Lynn, Lynn, the city of sin,
You’ll never come out the way you went in,
What looks like gold is really tin,
Lynn, Lynn, the city of sin
–A popular, 20th-century rhyme about the city
Archival records provide evidence of a moment in time. Contextual information about the place, time period, and people can serve as a guidance, but often records show only one small piece of a larger puzzle. They can raise as many questions as they answer. One prime example of this is a document from Burns Library’s Authors Collection (MS1986.087) which provides insight into colonial Massachusetts, but leaves just as much in need of further investigation.
Lynn, Massachusetts was settled by English colonists about 1630. In the colonial era, it comprised an area including what is now Lynnfield, Nahant, Saugus and Swampscott. Lynn has a long history as a center for shoemaking.
Salem was one of two seats of Essex County, and is infamous as the location of the late 17th century witch trials. John Hathorne (1641-1717), a Salem merchant and a judge in the Salem witch trial, is notable for not having expressed remorse for his actions in the trials, as others publicly did. Author Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) was the great-great grandson of Hathorne, and it is said that he altered the spelling of his name in order to differentiate himself from his harsh ancestor.
On December 25, 1699—the Christmas holiday was not celebrated in dour, colonial Massachusetts—Nathaniel Ramsdell, a shoemaker from Lynn accused of the crime of fornication, appeared before Justice of the Peace John Hathorne. His wife, Elizabeth, also accused, was absent. The proceedings took place in Salem, Massachusetts.
Records indicate that Nathaniel Ramsdell and Elizabeth Mansfield were married November 2, 1698 in Lynn. Little is known about their lives, but the discovery of their misconduct – sex before marriage –led to a complaint. After gathering evidence, the Justice would read the “presentment” in court, and order the defendants to appear at the next session. Somewhere within this process is where we find Ramsdell, his father, Mansfield’s father, and John Hathorne on that December 25th.
Elizabeth did not appear before Hathorne that day. Her father spoke on her behalf, saying that poor health would not allow her to travel to Salem (probably 5-10 miles distance) in the extremely cold weather. Nevertheless, both the Ramsdells and Elizabeth’s father were ordered to re-appear in Salem later in the month to answer the charge, and to pay a substantial fine of £10. It was emphasized that Elizabeth in particular must appear, owing to her failure to do so at this session. Any and all property they had was to be used (if necessary) to pay the fine, and the couple was officially warned to not leave town without permission.
Encountering this document, we only have a glimpse of a moment in time. We know the primary cast of characters, but the beginnings and endings of their stories are unknown, and we naturally want more information. We can infer the setting – Hathorne’s Salem residence – and can even imagine the bite of the bitter weather on the trip on horseback to where Elizabeth anxiously awaited the return of her family members, but what happened? What don’t we know? How can we find that out? Were the couple’s families supportive? How common was this crime and how often was it prosecuted? How were they discovered and by whom? Was Elizabeth pregnant? Did this affect their standing in the community? Was this an unusually high fine? Any of these questions are a good starting point for investigating a research topic using primary and secondary sources, like those available at John J. Burns Library and other special collections.
This document is part of Burns Library’s Authors Collection (MS1986.087) which comprises various manuscripts created by notable historical and literary figures between 1665 and 2005. Find out more in the collection’s finding aid.
- Shelley Barber, Outreach & Reference Specialist, John J. Burns Library
- Chandler, Abby. Law and Sexual Misconduct in New England, 1650-1750: Steering toward England. Ashgate, 2015.
- Hambleton, Else L. Daughters of Eve: Pregnant Brides and Unwed Mothers in Seventeenth Century Essex County, Massachusetts. Routledge, 2004.
- Hathorne, John, 1699 December 24, Box 6, Folder 27, Authors Collection, MS.1986.087, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.
- Hindus. Michael. “A Guide to the Court Records of early Massachusetts,” in Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, v.62., Law in Colonial Massachusetts, 1630-1800, a conference held 6 and 7 November 1981.
- https://www.colonialsociety.org/node/930 (accessed February, 2019).
- Torrey, Clarence Almon, and Bentley, Elizabeth Petty. New England Marriages Prior to 1700. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Pub., 1985.
A transcription of the document follows:
Essex [js], Salem, December 25, 1699
Nathaniel Ramsdell of Lynn, cordwainer, brought before me by William Godney, Sheriff of the county of Essex, being presented by the Grand Jury of December sessions, 1698, for committing fornication with Elizabeth Mansfield of Lynn, who is now his wife. And, being examined before me, acknowledged the fact of which he stands presented and [recognized] as follows.
Essex [js], Salem, December 24, 1699
Nathaniel Ramsdell of Lynn, cordwainer [damaged paper], Isaac Ramsdell of Lynn, husbandman, surely acknowledged themselves jointly and severally [to] owe and stand indebted unto our sovereign Lord and King [damaged paper] and full sum of ten pounds current money of New England to be levied on their goods, chattels, lands and tenements, etc.
The condition of this recognizance is that the said Nathaniel Ramsdell shall personally appear before the next session of the peace to be held [illegible] the county of Essex at Salem on the last Tuesday in this instant month of December then and there to answer for what he stands charged with having committed fornication with Elizabeth Mansfield of Lynn and to abide the sentence of the court therein and not depart without license and [from?] this obligation to be void and of non effect, otherwise to abide and remain in full force & virtue.
Salem, December 25, 1699
[blank space] Mansfield of Lynn, husbandman, appeared before me on behalf of his daughter Elizabeth, the now wife of Nathaniel Ramsdell of Lynn, cordwainer, who was presented for having committed fornication with Nathaniel Ramsdell of Lynn, who is now her husband December session, [illegible year] and made plea that his daughter was not well and could not without hazard of her life or health be brought out this Extreme Cold Weather but [recognized] as followeth: Nathaniel Ramsdell of Lynn, cordwainer, in behalf of his wife [E] Mansfield of Lynn [˄husbandman˄] surely acknowledged themselves jointly & severally to owe & stand indebted unto [our sovereign Lord the king] the just and full sum of ten pounds current money of New England to be bound on their goods chattels and or tenements, etc. The Condition is that said Elizabeth the wife of Nathaniel Ramsdell shall personally appear at the next Sessions of the Peace to be held for the County of Essex at Salem on the last Monday in this instant month of December to answer for which she stands charged with having committed fornication with Nathaniel Ramsdell of Lynn [and to] abide the judgement of the court therein and not to depart without License
[illegible] John Hathorne, Justice of the Peace