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The Last American Martyr

Mises Daily: Tuesday, August 14, 2012 by

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[This article is excerpted from Conceived in Liberty, chapter 29, "Suppressing Heresy: Massachusetts Persecutes the Quakers." An MP3 audio file of this article, narrated by Floy Lilley, is available for download.]

William Leddra, executed for Quakerism, March 14, 1661

And still the indomitable Quakers kept coming. Among the most determined to bear witness was William Leddra. Again and again, Leddra had visited Massachusetts, had been whipped, starved, and driven out, only to return. Now Leddra was being dragged into court in his shackles, having been chained to a log of wood all winter. He was charged with sympathizing with the executed Quakers, with using "thee" and "thou," with refusing to remove his hat — in sum, with being a Quaker. Promised his life if he recanted his faith, Leddra answered: "What, act so that every man who meets me would say, 'this is the man that has forsaken the God of his salvation!'" When a magistrate asked Leddra if he would agree to go to England if released, the prisoner coolly replied, "I have no business there." "Then you shall be hanged," retorted the magistrate. Leddra appealed to the laws of England, but the court held — as might be expected — that England had no jurisdiction in the case, and pronounced the sentence of death.

Still chained to the log, Leddra calmly wrote shortly before his execution:

I testify … that the noise of the whip on my back, all the imprisonments, and banishments on pain of death, and the loud threatenings of a halter did no more affright me, through the strength and power of God, than if they had threatened to bind a spider's web to my finger.… I desire to follow my forefathers in suffering and in joy. My spirit waits and worships at the feet of Immanuel.

On March 14, 1661, William Leddra was led out to his execution on Boston Common. Once again, the heavily armed guard prevented him from addressing the crowd. But as the officers were taking him to the gallows, Leddra cried out: "For bearing my testimony for the Lord against deceivers and the deceived I am brought here to suffer." The people were so moved by Leddra's calmness and nobility that again the crowd threatened and once again the vigilant Reverend Mr. Wilson stepped into the breach, explaining to the people that many such criminals are willing to die for their "delusions."

Leddra was destined to be the last American martyr, although there were to be a number of close calls. Wenlock Christison, a banished Quaker, returned to Massachusetts during the Leddra trial in order to protest it in court. In the midst of the trial, Christison had appeared in court and warned Endecott: "I am come here to warn you that you shed no more innocent blood, for the blood that you have shed already, cries to the Lord for vengeance to come upon you." Christison was, of course, arrested immediately, and protested at his own trial that the law violated the laws of England. Given a chance to recant, Christison defiantly replied, "Nay, I shall not change my religion, nor seek to save my life. I do not intend to deny my Master, and if I lose my life for Christ's sake, then I shall save it."

Governor Endecott summoned the magistrates for the usual death sentence, but by now the groundswell of popular resentment against the bloodbath was becoming menacing and several magistrates, led by Richard Russell, refused to vote for death. Enraged at two split votes, and two weeks of determined opposition to the "bloody course," Endecott shouted, "You that will not consent, record it. I thank God I am not afraid to give judgment," whereupon he summarily and illegally declared the death sentence himself. Upon hearing his sentence, Christison warned the court: "What do you gain by it? For the last man that you put to death here are five come in his room; and if you have power to take my life from me, God can raise up the same principle of life in ten of his subjects and send them among you in my room, that you may have torment."

By early 1661 two Quakers were under sentence of death. Beside Christison, Edward Wharton of Salem had been a fellow prisoner and cellmate of Leddra throughout his final ordeal. Wharton had been fined heavily and whipped with 20 lashes for denouncing the killing of Robinson and Stevenson and was later arrested for being a Quaker. When Leddra was sentenced to death, Wharton was banished on pain of death and given ten days to leave the colony. Instead, Wharton accompanied his friend to the gallows and buried Leddra's body. He then went to Boston and wrote the authorities that he was there and there he would remain!

Yet these two courageous men, plus 27 other Quakers awaiting trial, were never executed. For word now reached Massachusetts of an event that was to prove momentous in the history of New England — and to spell the beginning of the long drawn-out end to the reign of the Puritan theocracy in Massachusetts Bay: the reestablishment of the monarchy in England. Now there was no longer an indulgent Puritan rule in England or a civil war to distract the imperial power from the knowledge that Massachusetts and the other New England colonies were totally self-governing.

Knowledge of the Restoration therefore gave the Massachusetts authorities pause. The year before, rising internal protest within Massachusetts had led them to free a Quaker couple from the death sentence. They also knew that English and banished American Quakers had been protesting the persecution to the home government. Indeed, George Bishop's New-England Judged had just been published and had made a deep impression on Charles II.

The king was particularly incensed at Massachusetts' scornful refusal of appeal to the laws of England. The banished Quakers presented a petition to the king detailing the persecution that they had suffered to date. Massachusetts countered with the charge that the Quakers were "open blasphemers" and "malignant promoters of doctrines tending to subvert both our church and state." Edward Burrough replied for the Quakers that they had never "lifted up a hand or made a turbulent gesture" against church or state, but had only warned sinners to repent. It was at this point that the news arrived in England of the martyrdom of William Leddra. Burrough gained a personal interview with the king and told him the news. Burrough warned, "There is a vein of innocent blood opened in thy dominions which will run all over, if it is not stopped." To the king this was the last straw: "I will stop that vein." "Then stop it speedily," Burrough implored, "for we know not how many may soon be put to death." The king promptly dispatched the banished Quaker Samuel Shattuck to Massachusetts with the order to stop all further execution and torture of the Quakers and to permit all imprisoned Quakers to leave for England.

Prudently, Massachusetts released all Quakers, and ordered them to leave for England or else leave the border of Massachusetts within eight days. Two recalcitrant prisoners were tied to a cart's tail and whipped out of the colony. Among the Quakers released were Christison and old Nicholas Upshall, who had been imprisoned for two years.

Massachusetts, however, refused to obey the order to transfer Quaker prisoners to England for trial as an infringement of its charter rights and privileges. Furthermore, the General Court sent two of the colony's most prominent leaders, Simon Bradstreet and Rev. John Norton, to England to justify persecution of the Quakers. The two denounced the Quakers' "dangerous, impetuous and desperate turbulence, both to religion and the state civil and ecclesiastical." The king now changed his mind and in effect rescinded his order, except for stopping the death penalty: "We have found it necessary … here to make a sharp law against them and we are well contented that you do the likewise there." Charles added the acknowledgment that Quaker principles were basically incompatible with the existence of any kind of state.

The Massachusetts authorities needed no more encouragement to resume their campaign against the Quakers — of course, stopping short of execution. It was at this point that the Cart and Whip Act was passed. This provided for tying Quakers to the tail of a cart and whipping them out of the colony. Death was now only the penalty for the sixth offense, but this was never to be enforced. The peak of the terror campaign had passed.

Massachusetts proceeded to enforce the Cart and Whip Act as thoroughly as it could, particularly against Quaker women. Many Quakers, including several of the released prisoners, were whipped out of the colony only to return. Public pressure forced a modification of the terms of the Cart and Whip Act in the fall of 1662, but the persecution continued undiminished. Particularly important was the case of three English Quaker women — Alice Ambrose, Mary Tomkins, and Ann Coleman — who had, along with the released Edward Wharton, gone to the annexed New Hampshire town of Dover and made considerable progress there among former Hutchinsonians and Baptists, as they did also in Maine. Finally, the Reverend Mr. Rayner, Puritan minister of Dover, induced the Massachusetts magistrates to apply the Cart and Whip Act to the three women. The women were duly stripped to the waist, tied to a cart's tail, and whipped through 11 towns, through deep snow, and lashed up to ten times apiece in each town. And yet the tortured women met their fate by singing hymns as they went. Finally, Walter Barefoot of Salisbury could stand the sight no more. Barefoot had himself made deputy constable and took it upon himself to liberate the three women — this despite the urging of old Rev. John Wheelwright, now residing in Salisbury, to continue the whippings. Wheelwright had now evidently made his peace with Massachusetts in every way and was busy repudiating his heretical and libertarian past.

As soon as they were freed, the three courageous women returned to Dover to continue their prayer meetings. Alice Ambrose and Mary Tomkins were promptly seized, dragged through the snow, imprisoned, and then tied to the tail of a canoe and dragged through deep and freezing water, almost being killed in the process.

Another important case was that of the unfortunate Elizabeth Hooton, an aging lady who had been the first woman Quaker in England. Her whole life a bloody hegira of persecution and torture, Elizabeth had walked virtually from Virginia to Boston where she was immediately jailed, taken to the border, and left in the wilderness, from which she walked to Rhode Island. Sailing back to Boston, she was arrested and shipped to Virginia. After being persecuted in Virginia, she went to England. Obtaining a special license from the king to build a house in America, she sailed to Boston once more. Here Massachusetts refused to allow Friends to meet in her home, and she left for the promising Piscataqua towns. At Hampton she was imprisoned, and in Dover put into the stocks and imprisoned. Then Elizabeth Hooton returned to Cambridge where she was thrown into a dungeon and kept two days without food. A Quaker, hearing about her sufferings, took her some milk, for which she was fined the large sum of five pounds. Despite her letter from the king, Elizabeth was given ten lashes in Cambridge, then taken to Watertown and lashed ten times more, and, finally, tied to a cart in Dedham and whipped through the town with ten more lashes. At the end of this travail she was left at night in the woods; from there she managed to walk to Seekonk and thence to Newport.

Incredibly, and notwithstanding this bloody odyssey, Elizabeth Hooton did not give up. Once again she returned to Cambridge, where after being subjected to verbal abuse by a group of Harvard scholars she was whipped through three towns to the Rhode Island border. Yet again Elizabeth returned to Massachusetts to bear witness to her faith. Again she was lashed ten times, put in prison, then whipped at a cart's tail through three more towns, and left in the woods. Back again, she went to Boston, was whipped out of town once more and threatened with death if she returned. But Elizabeth continued to return and the authorities did not dare go all the way; she was whipped out of several more towns, and walked again to Rhode Island.

In protest against these punishments, many Quaker women began appearing naked in public as a "naked sign" of the persecution, for which behavior they were, of course, whipped through the towns.

Another turning point in the Massachusetts persecution of the Quakers came in the mid-1660s. As will be treated further below, King Charles II sent a commission to New England in 1664 with instructions to reestablish the royal power. The commissioners promptly ordered Massachusetts to stop all persecution of the Quakers, so that they might "quietly pass about their lawful occasions." They added that it was surprising that the Puritans, who had received full liberty of conscience themselves, should refuse it to other religious groups. Although Massachusetts by no means submitted to commission rule, the Puritans dared not go too far in persecuting the Quakers for fear of losing their precious charter. Furthermore, the bloodstained older generation of the Puritan oligarchy had begun to die off, and to be replaced by a far more moderate generation. In 1663 the spiritual leader of the colony and of the persecutions, the Reverend John Norton, died at the age of 57, and the Quakers may be pardoned for exulting that this took place "by the immediate power of the Lord." Two years later, the temporal leader of the colony, Governor John Endecott, followed Norton in death. It is ironic, incidentally, that none other than Elizabeth Hooton turned up at Endecott's funeral and attempted to address the throng.

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And so the ruthless attempt to eradicate Quakerism from Massachusetts Bay had signally failed. As Roger Williams had warned Massachusetts when the Quakers first arrived, the more savage the persecution the more adherence to the Quakers would multiply. Not only did this happen, but internal opposition to the oligarchy multiplied as well. By the 1670s, troubled by their failure and by the growing internal and external opposition, the Massachusetts authorities decided to slacken their campaign of terror. Despite the urgings of such diehards as the Reverend Thomas Shepard, an open Quaker meeting in Boston in 1674 was allowed to be held. By 1676 the Reverend Mr. Hubbard was concluding that "too much severity" in persecution could only lead to "incurable opposition and obstinacy." The last case of Quaker persecution occurred in 1677, when Margaret Brewster came out from a sick bed in sackcloth and ashes "to bear a testimony and be as a sign to warn the bloody town of Boston to end its cruel laws." She was duly whipped through Boston at the tail of a cart.

The bloody persecution of the Quakers was over. The Massachusetts theocracy, while succeeding in driving out Roger Williams and the Hutchinsonians, had failed completely to extirpate the indomitable Friends.