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Grantham Civic Society Column: Braceby to Massachusetts . . . and murder

By Edward Leigh

St Margaret's, Braceby.
St Margaret's, Braceby.

Braceby is a tiny village seven miles east of Grantham. But a story began here in 1598 that ended in a hanging in Massachusetts in 1638.

Dorothy Rawlinson was baptised in Braceby Church in 1598. In 1619 she married John Talby in Threekingham Church and moved to Whaplode. They had five children.

Lincolnshire in the early 17th Century was a centre of Puritanism. People were drawn to Rev. John Cotton, vicar of St. Botolph’s, Boston, an inspiring preacher. Some of the Pilgrim Fathers gathered in Boston before travelling to Massachusetts in 1620. When Charles I became king the situation worsened. By 1632 it was difficult for Rev. Cotton to remain as vicar, so he decided to go to America and left Boston in 1633.

At some time Dorothy and John Talby were drawn into the Puritan community, and in January 1635 their names first appeared in the Massachusetts records. John Talby was granted an acre of land in Salem, Massachusetts and two months later another thirty acres. In October 1636, the First Church of Salem recorded the baptism of their sixth child, christened “Difficulty.” Such names were not totally uncommon. In the first years of the records of the Church in Salem there are children named Recompense, Exercise, Remember, Provided, Experience and Deliverance. The name Difficulty was a premonition.

In April 1637 Dorothy, who previously showed no signs of mental distress, was convicted at the Salem Court. The record book states “John Talby’s wife Dorothy, for frequent laying hands on her husband to the danger of his life ... to be chained to a post, being allowed only to come to the place of god’s worship until she repents”. To Christians of that era mental illness was the same as being possessed by the devil. The Puritan view of life was strict. Punishments were harsh. Whippings were frequent.

In the record of Essex County Court, Massachusetts in July 1638, a year after the first conviction, Dorothy was sentenced to be whipped for misdemeanors against her husband. By December the situation was much worse. The Record of the Court noted briefly “Dorothy the wife of John Talby being by her own confession guilty of the unnatural & untimely death of her daughter Difficulty Talby was by the Jury found guilty, & so was condemned to be hanged.”

The Journal of John Winthrop, State Governor, noted:- December 6 Dorothy Talby was hanged at Boston for murdering her own daughter, a child of three years old. She had been a member of the church of Salem, and of good esteem for godliness, etc. but, falling at difference with her husband, through melancholy or spiritual delusions, she sometimes attempted to kill him, and her children, and herself, by refusing meat, saying it was so revealed to her, etc. .... soon after she was so possessed with Satan, that he persuaded her to break the neck of her own child, that she might free it from future misery. This she confessed upon her apprehension.”

Massachusetts’s law made no distinction between insanity and criminal behavior. The only punishment legally available for Dorothy Talby was the death penalty. She was only the third woman to be hanged in the new colony in America.

Dorothy’s husband was excommunicated from the church later for what was called “unnaturalness to his wife” and “much pride”.

For more about Braceby at that time, and Dorothy Talby’s family read “To my Daughter one Red Cow, Life & Death in Braceby, Lincs. 1530s to 1630s” by Marion Ellis with Ian Rowson ISBN 978-0-9572237-1-4. It is available from Grantham Museum.


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