampshire in its early days.)  He was the son of Daniel Ladd Sr., who was a major landowner and  founding member of the town, and his wife Ann (Moore) Ladd.   Like his father, Samuel was a farmer.  He married Martha Corliss on December 1, 1674, at age 25, and as a wedding gift his father built him a house next to his own in the village of Haverhill.  Samuel and Martha had ten children between 1676 and 1697.  As the son of a founding townsman, Samuel had a relatively high social status within Haverhill.

Early Haverhill.

Samuel had a brush with the law in June 1677, three years after his marriage.  He was accused of breaking into a  house, belonging to Frances and Ann Thurla, at night with a servant, entering the bedroom of their daughter Sarah,  and trying to persuade her to leave the house with them by telling Sarah that her aunt was ill and needed her.  When the master of the house awoke to investigate Samuel ran out of the house.  He was found guilty in court of a misdemeanor and fined, but it's unclear what he and his companion were trying to do.  Were they planning to assault Sarah, or was theft their motivation? Fortunately, whatever their plans, they were thwarted before any harm was done.  Samuel was charged with a misdemeanor in the Haverhill court, found guilty, and paid a fine as his sentence required.

The true blight on his reputation though, as far as I'm concerned, comes from his connection with Elizabeth Emerson, an unmarried woman sixteen years younger than Samuel who lived with her parents.  There are hints that the  Emerson household was a violent one even by the standards of the time (and don't forget, this is a culture where men were normally entitled to beat their children and even spouses without fear of the law);  in 1676, Elizabeth's father was charged and convicted of  "cruel and excessive beating...and kicking" of Elizabeth, and was fined three shillings.  Elizabeth would have been twelve years old at the time.

In 1686, at age 22, Elizabeth gave birth to an illegitimate daughter, Dorothy.  Elizabeth's father Michael accused a man named Timothy Swan of being the father, but the Swan family denied the charge (Timothy's father went on record saying that he "had charged him [Timothy] not to go into that wicked house and his son had obeyed and furthermore his son could not abide the jade.").  Nothing was ever proven and there are no further records of the child Dorothy's existence.

Five years later, in 1691, Elizabeth became pregnant again, and kept her pregnancy a secret, although she was carrying twins.  She later testified that she kept the pregnancy secret out of fear of  her father's reaction.  She gave birth on May 7th, 1691, in the dead of night, apparently in the same bedroom as her parents slept, so quietly that no one in the family woke up.  The twin boys were either stillborn or Elizabeth killed them at birth.  It is possible that they were premature--especially considering that her pregnancy had not been made public--but we don't know for certain.   She hid the bodies from her parents and three days later buried them on her family's property in a small sack that she had sewn.

A short time later, neighbours who had suspected that Elizabeth was pregnant received a warrant to examine her and search the premises.  While her parents were in Church, the women examined Elizabeth for signs of pregnancy or childbirth, which they found.  The men, meanwhile, discovered the children's graves.  Elizabeth was arrested on a charge of murder.  She named Samuel Ladd as the children's father, and also stated that he was the only man she had had relations with, implicating him as the unacknowledged father of Dorothy as well. Elizabeth claimed that she had a long-term relationship with Samuel Ladd, which took place at a local inn.  Samuel Ladd was repeatedly named as the children's father in the court records.  There seemed to be no dispute about the paternity of the twins, unlike Elizabeth's first daughter Dorothy.

Elizabeth's trial took place in a Puritan society, and the law was not her friend.  She steadfastly denied killing the children, saying that they were both stillborn and failed to cry or show signs of life at their birth.  However, it didn't matter--clearly the children were hers and she confessed to burying them in secret, which in itself was a criminal offense punishable by execution.  Although the children's paternity was open knowledge, Samuel Ladd was never questioned in regard to the case.  Many sources attribute this to his social status in Haverhill society, and Elizabeth's lack of status as an unmarried mother coming from a poor family.  In September 1691 Elizabeth was sent to the Boston Gaol  to be hanged for "whore-dom".   Here is a transcript of the sentencing:

"26th Sept. Elizabeth Emmerson single woman Daughter of Michael Emmerson of Haverhill in the County of Essex being indicted by the Jurors for our Soveraigne Lord & Lady King William & Queen Mary upon their Oathes.  for that the sd. Elizabeth Emmerson being with child with two living Children or Infants on Thursday night the 7th of May 1691 before day of Fryday morning at Haverhill aforesd in the house of Michael Emmerson aforesd by the Providence of God two Bastard Children alive did bring forth and the sd. Elizabeth Emmerson not haveing the feare of God before her Eyes and being instigated by ye Devil in her malice forethought, the sd. two infants did feloniously kill & Murther, and them in a small Bagg or cloath sewed up, and concealed or hid them in sd. Emmersons house untill afterwards, that is to say, on sabbath day May the tenth 1691, the sd two Infants in the yard of sd. Emmerson in Haverhill aforesd did secretly bury contrary to the peace of Our Soveraign Lord & Lady the King & Queen, their Crown & Dignity, the Laws of God, and the Lawes & Statutes in that case made & provided.  Upon which Indictment the sd Elizabeth Emmerson was arraigned and to the Indictment pleaded not guilty & put herselfe upon Tryal by God & the Country, a Jury was impannelled being the first Jury, whereof mr. Richard Crisp was foreman, and were accordingly sworne...The Indictment Examination & evidences were read & the prisoner made her defence, The Jury return their Verdict, the Jury say, That the sd. Elizabeth Emmerson is guilty according to the Indictment.  The Court Order, That sentance of Death be pronounced ag. her."  

Elizabeth was to spend two years in the Boston prison before her sentence was carried out.  A 1689 description of conditions there paints a cold, gloomy picture: 

"the old stone gaol on Prison Lane [had]...outer walls...of stone three feet thick, its unglazed windows barred with iron, the cells partitioned off with plank, the doors covered with iron spikes, the passage-ways like the dark valley of the shadow of death."

Now, remember that until this point Elizabeth had never admitted to killing the infants, only to concealing her pregnancy and burying them clandestinely when they were stillborn.  However, it was in Boston Gaol that Elizabeth ran up against that famous confession-extractor, Cotton Mather.  A Puritan Minister and a highly educated and influential man, Mather is best known for his role in the Salem witch trials.  It appears that, along with witches, he took a vigorous interest in the sins of young unmarried mothers.  Mather was well-known for extracting confessions from stubbon women, using emotional, intellectual and physical coercion.  Elizabeth was subjected to many sessions with Mather, and in the end she confessed to the murders of her children.  On the day of her execution, Mather preached a triumphant sermon to a large crowd which included the repentant Elizabeth, and read Elizabeth's confession aloud at the climax.  The sermon was published afterwards both in America and London, and, according to Mather, was "greedily bought up." Here is Jeffrey Rehm's rather tart appraisal of Mather's sermon:

"This sermon which says remarkably little at very great length can be found on microfiche #655 of 'Early American Works.'  Cotton Mather immodestly stated it was one of the greatest sermons preached in America.  I suffered through reading a large part of it and it does not mention murder at all, but dwells at length on different aspects of unchastity.  In fact it begins with a quotation from the Bible which warns against naming or speaking of different forms of "Uncleanness", and then proceeds to name every form of sexual aberration.  It is no wonder it was greedily bought up.  It was the closest thing to pornography of its day."

Cotton Mather, Circa 1700

Cotton Mather discusses Elizabeth's case in his diary:

I had often wished for an opportunity, to bear my Testimonies, against the Sons of uncleanness, wherein so many of my generation do pollute themselves.  A young Woman of Haverhil, and a Negro Woman also of this Town were under sentence of Death, for the Murdering of their Bastard children.  Many and many a weary Hour, did I spend in the Prison, to serve the souls of those miserable Creatures...I accompanied the wretches, to their Execution;  but extremely fear all our Labours were lost upon them, however sanctifying unto many others."

I'm sure the hours spent with Mather were weary ones for Elizabeth as well.  Elizabeth's confession itself is quite remarkable, I think.  I personally suspect that Mather either wrote it himself or dictated it to her.  I can't see a woman in her circumstances, and with her paltry education, creating such a document herself.

"I am a miserable sinner, and I have justly provok'd the holy God to leave me unto that folly of my own heart, for which I am now condemned to die.  I cannot but see much of the anger of God against me in that word of his, 'Evil pursueth sinners!'  I therefore desire humbly to confess my many sins before God and the world;  but most particularly my blood guiltiness.

Before the birth of my twin-infants, I too much parlied with the temptation of the devil to smother my wickedness by murthering of them.  At length, when they were born, I was not insensible that at least one of them was alive;  but such a wretch was I, as to use a murderous carriage towards them, in the place where I lay, on purpose to dispatch them out of the world.  I acknowledge that I have been more hard hearted than the sea-monsters;  and yet for the pardon of these my sins, I would fly to the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, which is the only 'fountain set open for sin and uncleanness'.  I know not how better to glorifie God, for giving me such an opportunity as I have had to make sure of his mercy, than by advertising and entreating the rising generation here to take warning by my example, and I will therefore tell the sins that have brought me to my shameful end.  I do warn all people and expecially young people, against these of uncleanness in particular."

The confession goes on for several more paragraphs, with Elizabeth alternately bewailing her own "distressed, perishing soul", her "hardness of heart", her disobedience to her parents, and her "haughty, stubborn spirit", and warning her audience to profit from her example.  To me, it just doesn't ring true.   At the very least, I am sure that much of the phrasing must have come from Mather during the many "weary hours" he was "persuading" her to admit to infanticide. 

Elizabeth was hanged in the Boston Common on June 8, 1693, after being taken to hear Cotton Mather's sermon.  The unnamed Negro woman also convicted of infanticide was hanged along with her.  Cotton Mather was in attendance at the execution.  Elizabeth was hanged on a tree known as the "hanging elm" or the "hanging tree".

The Hanging Tree on Boston Common, where Elizabeth Emerson was executed. 

Descriptions of hangings from contemporary sources describe the condemned prisoner being made to climb a ladder leaning against the tree, which was then taken away once the noose was around their neck.   According to custom,  the hanged person's body would be left on the tree to rot away, unless their family or friends paid to claim it and give it a proper burial.  There is no record of anyone doing this for Elizabeth. 
A woman just before execution.

You'll notice how peripheral Samuel Ladd is to this whole sad tale.  After impregnating Elizabeth, he left her to fend for herself during the pregnancy (according to Elizabeth, Samuel was the only person who knew she was with child) and afterwards.  If Elizabeth was telling the truth about Ladd being the father of Dorothy as well, there is no indication that he ever offered support for their daughter.  I am struck by the fiery language the men in positions of power over Elizabeth use against her. The document recording her sentence all but declares that she is in league with the devil, and Cotton Mather clearly never even entertained the possibility that she might be telling the truth about her children's deaths.  Considering that twins are considered a high-risk delivery even today, and that Elizabeth had no one helping with the delivery of possibly premature infants, I think it is possible that the children did not survive their birth.  Of course, it is also possible that, overwhelmed with the knowledge that Samuel Ladd would not acknowledge the children, that her father would be furious and possibly very violent, and that she and the children would be socially stigmatized, she succumbed to depression and desperation and ended their lives.

There's a lot to wonder about with this story.  What does all this say about Ladd's character?  To me, he seems unfeeling and even predatory, but he seems to have received no public censure, so perhaps in the context of his time his actions were not that unusual.  I wonder also what Ladd's wife and children made of all this.  I do try not to judge the people I write about, but I will admit that Samuel isn't my favourite ancestor.    If someone in my husband's family had to get conked on the head with a tomahawk, I'm not sorry it was him.


  1. Enjoyed this story Claire. I have a brick wall I'm trying to knock down in genealogy. I had insufficient sources on a certain family line and am getting closer to identifying with Michael Emerson and Hannah Webster, Elizabeth's parents, being 4th GG. Albeit awhile ago, thank you for posting.

  2. Not my favourite ancestor, either! 😉