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"For Coming Naked Into Newbury Meeting House"

February 14, 2018

With Valentine’s Day upon us, we could write about romance and love in 18th Century New England . . . or we could write about 17th Century naked protesters. 

We’ll go with the naked protesters.

Lydia Perkins was born in Ipswich, Massachusetts in 1636. She was the daughter of Isaac Perkins, a very successful shipbuilder. At age two, Lydia and her parents relocated to Hampton, New Hampshire. On October 16, 1659, Lydia married Eliakim Wardwell of Boston. The newlywed couple also settled in Hampton on a large tract of farm land near her parents. 

Starting in 1656, Quaker missionaries arrived in Massachusetts Bay Colony with the express intent to “propagate their contempt of the ministry and of the civil power.” Naturally, the Massachusetts colonists were horrified by their behavior and considered their conduct “the worst of all evils.” Quakers ignored civil magistrates, disrupted public worship and brazenly opened their shops on Sundays. 

In response, the colonial legislature passed a series of laws designed to clamp down on Quakerism. In 1661, the legislature declared “any wandering Quakers be apprehended, stripped naked from the middle upward, tied to cart’s-tayle and whipped through the town.” 

Another law ordered any person found to be a member of the Quaker movement to be immediately incarcerated. Worse, upon arrival at the county jail, the defendant was to be “severely whipped”, subject to hard labor and completely isolated from human contact.

 

To stem Quakers from spreading their influence, the colony often ordered members of the sect to be forcibly removed from Massachusetts. Illegal reentry following banishment was punishable by flogging, the removal of body parts, the tongue being “bored through with a hot iron” or execution by hanging.

 

 



Even ship captains were subject to criminal prosecutions if they knowingly landed Quakers in any Massachusetts seaside port. 

Of course, by 1662 Lydia and her husband had converted the Quaker faith and were vocal critics of New England society. This angered her parents and neighbors and drew the attention of the congregation’s minister, who was determined to “keep the wolves from his sheep.”  The Wardwells were repeatedly fined or jailed for their attempts to separate themselves from the church. When this did not persuade the couple to repent, the Hampton congregation gradually stripped them of all their assets. “They plucked from him most of what he had, yet notwithstanding, in the strength of the Lord, he was carried through the spoiling of his goods with patience.” 


Virtually bankrupt, in 1663 Lydia and her husband were forced to relocate to Newbury, Massachusetts. Upon arrival, the couple was once again at odds with the local congregation. Frustrated with the Quaker pair, church leaders summonsed Lydia to appear before the entire congregation to explain her “separating from the church and teaching false doctrine”.

Surprisingly, she accepted the summons and went to the meeting house. However, “she went in naked among them, though it was exceeding hard to her modest and shame faced disposition.” 

Many female Quakers had previously protested the underpinnings of Massachusetts society by stripping off their clothing and appearing naked in public. For example, Deborah Wilson walked naked into a Salem meeting house in June, 1662. She was arrested and punished by being “tied at a cart tail with her body naked downward to her waist, and whipped…till she come to her own house, not exceeding thirty stripes.”

Lydia’s actions obviously caused an uproar and “put them into such a rage, instead of consideration, that they soon laid hands on her, and had her to the next Court at Ipswich.” She was quickly arrested and brought before an Essex County court. On May 5, 1663 she was found guilty. According to court records “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 . . . for bringing her. Costs, ten shillings, fees two shillings and sixpence.”

In 1703, George Bishop published New England Judged, a damning examination of the persecution of Quakers in New England. In his work, Bishop described Wardwell’s punishment following her conviction. According to the author, she was “tied to the fence-post of the tavern where they sat, and which is usually the place for their Court, where they may serve their ears with music and their bellies with wine and gluttony, whereunto she was tied, stripped from the waist upward, with her naked breasts to the splinters of the posts, and then sorely lashed with twenty or thirty cruel stripes; and yet, though it miserably tore and bruised her tender body, to the joy of her husband and friends who were spectators, she was carried through all these in human cruelties quiet and cheerful, to the shame and confusion of these unreasonable men, whose names shall rot and their memories perish.”

By 1666, the Wardwells fled Massachusetts and relocated in Shrewsbury, New Jersey. By the close of the 17th Century, the couple had amassed extensive tracts of land near the Shrewsbury River.

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