Family histories, whether gleaned from archival pages or spoken-word recollections from one’s grandparent, jump to the forefront of the imagination when there’s a personal connection. History comes alive.
Forty or so years ago and before the commonality of the Internet search, my husband’s father became interested in the family’s genealogy.
He gathered information slowly and steadily, first accessing records of birth, marriage, and death. Later, he established correspondences with contacts he’d made in England.
His secretary typed up his findings, and we all got copies whether we wanted them or not. He encouraged us to add our own new information. And as the pages of the 1980s’ calendars flipped over, and months, then years, brought new entries, even his grandchildren recognized their lives in the text.
In addition to birth, marriage, and death came snippets of stories. His favorite to recount to his grandchildren was the wild escapade of Hannah Emerson Dustin (born 1657), the first of Michael and Hannah Webster Emerson’s 15 children. (Our own line of Emersons are descendents of Joshua, a younger brother of Michael).
Hannah’s claim to fame (our details at that time were sketchy) was that she and her newborn baby were pulled from their bed and taken captive by Indians in the town of Haverhill, in what was then Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Forced to march through the woods for two weeks with several other captives, she saw her baby smashed to death against a tree, and retaliated by murdering 10 Indians while they slept. She scalped them, forged stealthily home down the Merrimack River, and later went to Boston to collect the allotted bounties for their scalps.
Hearing this colorful and gruesome snippet, a friend sent us details of others of Hannah’s family that she found online in a 1994 paper written by Peg Goggin Kearney at the University of Southern Maine.
Kearney’s fascinating research centered at length on one of Hannah’s younger sisters, Elizabeth Emerson (born 1664, the sixth of Michael’s children), never married, but mother of an illegitimate daughter, Dorothy (born 1686), and then twin girls (born 1691), either stillborn or murdered.
Elizabeth lived with her parents; in fact, her bed was located at the foot of theirs. She kept her pregnancy a secret, she thought, dreading the consequences and her father’s wrath. She delivered her twins alone, soundlessly, as her parents lay sleeping, and when neither baby cried out, she assumed them stillborn (she would insist later), sewed them in a sack, and buried them in the backyard of her parents’ house.
She was found out and charged with infanticide. Whether the babies were stillborn or killed was a moot point because in the Massachusetts Bay Colony (a law soon after repealed) to conceal the death of a bastard child was, in itself, a crime.
She awaited her fate in a Boston prison where, under the “care and guidance” of the Rev. Cotton Mather, an apparent master of extracting confessions — Elizabeth’s, as well as many unfortunate women caught in the mass hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials — two years later, Elizabeth Emerson was hanged.
I wrestled with the rigid mores of the Puritan society in the late 1600s. They were disturbing and unforgiving. Elizabeth confessed that she had lain with only one man, the father of all three of her children, and he was never even questioned at her trial. Samuel Ladd was an older, wealthy, married man of some prominence who had seduced at least one other young woman in Haverhill, giving me credence as to who the real blackguards were!
The survival rate of babies born into the perilous circumstances of those early colonial times was always compromised. Of Michael and Hannah Emerson’s 15 children, only nine survived.
Kearney’s research notes that often, parents didn’t even name newborns until they were toddlers, ostensibly dreading to make a bond that might well be suddenly broken by death.
Kearney questions, as I did, whether today’s society might judge Hannah and Elizabeth Emerson in reverse: Hannah, damned for scalping Native Americans who were defending their homeland; and Elizabeth, eligible for state assistance in bringing up three fatherless children.
Gloucester resident Susan S. Emerson is a regular Times columnist.