17th Century Quaker Women Gone Wild (part 1)

Introduction: In this article, Melissa Davenport Berry begins a series describing three brave Quaker women who defied Puritan officials in Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1600s. Melissa is a genealogist who has a website, americana-archives.com, and a Facebook group, New England Family Genealogy and History.

My focus for this series covers three brave 17th century Quaker women: Lydia Wardwell, Deborah Wilson, and Margaret Brewster. They were among the many dames who protested the orthodox Puritans in Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1600s.

Illustration: Quaker Mary Dyer being led to the gallows, 1660. Originally painted by Howard Pyle in 1905, this version is from “Howard Pyle’s Book of the American Spirit: The Romance of American History,” published by Harper & Brothers in 1923.
Illustration: Quaker Mary Dyer being led to the gallows, 1660. Originally painted by Howard Pyle in 1905, this version is from “Howard Pyle’s Book of the American Spirit: The Romance of American History,” published by Harper & Brothers in 1923.

Several Quakers seeking religious liberty in the Colony suffered torture, and even the scaffold, at the hands of the Puritans. Absence from local parish services typically resulted in a summons, the consequences of which included heavy fines, whippings, or banishment. To read more, see the links at the end of this story.

“The Naked Waked”: Lydia (nee Perkins) Wardwell

Lydia Perkins Wardwell, daughter of Issac Perkins, married Eliakim Wardwell in 1659. The couple resided in Hampton, New Hampshire, on a prosperous farm, but their fortune and peaceful existence came under attack due to their Quaker faith.

It’s no wonder she pulled a Lady Godiva on the Puritans.

In 1663 Lydia was summoned for non-attendance of church, and she well understood what her fate would be with church elders.

Nevertheless, Lydia made a stark declaration of protest in response to her summons, appearing “skyclad” in Newbury as a “sign” of the spiritual nakedness of her persecutors.

Her exhibitionist act was barely imaginable to the pious Puritan elite and must have jolted quite a reaction from the locals.

Her “strange and fanatical” action was defended by 17th century soldier-turned-Quaker George Bishop, who published the story of the persecutions of the Quakers in his work New England Judged. The Newburyport Herald published a section from Bishop regarding Lydia.

An article about Lydia Wardwell, Newburyport Herald newspaper 20 June 1845
Newburyport Herald (Newburyport, Massachusetts), 20 June 1845, page 1

Bishop wrote:

His wife Lydia, being a young and tender chaste woman, seeing the wickedness of your priests and rulers to her husband, was not at all offended with the truth, but as your wickedness abounded she withdrew and separated from your church at Newbury, of which she was sometimes a member, and being given up to the leading of the Lord, after she had been often sent for to come thither, to give a reason for such a separation, it being at length upon her in the consideration of their miserable condition, who were thus blinded with ignorance and persecution, to go to them; and as a sign to them, she went in (though it was exceeding hard to her modest and shamefaced disposition) naked amongst them, which put them into such a rage, instead of consideration, they soon laid hands on her, and to the next court in Ipswich had her, where without law they condemned her to be tyed [sic] to the fence-post of the tavern where they sat – and there sorely lashed her with twenty or thirty cruel stripes. And this is the discipline of the church of Newbury in New England, and this is their religion, and their usage of the handmaid of the Lord, who in a great cross to her natural temper, came thus among them, a sign indeed, significatory enough to them, and suitable to their state, who under the visor of religion, were thus blinded into such cruel persecution.

Though most historians question her sanity, Lydia’s motives for disrobing resembled the signs acted out by Hebrew prophets, a doctrine taken very seriously by both the Puritans and the Quakers. Her bold act was driven by the heinous punishment and torture inflicted upon her family and friends.

Illustration: prisoners being confined in the stocks, from “Curious Punishments of Bygone Days,” by Alice Morse Earle, 1896, p. 29.
Illustration: prisoners being confined in the stocks, from “Curious Punishments of Bygone Days,” by Alice Morse Earle, 1896, p. 29.

Background

Lydia’s husband Eliakim was repeatedly stripped of his assets, and records reveal that he was fined (along with Lydia) for a 20-day absence from church in April 1662 and again in October 1663.

The Wardwell home was also the scene of conflict while the couple harbored Wenlock Christison, a notable Quaker who was jailed with Mary Dyer and William Leddra (who were both hanged in Boston). Though he escaped the scaffold, Christison was banished from the Colony.

Illustration: “Wenlock Christison Defying the Court.” Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Illustration: “Wenlock Christison Defying the Court.” Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Christison was on the Colony’s ten-most-wanted list, and Rev. Seaborn Cotton felt it his duty to “keep the wolves from his sheep,” and with “truncheon in hand, he led a party of order-loving citizens” to the house of Wardwell, seized Christison, and shuffled him off to jail.

Christison moved to safer territory, settling in Talbot County, Maryland. He was elected to the lower house of the Maryland General Assembly and later inspired Longfellow’s hero in John Endicott, from his The New England Tragedies.

As Cotton confiscated lands from the Wardwell estate and bankrupted them with heavy fines for non-attendance of Sabbath, Lydia managed to muster strength, a true testament to her faith.

The Puritan persecution of the Quakers was harsh. Several “Friends of the Light” were hanged or had their ears severed. Those sentenced to jail were often denied food and water.

The Wardwell’s were present in Dover, New Hampshire, in December of 1662 when three Quaker women (Alice Ambrose, Mary Tompkins, and Anne Colemen) were stripped naked to the waist, tied to a cart, and paraded around several local towns in the depths of winter after being whipped.

While the public flogging was administered by Rev. John Rayner, Eliakim did not shy away from calling the reverend a brute – and back in the stocks he went.

John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem How the Women Went from Dover portrays the event. It includes these lines:

The tossing spray of Cocheco’s fall
Hardened to ice on its rocky wall,
As through Dover town in the chill, gray dawn,
Three women passed, at the cart-tail drawn!

Bared to the waist, for the north wind’s grip
And keener sting of the constable’s whip,
The blood that followed each hissing blow
Froze as it sprinkled the winter snow.

Priest and ruler, boy and maid
Followed the dismal cavalcade;
And from door and window, open thrown,
Looked and wondered gaffer and crone.

“God is our witness,” the victims cried,
We suffer for Him who for all men died;
The wrong ye do has been done before,
We bear the stripes that the Master bore!

Illustration: the punishment of Quakers Alice Ambrose, Mary Tompkins, and Anne Colemen, from “The Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier,” 1885.
Illustration: the punishment of Quakers Alice Ambrose, Mary Tompkins, and Anne Colemen, from “The Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier,” 1885.

Lydia Wardwell could not pull off her impromptu burlesque show in a house of worship without getting the strap. What happened next? Stay tuned…

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Note on the header image: “Cassandra Southwick in court before the magistrates,” from the Boston Globe, 23 October 1923.

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2 thoughts on “17th Century Quaker Women Gone Wild (part 1)

  1. Yes, the Puritans were quite awful to the Quakers. Lydia and Eliakim are aunt and uncle to one of my ancestors, Sarah Wardwell, so I knew their story well. Sarah and her husband Moses Stickney moved from Newbury north into New Hampshire where Quakers were more welcomed.

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