The Case of the dashing Captain Mitchell…
…who was perhaps just a little too dashing.
The court records of seventeenth-century Maryland and Virginia are full of cases like this one, but few record the level of detail that this one did. One thing that I enjoy about blogging is that it allows me to write about these little incidents, and preview just a little bit how they relate to my work. So, straight from Chapter Four:
Captain William Mitchell had a difficult time governing his tongue and his body. After his arrival in Maryland sometime in the early 1650s, he managed to offend so many of his fellow members of the Maryland Assembly as well as the Lord Proprietor that in June 1652 he was arrested and placed in prison, charged with “Crimes…being Soe many and Soe haynous” that the prosecutor Mr. Hatton seemed uncomfortable describing them for the record. Hatton evaded a detailed description of Captain Mitchell’s trangressions, saying merely that “…by Common experience it is apparent, that the chiefest use he hath made thereof hath been to colour over his Villanous Courses, and to mock and deride all Religion and Civill Government….” Mitchell, though, went beyond merely mocking religion. When the charges were read, Mitchell stood formally accused of four distinct crimes, and his alleged crime against religion led him to all the others: “he hath not only professed himself to be an Atheist, but hath also endeavoured to draw others to believe there is noe God, makeing a Common practice by blasphemous expressions and otherwise to mock and deride God’s Ordinances, and all Religion, thereby to open a way to all wicked lustfull licentious and prophane Courses.” Thereafter he was accused of Adultery with Susan Warren, with the attempted murder of the child with which she was pregnant, and of living in fornication with “his now pretended wife Joane.” The indictment also noted that Mitchell was “…much Suspected (if not known) to have brought his late wife to an untimely end in her late Voyage hitherward by Sea.”
In the end, the grand jury (“[Mitchell] being demanded whether he could take any personal excepcon against any of them, expressed that he could not but was well Satisfied therein”) indicted Mitchell on the two counts of fornication and one count of attempted infanticide, but not on atheism charge. The following day the court ruled that Susan Warren, who had “dishonoured God and given great Offence and Scandal to the Government,” was sentenced to thirty-nine lashes—a sentence later mitigated somewhat (although just how much is unclear) when the Governor and some members of the Council interceded on her behalf. Captain Mitchell himself was fined five thousand pounds of tobacco plus court and prison charges “…for his Several Offences of Adultery ffornication and Murtherous intention, and in respect of his lewd and Scandalous Course of life Sufficiently appearing upon the proofs….” He was also ordered to stay away from Joane until they could be appropriately married.
The legal actions against William Mitchell and Susan Warren expose three interesting currents in the prosecution of fornication cases in the early Chesapeake. The first is the connection between Mitchell’s alleged atheism and his violation of community standards of sexual behavior. The prosecutor made it clear that he considered Mitchell’s anti-religious rhetoric “…open[ed] a way to all wicked lustfull licentious and prophane Courses.” Without religion, men would be unable to resist the temptation of sin. Warren’s conviction spoke in similar terms, noting that she had both “dishonoured God” and “given great Offense to the Government.” Her sexual misbehavior was simultaneously a sin against God and a crime against the community. Second, although accused of atheism and the murder of his first wife, the court concluded Mitchell was not quite that bad and merely fined him. Warren, on the other hand, found herself whipped and disgraced, even though it appears she did not receive all thirty-nine of the sentenced lashes. The different responses to both defendants indicates the degree to which punishment varied by both gender and status, since uniform punishments were not yet mandated by law in either Maryland or Virginia. (I’m assuming, of course, that Susan Warren was an indentured servant. That might not be the case, which could change the analysis again.) Third, the court fully expected Mitchell to marry Joane, underscoring the importance of marriage in a nascent society with a severe demographic imbalance between English men and women.
But I wonder why not make Mitchell marry Susan Warren, the woman with whom he had had a child, rather than Joane? I’m sure the answer lies in some bit of information the clerk of the court neglected to write down. This case includes only the charges made against Mitchell and Susan Warren, as well as Susan Warren’s paraphrased confession, but no depositions from witnesses, which would make it much richer. Nevertheless, what it does leave historians with is pretty meaty…and quite interesting.
Source: William Hand Browne, ed. Archives of Maryland, Vol. X: Judicial and Testamentary Business of the Provincial Court, 1649/50-1657 (Baltimore, MD: Maryland Historical Society, 1891), 182-185.