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A Difficult Tale To Tell

It is fun to find out about your ancestors and about the history that they lived. But, every amateur genealogist has in the back of his or her mind that someday an ancestral skeleton will appear. Well, it would seem that my skeleton has appeared in the shape of William Potter, Jr.

As I was researching this line, I discovered an unbelievable tale of unsavory allegations that led to his death. I cannot imagine having such a person in the family tree, especially if the accusations are true. I have debated with myself about whether or not to share this story, for it not an easy one to tell. However, I am not one to shy away from the truth and, whether the crimes of which he was accused were fact or fiction are known only to those who have long since passed.

When we last left William Potter, Jr. life in the New Haven Colony was very good. However, there were certain risks involved with living in the world's most severely Puritan society.

In February 1642, a sow gave birth to a dead deformed piglet. A lewd and irreverent servant named George Spencer, an ugly balding man with a false eye, was blamed and arrested. The colony's justice system had no juries and the magistrates expected offenders to confess and repent. Spencer denied his guilt until one magistrate reminded him that one who confesses and forsakes his sins shall find mercy. Spencer, perhaps thinking that this was his way to escape the noose, confessed that he was sorry and that he had done it, only to learn that his confession would get him hanged and that mercy would come only from the Lord, not the Colony of New Haven. He then retracted and repeated his confession several times in a desperate attempt to find a formula that would save his life. But on 8 April 1642, two months after the birth of the monster, the sow was put to the sword in front of the unrepentant Spencer and he was hanged, "a terrible example of divine justice and wrath."

In late 1645 another New Haven sow gave birth to two deformed piglets that reminded observers of another servant whose name was, incredibly, Thomas Hogg. Although imprisoned for two or three months, longer than anyone else in the colony's history, Hogg refused to confess. The magistrates clearly believed he was guilty. They tried various means to get him to confess, but he never did and, without a second witness, the court did not hang him. Instead he was whipped for general lewdness.

By 1647 Massachusetts, Plymouth, New Haven, and Connecticut had each convicted and hanged one young man for bestiality. But then the pace fell off until New Haven hanged a fifteen year old boy for the crime in 1655.

Then, in the spring of 1662, Frances Potter and her eldest son, Joseph, made a complaint to the court that their husband and father, William, was guilty of bestiality with "sundrie creatures." Frances most likely was aware of the penalty of the crime of bestially when she accused her husband. William Potter stated before the court that he had seen others "put to death for these acts."

William was called before the court to answer the charges. When William Potter was first examined by the magistrates the records indicate he answered with "distinction." He appeared to be shocked by the accusation and denied it. The records show the magistrates Benjamin Fenn, Robert Treat and Jasper Crane said they were not able to charge him. However, they were not satisfied because his accusers were close family members. It was their decision to turn William Potter over to the church authorities and Deputy Governor Matthew Gilbert for further examination. They stated that "God would bring the truth to light." The event that followed was an interrogation of William Potter as indicated by the record. The amount of time devoted to this "examination" was not revealed.

The end result was a lengthy, rambling confession, where William Potter said his sin began at age 11. He named numerous animals involved and that he "hath nothing but his sin left upon him and is discouraged, and his sins affright him from God." An observation made by the court regarding his confession read that "much was said by him by the way of acknowledgement of his euill (evil) but in a confused way, as that sometimes he was filled with horror." At the end of his confession, he portrayed a confused man without hope who believed his sin was so great that God had forsaken him. He was then excommunicated from the church.

Before sentencing, Governor William Leete read the law to William Potter and asked if he had anything to say as to why the court should not judge him according to the law. William Potter answered "No" and was sentenced to death by hanging on 6 June 1662. Family members were divided over whether the sentence was just or not.

I have not been able to find the actual date of the complaint to the court, but one date is for sure and that is when William wrote a will: 16 May 1662. In it he bequeathed his real property to his youngest son Nathaniel when he reached the age of 21, about 1665, and left only £30 to Joseph. Joseph, as the eldest, should have received much more. Depending on the timing, this could have been either a motivation for the accusation or the revenge for it.

In the summer of 1662, Frances Potter went to court and questioned the validity of her husband’s will and asked if it should be allowed to stand and be proved, as she was clearly unhappy that her husband had cut down Joseph’s inheritance. The court allowed the will to stand as is, but Frances and her daughters, including Hope, were back in court on 7 April 1663, when Frances was reprimanded for having given so much to Joseph, in spite of the conditions of the will, and so not having monies to disburse to her daughters. The court fights dragged on for years, all the way to 1717, when grandchildren were acknowledging receipt of their portions of the estate.

There was also a controversy in the colony over William Potter’s sentence and the way in which his execution was carried out. Apparently, the court had difficulty finding someone willing to perform this distasteful task. The man they settled on was Thomas Wheadon, who was previously an indentured servant to Deputy Governor Matthew Gilbert. Shortly after the execution, Mr. Wheadon charged William Bassett and his wife with slandering him. The Bassetts were neighbors of the Potters and came to New England on the ship Abigail at the same time as the Potters. The Bassetts began speaking to others, saying they believed Thomas Wheadon served as the executioner for gain. They also thought the selection of Wheadon was "impudent" because he had been a good friend and neighbor of the Potters. In fact, Wheadon had once lived in the Potters’ home. In addition, William Potter had testified on Wheadon’s behalf in the 1658 dispute between Wheadon and John Meigs over the terms of his indenture. One Sunday on their way to church, Mrs. Bassett spoke her thoughts on Thomas Wheadon to Frances Potter and Mrs. Foote (this is likely William and Frances’ daughter Sarah who by then was married to Robert Foote).

Apparently, Frances Potter objected to Mrs. Bassett’s comments and Mrs. Foote agreed. Mrs. Bassett told them "the truth was to be knowne on ye Sabbath day as well as at other times." The Bassetts were summoned to court, reprimanded and fined 40 shillings. They apologized. However, William Bassett indicated in his testimony that Joseph Mansfield also did not think the sentence against William Potter was just. Joseph Mansfield was married to Mary Potter, daughter of William and Frances Potter.

On a side note, although William and Frances had six children who married and left large families, not one of their grandchildren was named William or Frances. That speaks volumes as to the effect that William’s conviction and the part that Frances played in reporting him to the authorities had on their children.

The family was literally torn apart over William’s execution and one has to wonder if daughter Hope, her husband, Daniel Robins, and her children moved to New Jersey to escape the scandal and rancor among her family members.

Skeletons in the family tree closet are not a desirable part of our history, but are rather an inevitable part of it. They serve as reminders of our mortality and vulnerability. Even now, after more than 350 years, we are still no closer to the truth about whether the allegations were factual or family politics.


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