Sunday, 30 March 2014

A Case of Adultery Unprosecuted

The Capel Family
Sometime before 1681 Abigail Remington was wed to John Richmond of Kingstown, Rhode Island. They had four daughters, John paid his taxes in 1687, but then something went very wrong in the Remington family. On March 20, 1688 Abigail, widow of John Remington, late of Rochester, Rhode Island, presented an inventory of her dead husband’s estate to the court and requested administration.

John Remington’s belongings were valued at a mere 46 pounds, 17 shillings and 6 ½ pence, enough to buy a few cows or a scrap of land. Widowed at the age of 36, with four young daughters to feed, Abigail would have faced hard times if a neighbor hadn’t taken her under his wing.

Henry Gardner was aged about 46 when he appraised John Remington’s estate in 1688. A few years earlier he was Kingstown’s constable, and as heir to one of Rhode Island’s largest land owners, John Porter, Henry was set up for life. However, there was a complication – after nearly two decades of marriage, Henry’s wife Joan was still childless, and Henry Gardner was heirless. Joan was healthy (she survived until about 1715), so if Henry simply waited for her to die, it might be too late for him to sire an heir.

Probably Henry could have had his childless marriage to Joan annulled. After all, his mother, Herodias Long, had obtained separations from two husbands in years past. Her marriage to John Hicks was ended by his spousal abuse. The other separation occurred twenty years later, when Herod admitted that she had never married George Gardner. It’s hard to say whether Herod was feeling guilty, or if she had her eyes on a larger prize. A couple of years later she and John Porter were called to court for cohabitation ‘in way of incontinency,’ but that’s another story.

Henry Gardner made no attempt at annulment or divorce. Instead, he found another way to sire heirs. In 1691 Abigail Remington bore an infant named Henry Gardner. Their second son, Ephraim Gardner, was born in 1693.

Demi Moore as Hester Prynne on the pillory
On March 27, 1694, Henry Gardner was "Bound over to this court [of trials] for being charged by Abigail Remington for getting on her body two bastard children." I find it surprising that Rhode Island waited until two 'fatherless' children had been born to take action agains Henry and Abigail. 

The Puritan colonies certainly would have called a pregnant widow to court as soon as her baby began to show, demanding that she reveal the name of the baby's father.  Just think of Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, displayed on the pillory with her baby, Pearl. The Puritans would have proceeded against the father as well, and unless the woman and man were high-born, both faced the stocks, a stiff fine, whippings, and/or jail.

Rhode Island was more lenient, but Abigail should have been fined, then stripped to the waist and displayed in public for 15 minutes for having borne a child out of wedlock. Her second child by Henry Gardner should have resulted in a whipping or 10 pound fine. However, Abigail, as the mistress of an influential and affluent man, escaped the harshest penalty called for by the colony’s adultery and fornication law. 

For her offense, Abigail Remington “being bound to appear at court to answer for the act of fornication committed with Henry Gardner, and being taken sick could not appear." Henry acted as Abigail's attorney, and paid her fine in court, "being 26 shillings and 8 pence and officers fees.”

In nearly all cases, men were more gently handled than women. By law, Henry Gardner did not face the lash or public humiliation, but he would have been fined or jailed if he refused to support the children. 

However, Henry stood by his informal family. As the reputed father of her two children, Henry "is sentenced by this court to keep ye town of Kingstown Indemnified from any charge that may arise from ye maintenance of ye said children." Having agreed to do so, Henry’s crime of adultery was ignored. So were two more illegitimate children born to Henry and Abigail in 1697 and 1701 – all while Joan Gardner was still alive.

Why were the offenses of Abigail Remington and Henry Gardner largely overlooked? I think the main reason is that most Rhode Islanders were cast out from Puritan colonies for their unorthodox beliefs. As a result, they were opposed to sticking their noses in other people’s business. As long the illegitimate children were supported, and the unwed couple lived quietly, so what if they weren’t wed? Henry Gardner now had heirs, and Abigail, along with her four fatherless Remington daughters, lived a secure life.

As for Henry and Abigail, it seems that they married after Joan's death ca. 1715. Abigail Gardner's name is entered on deeds when she gave her consent to Henry's sale of land, and he specifically titled his wife, Abigail Gardner, in his 1744 will.


Jo Ann Butler is the author of Rebel Puritan and The Reputed Wife, and is currently at work on The Golden Shore, the climax of her series about Herodias (Long) Hicks Gardner Porter, her unruly family, and the equally unruly colony of Rhode Island.


Christy K Robinson said...

Great story, Jo Ann. I'm telling you, you've got the stuff of a "reality" show on cable TV. "Big Love" springs to mind, with that polygamist family, as Henry Gardner was virtually a bigamist. Or "Real Housewives of Colonial Rhode Island."

sarah c said...

Yes. Terrific story. Much more liberal in Rhode Island. Many of my own ancestors who helped found the Massachusetts colony but were not Puritan ended up migrating there for that very reason. Most as adults though we did hear about two who went as children after their parents were hung for heresy on the Boston Common. The kids ended up in Providence because no sea captain was willing to take them to Barbados to be indentured servants on sugar plantations.

Jo Ann Butler said...

Rhode Island looked the other way on lots of things, including piracy and slavery. Lifetime slavery was banned in 1652, but the law was not enforced as long as Rhode Islanders treated their slaves well. As for cohabitation, it doesn't end with Herodias Long and George Gardner.