2 6 At Mr Goffs
7 4 I have been at home. It is 12 years since I left Oxford.
with Henry Sewall, and his eventual dismissal by the town. They have
had nothing at all to say about his wife, Rebecca. Except for a few cryptic
documents in the records of the Supreme Judicial Court and a tantalizing
set of entries in Martha's diary, her story is lost. "Mrs Foster has sworn
a Rape on a number of men among whom is Judge North," Martha wrote on
October 1, 1789, without further explanation. It is tempting to superimpose
the controversies that dominate Isaac's story -- the theological argument
between Calvinists and liberals, or the practical problem of sustaining
a tax-supported church in a religiously divided town -- on Rebecca's,
but that approach does nothing to explain her troubles. If anything, Joseph
North had been a supporter and ally of her husband. Her accusation is
an ugly tear in local history, an unexplained rent in the social web.
In describing the experience later, he used the language of Psalm 132:
"We heard of it at Ephratah: we found it in the fields of the wood."2
Henry might have applied for admission to the newly organized Congregational
church in Hallowell. Instead, he sought out a smaller, more intimate private
meeting of likeminded Christians. "Met for reading, prayer, & singing
at Esqr. Pettengill's--some power in the morning," he wrote on one Sabbath,
and, on another, "Had a gracious & remarkable manifestation of God's
power in my soul."3
Sewall's discomfort with the minister was awkward, since Rebecca
and Isaac Foster were living in a house owned by his cousin Thomas Sewall.
He made a few gestures of neighborliness, lending his horse for a journey
to the "westward," Foster in turn carrying letters to Henry's family in
York. But there were also tensions. On August 8, 1786: "Had a conference
with Mr Foster -- could not convince him of the impropriety of his doctrine."
On August 12: "Conversed with Mr. Foster respecting experience." On August
15: "Had a close, plain, & Solemn interview with Mr. Foster respecting
his (as I call them) heretical doctrines."
who measured life in "doing for others" might be expected to enjoy a
sermon on Matthew 25, the chapter in which Jesus distinguished those on
his right and his left hand, the sheep and the goats, according to whether
they had fed the hungry, clothed the naked, or comforted the afflicted.
For her, theological speculations about the nature of the final judgment
probably mattered less than Christ's remembering who had "performed" well
in daily life, who had offered service to "the least of these."
to eat which the world knows not of."7 For her part, Martha was more interested in the common kind of meat. "Mr. Foster here," she wrote on February 7, 1787. "Mr. Ballard carried him some meet from Cyrus and sause from our selves."
The Fosters had recently moved from Thomas Sewall's house to the Ballards' neighborhood. Ephraim brought in a load of firewood and found a man to help make "a kirb" for the minister's well. On February 21 Martha "began a Linnen Stockin for Lady Foster"; on March 3 she "finisht Mrs Fosters hoes," and on March 6 she joined Mrs. Weston and Mrs. Pollard for an afternoon's visit. The next day "Mr. Foster & Lady" dined at the Ballards'. Small courtesies, petty exchanges, casual visits incorporated the minister's wife into the female community.
Rebecca Foster was twenty-seven years old when she arrived in Hallowell, exactly the same age as Martha's oldest daughter, Lucy Towne, though she probably seemed younger, having been married only a short time. Her first child, named Isaac for his father and grandfather, was still an infant.8 She was born in Lebanon, Connecticut, a town with a rather exotic history. Not only was it the home of Hannah Brewster, one of the few published female poets in New England, it was the site of an Indian Charity School established by Eleazar Wheelock, who later founded Dartmouth College. (Rebecca's father, James Newcomb, had contributed financially to the school.)9 Whether the example of Hannah Brewster and other outspoken sisters in the Congregational church of Lebanon had affected her, we do not know; but there is a terse entry in Martha Ballard's diary which suggests that some part of her Lebanon heritage had followed her to Hallowell. "I was at Mrs Fosters," Martha wrote on August 22, 1787. "Indians there."
These may have been local Indians. Probably they were Christianized Indians, perhaps missionaries associated with Wheelock's movement. Samson Occom is the most famous of these. Occom's missionary companion in England in the 1760s, Nathaniel Whitaker, had been pastor in Canaan (now Skowhegan), Maine, since 1784. A physician as well as a minister, Whitaker was an occasional visitor to the Ballard house: "Doctor
Whitaker & son slept here. His hors fell down Bank. Our men helpt
him up again."10 (Whitaker,
too, would soon face expulsion and, in a curious reversal of the Foster
case, a trial for rape.)
trary evidence concerning her working on the Sabath from what shee did
when called in the cause of Capt. Sewall's defameing the Rev'd Mr Foster."
mistress had "took Cold" and that her breast was painful, Martha rushed
to her aid. By the time the breast infection was cleared up, the minister
was again in bed. Martha sat up with him all through the night on November
4. By November 18, he was back in the pulpit, though still able to "perform
. . . but one Exercise by reason of his weakness." The following spring,
it was little Isaac who was ill. Martha diagnosed "the salt rhume."12
inevitable. "I opend her breast. It discharged a Larg quantity. I left
her much more comfortable." Rebecca's youngest child was eleven months
association was formed in Lincoln County in 1790, eight of the twelve
participating churches were without pastors.18
acount of what Mr Foster ows him." Within a town debts and counterdebts
might accumulate for years without anyone asking for a reckoning, but
once the social web was broken neighbors rushed to get their due. It was
during this difficult period, when the Fosters were neither in nor out
of the town, that the alleged rape occurred.
The diary entry continued, filling a full page and parts of two others:
Quiet listening. No questions. Martha was unwilling to invite
any more information than she was given unbidden. No gossip, the bare
facts were all anyone was going to get from her. There would be no speculation,
no judgment, either before the court or in her diary. "I also testified
that said North said to me Last weak (which I find by this diarey to be
on the 18th instant) that he really believd Mrs Foster was treated as
she Complains but he Should Deny the Charg Exhibited against him. He also
said he never had the least reason to suspect her virtue or modesty."
The diary entry for "the 18th instant"-that is, December 18, 1790--reads,
"Colonel North was here. Examined me what conversation Mrs. Foster had
with me Concerning his Conduct towards her last August. Mr Carr here.
Capt. Nichols & Levy & Rhubin Moore dind here. . . ." Again the
hearing caused her to write down details she had recorded only in her
The addendum is much more forceful than the initial testimony.
The vague assertion that North "did go after an other woman besides his
own wife" became a direct accusation: the judge "had positively
had unlawful concors with a woman which was not his wife." Martha's
description of her own response changed from the passive "not being askt
any question for information" to the active "I Begd her never to mentin
it to any other person." The effect, if not the intent, of the addendum
was to heighten the intensity of Rebecca's early revelations. They appear
much less tenuous than in the original description, and Martha's own intervention
more significant. There is no reason to suspect conscious reshaping of
the testimony here, though it seems obvious that the hearing had affected
Martha's memory of the early conversations. Even the stark phrase "he
is guilty" has heavier meaning in light of the formal process then underway.
striving for the language she remembered from court? The statute defines
the crime as to "ravish and carnally know any woman, committing
carnal copulation with her by force against her will." The prescribed
penalty was death.19
with since Mr Fosters absence" takes on an almost gothic quality in the
light of the accusations she eventually made. According to the indictments
Elijah Davis committed his assault "with an intent to ravish" on August
3, Joshua Burgess on August 6, and Joseph North on August 9. Her cryptic
comments to Martha about people throwing stones at her house and striving
to get in and lodge with her are transformed in the formal accusation
into a week of terror. Alone in her house, disconnected from the community
her husband had once served, her vulnerability was complete. Martha said
nothing about the other men, except to note on December 4 that "Elijah
Davis was carried to Varsalboro" and "Captain Biges apprehended."
One of the magistrates present at this hearing may have been Dr. Obadiah Williams of Vassalboro. In the collection of books the doctor left at his death was a small pamphlet entitled The Trial of Atticus Before Justice Beau For a Rape. This little work, a satirical drama, sets the argument over "Colo. North's affair" in the larger context of Anglo-American legal reform. If it had been published in Hallowell in 1791 instead of Boston in 1771, one might consider it a comment on the Foster-North case. The hero of the drama, Atticus, is a sober and learned man spitefully accused by a country bumpkin named Ezekiel Chuckle and his silly wife, Sarah. Judge Beau, Lawyer Rattle, and a host of witnesses with names like Deacon Scant, William Froth, and Mrs. Prim play their expected roles. When Prim accuses Atticus of generally lewd behavior with young women, the Justice asks, "Do you know this to be true?"
While Atticus upholds the formality of the law, the country folk accept the informal power of reputation. Any effort to get them to be specific, to distinguish hearsay from fact, to weigh reasoned commentary against gossip, is futile. One scene even parodies the traditional use of testimony taken from unwed mothers in delivery, a practice still followed in the Kennebec, as we shall see in Chapter Four. Interestingly, it is not a midwife who takes the testimony, however, but a quack named Dr. Pip. The Trial of Atticus is an ephemeral document in a much larger
argument over the roles of community standards in the enforcement of
justice. Atticus presents a legalist argument, that abstract laws,
interpreted and upheld by specialists, are the surest protectors of justice.
Its butt was a judicial system that gave immense power to untrained justices
of the peace, men who were as likely to be merchants, land speculators,
or physicians as lawyers. It was the lay nature of New England law, its
reliance on gossipy witnesses and rustic juries, that disturbed the author.
The conflict between judicial and lay standards of evidence was an old
one, of course, evident even in seventeenth-century witch trials, where
judges seldom accepted the evidentiary standards of village accusers.22
But the growth of the legal profession in the eighteenth century had made
such issues more acute.
Martha was unaware of legal issues or of squabbles between the judges. Her only comment on Esquire Wood's attempted
arrest of Joseph North is a single sentence in her entry for January 18, 1790: "Colonel North flew from judgment."
North escaped the ignominy of being arrested by his own officer, but he did not escape trial. On July 10, 1790, he was "set to the bar" in Pownalboro Court House before the honorable justices of the Supreme Judicial Court, Francis Dana, Robert Treat Paine, Increase Sumner, and Nathan Cushing. The judges had sailed upriver from Boston as they did twice each year, bringing their white wigs and their black silk robes. Martha came downriver from Hallowell in the dress Lydia Densmore had made her. It was the first time she had been below Pittston since her arrival in the Kennebec twelve years before.
July 6, 1790. "I left home Early Bound for Pownalboro. Mr Ballard allso. We went on Board Leut. Pollards Boat. Stopt at Pittstown. Got to Mr Hatchs where we took Lodgings during the Courts setting. Went into coart afternoon." Characteristically, Martha said more about the journey than about the events that transpired once she got there. Her entries for the next few days, probably written retrospectively, are extraordinarily terse, eventually degenerating into mere etceteras. Fortunately, the minutes of the Supreme Judicial Court fill in some details about the general operation of the court, though they tell us little about the Foster case. There were thirty-nine cases listed on the docket; fewer than half were actually heard. Most were routine procedures-suits over the settlement of estates, appeals from lower court cases involving debt, breach of contract, or trespass, actions against towns for failing to maintain roads. There were two divorces and one petition for citizenship. But three of the thirty-nine cases, in addition to judge North's, involved sexual offenses. These included a sensational slander suit, a trial for incest and infanticide, and Nathaniel Whitaker's appeal from an assault conviction .24
July 7, 1 790. "Pownalboro. Attended coart." On the second day, the court sat in judgment on Hannah Barker, who had appealed her conviction from a lower court for slandering Polly Noble, daughter of a Newcastle justice of the peace. Barker had apparently said to one neighbor, "God of Heaven! What do you think
has happened to Noble's family? Polly has been up to Boston & had
a Negro Bastard," and had told another that "Poll" had been repeatedly
guilty of fornication and that her father had "catched her at it under
the counter." The court sustained the earlier conviction, fining the defendant
the whopping sum of seventy-five pounds. Martha had been right: telling
tales about a justice of the peace, or his family, might "Expose &
perhaps ruin" a person.
was in Winslow, eighteen miles away, at the time of the alleged assault
and that "Major Henry Warren of Plimouth in the county of Plimouth" could
attest to the same if he were called. He also claimed that "Messrs Lummus,
Hunt, and Martin of Lebanon in the State of Connecticut, can testify that
the General Character of the said Rebeckah as a woman of truth is notoriously
bad." Unfortunately, he produced none of these witnesses--"the Reason
why he has not procured the testimony of all the above mentioned witnesses,
is because he has not had sufficient time for that purpose." (His case
was continued to the next session and then dropped, the Fosters having
left the area.)
stitute breaking open "the Door of her house"? And if he begged a kiss,
was that more than a pretty lady might expect?
well have been intended to affirm her innocence (or to cover up the guilt
of an extramarital alliance). North's peculiar statement that he believed
Mrs. Foster had been treated as she complained and that he never had any
reason to doubt her modesty takes on a new meaning in this context.
in Westchester County, New York, reported, "Isaac Foster still at Bedford
in the Parsonage House, but don't preach-drinks a Quart Rum a day. Wife
handsome but mentis inops. Poor. Works for Colonel Sacket. A Devil incarnate-an
Perhaps Stiles was passing on malicious gossip, per
the Kennebec a few months later. After twelve years and four months as
Jones's tenants, the Ballards had given up-or lost -their lease. On April
21, as Martha told it, "We removd from the mills to the house which was
Old Leut Howards, and Peter Jones went to the mills with his family."
She wrote in the margin of the next day's entry, as though nothing in
particular had happened, "At home. Began my gardin." Her story of the
transition from one house to another is told almost inadvertantly, in
the course of a quiet chronicle of daily work.
1791. He also spent several days surveying a plot of unimproved land
"at the North End of this town" that would eventually become the Ballard
ued almost uninterrupted for the next two years. "Hannah Beemed the woollin
shurting," Martha wrote on a Monday, and on Wednesday of the same week,
"Hannah got the shurting out, 20 yards & put another web in."37
Martha and her girls even turned worn clothes into coverlets, cutting
narrow strips of cloth from old petticoats or breeches, joining the pieces
end to end in continuous strings of filler for the loom. These coverlets
were an earlier version of the rag carpets that nineteenth-century housewives
tacked down on their wooden floors, strong linen threads, widely spaced
across the loom, interwoven with the rags, to form a durable-and heavy-covering.
Preparing the rags was as much trouble as weaving them ("Cutting &
sewing rags for a coverlid," Martha Ballard would say), though it took
a good deal less time than spinning an equal weight of yarn. The girls
wove the coverlets in series, filling in the appropriate length for a
bed, leaving a foot or so of unfilled warp for a fringe and beginning
again without cutting the threads, one patch of weaving following another
until the end of the web was reached. "Hannah got the Coverluds Out 4
of them," Martha wrote.38
1793, Mr. Livermore came to the house and "threatened giting a warrent
for me because I had my Turkeys put up. [Hogs and fowl both ran wild,
until "put up," or penned, prior to slaughtering.] He Claimed them as
his, accused me with stealing one of his last year. His wife Came here
afterwards & Declard shee saw some of my famely drive her Turkey from
here, which I find was a mistake or falshood as Every one of us say we
did not. Shee Came into our house & had a Long Conversation, two much
to write." Too much-and perhaps too upsettingto write. Martha disliked
controversy. Only the most outrageous violations of neighborliness made
it into her diary.
Densmores a year. Her brothers carried her bed and bedding to the new
house, where she slept during the week, coming home on Sundays-or when
needed. "Dolly and Sally Densmore here," her mother would write, or "Dolly
came home to instruct the girls how to draw their piece of Dimmity."43
Notes for Pages 102-109
Notes for Pages 110-123
least ten girls from various tribes were among the students at the school, though most may have been placed as domestic servants in local homes: Wheelock Papers, 765690, 768624. Also see James Dow McCallum, Eleazar Wheelock (1939; rpt. New York: Arno Press, 1969), pp. 54-62, and James Axtell, The Invasion Within: The Context of Cultures in Colonial North America (New York: 1985), pp. 204-210. return
Notes for Pages 127-131