The Last American Martyr

Email Print



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

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

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
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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian School,
founder of modern libertarianism, and chief academic officer
of the Mises Institute. He
was also editor — with Lew Rockwell — of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his literary
executor. See
his books.

2012 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided
full credit is given.

Best of Murray Rothbard

Email Print