Mary Martin of Boston: Guest Post by Adrian Tinniswood

Adrian Tinniswood is one of the best living 17th-century historians, and I’ve long admired his work. Not only is he a great historian, but he happens to be one of the friendliest chaps I’ve had the pleasure of communicating with since moving to the UK. I was very excited to learn that he agreed to contribute a guest post for The Seventeenth Century Lady. His newest book, The Rainborowes, is out today in both the USA and the UK. So, please give a very warm welcome to Adrian!

Rainborowes jacket

Mary Martin of Boston

In an extract from his new book The Rainborowes, out on 5 September, Adrian Tinniswood describes a 17th-century crime and its aftermath. The story starts in December 1646, as two cousins of the Rainborowe family, Nehemiah and Hannah Bourne, are preparing to leave Massachusetts and return home to England…

At their leaving there happened a slight, sad episode; one of those things which, having no great significance beyond itself, refuses to be pushed aside even when the death of kings and the fall of empires clamour for attention. John Winthrop told the story of how the Bournes left behind them a 22-year-old servant girl, Mary Martin, whose father had also gone back to England. Mary had been living in Casco Bay on the southern coast of present-day Maine before she came to work for them, and while she was there she had an affair with a married man. Once in Boston she found that she was pregnant and, too ashamed to admit it to anyone, she concealed the fact – not as hard as one might expect in an age when women wore loose-fitting clothes and tended to bear rather smaller babies than today. Mary behaved herself so modestly that when people came to Hannah Bourne and told her their suspicions about her maid, she

‘would not give ear to any such report, but blamed such as told her of it’.

The girl gave birth by herself in secret, in the night, in a back room of the Bournes’ house. Hard to imagine. But there was more. As the new-born baby started to cry Mary placed it on the floor and knelt on its head until she was sure it was dead. Then she laid it beside her.

It was strong. Stronger than she thought. And after a time it started to cry again. So she battered it to death, and put it in her trunk, and cleaned the room, and got up the next morning as though nothing had happened.

Six days later Nehemiah and Hannah boarded their ship for England, and Mary Martin went to another place in Boston, taking her trunk and its dreadful contents with her. Without Hannah’s protection, she was powerless when a local midwife who had been convinced of her pregnancy confronted her and

‘found she had been delivered of a child’.

She confessed, but maintained the baby had been stillborn and said she had thrown its body on the fire. Then her accusers opened her trunk. She was brought before a jury who, making use of an old superstition that if a murderer touched the head of his or her victim, their guilt would be revealed, produced the baby’s body and forced her to touch its face –

‘whereupon the blood came fresh into it’.

A surgeon found that the child had a fractured skull; Mary confessed to killing it and was sentenced to hang on the gallows in the square at Boston.Mary Martin illustration

The last act in this sad little tale of panic and retribution is the worst. John Winthrop tells it:

‘After she was turned off and had hung a space, she spake, and asked what they did mean to do. Then some stepped up, and turned the knot of the rope backward, and then she soon died.’

There are all kinds of ways in which the story of Mary Martin illuminates our understanding of the past. We can treat it as an example of sexual exploitation (where was the baby’s father in all this?); as an instance of peer-pressure in Puritan communities, or of the role of folk-customs in the judicial process. We can shake our liberal heads at the brute horror of capital punishment, and thank God that the past is another country.

But sometimes, I think it’s no country for old men like me. ‘She spake, and asked what they did mean to do’. That poor girl.


Adrian Tinniswood is the author of twelve books on architectural and social history and is well-known as an author, lecturer and broadcaster in Britain and America. In June 2013 Adrian was awarded an OBE for services to heritage. His new book, The Rainborowes: Pirates, Puritans and a Family’s Quest for the Promised Land is published by Jonathan Cape in the UK and Basic Books in the US. You can buy it now:


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