Several Quakers seeking religious liberty in the Massachusetts Bay Colony suffered torture, and even the scaffold, at the hands of the Puritans. Absence from local parish services typically resulted in a summons, the consequences of which included heavy fines, whippings or banishment. Quakers were seen as “dangerous social outlaws.”
One Quakeress, Lydia Perkins Wardwell, made a stark declaration of protest in response to her summons, appearing skinclad in Newbury as a “sign” of the spiritual nakedness of her persecutors.
Yes, it’s true. Newbury can boast of its very own Lady Godiva. Unfortunately, she could not pull off her impromptu burlesque show in a house of worship without getting the strap.
Though most historians question her sanity, Lydia’s motives for disrobing resembled the signs acted out by Hebrew prophets, a doctrine taken very seriously by both the Puritans and the Quakers. Her bold act was no doubt driven by the heinous punishments and torture inflicted upon her family and friends.
Lydia’s husband, Eliakim Wardwell of Hampton, N.H., was repeatedly harassed and stripped of his assets because of his Quaker faith. He endured the stocks on more than one occasion, and records note in April1662, he was fined for his absence from church. The Wardwell home was also the scene of a conflict while the couple harbored Wenlock Christison, a notable Quaker who was jailed in Boston with Mary Dyer and William Leddra. Though he escaped the scaffold, Christison was banished from the Colony.
Christison was on the colony’s 10-most-wanted list, and the Rev. Seaborn Cotton felt it his duty to “keep the wolves from his sheep.” Cotton, with “truncheon in hand, led a party of order-loving citizens” to the house of Wardwell, seized Christison and shuffled him off to jail. Christison moved to safer territory, settling in Talbot County, Md. He was elected to the lower house of the Maryland General Assembly and later inspired Longfellow’s hero in “John Endicott,” a poem in “New England Tragedies.”
As Cotton confiscated lands from the Wardwell estate and bankrupted them with heavy fines for non-attendance of Sabbath, Lydia managed to muster strength, a true testimony to her faith. Several friends of the light were hanged or tortured: ears severed, tongues and body parts bored and branded with hot irons. Those sentenced to jail were often denied food and water.
Lydia was present in Dover, N.H., when three women who had refused to attend church were stripped naked to the waist, tied to a cart and paraded around several local towns in the depths of winter. While the public flogging was administered, the Rev. Rayner “stood and looked and laughed at it.”
Eliakim did not shy away from verbalizing his two cents on the matter. After calling the reverend a brute, back in stocks he went.
Lydia was also pursued by the church to answer for her absence. By the time she was summoned for “separating from the church and teaching false doctrine,” she well understood her fate with church elders. But surely her exhibitionist act was barely imaginable to the pious Puritan elite. She, being “a chaste and tender woman of exemplary modesty,” must have jolted quite a reaction from the locals.
In the court records of Salem, her sentence was noted as follows:
“May 5th, 1663. Lydia Wardwell on her presentment for coming naked into Newbury meeting house. The sentence of the court is, that she shall be severely whipt and pay the costs and fees to the marshall of Hampton for bringing her. Costs, ten shillings, fees two shillings and sixpence.”
After the session, Lydia was lugged off by Ipswich lawmen and taken to a tavern, the Joseph Baker House. “Amid a large circle of men and boys,” she was tied to a rough post and “lashed to the satisfaction of the crowd of onlookers.” One can only imagine the scene of pathetic prigs sipping ale and leering pitilessly while the constables who whipped her “tore her bosom as she writhed.”
To dodge the fussbudget herds, the Wardwells moved to Shrewsbury, N.J. Eliakim became one of the first Quaker ministers in the town. Perhaps the family wrested some satisfaction from the fact that the judgment of Heaven would fall upon their persecutors (a belief shared by the Puritans). It is bemusing to think that the Puritans, who left Mother England to escape similar persecution, would exact such brutal tactics of torment on the Quakers.
Even more of a mystery is the whereabouts of Lydia’s petticoat left for safekeeping with Gov. John Easton. Lydia was wrapped in cloth and shuffled off to Hampton very abruptly without her garments. Though her petticoat may never be found, Lydia Wardell certainly taught us that the naked truth is always better than a well-dressed lie.
Melissa Berry of Beverly likes to write about local historical figures.