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Burned at the Stake (1681)

Puritanism was based on strict theological ideals. A crime against one person was a crime against every member in the community, and punishment was swift and often brutal. The following case exists in the Records of the Court of Assistants in Massachusetts. An African-American slave named Maria attempted to burn down the house of her owner. She was found guilty and burned at the stake. It is one of only two cases in Massachusetts history where such harsh punishment was pronounced. The other case is that of Phillis, another African servant, that was found guilty of murdering her owner. The following is the court record about Maria converted into modern English:

"Chessaleer black servant to Thomas Walker, brick maker, now in jail on suspicion of joining with Maria black servant in burning of Doctor Swan's and [unnamed] houses in Roxbury in July last The Court on consideration of the case judged it meet to order that he be kept in prison until his master sends him out of the country....

The like judgment and sentence was declared against James Pemberton's black servant in all respects as against Chessaleer, etc.

Maria, black servant to Joshua Lambe of Roxbury in the County of Suffolk in New England being presented by the Grand Jury was indicted by the name of Maria for not having the fear of God before her eyes and being instigated by the devil at or upon the eleventh of July last in the night and did wittingly, willingly and feloniously set on fire the dwelling house of Thomas Swann of Roxbury by taking a coal from under a still and carried it into another room and laid it on the floor near the door and presently went and crept into a hole at a back door of her master Lambe's house and set it on fire, also taking a live coal between two chips and carried it into the chamber by which also it was consumed, as by your confession will appear contrary to the peace of our sovereign Lord, the King his crown and dignity the laws of this jurisdiction in that case made and provided title firing of houses.

The prisoner at the bar pleaded and acknowledged herself to be guilty of said fact. And accordingly the next day being again brought to the bar and sentenced of death pronounced against her by the honorable Governor [Simon Bradstreet], yet she should go from the bar to the prison from whence she came and thence to the place of execution and there be burnt.

Thy Lord be merciful to thy soul."

The penalty for arson at that time was execution, so presumably in this case Maria was burned at the stake as her apparent intention was to murder others in such a way. It can be described as an eye of an eye justice, and is completely unconstitutional in modern America.

Quite bizarre about this execution, a slave named Jack was convicted of arson in a separate case, and was also hanged at Roxbury. After his death, his body was tossed onto the fire of that of Maria's. Jack's sentence was that he be "hanged at the neck till he be dead & then taken down & burnt to ashes in the fire with Maria."

Please remember that Puritan capital punishment prevailed at the time; burglary was punishable by death for instance, regardless of race.


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