Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

"And the Author of Wickedness Surely Is Most to Be Blamed": The Declaration of Debora Proctor

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

"And the Author of Wickedness Surely Is Most to Be Blamed": The Declaration of Debora Proctor

Article excerpt

Hog Island lies a quarter mile off the Massachusetts coast. Containing some 135 acres of trees, fields, and a house built in the 1730s, the island is clearly visible from the shoreline. The marshes and beaches of Ipswich and Essex are equally visible from the island. Hog Island's history is sometimes separate from, but often closely entangled with, that of the mainland it faces. Today, much of its colonial past is buried in a bird sanctuary, although the 1995 filming of The Crucible on the island provided an inadvertent nod to its first English settlers, the Proctor and Choat families. Familial connections led to their joint presence on the island in the 1690s and culminated in a bitter, hard-fought court battle in 1705. Twenty-eight-year-old Martha Proctor had become pregnant out of wedlock. Local rumor held that her cousin by marriage, Thomas Choat, was the father of her child. The resulting trial pitted the determination of the Proctors against the financial resources and wits of the Choat family while documenting the voices of Martha Proctor; her mother, Debora Hart Proctor; her cousin Mary Varney Choat, wife of the accused father, Thomas; and the midwife who assisted Martha at the birth of her child, Elizabeth Low.

The legal process by which a community provided for a child conceived out of wedlock followed a strictly gendered formula in the early modern period. Men dominated the first stage of the process: Heads of households whose sons had been accused of fathering illegitimate children or whose daughters became pregnant out of wedlock provided the courts with either alibis for their sons or proofs of the honorable intentions of their daughters' suitors. Women became central to the second stage of the process, when, at the birth, the mother-to-be would name the putative father of her child before her midwife. The midwife's testimony was the only evidence nearly guaranteed to carry a courtroom conviction. When it came time for the inevitable trial to determine who had fathered Martha Proctor's child, Thomas Choat, a wealthy member of the Ipswich community, found it a relatively easy process to produce deponents who were willing to vouch for his upstanding character. By contrast, Debora Proctor, a widowed head of household, had limited legal options. Unlike a male head of household, she could not prosecute the putative father of her daughter's child. Nor did she have the authority to force her daughter to name a father during the birth, something Martha had firmly refused to do. Consequently, Debora Proctor devised a third method to address the challenges facing her and her family. Before her daughter's trial in September 1705, she sent a lengthy statement to the Essex County court justices describing her interpretation of the events leading to Martha's pregnancy.

Debora Proctors Declaration of the Case concerning Thomas Choat survives today as the most extensive description of a sexual crime in colonial Essex County. Well-documented paternity trials from this area usually produced depositions and warrants, subpoenas and bills, together totaling approximately 750 to 1,000 words. Proctor's Declaration, by contrast, measures 12 by 24 inches in size and contains approximately 2,000 words. In addition to detailing the pregnancy, Proctor describes her attempts to mitigate the extensive persecution her family had suffered since Martha had become pregnant. Without birth testimony from Martha, Choat was unlikely to be convicted of impregnating her. Instead, Proctor gambled that a careful documentation of Choat's "wickedness" would encourage the Essex County justices to take a second look at the evidence relating to the case.

Today, sexual crime is usually defined as forced or non-consensual sex; in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, all sexual acts occurring outside of the marriage bed were considered to be crimes. Hence, sexual misconduct trials were a frequent occurrence in most colonial courtrooms, and Essex County, Massachusetts, was no exception. …

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