The Burlington Court Book is full of fascinating cases that shed light on what life was like in early West New Jersey. One of those cases (pp. 75-80) jumped out at me, because it involves the daughter of one of the first proprietors to purchase tracts in Hunterdon County.
His name was George Hutcheson. He was a prominent Quaker, and one of the early settlers of the Yorkshire Tenth at Burlington, arriving there with his family in 1681. John E. Pomfret wrote of him, “He was a man of relatively large affairs in West Jersey, buying and selling lands, and was held in public esteem.”
Hutcheson’s first plantation was at “Oneanickon,” which was in the eastern part of Springfield Township, Burlington County. By 1683 he had purchased land bordering Mahlon Stacy at the mouth of the Assunpink (Trenton). The next year, he and Thomas Gardiner were assigned the task of solving the problem of West Jersey’s indebtedness. They did this by persuading Thomas Budd to take land in exchange for paying off the debt. Hutcheson personally conveyed 100 acres to Budd, and jointly with Gardiner sold him another 600 acres.
His next assignment was to accompany Samuel Jennings to England in 1685 to negotiate with Edward Byllinge over the matter of the governorship. While there, Hutcheson met several times with George Fox, but failed to persuade him to support Jennings.
George Hutcheson was a Justice of the Burlington Court from 1684 to 1686, when he was elected to the Assembly from the First Tenth. When the Council of West Jersey Proprietors was created in 1688, he was one of the first members. While serving in the highest offices in the Province, Hutcheson was busy accumulating property, but this did not protect his family from one of the most disturbing crimes of that, or any, time.
On February 20, 1687/88, at the first court in which Daniel Coxe was acknowledged to be governor, the case against Charles Sheepey was heard. The plaintiff was Elizabeth Hutcheson, daughter of George and Alice Hutcheson. The crime was rape, although that word was never used in the Burlington Court.
According to Elizabeth’s testimony, she was in bed at her father’s house at Oneanickon “in a chamber where the whole family used to lye.” Charles Sheepey snuck into the room and
“came to her bed side and putt his hand into the Bed to the Knee of her the said Elizabeth and from thence to her Elbowe, and that shee caught hold of his hand, and thereupon cryed out to the maid belowe in the house, to bring up a Candle for shee had gott some body by the hand.”
Unfortunately for Elizabeth, she was not taken seriously. The maid “and the rest in the house” told Elizabeth she must be dreaming—in other words, pipe down and let us sleep. But Elizabeth kept crying out, so “a candle was brought up,” at which point Sheepey silently crept back to his bed in a separate room. We know this because one John Tomlinson testified that he heard Elizabeth cry out for a candle and that when he “steppt up into the Chamber” he heard the footsteps of someone going from her bed to Sheepey’s room.
But Tomlinson must have kept quiet, because as far as everyone else was concerned, Elizabeth was having a bad dream. She considered complaining to her father but realized that others would persuade him that she had been dreaming, “and that shee shold but then have his anger by it, and therefore did not speake of it.” This tells you something about the credence given to young women’s opinions, and perhaps something about George Hutcheson’s temper. I find it interesting that neither George nor Alice Hutcheson was called to testify on their daughter’s behalf.
Who was Charles Sheepey and why was he sleeping in the Hutcheson house? I have no idea. He does not appear in the Quaker records compiled by Wm. Hindshaw, nor in the estates of New Jersey. He did appear in court in May 1688, being sued for debt by Joseph Hutcheson, but the complaint was withdrawn. There were other complaints against Sheepey (sometimes written as Shippey) from 1690 through 1697.
Sheepey was probably a laborer and not a property owner. It was common for indentured servants and other types of laborers to live with the family that employed them. But Mr. Sheepey/Shippey seems to have been unduly reckless, and also something of a scam artist, for he persuaded Elizabeth and her sister Martha that he could “conjure or tell fortunes” and by that means was able to extort money from them “several tymes.” But the real conjuring act, it would appear, was that Sheepey managed to convince George and Alice Hutcheson that he was trustworthy enough to leave alone with their daughters.
Sometime after this event, the Hutcheson household moved to their property near the Falls of the Delaware (Trenton). Sheepey was still part of that household when George and Alice Hutcheson decided to spend a night or two away from home, leaving their daughters alone with Sheepey. When Elizabeth realized this, she was upset and persuaded her sister to come with her to visit their neighbors, the Lamberts, who lived a mile and half away. They went to ask Lambert’s wife to allow their daughter Betty to come stay with them while they were alone. Apparently, Sheepey had fooled Mrs. Lambert too, because she saw no reason to send Betty to spend time at the Hutcheson house. Betty walked part of the way back with Elizabeth and Martha and left them in tears.
So, the women went home to what must have felt like their doom. That night, they took what precautions they could before going to bed. They “thrust in some apron or clothes betweene the sneck1 to keep it fast (“there being noe Lock or bolt on the doore of the roome where they lay”). That was not enough to keep out Charles Sheepey. In the middle of the night, he entered the room and went to the bed where the women were sleeping. He grabbed hold of Elizabeth’s hands so she could not resist. Elizabeth cried out, waking sister Martha. Both of them tried to stop Sheepey, but “hee did then against the will of her the said Elizabeth force the said Elizabeth and with his yard had the use of her body by carnall Copulation.”
This seems to be the most detailed case of rape described in the court book (although there are other cases of sexual folly), and it is surprisingly explicit. One silver lining for Elizabeth was that after this crime was committed, Sheepey “never had to doe with her, or attempted it further.”
Elizabeth’s sister Martha appeared in court to corroborate her sister’s story. John Tomlinson told the court what he knew about the first incident and how news of the rape had greatly troubled him. He said he asked Elizabeth about it, and she told him the whole story.
Then Sheepey was allowed to tell his side of the story. He claimed that he never approached Elizabeth either for sex or for money. He denied that he offered to tell Elizabeth and Martha their fortunes. On the contrary, according to Sheepey, Elizabeth begged him to tell her fortune, and offered to kiss him if he would. He said that he and Elizabeth had had sex several times, the first being outside under an oak tree, the second “by the waterside” (perhaps by the river?), a third time in the house, and a fourth “in the Parlour on the Bed.” He said he never forced her, and she was always willing.
Sheepey got Jonathan Fox to testify about how Elizabeth had admitted to Fox and to John Tomlinson about having sex with Sheepey. Also, that Betty Hutcheson (our Elizabeth) had told Tomlinson that Sheepey had had sex twice with her. Tomlinson returned to the stand and said that Betty had not told him that Sheepey “had to doe with her more than once,” and that he never told Fox that she had. Another witness, Samuel Houghton, came forward to tell the court about the ‘fortune’ that Betty/Elizabeth wanted Sheepey to foretell. She wanted to know “whether she must have John Dimsdale or go to England.” Houghton then repeated Sheepey’s claim to have had sex several times with Elizabeth.
The phrase “must have John Dimsdale” suggests that her parents were pressuring her to marry someone she didn’t care for, or be obliged to go to England, perhaps to find a husband there. It was probably an advantageous match, since the Dimsdales were a very prosperous, important family in early Burlington County.
Thomas Lambert then testified, confirming that Elizabeth and Martha came to his house to ask his daughter Betty to “lye with them” that night because Sheepey was the only man in the house. He also confirmed that his wife thought there was no need for it. (I cannot say who Lambert’s wife was in 1688.) Lambert called Elizabeth and Martha “the Children,” suggesting they were between 15 and 18. He said they cried when they left his daughter Betty, and that Betty was “much troubled” that her mother would not let her go with them.
Sheepey was questioned again about the money he got from “the Children,” but again denied that he got any. From his record in other court cases, it appears that he had need of it. The next witness was Lewis Carpenter who verified Sheepey’s statements about having sex with Elizabeth in exchange for telling her fortune.
Finally came the good wives of Burlington—the spouses of Samuel Jennings (Anne Olive), John Budd (possibly Rebecca Sandiland), Edward Hunloke (Margaret Bowman?), William Emley (Ruth Ridge) and Richard Guy (Mary Strettin?). “They made it their business to search Elizabeth Hutcheson. And that they find it soe with relation to the state of her body.” They testified that Sheepey was wrong to state he had sex with Elizabeth several times, “as to them plainly appears according to the naturall course of women” that he hadn’t. They also testified that what had been done had been done forcibly. They had more to say, but for modesty’s sake asked to divulge it to “some particular modest person.” This was done and then passed on to the jury, who then adjourned to deliberate until the following morning. The jury’s verdict was unanimous: guilty.
And the sentence
I was shocked when I read it, but on second thought it occurred to me that there are probably many rape victims who would find this entirely appropriate. After due consideration, the court announced that Sheepey was to be whipped between two and three in the afternoon at a cart’s tail, from the house of John Butcher “in this town” to the house of Abraham Senior, and from thence on the River side to High Street, and then down to Market house. The number of “stripes” would be determined by the magistrates who were present. Since the route might have been as much has half a mile or more, the number of stripes could have been dozens.
After that ordeal Sheepey would be kept in irons for three months, and whipped three more times in the same way as the first time. And during his imprisonment, he would be made to work for his bread and be obliged to pay the court costs and fees. But even after being released from jail, they were not done with him. They required that wherever he was found in the Province for the next year and nine months, he should be brought to each Quarter session of the court in Burlington and be whipped again in the same manner.
That was Quaker justice in 1688. Despite the liberal laws of the Concessions and Agreements, when it came to moral transgressions, Quakers were pretty unforgiving. And since this sentence was handed down at a time when England was far too preoccupied to interfere with colonial justice systems, we can assume that the sentence met the standards of the community. It was a very public shaming matched with some serious bodily harm, meted out over an extended period of time. But by today’s standards, his jail time was far too brief.
One would expect Mr. Sheepey to get out of Burlington County as soon as he could, but he did not. He was still there in 1697 when he was sued by Christopher Snoden for not paying money to Abraham Senior as Snoden had instructed. This time the jury sided with Sheepey. I have found no further record for this fellow, but I expect his life was not a happy one.
As for Elizabeth Hutcheson, she did not marry John Dimsdale as planned. Dimsdale’s father Robert Dimsdale, M.D., was as prominent in West New Jersey as George Hutcheson was, but in 1688 he returned to England for a few years. He probably took his son John with him, but I have no idea whether this decision was related to Elizabeth’s court case. Later on, John and his brother William would have vast acreage surveyed for themselves in Hunterdon County.
Elizabeth Hutcheson did marry, not long after the trial. Her husband was John Pearce or Pierce, merchant of Burlington. One cannot help but wonder if she got pregnant from the rape. She had three children that are known of, Marie, Martha and John. On April 8, 1698, her father, who was living in Philadelphia at the time, wrote his will and included in it his daughter Elizabeth Peeres of Burlington and her two daughters, Marie and Martha. Hutcheson also wrote a will to be probated in New Jersey. That one was dated April 29, 1698, and left land around Burlington and shares as yet unsurveyed to the children of daughter Elizabeth Pierce. Some of those shares were later surveyed in Hunterdon County.
Although there is more to this story than we will ever know, the Burlington Court Book has at least given us a glimpse into the life of West New Jersey’s 17th century Quakers.
- Sneck, Dialect, chiefly Scot and northern English, for the latch or catch of a door or gate or to fasten (a latch). ↩