Admittedly, we’re suckers for love stories…especially those that end in acts of fraud. However, this one is simply too tragic.
Rebecca Rawson was born in Newbury in 1656 and was the daughter of Edward Rawson, a high ranking official of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. According to period accounts, she was “one of the most beautiful, polite and agreeable young ladies” in the entire colony. Many men made attempts to court her but their advances were always rebuffed.
In 1668, a Sir Thomas Hale arrived in the colony. The gentleman asserted that he was the nephew of Lord Chief-Justice Hale of England and immediately began to court Ms. Rawson. Shortly thereafter, Sir Hale asked for Rebecca’s hand in marriage. Her parents were impressed with the young man’s credentials, saw the benefits of their daughter marrying a lord and quickly assented to the request. Rebecca and Thomas were married in July, 1679 “by a minister of the Gospel, in the presence of near forty witnesses”. A very large dowry was given to Sir Hale by Edward Rawson.
The newlyweds quickly boarded a ship and embarked for England. Upon arrival in London, the couple spent the night at a local inn. The next morning, Thomas went back to the docks to retrieve their trunks, which he promised to send to Rebecca. The trunks soon arrived, but with no keys or Thomas to open them. After waiting several hours, she finally had the trunks broken open. Instead of finding her dowry and property, she “found herself robbed of everything and the trunks filled with shavings and rubbish.”
Horrified, Rebecca unsuccessfully scoured the neighborhood for her husband. After speaking to several locals, it was discovered that “Sir Thomas Hale” was actually Thomas Rumsey, a local con man. He had left his wife and two children three years before and relocated to the American colonies to further his schemes.
Of course, Rebecca and her family were not Rumsey’s first mark. He had gained the confidence of John Hull, the treasurer and mint-master of Massachusetts and fraudulently convinced Hull to advance two hundred and fifty pounds in silver to him.
He also misled Theodore and Mary Atkinson of Boston. According to their sworn account, “About the 3rd month in the year 1678, Thos. Rumsey came to me and tendered his service for 1 yr. to work with me; & told me he was a Kentish- man & his father lived near Canterbury, & that his father was a yeoman & had an estate of 400 a year; also that his father had died when he was young & that his father's estate did fall to him at his mother-in-law's decease; & pretended that he came to New England on account of religion; & he hired himself to me for a year for to attend my business, keep my book of accounts & gather in my debts; but when he had been about a month with me he pretended he was one highly bred, but would not say further what he was; but 5 mo: after, he told me his father was a knight & baronet. So he lived and carried himself, pretending he was highly bred, that I did not set him on work because he promised me he would satisfy me for what charges & expenses I was out about him; but a little time after he came to me he began to discover himself so as his religion did seem to wear away, & before the year was expired he changed his name & said his name was Hailes, & professed he had been a great travel ler in the streights for about 2 & 20 months, & his mother was called Lady Hailes & paid him his money by bills of exchange from time to time; that she was a lady that had 300 p' an. of her own that she brought with her, & that his father had 800 a year and a vast estate where he durst not nor would not mention lest he should be laughed at and not be believed, & that all his father's estate after his mother's decease was his. Those & such like stories he made use of to put a cheat on Mr. Edward Rawson of Boston, to accomplish his abominable villainy & deceive him of his daughter, Mrs. Rebecca Rawson, who he was married unto by a minister of the Gospel on the first day of July, in the year of our Lord 1679, in the presence of near 40 witnesses.”
Rebecca never saw her husband again. To complicate the embarrassment of being part of a fraudulent marriage, she soon discovered she was also pregnant with Rumsey’s child. She sought out an older sister who resided in London and lived with her for the next thirteen years. She supported herself by painting miniatures on glass.
Her father was well aware of her plight and spent years begging her to return to him. Finally, in 1692, she agreed and boarded a ship bound for Boston with an uncle. Historical records suggest she left her child behind with her sister.
On June 6th, the vessel docked in Port Royal, Jamaica to deliver its cargo to local merchants. While docked at the island, a massive earthquake struck. According to witnesses, the earthquake was so violent that over 2,000 people were killed. Buildings collapsed, graves opened up, sand liquefied and the entire waterfront sank into the ocean. The dock that Rebecca’s ship was moored to quickly sank and pulled the entire ship, along with its crew and passengers, down with it. Everyone on board, including Rebecca Rawson, drowned.
Her uncle, who happened to be on shore at the time of the disaster, was the only person from the ship that survived. When he arrived in Massachusetts he had the difficult task of telling her parents of Rebecca’s fate.