Hanging of a Puritan for abuse of a child

William Franklin of Newbury, hanged for the death of an indentured child in 1644

Children in the 17th and 18th Century New England colonies generally arrived with their families, but hundreds of English children were taken from the streets and unwillingly taken without their parents to be indentured as servants. Although the practice was more common in the Southern colonies, Joshua Coffin in his History of Newbury shared a story from John Winthrop’s journal of a man who was hung for murdering his child servant through abuse:

“In this month June, William Franklin, one of the first settlers of Newbury and one of the ninety-one grantees was hung in Boston for murder. He had been found at the last court of assistants guilty of murder, but some of the magistrates doubting of the justice of the case, he was preserved till the next this court of assistants.

The case was this: He had taken to apprentice one Nathaniel Sewell, one of those children sent over the last year from England. He used him with continual rigor and unmerciful correction and exposed him many times too much cold and wet in the winter season, and used divers acts of rigor towards him, as hanging him in the chimney and so forth, and the boy being very poor and weak, he tied him upon a horse and so brought him sometimes sitting, and sometimes hanging down to Boston, being five miles off to a magistrates.

And by the way the boy calling much for water, would give him none though he came close by it; so as the boy was near dead when he came to Boston and died in a few hours after.

The governor magistrates and elders having met at Salem May thirtieth to consider this and several other cases,the magistrates seeming to be satisfied. Warrant was signed by the governor a week after, which was not approved by some in regard of his reprieval to the next court of assistants. He had been admitted into the church at Roxbury about a month before.”

From the History of Newbury, Mass 1635-1902 by John J. Currier:

“William Franklin, one of the early settlers of Newbury, was accused of excessive cruelty, which resulted in the death of a boy whom he had taken as an apprentice (Nathaniel Sewel). He was tried at the Court of Assistants in April, 1644, and “was found guilty of murder; but some of the magistrates, doubting of the justice of the case, he was reprieved till the next court of assistants.”

May 29, 1644, the General Court, after further consideration of the case, declared : “William Franklin is refered to the magistrates. If they see cause he may have a second trial for his life the next Quarter Court.”

The governor and magistrates having met at Salem, May 30, 1644, were not disposed to grant the condemned man a second trial, and promptly sentenced him to be hanged for murder. A warrant was signed by the governor a week after, which was not approved by some, in regard of his reprieve to the next court of assistants.”


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